On ''shock'' art

by phil on Tuesday Apr 1, 2003 7:13 PM
art theory

On Plastic there's been this uproar over the Chapman Brothers defacing original Goya's. This is truly controversial, and I'm not ready go about advocating it straight out, but I do want to present the counter-point to the knee-jerk reaction that I saw on plastic. I posted it there and it follows here.

This is great art. I'm not being disingenuous, just bear with me for a moment.

The original Goyas are just art. It's just man splitter-splattering material in a pretty arrangement on canvas. How much did the original Goya's enrich your life? It's not even some of Goya's best work. How much better was your life or anybody's life better because of the existence of these prints? You may have taken a glance at them or read about them a while back and for maybe a good 20 seconds you felt kind of good. Or, you were instructed that Goya was a great man and that this was one of his works, and that gave a little sense of awe, but I bet that that feeling lasted a good 5 seconds as well.

By defacing it, they're first making an in-your-face statement that people take art way too seriously. How much anguish did their defacement cause compared to the anguish you felt when instead of 284 Iraqi's killed, it was 285. Art is nothing. We love it and it makes us feel good, but really, it pales in comparison to the other practical necessities of life. It's the ultimate triumph of subjectivity, and that is why the Chapman's feel it necessary to tear it down.

The act of defacement is apparent in looking at the pieces, and the feeling we get about this act is strong. The act is so wrong, so evil, so terrible. And that is one set of emotions that the Chapmans are trying to evoke. They want you to feel the gravity of sin that is caused mixed with the insanity of caring about art's destruction in the first place.

The resultant mixing of the two is, well, hilarious. It's pure comedy. The choice of the clown heads adds to the effect. It creates an erie, spooky, absurdist feeling about the piece. I look at the piece and I get the same feeling that I get when reflecting about the state of affairs in the world today. Everyting is just so absurd. War, this glorious tradition of honor and bravery, has turned into Bush's pet project and a circus on FOXnews. The Chapman pieces represent the same horrific absurdity.

Also, look at how much our world and values have been defaced in recent times. Resonating with that current sentiment is also one the Chapmans strengths.

And yet, they didn't go far enough that the defacement is that defacing. The originals are still photographed and available. So if someone just had to get their eyes on the pure pure original, I'm sure they wouldn't fly to wherever to see it, they'd probably just look it up. Besides, it was privately-owned anyways. These pieces were going to be nothing until the Chapman's chose to "deface" it. Ask yourself what's worse: them defacing it and showing it, or them just never showing it at all? If we believe in Chomsky's "effects-based" method of thinking, their presentation at least shows something while as them keeping it is the same as them destroying the Goyas and not saying anything about it.

Plus, if you look at the works, the defacement does not completely cover the entirety of the Goyas. You can still get the same understanding of the work and ignore the clown-heads. Also, the colors and positioning of the clown-heads does not interfere greatly with the harmonic visual aesthetics of the original Goyas.

Another interesting way to think is, what if Goya had done these prints and put on the clown-heads himself. It'd be called genius, probably not only because it was Goya's, but because of the clown-heads. It would be hailed as a prophet's vision of impending post-modernist tragedy. So another message is the "who takes credit" concept. i.e. if five people worked on a painting and person A was told this while as person B wasn't, why would the painting change?

I'm motivated to speak on this for a couple of reasons. 1) I genuinely think it's great 2) Nobody on plastic has come out praising the piece, so I feel it's my duty to speak out and 3) I was thinking of defacing my own art work. I was going to put big slashes through my paintings. Of course I'd have original photographs, but the slash through something I cherished so much would be so evil, so suicidal, and yet so absurd, because, after all, they're just paintings. The challenge of getting over my emotional scruples also attracted me to it. I still can't get myself to put slashes through them. The question keeps bothering me, "Why is it so hard for me to do this?" Breaking that limitation would be truly triumphant and my hope is that that break-through would be transferred to the viewer.

Creative Commons License