Grotesque Art 11.02.2010

 The purpose of this website is to explore what I refer to as grotesque art.  Much of the legacy of modern and post modern art reflects the angst of our times.  My students often remark, why do contemporary artists depict ugly stuff.  I define this "stuff" as an expression of societal neuroses.  In this sense, the controversial artist is the lens that often reports the  ills of humanity.  Many contemporary artists push this envelope, blurring the lines between shock value and valueless schlock.  Below, I have referenced Picasso's famous "Guernica" painting.

I certainly wouldn't ever label this work anywhere near "schlock," an unflattering term that describes what many call bad art.  However, I do think this work was truly shocking for its time.  Although inspired by the bombing of Guernica, Picasso takes liberties; the actual tragedies of Guernica are abstracted and exaggerated beyond actual historical events.  The power of the work is its ability to convey raw terror.  It depicts a screaming mother cuddling her dead child, a horse gasping its last tortured breath, decapitated fallen soldier sprawling on the ground, and chaotic figures providing a compositional backdrop, all portrayed in Picasso's revolutionary Cubist style.   Also see: "Picasso's shriek horrors war" by Vincent Browne

Pablo Picasso's "Guernica," 1937, Oil on Canvas, 349 cm × 776 cm

Clearly, Picasso broke normalcy in the sense of revolutionizing artistic conventions, as well as, conveying controversial imagery.  

Let me now jump to another era and look at Andres Serrano's famous work, "Piss Christ."   (see photo)  Serrano's work depicts a Christ crucifix, immersed in urine. Serrano's desire to shock is handled in an entirely different way from Picasso's work.  Serrano's attention is less on the art object and more on the conceptual nature of the work.  The piece explores issues of intolerance, but in an unconventional manner.  Ironically, when  conservative Christians express their outrage through protest, they unknowingly contribute to the piece.  Attempts to censor become incorporated as part of the piece, thereby placing the artistic lens on issues of  societal intolerance.  

See also:

Damien Casey states in his article, Sacrifice, Piss Christ, and Liberal Excess,
"Piss Christ questions the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, it enacts what it represents. It threatens the identity of conservative Christians who respond by seeking to exclude it from the public realm."

Serrano's themes are  undoubtedly about shock.   However, with his use of controversial mediums, such as menstrual blood, urine, and excrement, he leaves the viewer feeling a bit duped.  Although open to debate, many believe the work lacks aesthetic integrity and panders to grotesque overkill.  With this reasoning, one can debate whether there is  little difference between Serrano's methods, from that of painting a glistening tear drop on the cheek  of a clown's black velvet portrait.  Both attempt to play with emotions in a blatantly crass  manner.   Serrano seems to spell out explicitly an intent to trick the viewer in a rather vulgar manner.  

However, one defense of Serrano's work is that he is only expressing what is already the Christian's obsession with bodily fluids.  Because he shows this outside of its usual context, it is seen to be sacrilegious.  He allows the crowds to  jump to their own conclusion, ultimately adding the capstone to his conceptual piece.  

In my opinion, this appears to be a deceptive ploy, fishing for a predictable response.  Because of heated reactions by onlookers, I question whether Serrano's piece allows for much introspection.  If art is to move a crowd,  it must work on a myriad of levels.  It must allow the audience to read between its gestured lines and see the true depth of its aesthetics. I don't think Serrano gives us many options to this regard.   To see Serrano's images please visit:  Daily Plate of Crazy - "When Shock Meets Schlock"/

Important! Reflections by Ralph Slatton:

A wise critic once gave me an analogy about shock art compared to color mixing.   If you can put a name to the color, your palette probably lacks interest.  If you use colors straight out of the tube, you haven't fully lived up to the potential of the work.  Equally so, concepts should be mixed and divorced from the tube label.  Whole worlds  can be depicted  in a wink and a nod, in the nuance of a shadow, or the subtle stance of a figure.  Our times are filled with overt obscenities.  These are best expressed with eloquence.
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