Off The Wall: Life is Shocking, Why Should Art Not Be So Too?

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Poster by Mauro Pinotti

In an LGBT international art exhibit to be held this month, dedicated to the 7 Deadly Vices, artists from all over the world will face each other on the “S.A.L.I.G.I.A” theme.

The words, in the Italian acronym, Pride (Superbia), Avarice (Avarizia), Lust (Lussuria), Envy (Invidia), Gluttony (Gola), Wrath (Ira), Sloth (Accidia) are the starting point for the participating artists, translating their thoughts into images and works of art.

The exhibition was initially sponsored by the city of Turin but as soon as advertisements and programs were printed and released the city withdrew its support. Controversy has erupted over a poster bearing an image some say is sacrilegious. It is emblazoned with a photo of a large naked woman (representing Pride) with one foot propped on religious icons of the Virgin Mary and Christ.

The Church and several right wing conservative parties are, of course, in a tizzy, calling for the Mayor of Turin to apologize to all people of decency and faith, at the same time blasting “the gay lobby.” It is an old refrain and the religious fury has nothing to do with the merits, or lack thereof of the piece itself, but rather with the arrogance of wanting to censure anything that differs from their own beliefs.

Amazing because the most profane work of art is the Bible. What other work contains so many deeply offensive elements – slavery, murder, war, rape, fratricide, a man attempting to kill his son, another man offering his virginal young daughters to be raped by an angry mob, torture (Job, et al.) – and yet it has been embraced, and all too often twisted, to bad ends, by so many billions of people?

The paradox is that art has always threatened religion; yet, very often it relies on the divine.  

Can art still shock? Art should shock; it should make you feel uncomfortable. The only way we grow is when critical thinking is provoked and we are challenged as individuals to step outside our comfort zone.

Art that incites a radical response from the public has achieved its purpose. It elicits involvement. It enlarges the value of freedom of speech and the glory of self expression. It should stir up in the viewers the feeling, not that their boundaries have been violated, but that they have just witnessed something so true, so real, so...known to them...that they didn't even know they knew.

The audience is shocked by art, not because it is boundary violating, but because it is revelatory.

There are too many ignorant, crazy, and super religious people who would prefer to destroy it and silence the artist. Someone once said: "art is medicine.” Medicine can certainly shock the system, but that is not its only means, and in the end, medicine heals, or is supposed to heal. In the end, it isn’t art unless somebody hates it. Otherwise it is decoration, or maybe illustration.

And of course hypocrisy runs deep. John Lennon’s erotic sketches were confiscated, in 1970, from the London Art Gallery by Scotland Yard because they were deemed obscene. At the time, the rebellious and always challenging Lennon enjoyed the controversy and accused the establishment of double standards since it reacted to lines drawn on paper but at the same time ignored the “real” pornography of the Vietnam War and starvation in Africa.

But it is not only the power to shock that defines controversial art. It is the power to move us emotionally, spiritually, physically, sensually that elicits the satisfaction that art provides. When one reaches that aesthetic realm and it is orgasmic, art has done its job. The blinders are removed.

The only things that have genuinely shocked me over the years have been the deaths of friends, lovers and family. Or the first time in my life that I was confronted with the fact that there were actually people who didn't like me. And finally my full realization of the totality of the Holocaust.

After that, I'm no longer "shocked" by anything in the world of art and/or human actions of any type, not at my age.


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