Can Art Still Shock?

Damien Hirst has proved to be an artist who continues to shock and dismay, even through art he produced more than two decades ago. Earlier this month, professors at Leicester University criticised the decision to display Hirst’s With Dead Head in Walsall, a photograph of a sixteen-year-old Hirst grinning nervously next to a severed head in a Leeds mortuary. The nature of the photograph and the reactions of the professors only maintain Hirst’s reputation for the shocking and controversial.


But what is it in art that provokes such strong reactions? Surely, in times of pornography, violent video games and a billion-dollar horror film industry, modern society is used to much worse?


Damien Hirst With Dead Head


Perhaps it is seeing our own bodies, seeing the manipulation of flesh, which provokes something instinctive within us. In 1991, Marc Quinn unveiled Self, a sculpted mould made from no less than nine pints of the artist’s blood, which naturally provoked knee-jerk reactions of aversion, nausea and disgust. French photographer Natacha Lesueur also induces sickly distaste by replacing parts of the body with food; in Portraits, hair is replaced by ham rolls and eye shadow comes in the form of fish scales.


As a visitor to the Damien Hirst retrospect at the Tate Modern last year, believe me, bodies and flesh were one of the last things that troubled me. His work is a confrontation of death, one that scares us all to our core, and whereas some are brave in the challenge, others prefer to look away, perhaps forced to do so out of respect and honour for the dead. But even when Hirst makes this confrontation beautiful, particularly with his butterfly kaleidoscope pieces Fate, Hope and Psalm Print, he still attracts controversy, suggesting that the shock factor goes further than anatomy.


Take the works of Banksy, for example. The murals of this British street artist are provocative to say the least, sending up waves of admiration and outrage simultaneously each time a new work is revealed. Like Hirst, Banksy’s method is the first point of controversy - his weapon of choice is spray paint, a tool synonymous with vandalism and crime.


But unlike Hirst, Banksy’s subject matter does not consist of life and death, but everyday politics. Revealed in 2003 amidst the American invasion of Iraq, Happy Choppers is a screen print of apache helicopters topped off with a pink bow, alluding to the American political mindset of their military presence as a gift to other countries. To some, this was a powerful blow against the dominance of American authorities. To others it was an offensive disregard to the soldiers who were putting their lives at risk.




Yet there is another factor to consider when it comes to shocking art, and that is one of audience. Many have heard of Pussy Riot, but few in the West have heard of Voina, the protest art group from which Pussy Riot originated. Both these groups have an unparalleled shock factor as they exist deliberately to offend the tastes of the wider Russian population.


Take the fantastically, almost majestically blatant Dick Captured by the FSB. Voina members, in the 30 seconds it takes for the St Petersburg drawbridges to close to traffic and lift up for passing boats, ran onto the road and spray painted a gargantuan phallus onto the tarmac. The bridge eventually erected itself and the graffiti penis in all its glory to face the headquarters of the Russian security services. They were swiftly arrested for the act, only to be released after Banksy, no less, paid the bail charges. The group's other installations have included orgies in galleries and mock hangings in supermarkets. Voina and Pussy Riot are shocking because they exist to be offensive – can you imagine what would happen if a group infiltrated St Paul’s Cathedral, slamming their guitars and yelling obscenities? The outrage!


What this all comes down to is a question of taste and sensibility. When the Italian artist Caravaggio started painting in the 16th Century, his paintings were so realistic that the public were simply terrified by the gore and biblical violence he depicted. To them, these oil paintings seemed real, whereas today we are confronted by manipulations of the real. Hirst, Banksy, Quinn, Picasso, Duchamp. Art continues to shock because it abuses our sensibilities, making us feel uneasy in relation to our bodies, our politics, our beliefs and even our mortality. Deliberately, that’s the point.