This text was first published in Jessa Crispin’s The Culture We Deserve.
We live in a new age of outrage. Barely a week goes by without a philosopher or politician being condemned for behaviour or speech fundamentally incompatible with civil society’s liberal values. The very idea of free expression has become synonymous with violent agitation. But before we accepted that everyday thoughts or even silence can be harmful, offending was the domain of art. Flirting with forbidden ideas used to be the staple of the outrage artist alongside tropes like nudity and blood. Somehow, culture shock gave way to the Twitter blow-up. When everything is allowed and cancel culture has nothing to do with culture, what would it take for art to truly transgress?
The bar is set high because contemporary audiences won’t even wince at the sight of the illicit. Sam Smith’s flaccidly satanic performance at the Grammys in February was delivered to a cheering crowd under the affirmative model of aesthetics where all images are valid. Even attempts by a handful of Christians to whip up any serious backlash failed because for Smith’s audiences the devil is a floating signifier for an idea they abolished at their coming out parties. When in 2022 London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts staged a pro-sex work show Decriminalised Futures, hardly anyone noticed. Nothing to see here, it’s just labour politics, it’s just art.
Yet, only in May, the Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters attracted pre-emptive condemnation in UK Parliament for a transgression involving an inflatable pig and the Star of David. Finally, an undisputable red line. But Waters retired the offending artefact already a decade ago when his equal opportunities pig-poking at Christianity, Islam, Israel, Bolshevism, and… Shell fell flat. And when in March, a church in Strasbourg staged a pole-dancing show, the priest received death threats from a bunch of believers who weren’t even there, before receiving accolades for his ‘defiance’ from the liberal media. Nobody bothered to look at the nothingburger footage of an aerialist thrashing about to Pergolesi which was worthy of neither condemnation nor even the faintest praise. Even the Balenciaga scare needed ‘explainer’ articles. Clearly, we long to take offence now as always, but when art isn’t actually causing it, we imagine an art that might.
Galleries are still sites of controversy, but it is rarely the art that sparks it. 2020’s summer of statue-toppling had little to do with the artistic quality of the bronzes and there was no art anywhere near the protests against Drag Queen Story Hour at Tate Britain. Attacks by Just Stop Oil who threw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers have produced some striking images, but iconoclasm is nothing new. In 2010, the artist Michael Landy turned South London Gallery into a scrap yard for bad and unwanted art. This will be lost on the narcissists at Just Stop Oil because, in early June, the narcissists of the art world staged a pop-up art party at Piccadilly Circus for them where another load of mediocre art tickled their egos. A different London art organisation will have the protesters teach you how to destroy art in the name of democracy, in a happening that should be marketed as ‘Just Stop Oil Paint’. This is a conformism-production machine that some future, better art will have to break from.