Progress and Provocation

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.

Artistic transgression is as old as art itself, and one need not look further than the museum gift shop selling cutesy figurines from Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions of hell to understand that boundaries of good taste change cyclically. Bosch broke every conceivable bodily taboo in the 16th century, yet the kinds of transgression that inform today’s art had to be performed anew in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Fluxus artists like Shigeko Kubota put their bodies to use in works like Vagina Painting whose titles require little explanation. Carlee Schneeman was one of the first to film herself in bed with her partner. Vito Acconci masturbated under the gallery floorboards for eight hours a day while broadcasting his erotic fantasies about the visitors through a speaker system. No sexual norm was left unchallenged, and half of today’s social ills can be superficially traced to these sometimes literally seminal works. 

Carolee Schneeman, still from Fuses, 1964–1967, 16mm film

Yet, those artists’ intent could not have been merely to ‘normalise’ their stage behaviours so that successive generations would need to be reminded by public information films that wanking in public isn’t ideal. Before all expression became mediated by the GPT-powered inclusion and acceptance machine, the meaning of a breach lay in the breach itself and not in its supposedly emancipatory aftermath. This used to be obvious to artists like Oleg Kulik who in 1994 paraded in a Moscow street nearly naked, on his fours, and held on a leash by another scantily clad man. In 2022, such pup-play may have earned the now disgraced Biden functionary Sam Brinton a feature in the US Department of Energy’s Pride Month newsletter. But Kulik wasn’t pushing for ‘dog joy’: his performances caused havoc as he bit spectators, ran into traffic, and laid bare the impermeability of animal minds.

The breach can only be effective when the prohibition is commonly understood. This recently became a challenge for the once-transgressive film director Bruce La Bruce who made his mark in the 1990s by turning neo-Nazi skinheads into unlikely gay porn icons in films like Skin Flick. In April, La Bruce opened the set of The Visitor, his sexually explicit queer and antiracist remake of Pasolini’s Teorema, to the public at a South London art space. At screenings which preceded the event, La Bruce derided but later applauded the existence of ‘intimacy coordinators’, the safeguarding professionals deployed by the film industry in response to the #MeToo movement, as though admitting that the very high-tension, threatening work that was once his trademark could now only be made as a simulacrum. 

Bruce LaBruce, production still from The Visitor, 2023, courtesy a/political

How can The Visitor shock if we know that it’s the product of a tightly worded consent form? Seeing the actors intimacy-coordinate themselves through peepholes built on set for the audience was about as exciting as watching the laundry tossing in a tumble dryer. Ironically, the laundrette once served as a backdrop for public copulation in another one of La Bruce’s films. But this event’s cumbersome workaround of hush-hush marketing and stage management shows that even transgressive culture thrives on limits. Those peepholes aren’t just trivial metaphors for prohibition.

In 1967, Milan was home to a 2100-artwork exhibition of Italian art produced under the regime of Mussolini. The curator Carlo Ragghianti uncomfortably observed that Fascist art “was produced in substantial and unwanted freedom” and struggled to reconcile the art’s “intensity and richness” with its political complicity. Such troublesome ambiguity reinforced the role of prohibition, a system of internal doubt and self-criticism that would prevent excesses from reoccurring. And this came to a head in 2017 when the project space LD50 in East London staged an exhibition of ‘alt-right’ memes and hosted an event with neo-reactionary thinkers like Brett Stevens and Nick Land. Arguments in favour of freedom of expression were lost in the pushback, which included marches by antifascists, a picket, and a brick being thrown through the gallery window, and forced LD50’s director to flee the country. Yet this campaign wasn’t staged by the Mary Whitehouse fan club, but by the art world itself, and it has laid a new standard for vigilance, mistrust, and artistic censoriousness in contemporary art. This is the standard that can no longer distinguish between Roger Waters pretending to be an authoritarian on stage and real fascism.

The moral standing of transgressive art’s opponents also changes with context. In Britain, a generation of gallery-goers came of age with 1997’s Sensation, a showcase of collector Charles Saatchi’s one-liner, ad-man sensibilities. Sensation delivered what the title promised: the tricks of the Young British Artists included Tracey Emin’s tent embroidered with her sexual confessions and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s child mannequins adorned with extra penises and anuses. Plenty to cause a certain frisson, for sure, but it was a portrait of the child murderer Myra Hindley painted by Marcus Harvey using toddler handprints that resulted in smashed windows. Founders of the charity Mothers Against Murder and Aggression who staged the protest went on to receive state honours, but the work remained on view despite even Hindley’s appeal from prison.

25 years later, a painting of a handcuffed child-like figure fellating a headless, naked man by the Swiss artist Miriam Cahn shown at a Paris museum had its protesters dubbed ‘far-right’ by the press. The complaint made it to the French State Council, and the artist and the museum explained that the work, entitled fuck abstraction! was a metaphor for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and that, in any event, the child in the painting wasn’t a child. 

Miriam Cahn, fuck abstraction!, 2007-2022, after it was vandalised at Palais de Tokyo, Paris

That’s more an implosion than a defence, but one need not be a freedom-of-speech absolutist to agree that neither Harvey, nor Cahn should be censored. It is telling, however, that the universal impulse to ‘protect children’ has been both liberal and deeply reactionary. What changed in art’s relationship to how social norms are made that it is now the attempt at prohibition that causes more friction than the art itself? The answer might be that art can only do so much with the materials at hand and that when it turns to the human, its options are ethically limited. Extreme body modification had until recently been the strictest taboo. This is why The Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries of the Austrian Actionist high priest Hermann Nitsch in which he and his followers slaughtered animals and poured blood over one another often felt like an am-dram re-enactment of Christian and pagan rituals performed for a privileged, Eyes Wide Shut group. Still, Nitsch served prison time for his transgressions. 

Today, when Instagram and TikTok are brimming with videos of young women showing off their double mastectomy scars, the outrage isn’t directed at their bodies, but rather at those who might limit their access to surgery. And this reveals that the transgression is not aesthetic but ideological: even the most body-positive liberal would quietly sneer at the risky ass enhancement surgeries of lesser-enlightened women because they are expressions vanity rather than whatever passes for ‘truth’ today. And for all the alignment of contemporary art with queerness, this perversely makes Twitter’s trans-bashing, right-wing activist @libsoftiktok, whose opinions on what a body should look like attract 2.2 million followers, the world’s most popular art critic. But truly transgressive art tends to show its hand only when very few are looking. David Cronenberg’s 2022 film Crimes of the Future portrayed a dystopia in which surgical body alteration had become a substitute for sex and in which children are bred to solve an environmental disaster. Nobody protested this vision, perhaps because it is already clear in our present.

And this is the frustration of transgressive art in a world driven by the liberal absolute: ethics has become disassociated from aesthetics so much that it’s hard to imagine how one would push at either. It’s no use to an artist that all that is transgressive is progressive and therefore morally desirable because this places forms of transgression in mad competition in the proverbial ‘arc of art history’. Art can be a great challenger of norms, but its challenge is only of value if the norms offer friction that builds aesthetic forms. Contemporary visual art, particularly, has evaded this friction by entirely ignoring those sections of the audience who would disagree with its agenda, forcing itself, in turn, to challenge its own past norms from within. Aesthetically and politically, it’s not a pretty sight. No wonder that punters prefer to gape at sequinned devils twerking on stage instead.