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The Best Defense is Good Offensiveness

In a piece this week on Glasstire, Dave Hickey asks the question, “What if there is only one, one-way war being waged by fundamentalism in its dying frenzy against a newly refreshed, permissive, cosmopolitan paganism that couldn’t care less and never has?”

Hickey asks the question in the context of people’s appearance (an Iranian girl imprisoned and tortured in part for her chic Western garb; a Starbucks barista barred from dyeing her hair an “unnatural” color…) arguing that, the world over, people are expected to abjure certain clothes and accessories to maintain “the smoothness of the social order.”

He’s right, of course. But viewed in the context of the latest round of culture wars, his observations on the traditional oppressors of sartorial freedom (corporations; Islamic fundamentalists; the parents in Footloose) could also be applied to many so-called progressives. We have entered a time of rigid orthodoxy for some people on both the right and the left regarding what is acceptable to say, wear, and even think.

I’m referring to political correctness, and its main bugaboo, offensiveness. And lately it seems the charges of offensiveness are flying around faster than a frail 80-year-old burning at the stake in colonial Massachusetts.

Karen Finley

Karen Finley

Despite the fact that that—as many whites in America have come to realize this year—the general use of the term “African American” hasn’t changed the fact that black people are rightfully afraid of the police, many people seem to be more hung up on the aesthetics of correctness and offense than ever. When academics and journalists incorrectly assert that the First Amendment doesn’t protect hate speech; or when students at Amherst College write that they want other students who have posted “ALL LIVES MATTER” posters to undergo “extensive training for racial and cultural competency,” political correctness of the left begins to uncomfortably evoke other well-meaning uprisings against oppression that converted into their own reigns of terror.

Thankfully, the art world is rife with offensive material. Just look at Rudolph Guiliani’s seething reaction to the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999; or the more recent removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly from a 2010 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, because a clip of ants crawling over a crucifix made Rush Limbaugh crazy. Even Pope Francis, when he was a cardinal, successfully called for an exhibition of Leon Ferrari’s works in Buenos Aires to be closed in 2004, citing them as a “blasphemous affront.”


Still from David Wojnarowicz’s film Fire in My Belly, about which Rush Limbaugh said, “Now I have to admit, that I didn’t know until just now that ants crawling on Jesus was gay love. Did you?”

But religion—well, Christianity—remains fair game for art, and has since at least Caravaggio’s time. Andy Warhol, a devout Catholic all his life, made work about the death penalty and talked about how he wanted to be a machine. Piss Christ, Ninth Hour, the Barbie crucifix… examples of the genre are plentiful. Same too for sex. We snicker at a mainstream media that can’t show a Modigliani nude without blurring the nips and pubes, and we revere Robert Mapplethorpe’s meditations on light, composition and symmetry (and huge cocks).

The offensiveness of a lot of art—it’s so-called depravity, its pornography, its degenerate shallowness—exists because we all need to be offended, and not for the righteous satisfaction of saying so. Being offended means being slapped with a wrongness that doesn’t fit our worldview. If we aren’t offended, we are never shaken out of our own little bubble and forced to acknowledge all the other little bubbles out there. If you’re a white person who finds Kara Walker’s comically unflinching silhouettes offensive (or just “a little too much”), then it’s useful to ask yourself why.

kara walker

Kara Walker

Of course, it’s not art’s job to save us from ourselves. Art may be good at being offensive, but it’s also ambiguous. Great art is unto itself, meaning that even when it has political undertones, it’s not straightforward propaganda. Art is not politics. (It’s also not science, or philosophy or religion or spirituality.) It’s not anything except an echo of nature, which is to say it’s chaotic. I take great comfort in that.

Perhaps that’s a reason many people aren’t interested in art, or at least good art—they want their ten commandments to help them go through their lives with a sense of externally-imposed order. They need art that explains itself. But good art doesn’t explain itself. It doesn’t spell things out. It has multiple agendas, and reflects our ambiguous world where things are not black and white.

Great art that offends also transcends the bugaboo of the day. Karen Finley’s chocolate-and-yam extravaganzas and Andy Kaufman’s wrestling performances were both rooted in the feminism of the 1970s, but both of them transcended that to become something more universally human. Finley’s deep-throated yawps of primal energy and rage, and Kaufman’s comically prejudiced theater of the absurd both still resonate with our collective human experience. (Although it’s hard to imagine how Kaufman’s videos belittling Southerners would be received in today’s uptight social climate. Would he receive death threats from secessionists armed to the teeth and drunk on conspiracy theories? Would miffed college students ban him from appearing on their campuses?)

Transforming the world means transforming yourself, continually, by leaving your context and crossing over into unknown territory. The term “trans” has become associated with gender identity, but its more general meaning applies to everybody: vacating your own territory of this-is-what-I-am, what-I-believe. Social conservatives (who distrust art) tend to be lousy at this. But so do many so-called progressives. Face it, we all do: our tribalism, a nifty evolutionary advantage for survival, has been holding us back for centuries now. Tribalism is acute in the art world: our insular, reactionary, small-c conservative bubble responds to the unknown with indifference or hostility, just like every other bubble.

There’s a speech that the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest gave at the end of his life which gets trotted out by Lost Cause apologists as evidence that Forrest, a slaveholder, a ruthless cavalry officer during the Civil War, and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was actually an early promoter of civil rights and racial equality. But as one middle-aged white man posted on a Southern history chat room, “Forrest was many things, but a two-dimensional caricature is not one of them. It ain’t simple, y’all.”

Fussing over people’s language and dress, policing Halloween costumes, and writing up checklists of acceptable behaviors, while providing a comforting sense of order, won’t change the world. The universe is chaotic and ambiguous. Look to the artists.


also by Rainey Knudson
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20 Responses

  1. On being offended: When someone is throwing shit around, get down! If you stand up or put your hands up you are sure to catch it. Kindness is kindness, political correctness is, gesturing. When people started pasteurizing milk someone said: That’s the end of new cheeses. Well, political correctness is pasteurization of the mind via mindless words. Again kindness is kindness. Be kind to all, black or white, man or woman, Muslim or Christian, or Jew or… Are we not all just human?

    One last thing beware of the fascisms of the righteous liberal as much as of the reactionary conservative, and , oh yes, all of these also affects us fellow artists.

    You made so many great points Rainey

  2. I can’t remember the last time I was offended by art. Outrageous becomes neutralized when you see it too much. It still affects “the public” though. I’m remembering bringing my parents to the VAC where they were shocked by a video of a man break-dancing nude in a puddle of yogurt. It’s fun to look at art with people who don’t typically see it, and a funny reminder of what is and isn’t normal.

    On miffed college students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rR3yORawsjA&feature=youtu.be&t=2m57s

  3. Xantrippe

    Some thoughts which I hope are pertinent:

    This is a very old argument (being shocked versus between bored to indifference in regards to art). It even goes to the general public, the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964, people being too indifferent because of a constant bombardment with urban anomie to care to do anything. It maybe goes to the rise of the mass communications in the twentieth century.

    If art is only about a constant back and forth between being shocked and being indifferent than that doesn’t say much about art. I don’t think art was supposed to be shocking until the 20th century (please correct me if I am wrong).

    Susan Sontag repudiated her argument in On Photography about audiences needing an ecology of images so they wouldn’t get bored and blase. She said that that ecology is never going to happen.

    If I want shocking all I have to do is read the news.

  4. xantrippe

    Also you missed a really great opportunity. Namely aren’t the bourgoesis (sp) always wanting to be shocked and titillated and then they can go back home and go on the internet and or watch tv and live in their complacent middle class lives?

    Maybe since the middle class is shrinking it’s not an option anymore, but the way the economy is, now that’s shocking!

  5. Guy So-Bored

    Est-il pas amusant de regarder la lutte de la classe moyenne avec la morale, l’éthique, et leurs propres règles banales. La classe moyenne est tellement ennuyeux. Et sont donc des artistes au Texas, en particulier ce site. Je pris à six mois d’interruption de la lecture et il est le même art, artistes, écrivains, vidéos tristes de vieille dame fatigués, etc. Le cheval est mort sur mouvement. S’il vous plaît arrêter de mettre vos conjoints et partenaires dans presque chaque article. Tout le monde s’en fout.

    1. Rainey Knudson

      Oh honey. I want to imagine you in your grandad’s frayed smoking jacket, enjoying the fine homemade calvados of one of your tenant farmers, but I fear the reality is far more banal and triste.

  6. It’s both funny and fortuitous that I found this article in the Recent Comments section here on Glasstire after the show I participated in this past weekend (and all the thinking and feeling I have been doing because of it since then). In a world where, in the safety and seclusion of our own home computers, we can freely find pornography made and viewed for the sole purpose of sexual gratification, we need art that transcends those desires, that makes us think and feel beyond those simple gratifications.

  7. Unfortunately, the commercial Art World, which usually serves as the bottle neck into the institutes of canonization– museums, publications, etc.– is also likely to contain or categorize the risky or unpleasant art it sells in order to make it more palatable. I make “problematic” work, and I once had a NYC dealer tell me that “it’s too bad you’re not a lesbian– it would be so much easier to sell these paintings I you were gay.” I even asked, “The exact same paintings?” “Oh, yeah.” He proceeded to explain that deviant art is more easily digested by non-deviant consummers if the artist was ALREADY a social misfit, one with a deviant identity. I was astonished. Because that restriction assumed that white, middle-class heterosexual people are free from deviancy, free from the anxieties or impulses that truly motivate deviant thoughts and behaviors, and we all know that to be preposterous. And astonishingly, this was the Art World, right, propogating the idea that, by virtue of their sexual habits, a lesbian is natrurally a spokesperson for deviancy, and me, boring ol’ me, couldn’t possibly be controversial. By the way, the dealer agreed 100%, but stated that money will function as money will function, and the money flows when that “selling point of deviancy is inherent in the artist’s personal idenity.”
    I don’t think I have ever been as deflated about the purpose of art in that moment. Until then, I really did think Art was one of those free arenas of expression. I still make work as if it was so, but the reality is obviouly far more complicated.
    Loved the article; sorry about the long resonse…

  8. Xantrippe

    It’s like the art patron is in a coma and the artist is the doctor applying electroshock by creating shocking art hoping to stimulate the patient back to conscious life.

  9. LOLI

    ,” political correctness of the left begins to uncomfortably evoke other well-meaning uprisings against oppression” don’t get me started on this… All I’ll say to Kauffman’s movie is this: one day I asked my dad why poor people, yes, poor people, did not wash. His response was simple, “Nena, soap cost money” And of course so does water and hot water. It is not about right or left, liberal or conservative is about really thinking and compassion. As art is not about being white or black, gay or straight, rich or poor, it is about art, about being an artist.

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