Before his death of a heroin overdose in 2009, New York artist Dash Snow was responsible for a rolling piece of art called “Nest Project,” which consisted of shredded paper soaked in urine and semen, covered in artwork about bestiality with text about a sexual orgy at Ground Zero, the sight of the 9-11 terrorist attacks (Feuer &Salkin). Art critics gave mixed reviews, concluding that his work was shock art, purely for the sake of shock. Shock art has been part of the mainstream contemporary art for decades, but it has a longer history, shocking conservative society long before Manet’s Olympia in 1863, and Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, a urinal. (Sooke). A great deal of shock art seems to involve religious symbols and bodily fluids and/or excrement. In 1999, the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum made headlines when a retired school teacher defaced a Chris Ofili painting by smearing it with paint (“Exhibitions: Senation”). The show had toured the world, headlined by Chris Ofili’s infamous The Holy Virgin Mary, creating controversy everywhere it went, focusing on if it should be shown in public institutions.
The Holy Virgin Mary features a Black Madonna and floating “butterflies” comprised of collaged pornography, supported by two resin-coated lumps of elephant dung. The work was politicized, attacked by Mayor Giulianiand trashed by critics, who argued it was gratuitous. Today, Chis Ofili is lauded by many critics as groundbreaking, beautiful and thought-provoking. However, at the time his painting raised the same kinds of protests Mappethorpe’s work generated in the late 1970’s and early 80’s (Farago). “Sensation” created buzz, but seemed overtly politicized and publicized, with less focus on the actual artistic merit of the work. At the time, in 1999, the New York Times concluded that “it seems anticlimactic, after all the fuss” (Kimmelman). Other reviewers thought it was revolutionary. However, today it seems much less shocking, revealing a weakness of shock art – it is a very contemporary form of art, a statement or condemnation of the present, and after some time loses it’s effectiveness. New artists, like Dash, appear and push the boundaries, taking it to another – often more grotesque -level. A competition to see who can create the most controversial and symbolic juxtaposition, shock art often relies too heavily on gimmicks. Eventually, shock art can seem contrived, disingenuous, and just not very shocking. Nevertheless, this type of art has merit, should not be banned, but should be only shown in private spaces with appropriate audiences who want to see it, and be challenged by it. However, the very nature of shock art makes it most effective when being shown in inappropriate venues, where the audience is much easier to scandalize and shock. Ultimately, the public can decide if it is obscene or art, always erring on the side of art, and freedom of expression, because censorship and intolerance is an easy to way to stifle artistic creativity and constructive social commentary.
"Chris Ofili: Night and Day." New Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
“Exhibitions: Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection."Brooklyn Museum: Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
Farago, Jason. "Robert Mapplethorpe: Beyond Controversy." BBC Culture. N.p., 25 Apr. 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
Feuer, Alan, and Allen Salkin. "Terrible End for an Enfant Terrible." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 July 2009. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
Kimmelman, Michael. "'Sensation': After All That Yelling, Time to Think." The New York TIme. N.p., 1 Oct. 1999. Web.
Sooke, Alastair. "Chris Ofili: Can Art Still Shock Us?" BBC Culture. N.p., 25 Nov. 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20141125-can-art-still- shock-us>.