In her 1990 book, "Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson," feminist author and social critic Camille Paglia writes:
"Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check. When social controls weaken, man's innate cruelty bursts forth. … Everyone has killed in order to live. … Each generation drives its plow over the bones of the dead."
Taking this quote to an absurd level — and what good is art if you can't take it there? — will there be a moment when all of the social conditioning causes the plowing to be more extreme than we might hope?
No matter the reason, artists envision a time without the comforts we have today. The term most often used for it is "doomsday" or "post-apocalyptic." What might an artist produce when considering how to "plow over the bones of the dead"?
In its fifth annual art show, "Doomsday," the private Shockoe Bottom club Fallout, of which I'm a member, recently featured an exhibit from different types of artists. It included crowd-sourced participation with themes as wide-ranging as "Mad Max" and "Repo! The Genetic Opera."
There was the recurring character of the current Mister Fallout (Bob) — a misanthropic-steam-punk-meets-Hunter-S.-Thompson type. Bob had taken control of a biker gang and was selling water — or as the signs were printed, "Bob controls the Watur." The signs were finger-painted, inspiring speculation about what was used as ink. Bob had lots of propaganda, but the best were the Japanese-inspired personal banners with his mug on them. There were dancers who kept the audience spellbound for several acts: You have to admire anyone who can dance with a metal grinder and make it look good. I never get tired of this show, mostly for all of its energy and taboo. It reminds me of the power of drag shows that I saw 20 years ago. And in the eyes of the people there, you could see that they all were absorbed by the storytelling.
You could apply a lot of technical art-criticism terms to the exhibit. It was one part installation art, one part crowd-sourced art, one part performance art, multimedia, and if you wanted to get really technical, dadist. But the bigger theme was disruptive art.
Disruptive art is, by design, meant to open dialogue or show how confusing life can be as its first tenet. Beauty or elegance comes second. Well-known examples include Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" (1987) and Annie Sprinkle's "Public Cervix Announcement" (1990).
Serrano's photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine opens a dialog between religion and the effects of religion. In her performance piece, Sprinkle invites the audience to "celebrate the female body" by viewing her cervix with a speculum and flashlight, opening a dialog of what's pornography and where it should be placed.
Each of these art pieces was accused of using shock for shock's value and nothing else. But history has shown how both of these artists were important in helping us understand what it means to have the freedom of expression. How something can be absolutely beautiful yet upset a social group, something that the banned book has been doing for years. But when an artist does it, the reaction can be very immediate.
By immediate I mean that there's been a large range of action to try to stop people from seeing disruptive art. Police to shut it down, PTAs to protect the children, mobs that have disturbed the gallery — even Islamic fatwas.
The exhibit at Fallout over Labor Day weekend featured disruptive art in the form of a wall upon which controversial terms were written. Some people felt hurt or conflicted about the use of these terms, some of which were hate-based, considered racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic.
At a certain point one customer was asked to leave because he found part of the wall so personally offensive that he desired to edit the art. By edit, I mean physically taking apart the piece he found offensive. The customer was asked to leave, and an uncontrolled discussion ensued between attendees. I truly believe, based on knowing some of the people involved, that none of them was motivated by hatred. They put thoughts into words that scared them about the end of social propriety.
Here's a bigger question to consider: When art evokes emotion that isn't happy, pretty and loving, what constitutes an appropriate response? Remember that this work is representative of doomsday, a place that we should find revolting. Anything less would have been the Disney version of "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome."
And I hope that end of modern culture, for whatever reason, doesn't come with Tina Turner singing us a lullaby. So yes, bad words were used, and it was a small part of the décor. It should make anyone think, reflect and begin a discussion.
Some of the hate-based words used are a valid discussion point for a piece of artwork about the end of societal propriety. But other topics were featured too — such as future water rights, climate control, neo-feudal government and the lack of a good tailor — all of which could have been fodder for discussion.
I see why this kind of art could hurt someone's feelings. But "disruptive art" isn't meant to make people feel good, just as "Black Hawk Down" isn't supposed to leave anyone with a happy-ending feeling. I think the people who attended "Doomsday" should be having a conversation about how to build a community so that we never get to a doomsday level. That starts with open dialogue about the things that move our emotions. But people often become confused or reactive when their emotions are engaged, resulting in calls for action that ask for the artwork to go away, for the artist to be socially punished or to punish the exhibitor.
With all of these potential reactions, would anyone be surprised if we got only Disney-type productions? S
Steven "Kit" Hagen performs locally as drag queen Kitten Khaous, and has been a member of Fallout since 2009. She holds a master of fine arts degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she studied art criticism under David Hickey.
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