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Being Shocked by Art Is More Important Than Ever

In a world that's going to shit, it's a powerful tonic.
1.12.14

Paul McCarthy's 'Tree' at Place Vendôme, Paris, before it was vandalized

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Iconoclasts have dreamt up all sorts of ways to attack works of art over the years, from ​projectile-vomiting colo​rful jelly and cake icing onto Piet Mondrian's Composition with Red, Blue,and Yellow to walking into the National Gallery and ​shooting a Leonardo Da Vinci painting of the Virgin and Child with a sawn-off shotgun. Sometimes art is attacked because it's famous, and sometimes because it's offensive.

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Right now, in the run-up to Christmas, a lot of notoriously offensive artists are showing in London. In the grand old setting of the Royal Academy there's a solo show of 77-year-old British pop artist Allen Jones—you'll probably have seen its posters starring Kate Moss in a ​naked bronze bodysuit if you've traveled on the subway recently—who has attracted criticism since 1969, when he first exhibited his sculptures ​that reimagined women as interior furnishings.

When these twisted mannequins, bent into the forms of Chair, Hat Stand, and Table and barely dressed in bondage-wear, were exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1978 they had stink bombs thrown at them. When one was shown at Tate Britain in 1986, it had its face melted off with a corrosive paint-stripper.

Allen Jones' Chair. Image via Flickr user ​Régine Debatty

Likewise, a trio of artists who also rose to prominence in the 70s and 80s and have since had their work attacked or banned—Richard Prince, Paul McCarthy, and Andres Serrano—are included in the Saatchi Gallery's group show Post-Pop, East Meets West, which offers a nostalgic look back to the golden age of shock art.

Hanging on one wall is quite possibly the most blasphemous photograph ever taken, Andres Serrano's Immersions (Piss Christ), 1987, which shows a small model of Christ on the cross, sinking into a glass of the artist's urine. Serrano appears, from the dark, Fanta-ish shades of his piss at least, to be a rather sick man. But that's not to suggest he has a sick mind. He's not necessarily a devil-worshipper or a water-sports obsessive—he's an artist trying to provoke a reaction.

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Unsurprisingly, Serrano's decision to golden shower our lord and savior did provoke quite a reaction. In the US he was denounced by senators and ​was sent death threats. In Melbourne, his Piss Christ was attacked with a hammer. In Avignon, almost a thousand Catholic fundamentalists marched through the streets in protest against it, and afterwards one of them slashed it. In Lund, his whole exhibition was ​smashed up by masked Swedish nationalists armed with crowbars and axes, who filmed their iconoclastic fury and uploaded it onto YouTube accompanied by a Scandinavian death-metal soundtrack.

No one in London has attacked the Piss Christ, of course. It's just not that sort of city. Worse still, this sort of artwork is actually seen as rather passé by the world-weary art crowd. Shock art provokes a dramatic, sensational reaction, rather than an intellectual one, and it's considered somewhat uncool—gauche, even—because of that.

There's not much of an esoteric response to be had with Paul McCarthy's Spaghetti Man, 1993, for instance. Right now, it lurks menacingly in the upstairs corridor of the Saatchi Gallery, a life-size figure with a rabbit's face and a never-ending phallus that flops to the floor and winds round and round in front of us. It's creepy. It's fucked up. It's unsettling. Especially as it's next to a window that looks out onto a King's Road primary school playing field, like some sort of Easter nightmare that haunts wealthy children. Spaghetti Man is unapologetically shocking.

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Charles Saatchi likes to court controversy. This is, after all, the man that bought Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley painted in children's handprints—a painting so shocking that it was ​vandalize​d twice in one day in 1997. Having witnessed one visitor to the Royal Academy throwing ink at it, another visitor was moved to buy half-a-dozen eggs across the road at Fortnum & Mason and egg the painting himself. This was an artwork so unpopular that even Myra Hindley herself wrote from prison to complain about it.

Saatchi is an advertising man. He likes shocking art that advertises itself. He likes it as much as he likes Margaret Thatcher. As the latest exhibition at his gallery reaches its last rooms, it descends into darkly pornographic work by the likes of Cindy Sherman, Linder Sterling, and Richard Prince which—like so many other things in life—are sort of horrific and, simultaneously, sort of titillating.

Artists like these thrive on controversial imagery, but today's younger, cooler artists – the ones that are lauded, the ones that are too savvy to show their works at the Saatchi Gallery – like to work in a more nuanced, oblique manner. James Richards' short film Rosebud, for instance, which is currently on show in the Turner Prize exhibition, intersperses footage of censored books that have had every image of a cunt, dick or arsehole painstakingly scratched out by a disapproving Japanese librarian, with quiet, contemplative footage of rivers, flowers and budgerigars. The artist is still interested in the subject of sexual desire, but he approaches it in a very different way.

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Rosebud is brilliant – really it is – but it takes time to appreciate. It's not instantly accessible to everyone. Conversely, shock art is accessible to everyone, because it provokes an instant reaction – even if it is one of disgust. It's true that society needs great art that nourishes the soul, but it also needs grating art that makes you want to run to Fortnum & Mason and buy an expensive box of eggs to throw at it.

We're living in a world where the very notion of the capacity for shock is fraying. Truth is stranger – and more frightening – than fiction when, every few weeks, a new video surfaces online of another ISIS decapitation. How, then, do artists make art that still shocks?

One way – as Paul McCarthy showed earlier this year – is to install a colossal, ​green, inflatable butt plug the size of a palace in the otherwise decorous setting of the Place Vendôme in Paris, and pretend it's actually a Christmas tree. One passer-by was so furious at the 69-year-old artist that he slapped him. "First I find out there's such thing as Père Noël," he probably thought angrily to himself in French, "and now it turns out our Christmas tree is some sort of Brobdingnagian bum dildo."

Later that night, vandals deflated the sculpture and tore it from its moorings.

Another way is the shock public performance. Its star performer is surely​ Mark McGowan, who is actually a London taxi driver and was once described as the most "self-promoting, publicity-seeking sicko out there" by Steve Wright on The Wright Stuff.

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Mark McGowan's 'Ballerina Pig' outside New Scotland Yard ​

Although he's shunned by the professional art world – to be honest, he does sound like a bit of a handful – McGowan is renowned for bold protest performances such as Artist Eats Fox, 2004, for which he slow-roasted and ate a fox in order to demonstrate his objection to, "the public's fixation with a government ban on fox hunting and society's misplaced priorities."

On other occasions he's devoured a swan and ​a corgi – the latter live on art radio station Resonance FM – to protest against the behaviour of the Royal Family. (Specifically, an incident in 2007 in which Prince Philip – allegedly – watched one of his mates beat up a fox with a flagpole on his Sandringham Estate.)

"I turned to performance art because I found it a much more accessible medium to deliver what I was trying to express," he ​told the BBC. "The way to engage in art is to bring it into the street, which is what I'm doing – not by putting it in the White Cube or the National Gallery."

To this end, McGowan once ​catapulted a (willing) 71-year-old grandmother in a makeshift, tinfoil rocket-ship through a sheet of wood on the Peckham Road, in order to draw attention to the plight of neglected pensioners.

Indeed, desperate times call for desperate measures. To mark International Workers' Day in 2007, the radical Russian art collective ​Voina threw lots of cats over the counters of their local McDonald's, hoping to add excitement and joy to the employees' otherwise repetitive afternoons. The following year, in a pre-emptive protest against the inevitable election of Dmitry Medvedev, ten of them staged a public orgy in Moscow's Timiryazev State Museum of Biology. I'm not sure why, exactly, but it definitely piqued my attention.

Voina eventually splintered into various factions, one of which is Pussy Riot. They have stated that only by breaking the law, only by constructing lurid spectacles, can they capture the world's attention; and, with their musical protest Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away! inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and their subsequent imprisonment, they certainly have.

Today, an artwork can be anything at all. But one of its roles is – still – to shock, provoke and appal us. We can all benefit from a good jarring by big, impressive, weird things. Maybe everyone needs the occasional museum-gang-bang or London fox-roasting to stay alert to life's possibilities, and maybe the art industry needs the odd, monumental butt plug to prevent itself from disappearing up its own arse?

In a world that's going to shit, it's a powerful tonic.

​@deankissick