If you follow art even very peripherally, odds are you’ve come across some work of art meant to push the boundaries of what can be classified as art. Many of these pieces are called “shock art,” but I’m not going to use the term because I’m referring to something a little broader than the subcategory specifically devoted to things that might be considered vulgar or gross.
I don’t find these pieces very compelling. It’s not that I don’t consider them art–I just don’t consider most of them good art, despite the fact that they make up, if not a majority, a solid portion of contemporary art. There are several reasons.
For one thing, the message is simply not that profound or original. “Is this art?” just isn’t that interesting of a question, and it has little, if any, reason to occupy so much of art when there are so many other things to say, some of which haven’t been repeated ad nauseam for the past hundred years.
After all, Duchamp’s Fountain (pictured here) posed the question perfectly and in ideal circumstances, complete with the unintentionally ironic reaction of the exhibition refusing to display it. Contemporary shock artists are repeating Duchamp’s statement with little or no elaboration. There are other types of art plagued with the same problem–pop art comes to mind–but unadorned Warhol knock-offs, although they fare well with the popular audience, don’t usually garner much critical acclaim, leaving the field open for artists with new things to say about popular culture, like Jeff Koons and his giant balloon animals.
But here’s the clincher: Unlike Duchamp’s piece, modern shock art is readily found in galleries. Art galleries. Meaning that, as far as curators and critics are concerned, the question “Is this art?” has already been settled. Many, like me, may think your art is shallow and pointless, but the only people who are going to deny that it’s art at all are the same kind of curmudgeons who don’t think Picasso is art (and maybe Roger Ebert). Thus, any show of art claiming to push the boundaries of what is considered art is flawed in concept: Since it’s in a gallery, it’s art-type stuff by definition.
I think that Paul Klee made a more interesting statement about what we do and don’t consider art. His drawings, prints, and paintings use traditional media, but he draws inspiration from architectural drawings, diagrams, musical notation, children’s drawings, and other types of visual representation that are usually not considered art*. Thus he made you think about why a painting of a table is art, but its Ikea assembly instructions are not.
Klee’s art is, of course, still art. To look for the sorts of things that really push the boundaries of what can be considered art, you have to look places you wouldn’t normally think of–naturally, because you have to look at the things you don’t consider to be art.
*It has nothing to do with this post, but he was also one of a vanishingly small number of visual artists who could be successfully funny.