Shocked or appalled?

By Jerene-Elise Nall

If artists were always considerate, conservative and calm, we’d be stuck forever hanging bland, faux-watercolor landscapes on our living room walls and listening to Michael Bublé .

If artists were to censor themselves for the public’s sake, we would be missing the parts of our culture that give us a backbone and a personality. But when purportedly disturbing pieces of shock art are being created by NIU students, I have to ask, how much self-expression is too much?

Earlier this month, I heard about a piece of art created by an art student which used a burnt pig’s head and an audio recording of a woman sobbing to graphically depict aspects the Antinette Keller disappearance.

“I gave a broad-based assignment many weeks prior to the death of Ms. Keller. One individual student chose to take it in a direction that referenced the tragedy. The work is currently under review, as are all of the submissions for that assignment,” said Jeff Adams, Assistant Professor of Sculpture at NIU.

That assignment was to create a piece of “provocative art,” and this student chose to take the assignment to an entirely different level.

While this student’s piece of art most certainly shocked and appalled many of the students in attendance that day, that piece did exactly what it was supposed to do– it created an intense, visceral reaction which most likely made it the most memorable piece of the entire semester.

While considering an audience’s reaction to a piece of art undoubtedly makes its public reception much more positive, watering down art for the audience’s sake hurts both the artist and its audience. Artists shock, but they shock with good reason. If an artist thinks that their message is important enough to create a piece around, they should be itching to get people to take notice, and getting people to listen is much easier once you’ve shaken them a little. Even if a large percentage of the audience disagrees with the message of a piece, they’re probably disagreeing loudly, and any publicity is good publicity.

However, there are many cases in which art is created solely to shock. Like hardcore pornography or gory horror films, these pieces are compelling, yet ultimately shallow. When a piece inspires nothing more than a “wow” or an “ew” from its audience, that piece lacks the substance necessary to do what truly good art does: inspire thoughts, feelings and ideally, the type of public discussion which leads to cultural change and growth.

If I would have been in that classroom when the piece was presented, I’d be in a much, much better position to judge which end of the spectrum this particular piece sat closest to. However disturbing, insensitive or grotesque it may have been, it seems to have fulfilled the assignment requirements to an extent which deserves an A. This artist clearly had a grasp on the concept of “provocative,” but whether this artist had the substance and depth to back their project remains ambiguous.