The term ‘offence’, in the context of ‘to take offence at’ (as opposed to, an illegal offence or act against the law) is defined as an “annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself”. Thus if we look at artworks which have caused outrage over the centuries, we find they are entirely subjective to the social perceptions at the time: we find artworks which directly confront or provoke ourselves of particular insult. Certainly, in today’s context, the debut performance of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ would have nowhere near the same riotous response to audiences with no prior capacity for any kind of music which did not follow the established rules and conventions. Indeed, even now, genitalia-faced sculptures of children in the ‘Tragic Anatomies’ series by eternal jokers Jake and Dinos don’t ruffle quite the same feathers now Saatchi has taken them under his wing, and, by association, blessed them with market value.
Artlyst’s top 10 this week features Manet’s ‘Olympia’, the painting which so shocked the 1865 Paris Salon for its unflinching and confrontational portrayal of a working girl. The piece demonstrates so clearly how ‘offence’ may be located in the perceiver: Manet confronted the rules and prestige of class systems and the notion of decency at the time with this penetrating gaze, highlighting with devastating baldness the dirty underside to Parisian high society. Figures of high rank and official stature commonly used prostitutes, but heaven forbid anyone who revealed it in the mirror to them. The same principle occurs now, with a recent artwork by Banksy on the wall of public toilets in Clacton-on-Sea removed over by the council for apparent racism: several pigeons holding placards declaring “Go back to Africa” to an exotic bird isolated from the group. The message contained clearly was deemed unacceptable within polite society – or rather, it highlighted the racism inherent in our own society and culture that we ourselves don’t like to acknowledge.
Which brings me to the issue determining ‘offence’ now: as our society becomes more accepting and liberal, so previously ‘offensive’ pieces become less so. Mapplethorpe’s unflinching depictions of homosexuality are much less shocking in our liberal culture than in previous decades (such as the late 70s and early 80s when the photographs were taken), though this is not to belittle the ongoing struggles homosexuality still faces today. A key element that runs through all of these examples is their justification through purpose: works by Chris Ofili and Serrano both intend to make us re-evaluate our relationship with religion; even Duchamp forced the art world to shake itself out of a stupor with ‘Nude Descending Staircase’.
You have only to take the work of Carl Michael von Hausswolf to view a deliberately offensive work that doesn’t justify itself: his paintings were composed from the ashes of Holocaust victims. It appears that the last taboo we have yet to face is still an incredibly thorny issue for us: white South African Brett Bailey’s work ‘Exhibit B’ used real black actors who were employed to sit as ‘exhibits’ in a recreation of a human zoo, deliberately causing offence in the viewer by forcing us to confront our racist past in slavery. That it was shut down by protests demonstrates that perhaps this is an area many of us are still incapable of confronting. As Guardian critic Lynn Gardner noted, as an artwork it was both “unbearable and essential”. Art has the right to offend, bound tightly with the right to free speech: the offence is its purpose in forcing us to re-evaluate ourselves, providing, of course, it is justified, otherwise it is simply a matter of poor taste.
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