Sunday Night Journal — August 20, 2006
Provoking the Provocateurs
“The artist is a provocateur.” Surely this all-too-common claim has done a great deal of harm to the arts. It appeared in our local paper a week or so ago in connection with the lionization of a flamboyant artist at the opening of an exhibit of his work here. Not everyone was impressed, and the arts reporter apparently overheard some disparaging and ungracious remarks.
To give the man credit, he followed the “provocateur” remark immediately with the qualification that the artist is a purveyor of sometimes discomfiting truth. That’s much better. But provocation is only a potential side-effect of telling the truth, and ought not be treated as the point of the game. Truth may indeed be a challenge, but it may also be a comfort. The notion that to provoke is somehow intrinsic to the nature of art is easily disproven by appeal to all the works that are inarguably great art but which give delight and foster serenity: the painting of Fra Angelico, for instance, or Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” which would irritate only a touchy atheist. (Well, there’s also the occasional reader who doesn’t care for Hopkins’ highly compressed and mannered style, but that’s a different matter.)
More importantly, the emphasis on provocation invites and encourages the sort of meretricious sensationalism that’s easily found in the art world, especially in the visual arts, and which is far more likely to communicate a combination of hostility and self-righteousness than any meaningful challenge.
The classical formulation that art is to “delight and instruct,” which strikes the modern ear as hopelessly antiquated, is much more useful. “To instruct” may seem condescending and potentially moralistic, but in fact the “provocation” to which contemporary artists lay claim is just a variation on that theme: what is the point of it if not to somehow change and correct a bad idea or attitude attributed to the viewer by the artist? I should say, rather, the ostensible point—it’s pretty obvious that the real point in many cases is precisely not to challenge those expected to encounter the work, but rather to invite them to join the artist in his hostility to some third party.
To instruct is more humble than to provoke, because it implies that truth exists independent of either party. The instructor must be as humble before it as the instructed. But the impulse to provoke is responsible only to its own instincts and whims. Instruction may very well tell us something we need to know but do not wish to hear. In that case it is indeed provocative, as in the work of Flannery O’Connor. Her Christian provocation is the real thing, not a sly appeal to self-satisfaction; it’s as discomfiting to the believer as to the skeptic.
You’d think the shock-the-bourgeoisie stuff would have run its course after these hundred or so years. I think the bourgeoisie are now in fact more capable of shocking the artsy crowd than vice-versa. And as a member of the bourgeoisie myself I must say that it’s kind of fun, and I can see why they don’t want to give it up. It may well be that the person who disparaged our local artist at the opening was actually a sort of performance artist.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.