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Veils uncovered: Artist Martha Mosse’s performance of “The Slut, The Spinster and the Perfect Woman” at the Passion for Freedom show 

Delivering this year's Reith Lectures — the first contemporary artist to do so — the media-friendly transvestite artist and potter Grayson Perry posited the notion that perhaps art had lost one of its central tenets: its ability to shock. Sure, there was no shortage of claims being made by both the media and the art world: that Tom was "radical", Dick was "cutting edge" and Harry was "breaking boundaries". But all this obscured the truth, which was that art was no longer any of these things, that artist and audience had got well and truly used to each other, and familiarity had bred jadedness.    

There's no denying this but, in keeping with art itself, Perry's observations were rather behind the times. For art has not shocked, provoked or otherwise challenged for years now. The belief that it does, should or could is almost endearingly quaint when one hears it voiced. Certainly the words used to describe creative activity, such as those above, are a product of the general hyperbolic drift in many aspects of our everyday language. And, rather like racism, the more the arts diminish in relevance in relation to both our personal and national life, the more overblown and indiscriminate are the claims made of it.

Of course the notion that the arts should shock is a thoroughly modern one in historical terms but, even as it became accepted and then entrenched as a cliché, wider social developments throughout the latter half of the 20th century were working to undermine it. The gradual dismantling of social and moral boundaries left art with less and less room for manoeuvre, if to challenge and provoke was its purpose. It is hard to be truly transgressive in a society where around two million people take recreational drugs each week, drink to oblivion as a matter of course, treat debt as a lifestyle choice or no longer bother getting married. We are, as it were, all bohemians now. All that seems left for art in this respect is to retreat into a cul-de-sac of its own minor personal preoccupations.

Consequently Tracey Emin's unmade bed might have meant something to her, but the overwhelming reaction of the public to it was amused indifference or an irritation at having her banalities foisted on them. Shocked they most definitely were not. Those parts of the metropolitan intelligentsia who infest gallery private views may flatter themselves by clinging to an idea that they are at the cutting edge of something or other, which they then feel they must champion, but in truth they are the most sheep — like of all, slaves to concocted fashion, political whim and received wisdom.

Broad social changes are not the whole story, however. The growing loss of cultural resonance which characterises all of the arts, even at a time when they are slavishly and sycophantically celebrated by a 24-hour print and broadcast media, derives from their reluctance to take up, comment on or, yes, be shocking or provocative about the most important issues facing us. When they do proclaim or offer an analysis, it is invariably so late as to make it irrelevant, and is furthermore almost always comfortably in line with the political and social orthodoxies of the day.

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February 16th, 2014
6:02 PM
It's not that there are not shocking subjects. There always will be. It is that these subjects are not well displayed in art anymore. We have witnessed the death of the Avant-Garde.

Mark Piggott
December 10th, 2013
1:12 PM
"try to think of a novel, play, film or piece of installation art which, for example, seriously criticises the doctrine of multiculturalism." My novel "Out of Office" did that in 2010 - good publisher, won novel of month at one influential website - not a single review in mainstream media...

hegel`s advocate
December 4th, 2013
4:12 PM
So Malaise69 thinks Islam is a dead horse? A dead horse that doesn`t attack and Kill ? What`s he tying to say ? Not a single sentence is coherent. What`s on his bookshelf or wall? Anything worth mentioning besides the two films in his dvd collection ?

Wilfred Ruffian
December 4th, 2013
4:12 PM
The tone of this article suggests that artists are cowards. I find this objectionable. All the artists I know are firmly committed to speaking truth to any power that will not hurt or arrest them.

December 3rd, 2013
7:12 AM
We already attack other cultures and Islam outright with phsyical and structural violence. Art joining in to beat a dead horse surely would be shocking... just like getting your leg run over by a truck would surely be "sensational". Are we so numb that any pin prick of feeling is 'Art' no matter the cost? Jeeze if you really want to see at work of 'Art' that is 'critical' of 'multiculturalism' watch A Birth Of A Nation or Triumph of The Will. Until then please keep your contrived attempt at contrarianism to yourself, at least until you get over that impluse to consider conserving the status quo as 'radical'. *sigh*

hegel`s advocate
November 28th, 2013
9:11 PM
True but why do you guys ignore Pussy Riot art and Femen art ? Zizek doesn`t.Nor the other 15 philosophers who signed the letter published in the Guardian. Nor does the Feminist Times ignore them. Julie Burchill has "tackled" Islamism. As I mentioned in the comments after the `...losing the war for the soul of Islam` article, situationist Mustapha Kyati`s " Burn Your Own Koran" tackles it well. It would be very easy for Nick Cohen and Peter Whittle to make paintings of it.

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