Limits of Shock

I posted an initial response to Grayson Perry’s Reith #1 and added a short post-note after #2. Yesterday was #3 on the place of shock amongst other things in the leading edge of artistic development.

(Didn’t manage to blog yesterday – after a couple of days away, I came back to a WordPress 3.7 upgrade – which failed with fatal errors – and it took yesterday to re-build and a 3.7.1 bug-fix upgrade this morning to get the blog up and running again – still some content re-building to do, but back functioning and existing post linking intact. Comment notifiers, and social media linking still incomplete.)

By coincidence, at the weekend in Manchester, we saw Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences / (Rakes Progress) series of tapestries and associated works at the Manchester Art Gallery, and Alison Goldfrapp’s curated collection also at the Lowry in Salford – along with a huge range of Lowry’s too.

Also by coincidence, after the Classic Albums documentary on Lou Reed’s Transformer, last night I also watched the Shock Metal episode of the Metal Evolution series.

From Perry’s pieces, mentioned in Reith#3, it is the detail and wit in the immense amount of creative work that goes into the tapestries – the objects of significance in the stages of Rakewell’s life. Composition and design work that is, the actual “weaving” is on a computer-controlled loom of course. He talks about art chasing the technology – why wouldn’t you use the latest technology to accomplish your work, there are multiple crafts in the workings of art, and not all the crafts need to be “authentic”, or artificially wooden as he puts it. Much about authenticity and gentrification of art – and locations associated with art – in Reith#3.

Much also about “detached irony” – the game of not taking things too seriously, but where ultimately there has to be a serious point, some objective of sincerity met or not met, even if that sincere objective is the irony. In the same way as I say we can’t all be court-jesters, we can all be ironists, all of the time, we can’t all be shocking relative to any established norm – just not possible by definition.

Shock itself as a point, and more generally originality, was ever thus at the leading edge – avant garde – always had to make a point of difference in some dimension from “the establishment” – hence The Vanity of Small Differences. So much so that being shocking and original eventually became the ticket to being welcomed into the recognised world of appreciated art. To not be shocking and original, and merely skilled craft-wise, would be a recipe for being overlooked. The irony being now of course that there is little that can actually shock, it’s all been done and accepted as part of art, despite recognising that the need to shock was ever thus at the leading edge. (Almost by definition the “new” needs some significant and surprising twist on previous work, but not everything can be entirely new or original in either a shocking or authentic dimension. In my limited experience of exhibited art, the “pleasant surprise” is more important than any shock, even where the work involves a high element of initial shock to attract interest – thinking Emin / Hirst here – the surprise has to be in some unexpected aspect of the quality of the work – the pleasure is in the unexpected quality. The attention and the appreciation are distinct.)

Saw some negative responses to Perry’s lectures from the art community on Twitter, not being exciting enough, letting the side down as it were. I think this is the ironic truth in his lectures. As I noted after the first lecture, what was instantly apparent was that his message was common sense – witty well-informed discursive delivery sure – but the basic “twas ever thus” truth was itself was very refreshing and exciting in its own way. Which is I believe his point.

The coincidence there was the progression of shock rock from Alice Cooper to Ramstein and Slipknot, had kinda reached the same conclusion – the need to shock had always been there (long before Alice), with every bodily function fair-game in rock and art more generally. Interesting that the “Parental Advisory” sticker campaign became a badge of honour for the artists, a sure seal of success. But now it seems little can shock, short of death and mutilation, self or otherwise, as artistic attention-grabbing statements – the Marylin Manson / Columbine School (non-)connection being particularly poignant. As one wag put it “You could always cut your arm off, but you could only do it twice.” Even artists have boundaries and a moral compass.

Perhaps there really is a turning point in the cycles of irony and shock – despite twill ever be thus, maybe the shock will be to not be shockingly or ironically different or original, but to be – shock horror – good at the artistic objective. Anything can be art and art can have any number of objectives. Quality will out.

Finally, to round off the Manchester basic-truth-in-art connection – we were in Manchester at the weekend to see Roy Harper at Bridgewater Hall on Friday. Beautiful venue, but the event was hugely disappointing. Roy at 72 back in his home town, clearly nervous, he forgot lines and selections of guitars and tunings. But worse still, the late-arriving audience was comatose after a low-key warm-up by Jonathan Wilson, too flat sound with insufficient dynamic, and dim “mood” lighting focussed almost entirely on the large stage behind Roy. The strings and brass did very well to fit in around the errors. Very sad, despite a promising set list, same selection, but different order to London, Festival Hall last Tuesday :

Highway Blues (short version), Time is Temporary, Heaven is Here, Hallucinating Light, Another Day, I’ll See You Again, The Stranger, January Man, The Enemy, Twelve Hours of Sunset, Girl from the North Country, Me and My Woman, Old Cricketer.

But it just wasn’t the same old rock. Artistic quality relies on getting more than one craft right, and sadly there were a few missing. Here’s hoping the old dog will have his day again.

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