When he opened his Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart in January 2011, David Walsh warned visitors they would be shocked and offended by what they saw, but the greatest shock proved to be the almost universal enthusiasm of those first day crowds. From Wim Delvoye’s poo-making machine to Greg Taylor’s plaster casts of vaginas, to Marina Abramović’s disturbing performance videos, they loved it all.
The moral of the story? There are several options:
– Any gallery that wants to show a confronting work with impunity should send out press releases announcing that audiences will be shocked. This virtually guarantees acceptance.
– The museum is a privileged – even sanctified – space, in which images and actions that might normally be viewed as offensive, are broadly tolerated and appreciated.
– ‘Shock and offence’ have become a conventional part of the art museum experience. Visitors get the same frisson they might enjoy from a roller-coaster ride or a horror movie. Licenced offence devolves into a form of popular entertainment.
So when we learn the National Gallery of Australia has just paid US $5 million (AUD $6.8 million) for the Cube, a new animatronic sculpture by self-styled bad boy of contemporary art, Jordan Wolfson, it reignites the debate about the value of work that sets out to shock and offend. Wolfson has made a lucrative career out of large-scale, factory-made sculptures that trample taboos – flirting with Anti-Semitism (even though he’s Jewish!), racism and misogyny.
In big exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale one might view and forget hundreds of works in a single day, but Wolfson makes sure he can’t be ignored – through scale, noise, or a deliberate nastiness that lingers in the mind. He’s an irritant on the body of art.
It’s a deliberate strategy that reveals much about the artist himself, whose narcissism and attention-seeking are right out in the open. Matters get more jumbled when one reads statements and intervews in which Wolfson talks about the work in terms of “form”, as if he were making geometric abstractions. Offence, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder, with the artist merely the conduit that translates the world into images and objects.
This stance has been identified as “plausible deniability”, meaning that Wolfson can take a step back if things get too hot. As a method it’s neatly attuned to a world of “fake news” and “provisional truths” in which nobody seems to be held accountable for their words or actions. Even so it’s patently absurd to dwell on the formal qualities of a work such as Female Figure (2014) – an animatronic erotic dancer, wearing a witch mask; or Real Violence (2017), a virtual reality piece in which the artist beats an animatronic dummy to a pulp while Hanukkah blessings are intoned in the background.
It’s reminiscent of Balthus telling his biographer, Nicholas Fox Weber, that there’s no eroticism in his work, claiming his most notorious painting, The Guitar Lesson (1934), was just something knocked off when he was young and wanted to be provocative. Yet this image of a music teacher holding her young pupil draped over her lap, a hand raised above her exposed pudenda, has only grown more outrageous over time.
The Guitar Lesson is, quite simply, one of the most deviant images ever produced by a major artist, made even creepier by its borrowing from the Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, in the Louvre, in which Mary holds the dead Christ on her lap. But even Balthus’s most vehement detractors can’t deny his abilities as a painter, or his genius for creating striking, memorable images. Such a mix of talent and perversity will always be more combustible than a large, animatronic work produced in a factory to the artist’s specifications.
Balthus’s offensive painting has stood the test of time, remaining just as unnerving as when first unveiled. The jury is still out as to whether Jordan Wolfson will be hailed as one of the major artists of our era, or whether his brand of calculated offensiveness will simply splutter into insignificance. A recent article in The New Yorker suggested that many of the artist’s friends and champions are quietly withdrawing their support, worn out by his antics and his abrasive personality.
The article also tells us that Wolfson wanted the Cube to have its debut in “a prominent American museum”, but there were no takers. Instead, the work will be revealed to the public at the National Gallery of Australia next year, at a vast social distance from the centres of the contemporary art world. Director, Nick Mitzevich, will want us to see this as an incredible coup for Canberra, but it could just as easily be interpreted as a last resort for an agent provateur who is wearing out his shock value at home.
Either way, $6.8 million is the sort of money that should only be paid for a work of indubitable importance that will still seem fresh in 20 or 50 years time. And this is where Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles keeps getting dragged into the press coverage. Purchased for $1.3 million in 1973, by the NGA’s founding director, James Mollison, it is now valued at around $150 million, although it would be impossible to make a realistic valuation.
Every time an Australian museum buys an expensive work, Blue Poles is invoked by way of comparison, but nothing has ever come close. Certainly not the woeful Takashi Murakami painting acquired by the Art Gallery of NSW last year, for an undisclosed sum in the millions, and most probably not Wolfson’s Cube.
Mitzevich has enjoyed the odd succès-de-scandale in the past, notably with We are all flesh (2012), a sculpture by Berlinde De Bruyckere made from a horse carcass, which caused a stir at the Art Gallery of South Australia. It’s a much bigger ask to expect audiences to come racing to Canberra to see the work of an American art brat who is largely unknown in Australia.
In the contemporary art scene it has become hard to listen to those artists and curators who like to imagine they are showing works of art that threaten the status quo, uproot stale convention and slaughter sacred cows. The very fact that such pieces may be shown in the antiseptic, institutional space of the museum tends to undermine their iconoclastic value. They are as harmless as stuffed animals in glass cases, made to look fierce by a little skillful taxidermy.
The abiding problem with art intended to shock and offend is that it very swiftly loses its edge once viewers have grasped the general idea. Sometimes, as with Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), which depicted a crucifix dipped in a jar of urine, the gesture is so puerile it shouldn’t be dignified by public anger and protest. Or take the case of an artist such as Juan Davila, who came to prominence for his painting Stupid as a Painter in 1982, which struck a new note in Australian art with its Pop savagery. As the years have rolled by Davila’s provocations have suffered from a law of diminishing returns. When outrageous gestures are eagerly expected they never seem outrageous enough upon arrival.
There will always be artists such as Jordan Wolfson who are allowed to occupy a space of institutionalised transgression supported by the mega art dealers, the big collectors, and those art museums that want to be seen as ‘cutting edge’. The paradox is that works by such allegedly subversive artists are being purchased for millions of dollars by government funded museums. What they offer is not a threat to our bourgeois values but a confirmation of them. Not only do we get the delicious thrill of experiencing a controversial work of art, but the more refined pleasure of savouring our own enlightened and tolerant attitudes.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 April, 2020