Art & Provocation

—By Gifford Grobien “I know it when I see it.”

When Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said this to describe his test for obscenity, he was not far off the mark. Beauty can be defined simply as that which pleases when it is perceived. Traditionally, such pleasure was not mere opinion. Rather, pleasure referred to what appealed to the mind through contemplation. Perceiving beauty in something meant to recognize its beautiful qualities: proportion, unity, radiance, order, and the like. To modern ears Stewart sounds subjective, but his aphorism assumes basic, objective notions of beauty. True art and beauty are recognized by the reasonable person who considers an artistic subject. Pornography takes precious little contemplation for the observer to recognize that it not only fails to have the aforementioned qualities, but undermines them.

Many artists, however, no longer appeal to beauty, but to provocation. A recent article by Jennifer Schuessler in The New York Times observes that shock art has a century-long history in the United States. (Warning: some references and descriptions in the article are explicitly sexual and/or violent.) It notes that social shifts have led to acceptance of performances and depictions that would have been considered scandalous one hundred or even twenty years ago. Schuessler queries, “Can art still shock today?” She goes on to report that the typical contemporary artist seeks to shock in even greater ways. “[M]any artists say that generating shock remains the duty of anyone who aims to reflect the real world back at itself.” Whatever the standard of society, the “duty” of the artist is to breach this standard from beyond.

Schuessler is correct in that art imitates “the real world.” The disagreement is over what part of the real world it ought to imitate. The provocateur thinks that the real world is about unbridled passions; about unleashing the visceral response of human nature; about revealing the degraded condition of man, so as to shock the audience into repentance. Shock art becomes a way to surprise audiences with an icon of their prurient nature, in hopes of bringing about some change in what is socially acceptable.

Shock artists are right about the corruption of human nature. But they are wrong to appeal to it, as if this will lead to improvement. By giving expression to vice, they authorize vice in the mainstream. Schuessler’s article is a testimony to this authorization of vice, even if it doesn’t recognize it. If scandalous art becomes acceptable, and art imitates life, then the scandalous life becomes the expectation.

This is why true art does appeal to the “real world,” yet specifically to the vestige of the good and the beautiful in the real world. Beauty matters in art because it portrays to the audience the beauty that is and the beauty to which we may still aspire, even in a world degraded by vice and scandal.  Beauty calls us to order and goodness. Shock art assaults order, pushing society toward destructive license.

Perhaps you are nevertheless wary of the traditional view of art, of notions of objective beauty. Art is supposed to appeal to the emotions, isn’t it? Indeed. To speak of objectivity in art is not to cast off the emotions. No true anthropology pits the intellect against the passions. Emotions and the mind are qualities of humanity. In the goodness of creation they serve each other.

Thus, the appeal of objective beauty to the mind does lead to emotional reaction: joy, ecstasy, anger at injustice, melancholic longing for salvation—the possibilities are limited only by human emotion itself. Objectivity does not suppress emotion, but invites it to its best expression. Artists ought to seek emotional reactions from their audience. By appealing to the beautiful, artists aim at the integrity of the human person, of the mutuality of the intellect and the passions, and the picture of reality that such integrity pursues. This is the reality of God’s good creation as He intended it.

It may be more difficult each day to know art when we see it. The harder something is, the more we need to practice. So, when it comes to art, St. Paul’s words apply also: “[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). See, contemplate, feel, and pursue the beauty of God’s world.


The Rev. Dr. Gifford Grobien is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.