"OK, but that," I said, gesturing to a large painting of four art students, leering, smug and vaguely vampiric, baring their teeth.
"No, that was fine too," she said. "A tour de force of portraiture, guys drinking, with a still life of bottles and lemons in front of them. It was kind of a celebration of the male bohemian art culture of the time."
But their expression is so grotesque, I said.
I asked if anyone was shocked by her show yet.
"No, and it's disappointing. Shock is hard to generate now, of course."
I asked when was the last time she was shocked by a work of art, by anything — truly rocked.
She looked at the floor and thought. Five days later she sent me an email: She was still thinking.
OK, now I remember the last time I was shocked by something, anything, floating around the culture: It was the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. Like many, I was glued to Twitter, reading updates, refreshing, refreshing. Then comedian Anthony Jeselnik's tweet dropped into my stream, only a few hours after the bombings.
I like Jeselnik's stand-up; it often plays like it's testing the boundaries of hypocrisy, both his and ours. But I was less impressed with his new Comedy Central series, "The Jeselnik Offensive," which struck me as using shock not as a vehicle toward a larger purpose but as an end unto itself.
As was his tweet: "There are some lines that just shouldn't be crossed today. Especially the finish line."
There is a solid argument that, in a world moving beyond surprise, Jeselnik was reflecting on how far the goalposts for offensiveness have shifted, how it's never "too soon" anymore. Needless to say, within a couple of hours that tweet disappeared. But the hollowness of the gesture, the middlebrowness of it, stuck.
I remembered it the other day while talking to cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel "Maus" (depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats) and frequently offered shocking New Yorker covers, most infamously in the wake of the 1991 riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, when Spiegelman's image of a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman drew howls of protest. "I understand, for instance, it's shocking to see a pornographic picture of artist Jeff Koons in a show," he told me, "but it doesn't take us any further. It's a big so-what. It doesn't really matter what the conversation is, because it's not starting a conversation, is it?
"See, shock is dangerous," he continued, "and it makes interesting things happen. But there's the shock that reconfigures thought and recognizes there is a conventional way of doing things, but this is a new way, which means blasting away the received wisdom. Which becomes shocking to the people who are entrenched in those old ways. But there's also the shock that goes, 'Hey, everyone, look at my (expletive)!'
"That kind of shock only sets you up for another, then it does feel middlebrow. Which is where we often are."
I should note that shock is also about context, timing: Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2," a flowing river of hard right angles, was shown in Paris to no objections before arriving in the United States. Which is not unlike the audiences that stream out of "Book of Mormon" in the Loop, challenged, perhaps, but rarely scandalized — they were primed for the surprises the way you're primed for the steepest hill on a roller coaster. Indeed, 88-year-old Chicago artist Art Paul, who spent decades as art director at Playboy (and designed the iconic bunny logo), told me that "some people may have found what we did was tasteless or shocking, but it was never mean-spirited, and none of it ever seemed offensive to me, being around it all day long."
Proximity matters too.
Twenty years ago I saw the original production of Tracy Letts' violent, jarring "Killer Joe" at the Next Theatre Company in Evanston, and the trailer-park set, which sat close to the audience, seemed in danger of flying apart and exploding on the seats. It was hard not to feel viscerally shocked. But, as Jennifer Avery, the artistic director of Next (though not at the time of that production), remembers: "The truthfulness of that show became as shocking as the violence, so you leaned in — and often shock separates you from the work."
She told me the last time she was shocked in a smart way was recently, at the Goodman Theatre's production of Shakespeare's "Measure For Measure." She told me that she actually, and loudly, gasped. Director Robert Falls killed off the nun Isabella, which is not in the original text. So I called Falls.
She gasped, I told him.
He said that he worries that a shock will become the only thing that an audience remembers, but that he also worries about those audiences "who see art as entertainment only and never want to be forced into looking at something with fresh eyes, which is the nature of sho — Oh, you know, I hate that word, 'shock.'"
Me, too, I said.
"It sort of seems like you mean to say 'gimmick,'" he said. "And whatever the Armory Show wrought, it never intended to shock that way. Good artists may know this will shock people, but they don't seek out that shock."
"Which is the best shock."
"Yes, more of a jolt."