1:19 PM EDT, May 17, 2013
Sometime in the next few weeks, if you're walking down Fullerton Avenue around DePaul University and have 15 minutes to spare, duck into the tidy brick building alongside the CTA station. Here you will find the DePaul Art Museum, an institution so humble that only "Art Museum" is spelled across its modest facade. The admission is free, though the lessons offered in its first gallery, at least through June 16, feel priceless.
See, there is scandal in that room.
Or rather, there are works in that gallery that, when they were shown at the Art Institute of Chicago 100 years ago this spring, so enraged civic leaders, newspaper editorialists and art students — art students! — that copies of the offending art were burned in effigy on the museum steps and high-minded morality patrols formed with names like Sanity in Art.
I am talking, of course, about the infamous Armory Show, which debuted in February 1913 at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York, introduced realism-minded Americans to the abstractions of modernism (along with Duchamp, Matisse and Picasso), scandalized the art world, then traveled to Chicago, where the fiasco was repeated and amplified. (A headline in this newspaper about the New York unveiling of the exhibit read: "Art Show Open for Freaks.")
A century later, we know the drill.
The culture-shock playbook is beyond familiar, because the Armory Show — half of a double whammy along with Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," which debuted May 29, 1913, to fistfights in Paris — wrote the first draft: Shock and provocation became implements in an artist's arsenal, pulled out to remind us that art can push against tradition. Which leads to backlash. Which is followed inevitably by assimilation, the offending aesthetic eventually taken for granted. One teenager's late-night reading of "Tropic of Cancer" becomes a soccer mom's book club wine party for the smuttier "50 Shades of Grey."
And so, through mid-June, the DePaul Art Museum is presenting "For and Against Modern Art: The Armory Show + 100," which features several once-offending works from the original exhibit, now startling to no one.
Just as the Ravinia Festival and the Joffrey Ballet now present "The Rite of Spring" with some regularity (both have new productions coming this September) to not a peep of protest. "Do we have the occasional fistfight at Ravinia?" asked festival president Welz Kauffman. "Well, it's never related to Stravinsky, I assure you."
Indeed, a century after the Armory Show, after decades of artists chipping away at the wall between formalism and modernism — as we've gone post-Elvis, post-Mapplethorpe, post-torture porn — shock has become so mainstream, so ingrained in our cultural DNA strands, it can sometimes feel like we have become post-shock.
Although maybe not entirely.
Even filmmaker John Waters, once synonymous with outrage and who titled his first book "Shock Value," told me he gets asked often if anything shocks him anymore. "And truth is, all the time," he said. "The behavior of normal people who think they are sane always shocks us. I recently bought an artwork of a cardboard box with a padlock around it. Something about it made me mad and intrigued: What kind of lunatic keeps a secret in a cardboard box? I also think it's shocking how accepted it is that your 12-year-old daughter will dress like a prostitute. And I suppose it would be shocking to people that my assistant is a Republican." (Need I even add that the "Pink Flamingos" director is speaking Tuesday night at the highbrow Harris Theater in Millennium Park?)
But while we have not become so jaded as to entirely abandon our capacity for challenge and outrage, it has gotten harder to shake the feeling that shock, more often than not, is now a hopelessly middlebrow gesture, at best used sparingly and at worst a pantomime performed by morality-minded civic groups and self-promoting artists. In fact, as I asked artists and organizations where shock stands a century after the Armory Show, the word "shock" went flat. I kept apologizing for wasting their time on a tired debate, for bringing up what feels like coy marketing.
"You have shock fatigue," replied Maggie Nelson, who wrote "The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning," an excellent 2011 study of violence and art. "But remember, as mundane as shock may feel, the culture does keep giving us new openings to consider. Actually, I wonder if the whole conversation about how mundane shock feels has become a distraction from the real question: When you can call up a beheading on a cellphone at any moment — well, we're shocked and we're not now, you know? Technology outpaced our shock potential."
Which brings me to this: I couldn't remember the last time I was shocked. Which is a shock.
"There. That," I said to Louise Lincoln, the director of the DePaul Art Museum, pointing at a charcoal sketch of a female crotch, "that was one of the pieces that was controversial in the Armory Show, right?"
"No," she said, "that's in this show as an example of the standard against which art was judged 100 years ago." The figure was literally statuesque, the sort of female nude that might grace a fountain, leaning back, crotch at eye level. "That was genteel. Capital 'A' art. This Matisse was offensive to Chicago."
She led me around the corner to a line drawing of a female nude, seen from the back.
"But you can see there is flab here, more of a sense of a real person," she said. Indeed, the wall description referred to a Tribune editorial that singled out this Matisse for perverting "the ideal of physical perfection."
"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."
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