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Tracey Emin, Andreas Gursky, Vincent Van Gogh. Offensive and Insulting: The Role of Art in Society

Bruce Wang Citizen Wang Studio
Offensive and Insulting: The Role of Art in Society

Article By Bruce Wang @

Tracey Emin, Andreas Gursky, Vincent Van Gogh. Offensive and Insulting: The Role of Art in Society

I recently shared an image with Bruce which had piqued my interest. It was taken from a new exhibition and showed a multi-generational family. The exhibition intended to explore the effects of time and of nature versus nurture. I was interested to see the exhibition as I curious about the dynamics that exist in families. This is possibly because my own experience of family has been of one that was incredibly fractured, isolated and insular and now, largely, gone. I felt myself looking at these images and recognising something that I either once had, but now miss, or that has been absent, but longed for. For me, these photographs had played arts most fundamental role, as they had moved me in a not entirely comfortable, but necessary way. I had learnt something about myself and something of the commonality of what it is to be human.

I had thought Bruce might be interested, as he takes photographic portraits and is interested in using this medium to capture the unguarded essence of each individual sitter; no easy task. So I was surprised to find that he was not impressed. He replied that he thought the role of art was to be insulting and offensive. Somehow, I had felt a little offended by this abrupt response; in a world that feels so full of insults and offence, why would we seek it out in art? This was my gut reaction anyway. Then I started to wonder if Bruce had, in fact, been offended by the images I shared. Had these images pushed a button and had subtly achieved exactly what he had thought they lacked? Isnt this what art is good at; communicating with us, while our guard is down and so it can be processed on a much deeper level?

I recently visited an exhibition of Andreas Gurskys photographs, at the White Cube gallery and found myself struggling to connect with many of these expansive and visually impressive images. Adam, who I was with, said that he found them too perfect and I agreed with that. They were so crisp and defined and had a sense of hyperreality which made me feel chilled. I also got very little sense of human presence, many of these images being representational of capitalist culture, represented by buildings or advertisements or models on a catwalk who looked more like menacing robots than anything I could relate to. I could not say I particularly enjoyed the exhibition, on the whole. However, it had certainly affected me as it reflected something of my experience of the culture I live in on a daily basis and how it can make me feel. I felt uncomfortable because Gursky was doing his job as an artist.

I particularly like the White Cube gallery as it is a space that offers the art it displays a blank canvas. The artist and curator work together on showing art exactly as it is intended to be seen. The gallery has the luxury of not being a major tourist destination, like the Tate for example, and so has no need to pander to this industry in any way. It has a shop, but one would be hard pushed to describe it as a gift shop. It is a bookshop with some seriously stunning exhibition catalogues to lust over. While I am drawn to the gallery gift shop, I can see how degrading some of the merchandise can be. This particularly struck me when visiting an exhibition of Van Goghs self-portraits. Van Gogh being my first love, as an artist, I really relished the opportunity to see these highly personal paintings in close quarters, which told the story of a genius of a man in deep turmoil. It had felt like an honour. Yet on arriving at the gift shop, what was I met with but pencil erasers depicting the severed ear of this tortured soul. This seemed to be in deeply bad taste and I was glad to later hear that this particular item had been discontinued.

I am profoundly grateful when a gallery does not ask the visitor to read reams of text that are supposed to serve to explain what is in front of them. I find this practice rather patronising, as it seems to assume we, the audience, are incapable of having our own experience of what is in front of us. In my view, text in galleries, which frequently reads as nonsense, takes us to the wrong side of the brain and so we are not able to be fully creatively receptive. I frustrate myself often that the good girl in me obediently attempts to read the text, but seldom fully takes it in, because I resent what I feel Im being made to do. However, I think there is an element of FOMO happening for me; what if I miss out on some crucial bit of information? The White Cube do offer a pamphlet, which I tend to take away with me and read afterwards, should I feel the need to know more. A good compromise, I feel, as the gallery might be in danger of appearing too elite, if it did not offer something to satisfy a diversity of visitors.

I spent an enjoyable period of time volunteering as front of house staff at a small independent gallery and came to really appreciate the work that goes into making an exhibition. It is such a fine balance to achieve to ensure the artist and their work is represented as they would wish, and that it also responds to the needs of the gallerys visitors. This gallery was in a popular tourist spot and so it attracted a diverse mix of visitors, including many school groups and people from around the world. Some visited to be educated, some because they were artists, others purely to pass the time, or because their mother or father made them do something cultural on their visit to London. So many people to please! I think this experience gave me some insight into how and why certain decisions are made, as the gallery is essentially a business and it has to make decisions about who it seeks to attract and the needs of this clientele. So, with this insider knowledge, I understood that sometimes we have to take and appreciate the bits we like and try and tolerate the rest. These are public spaces and so we do need to share.

Thinking on this subject, I began to muse on my own artwork. What did it communicate to the world? Was it insulting or offensive in any way, and how would I want it to be seen? I am a big fan of Tracy Emin; but I havent always been, because I initially thought her work incredibly self-indulgent and narcissistic and this really bothered me. Yet here was a female artist taking a bold step into a patriarchal establishment and telling the world something of what it was like to be a woman. So, was I not actually subscribing to a deeply flawed status quo and should I not have been truly grateful to Emin for opening my eyes? And yes, sometimes it really is necessary to communicate ideas with the subtlety of a sledgehammer when they really do need to be heard and seen! She was sharing a deeply personal story and I have later come to appreciate this and some of its more subtle nuance, once I dropped my guard. I am so grateful, because in telling her story, she tells some of mine too. Emin and those of her ilk have enabled me, as an artist, to be bold enough to work autobiographically, without shame, because I know the value of how art serves to reconnect us with one another, telling stories that we recognise, so we know we are not alone, in what can feel like an increasingly lonely world. Art rails against capitalist culture in this way and that is something to be applauded. No wonder artists are often so undermined and diminished. So, perhaps, in its way, I do hope that my work might offend and insult occasionally, as I certainly tell a story that many may find unpalatable.

I often fantasise about exhibitions of my work that I would like to have; how I would wish each piece to be seen. I do think it a terrible shame that, for emerging artists, it is so hard/almost impossible to obtain spaces to exhibit in. How are any of us ever meant to be seen? Will we ever be seen other than on the flooded market that is Instagram? The truth is, many great artists are never given the exposure they deserve, which feels like something that has not changed in the art world for far too many years. Just think of Van Gogh, he was not alone in his plight. It does seem that it remains a case of who you know, how much money you have and more recently, what minority group is it currently fashionable to be making some pretence at sympathising with (perhaps I am cynical). Artists should surely be recognised on individual merit, which has nothing to do with the colour of their skin, their gender of the state of their mental health. I find this so patronising to the very real struggles of marginalised groups and seems to only serve to highlight difference and reinforce divisions. Perhaps I am being too idealistic though, but surely idealism is how we continue to strive to progress to be something better and is that not the artists role also?

So, should art be offensive and insulting? Yes, I think that is part of its role, but to define it purely as such would be far too narrow and insulting, because it does so much more than that. The best art, for me, depicts humanity and the world, with all its facets and guises. It connects, educates and inspires and is a catalyst for the possibility of positive change in the individual, but also in society and even globally. This can be achieved subtly or forcefully, we are all different and will respond in our own unique way. There is no right or wrong. By Naomi Elfred-Ross