What is shock?

Shock in art is a subject that endlessly fascinates me. The Guardian recently ran a very interesting piece on the subject. That, the recent debates around free speech that have followed in the wake of the events in Paris, and the fact that I am beginning to emerge to a place where I am considering setting pen to paper, make it time to put some thoughts in order. It’s more than 5 years since I first wrote about “the new” in literature and art, and so much has changed in that time.

My take on shock, that is the mechanics of what makes something shocking, tends to be that it is rooted in one of two things – something that is too progressive, or something that is too regressive – which is to say,

1. it embodies an idea for which society is not yet ready and may never be ready (of course, “society” is a nebulous term and these discourses are circular, and certainly many hundreds of years ago people were “ready” for things that we would deem too progressive for our own environs). Picasso’s Desmoielles D’Avignon, or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, , or Delta of Venus or Howl might fall into this category


2.it embodies an idea we consider ourselves to have left behind and whose representation with any kind of seriousness is considered aberrant or culturally atavistic. This is why we are shocked by Katie Hopkins, and on an artistic level it is a camp into which Frankie Boyle and the hugely controversial recent Exhibit B at the Barbican fall.

On the face of it this dichotomy makes things nice and easy. It follows a line that broadly represents “punching up” vs “punching down”. The first kind of shock is one that, natch, progressives can get fully behind – it wrestles the status quo and seeks to pull down inhibition and hasten a Hegelian paradise. The second kind serves to uphold privilege and merits nothing but the progressive’s bile, whilst a converse is also, broadly, applicable amongst a kind of conventional libertarian for whom anything must be permitted provided it falls within a certain box of traditionally-informed discourse.


But suggesting a single line on which art moves from shock through vanilla and back to shock misses some points that would worry both libertarian conservatives and progressive radicals alike. It ignores the transgressive as something valid on its own terms – a metashock that questions the whole notion of what shocks and whether we should, ever, be shocked by the possible. Take even mild-by-comparison works like American Psycho and Fight Club. Both are shocking. But are they shocking because they are regressive, or because they are transgressive? Angry divisions tend to cluster around such works. Authors claim that they are critiquing the things they portray, whilst activist critics will point out that by rehearsing the things they claim to critique they are contributing to rather than tearing down a culture in which those acts are permissible. Such works provoke a double shock, but the confusion over why it is we are shocked by them can render them less shocking so that the shock spectrum collapses from that of transgressive critique to activist outrage to one of caricature to resigned disappointment.

And on the other end, what of Gabrielle Wittkop’s The Necrophiliac? Is necrophilia as something beautiful an idea for which we are not yet ready, or an idea that is utterly beyond the spectrum of social moral trajectory? Is it always true that unacceptable and largely unrehearsed ideas are unacceptable because they are new, at least to the mainstream of culture? Or are some ideas never going to be acceptable? What is it that renders sex between classes, or love between members of the same sex taboos that must be tackled and broken down whilst sex between human and dead body, say, a taboo that must remain such? The regressive-progressive spectrum will not allow us to ask such a question however much we feel we want to ask it. The acknowledgement of transgression as a separate trajectory will allow these questions to be posed, will allow us to shock in the name of tearing down a stigma, to shock in the name of questionning a stigma, and to shock, ultimately, in the name of confirming a stigma.

There is an ideology with which I am hugely sympathetic and which, if I had to build a utopia, I would quite probably espouse, that wants a spectrum from regressive to progressive, that wants to see art as the tool that moves us from oppression to equality, as a tool for untangling privilege and dismantling all prevailing discourses (apart, of course, from its own). On the other hand I am aware that the discourses I personally want to include in the metanarrative of privilege-oppression-dismantling are limited – I do not know whether I want to include necrophilia, for example. And I am aware that this is deeply problematic. And that the answer to the problem is allowing a freer axis for shock, one of transgression, one that tests all narratives and metanarratives by pushing at their edges and asking what and why. On the other hand again, the regression-progression line, if it holds, dismisses transgression as a tool of privilege.

All of which creates the question of whether there is such a thing as good shock or bad shock, necessary shock or shock that must be avoided. Whether questionning a foundation that we already know to be infinitely fragile and frangible is more valuable than preserving the lives of the oppressed from actual harm, and if the latter then which oppressed? If we are going to pin our colours to an axiomatic mast at some point, does it really matter that we exhaust all other possibilities before we do so, or should we be content to stand where we stand?

In other words, are there some shocks that art should not deliver for the greater good, some shocks we should not be free to deliver? In the current climate maybe this, the notion that the artist has a greater duty than the duty to freedom, is the most shocking suggestion of all.



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