Beyond Shock Value

With his brazen 1863 nude painting "Olympia," Edouard Manet gave rise to a new genre of art that transgressed the boundaries of civil society. The subject's defiant, take-no-prisoners stare mocked the era's conventional representation of nudes as blushing and demure, and her suggestive pose hinted at the unspoken possibility of carnal pleasure with a prostitute. Critics at the time were outraged. Now, 140 years later, critics are wondering if there are any rules left to break--or if modern art is simply kept alive by its shock value.

According to two new London exhibits--"Sigmar Polke: History of Everything" at the Tate Modern (through Jan. 10) and "Chapman Brothers" at the Saatchi Gallery (through Jan. 14)--the answer is a little of both. To be sure, there are artists smashing boundaries every day--as evidenced by last week's unveiling of the finalists for this year's $40,000 Turner prize. In addition to the Chapmans' shock art, they include Grayson Perry's exquisitely painted ceramics and a thoughtful short film by Northern Irish filmmaker and photographer Willie Doherty that reduces the fierce loyalties of both Protestants and Roman Catholics to the essential components of terror and claustrophobia. At the same time, too many modern artists tend to revert merely to jolting viewers when they run out of tricks. Taken together, these two exhibits prove an inescapable truth about modern art: though some of it is thought-provoking, a great deal is overhyped and banal.

Every age has its own definition of transgression. Ever since Manet overturned tradition with "Olympia," artists as diverse as Picasso, Francis Bacon, Dali, and Gilbert and George--not to mention relative newcomers like Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread--have devoted their careers to violating some of their societies' most cherished moral and religious beliefs. "I think [that's] one of art's functions," says critic Anthony Julius, author of "Trangressions: The Offences of Modern Art." Polke's show fulfills that admirably. "But when [art] starts repeating itself it becomes problematic. Then it becomes trivial."

That criticism has been leveled against notorious BritArt bad boys Jake and Dinos Chapman, who create works together, forming new ideas out of their conflicts. The brothers, for instance, recreate a print from Goya's moving "Disasters of War" series as a sculpture with mutilated, plastic figures hanging from a tree. "I think it's tired without being enlightening or genuinely challenging," Julius says. Their retrospective in the Saatchi Gallery is laid out in an unusual but effective way, with rooms containing Chapman works randomly interspersed with the regular collection. However confusing, the arrangement does heighten the shock of unexpectedly coming across their mutilated mannequins, like "Zygotic Acceleration" (1995), a collection of plastic, pre-teen girls fused together. Some gaze upward with the dreamy look of Raphael's angels; others have penis noses and sex-doll mouths. Across the room is "F--k Face" (1994), a belligerent Pinocchio-nosed toddler. Here--and throughout the exhibit--the labels are singularly unhelpful: F--K FACE WILL ALWAYS BE A D--K.

The Chapmans depict a world devoid of humanity. Their intricate, nauseating vision of "Hell" (1998-2000) consists of a nine-part sculpture peopled by thousands of mutilated corpses and horrifying scenes of torture and violence. Such works deliberately offend our sensibilities. By taking valid points to their irrational extreme, the brothers make unsubtle statements about society's shortcomings. In "Hell," the criticism is of moral certitudes: it's impossible to tell who is the perpetrator, who the victim and what they're fighting for. In "Zygotic Acceleration," the Chapmans condemn the early sexualization of children. The brothers are notoriously intellectual: their two Turner Prize entries, "Death" and "Sex" (2003), cleverly play off French writer Georges Bataille's work on these fundamental, intertwined taboos: "Death" is a bronze sculpture of two life-size pink dolls performing a sex act; "Sex" is a reprise of their Goyaesque "Great Deeds Against the Dead"--only this time the mutilated mannequins are decayed skeletons. Such works provide a quick rush but leave viewers unfulfilled.

The Tate Modern's show of works by German artist Sigmar Polke--the first living artist to have an exhibit there--has the opposite effect. Gaze at Polke's busy canvases, and layers of meaning gradually unfold. He takes images that may initially seem shocking or controversial, then makes us confront our assumptions about them by suggesting alternative readings. In "Untitled 2003" he meticulously reproduces in paint on cloth an Associated Press photograph from The New York Times with the caption "American marines played the board game 'Risk' on a ship in the Gulf of Aden last fall. The object of the game is to dominate the world." Though this huge painting initially appears to be a jab at American imperialism, a closer look reveals that one giant-size Marine holds his head in his hands in despair, while three others look tense. They are, in fact, the pawns in a real-life power game.

In the end Polke's incisive, understated approach is far more satisfying than the Chapmans' blunt assault. He draws on images from shotgun catalogs, newspaper photos, pornography and children's illustrations. He uses newsprint dots to distort and parody newspapers, subverting our trust in the media and exploring the way they manipulate events. Some of his most beautiful works, inky black patterns on green, iridescent cloth and gold mesh, are enlarged and distorted printing errors. In the works that open the show, "A History of Everything," two tiny, seemingly innocuous horses and riders, rendered in newsprint dots, trot in a corner. They reappear later as a photograph in the fascinating work, based on a satellite picture, "The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda," where they are now the strange focus of a superpower's high-tech missiles.

What exactly makes a work of art transgressive? "Olympia," wrote Mallarme, "is scandal and idol, power and the public presence of society's wretched secret... She makes us think of everything that conceals and preserves primitive barbarity." Polke tears apart those complex layers of deceit; the Chapmans, on the other hand, just depict the barbarity. Other Turner Prize nominees offer more hope for the future of transgression in art. Perry's ceramics, for example, currently at both the Saatchi Gallery and the Tate Britain, are far more subversive than the Chapman mannequins. Homely, warm-colored pots are painted with dark childhood images insinuating sexual abuse, exploring the idea that even extreme cruelty can be artfully disguised. To be sure, some of the most notorious transgressive works of the 1990s--including the Chapmans' mannequins and Tracey Emin's 1999 Turner Prize entry, a mass of soiled sheets and garbage titled "My Bed" --have failed to transform our vision. But as others in these exhibits show, the fearful promise of a world without taboos remains, as ever, a rich mine for thought-provoking new art.