Monday, October 19, 2009

Bumper Sticker

I was driving in to work this morning and came across a bumper sticker from someone ahead of me that read "Artists are here to disturb the peace".  Now, admittedly this might have had some resonance with me when I was younger.  But today it felt more like something akin to a deadpan "thud".  The thought expressed in the bumper sticker has been stated and expressed, packaged and repackaged, by so many in so many venues and in so many different ways, to the point of becoming cliche.  For all its attempt to be "transgressive" it simply comes off as an unoriginal regurgitation of certain rarely examined notions of our times.

Which leads me to ask: why should transgression be the presumptive value, the default premise of the artistic enterprise?  What about technique, ability, content?  How often is it merely a crutch, indicative of intellectual laziness or lack of genuine creativity masquerading as profundity and substance? 

It also makes you wonder what this implies about the role of the artist in society?  (Or even about the owner of the bumper sticker?)  By this standard, must every artist strive to become a self-appointed shaman, prophet, seer, disturber of the peace?  By this, haven't we turned the exception into the rule and thereby defeated the very reality of transgression itself?  It's a little like speaking to a "heard of non-conformists", as someone once put it.  If non-conformity is the rule, is it still non-conformity?  Isn't this line of questioning itself more transgressive, given the cultural context, than the aforementioned banal bumper sticker? 

The fact that we can play this type of rationalization to the point of reductio ad absurdum is demonstrative of the shortcomings of this line of thinking.  Not that art shouldn't break new ground, but to consider trangression and controversy as ends in themselves is to take values that are highly dependent on context and decontextualizing them, thus robbing them, ironically, of their power.  Something to think about next time you hear someone speaking about something being controversial, as if this by itself constituted an achievement.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Consider the difference between a Yale Art Major purportedly using her own menstrual blood as "art":

    versus a young Ukrainian artist using nothing but sand and her bare hands to convey the story of the WWII Nazi invasion of her native land:

    Both "disturbed the peace." But after investing $80,000+ in education, the Yale student merely presented a crass "shock value" stunt, while the Ukrainian used simple but effective skills to speak volumes to those watching her.

    Art is not meant to simply have "shock value," or else any rampaging lunatic could consider himself an "artist." Then again, many current artists are exactly that....

    For another interesting "bumper sticker" debate, see:

    On the self-righteousness of a bumper sticker that reads: "Don’t Assume That I Share Your Prejudices."