GSE logo

Repression and Revolt in Modern Art

March 26, 1998 to May 30, 1998

The breaking of taboos has long been considered a key component of the modernist mandate. From Pablo Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon to Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, from Egon Schiele to Cindy Sherman, twentieth-century artists have consistently questioned accepted values and normative standards. According to this prevalent paradigm, the avant garde cultivated expressive freedom and sexual honesty as antidotes to the bourgeois rigidity and sexual hypocrisy associated with the Victorian era. Just as Sigmund Freud exposed the repressed instincts underlying human behavior, modern artists chose to root out and elucidate a range of previously inadmissible feelings and subjects. Exploring the full range of modern life, artists set foot in places--slums and honky-tonk cafes, teeming urban boulevards and brothels--that were formerly off limits or simply had not existed before on a comparable scale. Such investigations of previously unseen realities could, under the right circumstances, prove as shocking as the more notorious depictions of explicit nudity and copulation. No less radical was the stylistic assault on the academic tradition, and the elimination of any single official canon of form or representation.

Compelling though the foregoing traditional sketch of modernism may be, it posits a dichotomy between Victorian prudery and twentieth-century liberation that is, at best, an oversimplification. Starting in the early nineteenth century, the stresses and strains of industrial capitalism created massive economic shifts that affected both artists and their public. Artists, formerly integrated within the extant power structure, now willfully set themselves apart from the rising bourgeoisie, to whom they ascribed a Philistine materialism. What the historian Peter Gay has called "bourgeoisphobia" was a leitmotif in forward-thinking artistic circles throughout the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, many radical artists were themselves resolutely middle-class, their bohemianism largely a matter of posturing. Moreover, the avant garde relied on the financial support of the despised bourgeoisie, which (contrary to the common stereotype) encompassed progressives as well as reactionaries. Certainly, some Victorians did resort to repressive stratagems and dogma, but then again in certain respects this has hardly changed; the conservative rhetoric of "family values" has as much resonance today as did its equivalent a hundred years ago. The modernist rebellion was not so pure as its proponents would have us believe, nor was its victory as complete as its partisans would have wished.

If recent studies, such as Gay's, provide a more nuanced picture of the Victorian era, then the avant garde's antagonistic stance also needs to be examined in a new light. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the Polynesian word "taboo," having no synonym in any European language, was first introduced to the West by ethnographers and then, in the early twentieth century, given broader domestic applications by Freud and others following his lead. Freud himself defined "taboo" as the conscious prohibition of an unconscious wish (e.g., the desire of a male child to sleep with his mother or to murder his father). According to Freud's reading, taboos are both the origin of moral conscience (since the prohibited act is acknowledged as truly wrong) and an expression of profound ambivalence, since there is no need to prohibit something which is not also desired. Recognizing taboos in the Freudian sense, then, does not mean that one can do away with them. However, many others came to equate taboos with a kind of false morality and to seek liberation in their eradication.

The concept of "taboo" was thus, in effect, only called into popular existence so that the thing it came to represent could be unmasked and destroyed. The deliberate violation of perceived taboos--in the name of honesty but also, at times, for the sake of publicity--left a variety of imprints on modern art. Injecting the personal into their work, many artists explored arcane areas of experience and sensation that had seldom before been considered fit for public viewing. Other artists went further, deliberately fostering the new and outrageous for its own sake. Picasso's friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, defined art as the "perpetual immoral subversion of the existing order," a mission which many relentlessly pursued. Though some artists (such as Schiele) recoiled in the face of the scandals they aroused, others (for example, Oskar Kokoschka) openly enjoyed or even encouraged controversy. In the topsy-turvy world of the avant garde, success (i.e., selling out to bourgeois tastes) was failure, and failure or scandal could be taken as a sign of artistic success.

For all its fixation on taboos, its fomenting of scandal and proud talk of change, modern art was seldom the revolutionary social force it purported to be. From the time of the French Revolution on, there was an implicit association between vanguard art and left-wing politics, and until the 1930s, the term "avant garde" continued to have political connotations. Still, the widespread belief that art could and would transform society remained on the whole vague and insubstantial. As progressive artists distanced themselves from the material world of the bourgeoisie, most also distanced themselves from practical political realities. Marginalized by choice from the extant power structure, many artists occupied a rarefied cultural sphere ruled by the concept of "art for art's sake."

Granted, there were always a few artists--Käthe Kollwitz foremost among them--who dealt with the facts of oppression, but only during the brief period following World War I did a significant number of modernists adopt an overtly political stance. Shaken by the war and emboldened by the prospects of a true socialist revolution, artists throughout Europe, but especially in Weimar Germany and Russia, energetically directed both the content and form of their work to social ends. However, even then, much art was less a blueprint for transformation than, as with the Dadaists, an impassioned protest against the dehumanizing aspects of the industrial age or, as with the Surrealists, an anarchistic retreat into the unconscious. Any hope artists may have had of initiating real change faded again with the advent of Hitler and Stalin. Their professed aversion to capitalism notwithstanding, avant-garde artists served a revolution that either did not materialize or, when it did (as in Russia) ultimately had no use for them.

The political failure of the avant garde may in part be ascribed to its ambivalent relationship with the bourgoisie, which modernists both despised and relied on economically. In a sense, the art world's persistent attraction to taboos may be seen as an acting out of this ambivalence: a century-long bad-boy act in which artists shock without directly threatening the status quo, and are then ultimately forgiven and rewarded. This repetitive pattern of provocation, punishment and acceptance (most often revolving around art of a sexual nature) may also be seen as part of the larger power dance whereby sexuality is administered in modern society. Michel Foucault has analyzed the manner in which governments have, over the course of the last centuries, become increasingly concerned with regulating the daily lives of their citizenry. In this process, sexuality has become an important means of control that colors all types of relationships. Contrary to the prevailing stereotype, the Victorians did not repress sexuality but rather obsessed about it constantly, compiling a vast catalogue of "unnatural" acts as a means of monitoring private behavior. And it is these same acts and images---fellatio and various types of intercourse, fetishism, masturbation, pedophilia, homo-eroticism and transvestitism--that have constituted the taboo substance of so much modern art.

For the early modernists, sexual freedom entailed both a revolt against the prior generation's standards and a search for authenticity. Artists as diverse as Lovis Corinth and Pablo Picasso delved into the ancient Greek myths--the wellspring of classical art and also a fertile source for Freud--seeking their inherent erotic content. Gustav Klimt raised a ruckus simply by painting nudes without any guise of historical or allegorical context. "Primitivism" attracted both French and German artists with visions of untrammeled libido. Schiele came closest to revealing his inner thoughts and feelings about sex--and perhaps for that reason remains one of the more disturbing artists of his generation. But for the most part, modern art was not about sex per se; one has only to compare these images to Japanese or Indian erotic art to note how little interested Westerners were in capturing the intimate sensations of coitus. Western artists could not depict sexual subject matter without simultaneously engaging the power structure which our society as a whole uses to control sexuality: to condemn, to manipulate, to revile or to adulate, titillate or censure.

The aesthetics of the classical female nude (e.g., symmetry, harmony and clarity of form) objectified and largely neutralized female sexuality. Modernist styles like Cubism and Expressionism were initially shocking in part because they violated these traditional standards of beauty, yet often the end result was merely a new form of objectification. More recently, however, artists--especially those, such as women or homosexuals, who were long ostracized--have used sexual imagery to consciously overturn these traditional power relationships. Dotty Attie, for example, deconstructs nudes by artists such as Gustave Courbet as a way of drawing attention to manipulative pictorial stratagems that are otherwise so ingrained in our society that we do not normally notice them. Zoe Leonard's portrait of "bearded lady" Jennifer Miller posing as Marilyn Monroe is a similar attempt to expose male-dominated iconographic conventions. On the other hand, male artists' explorations of drag--by such artists as Pierre Molinier or Andy Warhol--are emotionally larger than life, imbued with the artist's awe of a seductive world from which he is excluded by gender. Robert Mapplethorpe forced the art world to confront homo-erotic subject-matter by applying to it the same standards of beauty that had long been de rigeur in heterosexual image-making.

Controversial though much of this art has been, our society is today so saturated by sex that it is hard to understand how these images can retain any power to offend. There are, indeed, many subjects that are far harder for us to confront than sex. For example, in our youth-obsessed culture, images of aging and death, once accepted as natural components of life, have become increasingly provocative. At the turn of the century, artists such as Klimt and Corinth could still draw on the venerable tradition of the memento mori without raising eyebrows. Today, Erika Rothenberg's body-bags are in their way as disturbing as Robert Mapplethorpe's homo-erotic photographs. Hannah Wilke's forthright photograph of her mother's mastectomy (intentionally juxtaposed with the artist's beautiful nude self-portrait) is probably one of the more transgressive images in the current exhibition. Serrano's photographs exploring the debasement of religion in contemporary culture have, ironically, been viciously censured as blasphemous. Carrie Mae Weems is one of a number of artists who explode the racist stereotypes still so prevalent in our supposedly liberal society. And Sue Coe, following in the footsteps of Kollwitz, doggedly seeks out and documents capitalism's less visible victims. While most of these artists are not technically violating taboos, their exploration of concealed truths is a more overt attack on contemporary values than many more heavily publicized sexual exposés.

It is in some respects difficult to determine just what constitutes a taboo in contemporary art. Much of the work in the present exhibition has functioned on two levels: accepted for prominent display in galleries and museums even while provoking censorship and outrage on the part of certain individuals. Is this then merely a cat-and-mouse game? Do any of these works have genuine subversive content? The answer depends on to whom one is talking. For an audience that is heavily invested in preserving a rigid system of allegedly moral values--which, for example, believes that homosexuality is wrong--Mapplethorpe seems a dangerous artist. Coe, on the other hand, may have a better chance of inspiring substantive political action because she tries as much as possible to take her message directly to the working-class public. Most art, by contrast, remains shut off in a separate and largely impotent realm, speaking to the already converted. Twentieth-century art has sometimes been shocking by accident and at other times by intent, but in either case the end result has seldom been to instigate true change. Overall, the adversarial relationship between modern art and bourgeois society has yielded a stalemate.