The Shock Market

considers whether pieces of art still have the capacity to shock their audience



After first seeing the film Memento, your head (if it’s anything like mine) becomes a bit like a broken record, settling into a rhythm of images, scenes and dialogue which resonate several weeks later. It rattles the cage. It does so by being unapologetically unhelpful. It’s not likely you’ll end the film feeling satisfied or completely sure of all that’s been shown to you. Just like Fight Club – especially similar in their happily-miserable-yet-slightly-triumphant endings – the film goes against any requirement to be fully understood. This means that for a while afterwards, your mind is as unresolved as that of Memento’s protagonist, playing back those same sounds to try and make sense of them all.
However, the record is also broken in another sense. It’s the record of all that you’ve stored up about how certain things should be. A film’s plot shouldn’t be shattered or fractured, and a protagonist shouldn’t be a new person every five minutes, but after Memento that’s just not the case. It’s a moment of disorientation and reshuffling, and from then on, there’s a need to see something as daringly different, at least once in a while.
If you were to read through a few articles on The Guardian and The New York Times from the past two years, and if you were to listen to Grayson Perry’s Reith Lecture series, you might come to the conclusion that art just doesn’t do it for us anymore.
The general feeling is that, having jumped out of the plane named ‘hopeless repetition’ one too many times, that sense of being invigorated by the shock of the fall to artistic ground zero, is now senseless. Or, more simply: having been exposed to taboo-crunching content and flashy artistic forms over and over and over again, we’re just so accepting, so bohemian, that not only is it impossible for the artist, try as they might, to be genuinely surprising, it’s impossible for us to feel genuinely shocked. The very shock of the art simply isn’t shocking anymore: it’s cute. Predictable. Desperate, even?
Art has lost its buzz. Now the equivalent of shocking is Kim Kardashian releasing a selfie book as art, but that’s more shocking in the sense that it hadn’t happened sooner. The Shock Market, for all that it was in the days of pickled, dissected, and fixed formaldehyde beasts, has pitched headfirst into a monumental crash. But why do we care? Well, most of us don’t. Damien Hirst’s sealed containers of controversy were never meant to let the cat, or cow, or shark, out of the bag, but most of us know that shock was always pretty easy to achieve when people actually cared.
Art was a revolutionary force, that incensed people, that made them angry, either because they disagreed with it, or because they wanted to disagree with the people who disagreed with it. However, we’re now at a point where we’re fairly detached from art. It’s more a thing to be remotely intrigued by than fought over, and we don’t really mind what the artist does as long as it’s a) slightly different from the last thing we saw b) good (optional, depending on our mood), and c) not invisible (compulsory).
The fake ‘invisible art’ exhibition, in which collectors supposedly paid millions for nothing, was just about the last thing that outraged people, precisely because they expected it to happen at some point. Hardly the definition of shock, it instead shows that we’re tired of pointless art that does nothing, and an art market that endorses it, which makes the final and most important requirement for art to be worthy of even a glance today, d) substance.
We’re not out for the shock, we’re not even out for the new. What we need is that sense of encountering something that wakes us up, as an apathetic audience, reminding us that art is still interesting and can sometimes, at a push, even have a point to it.

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