“No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative” – Art’s Power to Offend

Kirsten Murray

The power of art lies in its ability to make us feel things. Some say it is better to receive a negative reaction to your art than none at all, as at least it means you have made someone feel something. Yet currently, in the height of ‘cancel culture’ the freedom of art is being challenged, and it seems art is losing its right to offend. 

After watching Offended, a recent documentary by Sky Arts, I started to think about how art’s potential to offend is what makes it so powerful and is crucial to creative freedom. The documentary followed Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, as he explored how “surrendering to online-mob righteousness and denouncing any work – or opinion – that doesn’t toe accepted liberal lines is suffocating provocative art. Art that sets out to spotlight uncomfortable or taboo subjects in the name of progress.” 

In 1993, Trainspotting, was removed from the Booker Prize list due to complaints concerning its content, and Welsh believes that today it would be impossible to find a willing publisher for his work. Yet he argues that his novels filled with racism, homophobia, and misogyny aim to shock the reader. If art succeeds in causing disruption, it succeeds in enabling the recipient to identify what is causing offence, and therefore reflect on why and how it is offensive.

I recently watched American Psycho, an incredibly disturbing, bloody and misogynistic film, and my reaction was one of shock and horror (despite weirdly finding some parts slightly funny!). Its offensive, but it shouldn’t be banned. Instead of encouraging us to climb inside the character’s skin, it creates distance between the protagonist and recipient. It messes with our heads and makes us consider morality. 

Welsh speaks to award-winning artist Sarah Maple, renowned for her bold and controversial artworks which aim to challenge religion, identity, and societal standards. Her most striking works include a Muslim woman holding a pig or ‘Untitled with Skirts up’, which presents a female child displaying her pubic hair vs a post-pubescent female who is completely shaven. It’s not living room artwork, it aims to make you uncomfortable, but it’s what the artwork represents that causes the discomfort. Maple hasn’t created the disgust surrounding female body hair, society has, so we shouldn’t blame her artwork for causing our offence. 

Inspired by her mixed religious and cultural upbringing, Maple asks “Why can’t you just be offended and upset?” This seems especially potent amid a lockdown where people are fuelled with hate and seem to believe it is their right to ‘cancel’ the offender. 

Perhaps it is the offender who needs to re-evaluate. Often those offended miss what a piece of art is actually highlighting. Maple’s artwork isn’t condemning all Muslims, or all women who shave, instead she questions these accepted conventions of culture, religion and gender. 

Obliterating offensive art will only succeed in making us ignorant. It’s time we put our big girl boots (back) on and learned to take offence, let it challenge us and incite change. 

Categories: Art, Film & TV, Literature

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