In order to put attention on themselves, so as to increase their own popularity, once in a while artists make use of the logic of scandal. (Bill Henson’s celebrity is caused, among others, by this.) And to be specific, by provoking. — However, I found my self being bored to death by this. Why?
Initially I will epitomize my answer. When it comes to scandals, it’s the conformists and the eccentrics raking one another over the coals. Conformists are objective moralists, because it’s the socio-moral order they support, whereas eccentrics are subjective moralists supporting that kind of thing they take as their individuality. Now, the main feature of moralism – the attitude to morally assess each action and each sign of an action – is boredom. Moralists get bored and want to get bored, because for them there is nothing more to discover, since everything is directly immediate. But in reflecting on morality, art, and oneself, there is a pedagogical, ambitious way of scandal and provocation.
What is felt as scandalous?
People take it for scandalous if one is making fun of victims or if one amuses oneself at the expense of others. Extraordinary stories like those of Marquis de Sade or inexplicable actions are sensed as disturbing. Moreover, we have something “body genres”. According to Linda Williams, the film scholar inventing this notion, those are film genres, like for instance horror and porno (but also melodrama), eliciting bodily reactions on the part of the audience.
All of this may be perceived as shocking and provoking, yes. But why it is made a scandal so often? Even at the risk of making myself suspicious of following the logics of suspicion, I dare to.
In my opinion anything is taken for being scandalous that runs contrary to our moral (or normative) attitudes. However, now the question arises to what extent moral judgements are applicable to art. Since I tend to be rather sceptical (but not refusing) with regard to this, my assumption is the following. Those crying out “Scandal!” are conformist moralists.
Moralists morally judge every action and sign of an action (as you can find them, i.e., in movies and on stage), and they do not allow on an equal footing further and alternative (i.e., political, aesthetical, economical, religious, psychological, and so on) options of judgement. As it is befitting for morality, it is grasping everything directly, whereby not anything interesting is left. In other words, a moralist is a bored person wanting to get bored. In case of a conformist person it is the maintenance of the actual order and accustomed conduct.
Why do some people follow the logics of scandal?
Alongside economical interests there are a lot of other motifs. Diogenes, e.g., aimed at revealing the population’s hypocrisy by masturbating and having sex with prostitutes publicly. He performed what people did privately and in concealment. Furthermore, there are those who claim to attack conformity, in order to act out their individuality. That’s what, i.e., film director Nick Zedd’s uproarious Cinema of Transgression Manifesto partially seems to suggest.
All of this may be shocking and provoking, yes. But why do they want the scandal? Once more, even at the risk of making myself suspicious of following the logics of suspicion, I dare to.
John Rawls takes Friedrich Nietzsche for a moralist. At first glance this seems to be surprising, because it is Nietzsche who isn’t famous for moral reasoning at all; rather he is famous for blistering against moralism. But exactly that is the crux of the matter. To position oneself in sheer rejection of a stand, e.g. against rule-fetishistic conformism, converts oneself into the reverse of the medal. To put it another way, let’s say, in the case of Nietzsche arouses suspicion that, one maybe could say, he didn’t adequately grasp his individuality, but rather he hyperbolically worked himself into one aspect, his eccentricity. (Whether this fits for Nietzsche I’m not going to put into discussion here. Let’s just say, that he is no lightweight.) (Being eccentric doesn’t nowhere near mean determining oneself as an individuality. Just as little as religiosity is religion, scientism is science, aestheticism is aesthetics, moralism is morality, and so on.) He didn’t recognize himself as bearing a relation to others. Which is to say, that there is a moralism of individualism. (A deep and profound discovery John Rawls and Stanley Cavell made.) Thus, scandalizers are as well bored and want to get bored as conformists.
Is it possible to provoke?
I take it for granted, yes. Both of the above sketched positions I think are worth of meditation. I learned a lot from these positions and their representatives as well as I benefited from them! However, due to their surmounted lopsidedness I cannot adhere to them. (Aside, I’m not hundred per cent sure, whether I did justice to the examples I mentioned.) So, what about irony?
There is an arrogant, I say void, form of irony. It is what intellectuals do and are fond of (i.e., movies, books, and so on). Observing life, conduct, opinions, and the like from a distance and make shallow fun of it. I say this is a void form, because to point out something as irony is just missing the point of irony. Genuine irony cannot directly be pointed out, since it is a deliberate concealment. This is, what Kierkegaard writes in his dissertation. He furthermore works out its function. It is to reveal the other. So there may be a certain form of provocation revealing the other in his or her being. That moralists of both kind are testy, easily to provoke, points out their chosen point of view as standing on wobbly ground.
When art cannot provoke.
First of all let me mention three examples. In some journal I once read an interview with a soldier. When the journalist asked him what he thinks about (anti) war films, he answered, that he experiences them like a pornographic film. Or, let’s take Ingmar Bergman’s film »The Virgin Spring«. There we see a girl getting raped by two men. What is more disturbing is the fact that no shock is setting, rather interest is raised; not because of the violence of the scene, but because we see someone copulating and not the violence of rape. Or, my third example, a friend of mine visited a journalists’ photo exhibition. The exhibited photographs displayed appalling contents. Starved children, war victims, and so on. Anyway, he simply got bored. He wasn’t moved or shocked at all. — Some would say this concerns the viewer. But I will show in two steps that it originally concerns art. (From this doesn’t follow that I as the viewer become irrelevant. But I am convinced that oftentimes we are falsely affected by art. And, maybe of course, its similar to prospective doctors. Some can stand the view of blood, others cannot. But you can become accustomed to it, too.)
First, thus, we are relieved from action in face of art. Hence, we are not morally, politically or some other way challenged to interfere. Furthermore, it was Voltaire who precisely pointed out that in telling and showing everything we get bored. There is nothing more boring. As a matter of course, in real life, it is appalling seeing violence acted out in war, or seeing a woman, girl, man, or boy being raped, or seeing a starved child serving as source of food for wildlife of all kind, from flies to hyaenas. However, to show it directly, in some media, doesn’t work aesthetical in order to disturb, shock, or provoke.
Now let me mention examples of movies that caught me. »Manhunter« by Michael Mann and »Secret Window« by David Koepp. I got troubled by both of them as long as the culprit was unknown (»Manhunter«), or no explanation was given for the crimes (»Secret Window«). (Unfortunately both films became stale for me as soon as the culprit’s face and stature was shown, or the crime was explained.)
The way art can shock, and therefore could provoke.
In alluding. Lukas Moodysson’s »Lilja 4-Ever« is an outstanding example. The young girl Lilja was, by deceit, lured into a foreign country where she is forced into prostitution. There is a scene in the movie in which 20, 30 men make use of her. In the course of this we never get to see the act, but it is the subjective camera through which we see the whole scene. We see the men through the eyes of Lilja. I was shocked and exhausted by this scene, not in a sentimental way, but in the hard way. By the way, this movie has a moral concern: to call attention to forced prostitution.
Are there interesting examples of calling attention to individuality? I say, yes. Marquis de Sade with his crazy turn of morals in putting one of his figures the demand towards a woman into his mouth: “Cover your breasts!”. The same demand you hear moralists voicing, but with a wholly different meaning (as Roland Barthes precisely points out). (By the way, de Sade said that he never quite did, what he wrote about.) Then I found some examples in music. Rozz Williams, Sleep Chamber (here you can read an interview with John Zewizz; his answer to the last question is absolutely worth reading!), and Women of the SS (here you have their statement about their understanding of what they are doing).
That what is disturbing and shocking for me in their (Moodysson’s, de Sade’s, Williams’, and so on) art provoked me. I got provoked to think about me as a quite normal person. Who do I want to be and how do I want to muck in making this world a better place?
(By the way, I am convinced, that all of this does not only concern the realm of art.)