The other day, I came across photographs of the audacious Russian street-art group Voina. What struck me most was how ordinary the members looked. They could have easily been any undergrads from any American campus. Yet, the Russian government has brought more than a dozen criminal cases against them. The same government that also saw fit to grant them the Ministry of Culture Innovation 2011 award for modern visual arts. Though perhaps not precisely for the giant phallus that they had painted on the Liteyny drawbridge leading to the Bolshoy Dom headquarters of the Federal Security Service in Saint Petersburg.
I took these photos as further evidence for a hypothesis first formed at my father’s knee: that there is no necessary correlation between audacious appearance and audacious acts. The seemingly unremarkable people sitting around my family’s kitchen table, all war refugees, had routinely done things that you and I wouldn’t dream of doing. The others that I later encountered, either directly or indirectly. Rosa Parks, the small woman with the rimless glasses whose singular act sparked the US civil rights movement. The girls in shirtwaist dresses and guys in plaid shirts who adopted the Port Huron Statement, written by the curly-haired Tom Hayden, that launched 50 years of student protest and mass action for a more democratic society. The controversial authors that I read–James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, George Orwell, JD Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut– who, on looks alone, would have been welcomed at any of the libraries where their books had been banned. The more flamboyant forming the remainder of my world–the Hippies and their successors–seemed to be mere eiphenomena, not the driving force of audacity.
But what about visual artists, who are–well–more visually oriented? Is it easier to spot the most audacious of that sort? Look at a list of the 10 most controversial artists of our time that I located online and judge for yourself. They’re presented below by birth order, together with a brief description, and shown in a slide show with a representative work:
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Picasso repeatedly outraged the public as well as his associates, but no more so than with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. At that time, the work was deemed crude, unfinished and unusually unsettling. Today, it is considered to be seminal in the development of both cubism and modern art.
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). In Paris, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 raised a ruckus. Among the objections was that nudes never descend stairs: they recline. In New York, reactions were no more favorable. It was called “an explosion in a shingle factory” and spawned satirizations for decades. Today, Duchamp is seen as a key player in the surrealist, futurist and Dada movements.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). The abstract imagery of O’Keeffe’s oversized, sensual flowers and similar depictions such as Blue and Green Music caused a stir because they called to mind female genitalia. Even as she was celebrated by feminists, she denied painting private parts. Today, she is credited with revolutionizing modern art through her portrayal of the emotional impact of nature and man-made entities.
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). With his huge Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), Pollock abandoned the convention of central motif and established process as paramount. The resulting action painting genre caused considerable disagreement among critics. His wife, Lee Krasner, may well have been the real innovator. Her Cobalt Night is larger than Lavender Mist and exhibits the same heroic ambition.
Christo Javachev (1935-present). Javachev and his late wife were at the forefront of environmental art. The first version of Valley Curtain, a 400 meter length of vivid orange material stretched across Rifle Gap, was torn to shreds by wind and rock while being hung. A second version was successfully erected, only to be torn apart by gale-force winds 28 hours later. While critics searched for meaning in such massive, temporary installations, the two expanded the definition of what constitutes art.
Ai Weiwei (1957-present). Ai was the artistic consultant for the Beijing National Stadium and a dissident arrested by the Chinese government. His 10 tons of hand-painted porcelain sculptures, Sunflower Seeds, reference a staple of the Cultural Revolution and the resulting homogenization. Placing Ai first in the 2011 Power 100, ArtReview noted that his “activities have allowed artists to move away from the idea that they work within a privileged zone limited by the walls of a gallery or museum.”
Damien Hirst (1965-present). Hirst is famous for formaldehyde-fixed animals displayed in glass tanks. His Virgin Mother, a 35 foot tall statue recalling Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, reveals the insides of a pregnant woman. Critics have variously called him one of few late 20th Century artists who will remain more than a footnote and someone responsible for the decline of contemporary art.
David Černý (1967-present). Černý gained international recognition by getting arrested for painting a Soviet tank pink. While he claims that he merely creates art for his friends and to piss people off, he doubtless has something more serious in mind. His Brownnosers allows visitors to climb a 20-foot ladder and peer into a white rear end to view a video of impersonators of President Václav Klaus and art critic Milan Knížák feeding each other slop while “We Are the Champions” plays.
Chris Ofili (1968-present). Ofili gained notoriety when questions were raised regarding his The Holy Virgin Mary and Tate Gallery’s purchase of The Upper Room containing his 13 paintings of macaques. No Woman No Cry, referencing his Nigerian heritage and the Bob Marley song, has been called a modern Pietà but has also raised hackles since it stands on two dried, varnished lumps of elephant dung–a material favored by Ofili–and a third serves as the Virgin’s pendant.
Banksy (1974?-present). “Banksy” is the pseudonym of an anonymous street artist, painter and political activist who may or may not be Robin Gunningham. Known for his contempt of the government in labelling graffiti as vandalism, he displays his art on public surfaces such as walls and sometimes goes as far as building prop pieces. His stencil of the image of Death on the waterline of an entertainment boat in Bristol is based on a 19th Century etching illustrating the pestilence of the Great Stink.
When I consider these artists, I see nothing that makes me think that there is any way to identify the truly audacious other than through their work. So more power to those who don’t want to look bland or boring. But if they want to be genuinely daring, they’ll have to come up with more than a startling appearance. And put more of themselves on the line. Personally, I’d place my money on one of those inconspicuous commuters sitting near me on the subway. Chances are better that the makings of the next fearless [literary, artistic, social, cultural, political] work is stashed in his or her plain portfolio or briefcase.