August 30, 2013 6:21 pm

Look at me! Look at me!

In this permissive era, art’s function to shock and disturb is ever more difficult

A curious feeling crept over me last week as I watched the closing moments of the RSC’s As You Like It in Stratford-upon-Avon. Director Maria Aberg had created a rave-culture vibe for her Forest of Arden, with dreadlocks, hoodies and acoustic guitars. These days it’s almost de rigueur to finish Shakespearean productions with a jig; it brings the actors back on stage for the curtain call and whips the audience into stomping appreciation at the same time. It was just then, as the cast of As You Like It yipped and hopped in riotous abandon, that it occurred to me: it was a feel-good moment all right, but the actors were having more fun than we were. And I rather resented it.

This self-indulgent, look-at-me tendency turns up in various guises in the art world, and the list of things that seem more fun to do than to watch is lengthy. Carnival drumming. Morris dancing. Contemporary art – surely it is more fun to be Tracey Emin than it is to contemplate her works? Much contemporary poetry seems designed more to inflate the poet’s vanity than to delight any possible reader.

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My instinct is to demand from performers: “Give me pain! Give me virtuosity! Above all, don’t look like you’re enjoying yourselves too much!” The old dictum that “those who live to please, must please to live” is subverted when it’s now our privilege to watch them having a good time.

It’s not that the artist’s life shouldn’t be an enjoyable and enviable one – people run away to the circus for good reason – but art should not leave you out in the cold; it should open the door to the possibility of a fuller, richer life.

For me this happened with a performance by Ballet Lorent that I chanced upon at the Latitude festival this summer. On the lakeside stage, a peculiar, repetitive, even clodhopping dance was taking place. The troupe enacted a kind of comedic barn dance, switching partners, taking turns to be the wallflower, one moment whirling, the next drifting away. It was hypnotic and strangely touching. We were watching them but their skill and vulnerability was affecting us. (There’s a clip of the performance on YouTube.) The piece ended with a joyous mass dance, further eroding the distance between performer and spectator.

With dance and music, at least we know that the performer’s apparent ease is the result of years of dedication. They’re doing something we couldn’t do, and we applaud accordingly. But there’s another sort of artist who voluntarily descends into places we wouldn’t dare to go. In a permissive era of mass bohemianism and few moral limits, art’s function to shock and disturb becomes ever more difficult.

. . .

The late Sebastian Horsley managed it magnificently. A dandy and libertine, his 6ft 2in frame rendered gigantic by heels and stovepipe hats, he hid a dark soul beneath the nail-varnish, glitter and panstick. His front door in 18th-century Meard Street in Soho was embellished with a plaque proclaiming: “This is not a brothel. There are no prostitutes at this address.” You can buy a replica plaque at The Whoresley Show, an exhibition of his work running until September 14 at the aptly named Outsiders gallery in Greek Street. If you do nothing else, look in the window display at the poignant sight of his painting boots, elegant and eloquently expressive.

Some of his best paintings were crucifixions, and he prepared for them more diligently than most by volunteering to be crucified in the Philippines as part of a religious (for him, artistic) ritual. A devoted imbiber of narcotics (he died of an overdose in 2010), on this occasion he refused to take painkillers, and the film of the ordeal (on show in the basement) is horrifying, disturbing, yet also compelling.

The crucifiers go about their task with brisk efficiency, just as they must have done in Roman times, manipulating the tendons of the artist’s hands to find the right spot to bang in the nails. The nearly naked (and beautiful) artist is hoisted aloft, unconscious with pain; then, with a shocking drop, he falls from the cross; a broken figure, he’s cradled by his crucifier.

With this astonishing act, Horsley transcended his own narcissism to make a profound comment on a thousand years of Christian imagery; how extraordinary that it took such a witty, salacious, devil-may-care hedonist to do it.

One of Shakespeare’s most brilliant touches is to have Jaques, the character who gives the moving “All the world’s a stage” speech, refuse the jolly ending and exit in pursuit of a more rigorous way of being. No feel-good fol-de-rol for him. Horsley too, was a sort of Jaques: bitter, melancholic and utterly unappeased.

To hear a podcast of this column, go to www.ft.com/culturecast

Peter Aspden is away

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