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Imagine a TV chat show in which the guests are not humans beings but paintings. It’s the brainchild of Max Hollein, director of Frankfurt’s Städel Museum, as part of a rich multimedia programme to expand the walls of his fine institution, and begins next month. I can only imagine the debate between, say, Picasso’s “Guernica” and John Charlton’s war-triumphant “Charge of the Light Brigade”.
Art has always aimed to provoke debate, even if only internally. This summer there’s a good deal of talk about art’s provocative qualities. Frieze New York, which opens on May 14, has a sparky programme of talks focusing on how “artists, critics and curators push the limits of humour, irony, decency and performance as well as the audience’s willingness to tolerate or accept those provocations”.
Humour and irony? That’s dangerous territory: any large concentration of contemporary art contains plenty of laugh-out-loud opportunities — if not always intentional — and we all know what it’s like to stand in front of a new work thinking: “Are you kidding?”
As for decency: well, the list of art works once considered shocking but now respectable parts of the cultural canon is very long. Today’s artists have to work hard to outdo their forebears, but they keep trying. Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi was recently charged with obscenity for posting internet instructions for the 3D-printing of a kayak shaped after her vagina. A news picture shows her grinning face peering round a cheery yellow plastic kayak-y thing. Obscene? Hardly.
Perhaps the plastic was the problem: as some of the works of Britain’s Sarah Lucas demonstrate, any body part can look noble if cast in bronze (see Sarah Lucas: the artist at work). I expect some eye-watering continuation of this theme at the forthcoming Venice biennale, where Lucas is this year’s British Council commission.
Plans for Venice alerted me to something missing from Frieze’s list of “provocative qualities”: the political arena. Venice, in past years more devoted to partying than politics, looks set to show another side of itself, and tackle some big geopolitical themes. The Gujral Foundation is presenting a joint display from India and Pakistan. Armenia this year commemorates the centenary of the massacre of its people perpetrated by Turkey, still such a sensitive topic there that Nobel laureate novelist Orhan Pamuk was charged under Turkish “offence” laws for broaching the m-word. Yet Armenia has enlisted a Turkish artist for its display.
There is much more in the same confrontational vein. All of which, you might argue, could be seen in two ways. As a peaceful and thoughtful way to address difficult issues and, therefore, a very good thing, or as a gesture far too peaceful and thoughtful to make the slightest difference. Nothing to rock the gondola: it’s only art, after all.
If like me you are old enough to remember the 20th century, you’re likely to think of art created under oppressive regimes to register protest or to keep alive a forbidden tradition: Malevich, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak and countless artists under Soviet rule, whose equivalents today are Ai Weiwei, and myriad far less famous others.
The 21st century has seen a fine tuning of the relationship between tricky regimes and art, which could rudely be called “whitewash art”. Harnessing the power of art for rather than against your public image works wonders for governments, as it does for individuals. Take Azerbaijan, for instance, whose heinous human rights record is balanced by an expensively PR-fuelled cultural agenda.
Despite this, it’s important to be shocked and provoked by art, even if only to be shocked by its beauty or provoked into feelings you didn’t know you had. In my line of work, I’m pretty well impervious to (or impatient of) artists’ more obvious provocations. Every so often, though, something gets under my skin. At the last Venice biennale, the magnificent vista along the Grand Canal to San Giorgio Maggiore was interrupted by a gigantic purple inflatable version of Marc Quinn’s statue of the limbless and pregnant Alison Lapper. This work, when life-size and created in smooth white marble in London’s Trafalgar Square, was troubling and moving, as it was meant to be. Remade as a vast party balloon, it was hideous, trivial and aroused such rage in me that — reader, I admit — I dreamt of an air gun. But that was, I’m sure, just the kind of reaction the artist wanted. Perhaps it was good for me. Somehow.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor; firstname.lastname@example.org