Art, Ethics and Provocation

by Anna Suwalska-Kolecka (Volume editor) Izabella Penier (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 185 Pages
Series: Dis/Continuities, Volume 14


The main purpose of this volume is to look into a wide spectrum of artistic ventures which cross boundaries and challenge habitual thinking, consequently involving an element of provocation. While it is true that not all great art is provocative, the most memorable artefacts are these which have confounded our aesthetic expectations or stirred our moral imagination. However, as the turn of the millennium witnessed ever more shocking artistic gestures of provocation, the question arises if there are any limits to artistic freedom. The essays collected in this book offer a truly interdisciplinary perspective and deal with creative acts of transgression from a broad range of fields: literature, theatre, visual art, film, anthropology, and others. This volume will appeal to readers interested in artistic and academic pursuits that are subversive and irreverent.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Art, Ethics, and Provocation
  • 1. Challenging Conventions and Expanding Paradigms
  • Circling Around the Clock Tower: A Visual (Her) story of People through Time
  • Cut and Paste. Dreamscapes of Joseph Cornell
  • Tomás Rivera’s Vignettes and the Tradition of American Modernist Fiction: Hemingway and Faulkner
  • Cinema and Anthropology. Film as a Source of Knowledge
  • The Coen Brothers’ Fargo as a Transgressive Comedy
  • A Creative Act of “Expropriation”
  • 2. Disturbing Representations and the Contested Nature of Cultural Memory
  • “Beyond the Edge of the Frame.” Transgression and the Aesthetics of Nostalgia in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio
  • Black Is, Black Ain’t: Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston
  • Demystifying Common Pain in Linda Hogan’s The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir
  • 3. Aborted Quests and Failed Acts of Provocation
  • Polish Acid Rock Approximations
  • Ellen Glasgow as a Short Story Writer – A Feminist Rebel or a Southern Conservative? “Between Two Shores” (1897) and “Dare’s Gift” (1917)
  • 4. Taboo Breaking in Art and the Scandalous Nature of Gendered Aesthetics
  • Crossing the Boundaries of the Body. Transgression or a Continuum
  • Warlikowski Provokes. Gender in Theatrum Mundi in his Production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Dramatic Theatre in Warsaw
  • Index of Names

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The editors gratefully acknowledge financial support from The City of Płock and The State School of Higher Professional Education in Płock, Poland. We also wish to thank all the contributors to this book for their close cooperation. Last but not least, the editors would like to thank all the persons and institutions that organise the SkArPa Themersons Festival – an annual event held in Płock that spans several days. It celebrates the works of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, Polish-born avant-garde artists, whose life-long commitment to staking out new ground in art and literature was an inspiration for the editors of this volume. Special thanks are due to Płock Art Centre (POKIS) for their enthusiasm and help in bringing this project to fruition, and to Jasia Reichardt for her thought-provoking comments. ← 7 | 8 →

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Izabella Penier
Anna Suwalska-Kołecka

Art, Ethics, and Provocation

Culture is a living thing always in the state of flux, always in the process of becoming. It is forever moving between tradition and innovation, while addressing the most topical issues and seeking the best means of expression. As culture endeavours to make sense of everyday existence, its pleasure and pain, artistic expression veers between two opposite ends of the spectrum: transgression and taboos, provocation and censorship, outrageous scandals and social standards that delimit our lives. These dichotomies have, for centuries, shaped the evolution of literature, culture and art in all periods and in all societies.

While it is true that human artefacts do not have to be provocative to become masterpieces, the most memorable works of art are these which have dared to go against the grain, which have challenged our aesthetic expectations or our moral imagination. They are remembered for their subversive power that shook us out of our complacency. We appreciate these artefacts – literature, paintings, sculptures, installations, films and performances – because they have endowed us with a new outlook on the world and defied established social norms. They also have given us sheer aesthetic bliss to assuage the shock of discovery. One may conclude that the very nature of artistic expression is founded on more or less extreme acts of transgression and provocation that allow societies to evolve and expand.

Religion has always provided fertile ground for all sorts of cultural provocation that seems mostly associated with human corporality. In times when literacy was the preserve of the ruling classes and cultural value was judged by standards of propriety, art abounded in many examples of creative transgression that involved unthinkable combination between sacrality and corporality. Michelangelo’s monumental Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, featuring naked figures, shamelessly exposed to the view of the congregation, is a good example of such artistic profanation. The fresco provoked angry and puzzled response from the leaders of the Catholic Counter-Reformation and was eventually painted over by Michelangelo’s disciple Daniele da Volterra, only to be restored at the end of the twentieth century. The Baroque art heightened the drama and sensuality, with its sexual brashness, violence, and occasional recourses to obscenity. When Bernini created the sculpture of Saint Theresa, representing a woman levitating in presumably religious ecstasy, all Roman connoisseurs of art agreed that what they saw ← 11 | 12 → was a woman quivering in an act of orgasm, which her elaborate floating habit exquisitely rendered. Even more contentious was the fleshy art of Caravaggio, a relentless sinner, always mindful of his own profanity. Caravaggio’s portraits of saints, who look deceptively like ordinary peasants, or even worse, like the very scum of the earth from Roman slums, blew the conventions of conventional formalism and religious iconography. For instance, his The Death of the Holy Virgin, picturing the Dormition of Mary, which was commissioned for the chapel in Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere, does not show the Holy Virgin going to heaven in the company of saints but a greenish bloated corpse of a dead woman, dressed in a garish red dress. It was rumoured that Caravaggio’s model had been a dead prostitute pulled out of the Tiber a few days earlier. No wonder that the painting was rejected by the nuns, who had commissioned it, and expected a more traditional and idealised depiction. Yet these artefacts, by Michelangelo, Bernini and Caravaggio, their provocative avant la lettre realism and sensuality, broke new ground for even more intrepid explorations of human body, its vulnerability and its passions.

Sexuality even more than corporeality enabled artists to probe the relation between art and obscenity. Marquise de Sade lived out many examples of sexual compulsion and scandalised his contemporaries with his daring and graphical descriptions of various sexual perversions. De Sade became the first of the modern poétes maudits (“cursed poets” – the term coined by Paul Verlaine), combining incisive wit with an implacable spirit of revolt. Up until the twentieth century, de Sade, whose works were widely, albeit secretly, read in the nineteenth century (officially writings were banned in France until the 1960s), remained to some an incarnation of absolute evil advocating the unleashing of instincts even to the point of crime.

Other cursed writers include famous dandies and decadent sexual culprits: Oscar Wilde and Arthur Rimbaud. Wilde, the most celebrated playwright of his day, became the antihero of the most spectacular criminal trial of the Victorian age. Accused of sodomy, convicted and imprisoned, Wilde paid the highest prize for his defiant nonconformity. He had loved to subvert language and played with words to expose rampant hypocrisy of his time, but ultimately ended up subverting the highly censured and homophobic capitalist Victorian norms. He became a paragon of social outcast and rebel, and is considered to be a key figure or a founding father of contemporary queer anarchism. The decadent poet Arthur Rimbaud went even further in his search for unbridled artistic freedom outside the confines of moribund bourgeois society. Rimbaud wilfully deranged his senses, by taking drink, drugs, or even poison. He endured unspeakable tortures, committed acts of violence, and became a criminal. During his years with his lover, ← 12 | 13 → the mentioned earlier Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud experienced filth and debauchery, degradation and disease, just to reverse centuries of cultural tradition. Instead of assuming that the artist’s task is to create order out of experience, Rimbaud believed it was the unknown coming out of the disorder of the poet’s mind that is the source of superhuman poetic power. To achieve it and to escape from ordinary life, he was ready to literarily destroy himself. As other cursed poets he set out to test the limits of what is acceptable in art and what it means to use art to explode the established order.

Politics also inspired all kinds of artistic provocateurs, especially in times of political instability and social rebellion. Jacque-Louis David’s life and artworks explicitly show the connection between art and historical upheavals. An active supporter of the French Revolution and Maximilien Robespierre’s friend, David was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. His painting of the death of the radical journalist Marat, responsible for the Reign of Terror, is one of the most famous images of the Revolution. The painting shows Marat, who sent hundreds of people to the meeting with the “national razor,” as a Christ-like martyr to the cause of the Revolution. The provoking gesture goes even further – The Death of Marat has not only been compared to Michelangelo’s Pietà; it has been described by T. J. Clark as the first modernist painting, for “the way it took the stuff of politics as its material, and did not transmute it.”


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (June)
challenging conventions taboos gender expanding paradigms
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 185 pp.

Biographical notes

Anna Suwalska-Kolecka (Volume editor) Izabella Penier (Volume editor)

Anna Suwalska-Kołecka is a Senior Lecturer at the State School of Higher Professional Education in Płock, Poland. She has published in the areas of modern British and American drama, with a particular emphasis on Beckett, Albee, Stoppard, and Churchill. Her research interests include the construction and representation of space, the surreal flights from realism on contemporary stages, and physical theatre. Izabella Penier studied American literature and works as Post-doc at the University of Łódź, Poland. Her research focuses on African American and postcolonial scholarship. It particularly concerns the transformations that Black studies have recently undergone due to critical interventions from global frameworks of analysis such as postcolonialism, cultural studies, Black Atlantic, and diaspora studies.


Title: Art, Ethics and Provocation
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187 pages