Shock Art and Diane Arbus
Perhaps art is not usually associated with common sense, yet pictures by the American E. J. Bellocq, Diane Arbus or Joel-Peter Witkin are astonishing in their disavowal of hypocrisy and beauty. A transgression from common sense in art defies basic human and moral attitudes. What these artists do is to break free from the blurry conventions of the art world, prohibitions don’t apply. They make their viewer feel uncomfortable by representing the untalkable taboos of our society. As Lisette Model once put it “there are great artists in every era who are so new and so different that nobody can understand them, the eyes and the ears are not used to it”.
Diane Arbus is by far one of the most admired and influential photographers of our time. She achieved extraordinarity in portraying realities which we as humans often want to escape from. It was her courage and independence which gave her the strength to photograph what most people did not even dare look at. She photographed freaks, cripples, homosexuals, lesbians, sick people, dead people with a mix of shame and awe. Living at the beginning of the twentieth century was a big challenge for her, as her photography was as much of a taboo as the subjects she photographed. She photographed people looking the way they lived, allotting them the respect they deserved and the respect that any human being should be given.
Diane’s photograph Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ, 1967 is one of her most famous works, seen as a generalization of society. On one hand these two twins are identical, wearing the same clothing and haircut. But they are also strikingly individual in their facial expressions, one smiles and the other frowns. The picture was described by Patricia Bosworth as expressing “normality in freakishness and the freakishness in normality.”
Perhaps due to her education at an “Ethical Culture School,” Diane centered her works around the contradictory relationship between appearance and substance. It is ironic that the more globalized the world gets, the colder people seem to become in their relationships with each other, as if trying to hide behind an egotistical barrier. Diane explained to the world that her subjects, although different by nature, are actually human beings, the same as all the rest of us, perhaps even happier than us. Diane photographed all her subjects either in the streets or their homes, making them look directly at her, yet her pictures always look spontaneous, almost alive.
As Diane’s life as an artist demonstrates society’s difficulty in accepting artworks which go beyond what is seen as moral, so current artists such as American Ryan McGinley and Paul McCarthy, Korean Chang Jia, or Chinese Rong Rong’s photographs are being criticized for being too straightforward and without scruples. Art cannot always be understood by the majority as soon as it is created. Like the misunderstood impressionists, at the moment, these artists live too much in the present to be appreciated.