Fountain (1917), by Marcel Duchamp, a "shock art pioneer."[1]

Shock art is contemporary art that incorporates disturbing imagery, sound or scents to create a shocking experience. It is a way to disturb "smug, complacent and hypocritical" people.[2] While the art form's proponents argue that it is "imbedded with social commentary" and critics dismiss it as "cultural pollution", it is an increasingly marketable art, described by one art critic in 2001 as "the safest kind of art that an artist can go into the business of making today".[3][4] But while shock art may attract curators and make headlines, Reason magazine's 2007 review of The Art Newspaper suggested that traditional art shows continue to have more popular appeal.[5]


While the movement has become increasingly mainstream, the roots of shock art run deep into art history; Royal Academy curator Norman Rosenthal noted in the catalog for the "shock art" exhibition Sensation in 1997 that artists have always been in the business of conquering "territory that hitherto has been taboo".[3] In China, which experienced an active "shock art" movement following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989,[6] encroachment on the taboo has led the Ministry of Culture to attempt a crackdown on the artform,[7] banning the use of corpses or body parts in art.[8]

Similarly, philosopher Stephen Hicks describes shock art as the inevitable conclusion of trends initiated in the late 19th century modernist art movement.[9] Traditionally, art was usually intended to be a representation of reality and a celebration of human or natural beauty, but by the late 1800s modernists began questioning the boundaries of what constituted art. "[T]he first modernists of the late 1800s set themselves systematically to the project of isolating all the elements of art and eliminating them or flying in the face of them," often by portraying the world as "fractured, decaying, horrifying, depressing, empty, and ultimately unintelligible." The "grand-daddy" of this trend was Marcel Duchamp with his 1916 work Fountain, a urinal he signed and submitted to an art show. Similar works that broke with past aesthetic traditions included Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893) or Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). A parallel trend was "reductionism": emphasizing the basic elements of art such as colors or shapes, often in a manner that minimizes the need for artistic skill. Hicks cites White on White (1918) by Kazimir Malevich. A subsequent trend was using art as ironic or kitschy commentary: "if traditionally the art object is a special and unique artifact, then we can eliminate the art object's special status by making art works that are reproductions of excruciatingly ordinary objects", as with Andy Warhol's factory produced silk screens of consumer products. With a shift to post-modernist art in the 1970s and '80s, a preoccupation with politics, sex and scatology appears as with Piss Christ (1987) by Andres Serrano, and the performance art/punk rock musician GG Allin who became notorious for defecating on stage. "[W]e have reached a dead end: From Duchamp's Piss on art at the beginning of the century to Allin's Shit on you at the end—that is not a significant development over the course of a century."

In 1998, John Windsor in The Independent said that the work of the Young British Artists seemed tame compared with that of the "shock art" of the 1970s, including "kinky outrages" at the Nicholas Treadwell Gallery, amongst which were a "hanging, anatomically detailed leather straitjacket, complete with genitals", titled Pink Crucifixion, by Mandy Havers.[10]

In the United States in 2008, a court case went to trial to determine whether the fetish films of Ira Isaacs constitute shock art, as the director claims, or unlawful obscenity.[11][12]

Select notable examples

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Owen, Richard. (June 12, 2007). The work of art that didn't do what it said on the tin The Times (London). Accessed October 31, 2007.
  2. ^ R. Rawdon Wilson (2002) The hydra's tale: imagining disgust p.27
  3. ^ a b c Silberman, Vanessa. (March 2001) Inside shock art. Art Business News Accessed October 31, 2007.
  4. ^ Sawhill, Ray. (October 12, 2000). Art for politics' sake Archived 2007-10-23 at the Wayback Machine. Salon. Accessed October 31, 2007.
  5. ^ Miller, Cheryl. (January 2007) Crying censorship. Reason Accessed October 31, 2007.
  6. ^ a b Pearlman, Ellen. Zhang Huan altered states. The Brooklyn Rail. Accessed October 31, 2007.
  7. ^ Baby-eating art show sparks upset. BBC. (January 3, 2003). Accessed October 31, 2007.
  8. ^ Pomfret, John (July 31, 2001). "Shock artists take freedom to new lows". The Washington Post. pp. Style.
  9. ^ Stephen Hicks. "Why Art Became Ugly" (1 September 2004). The Atlas Society, accessed 30 August 2020
  10. ^ Windsor, John. "Art 98: Collecting—Let the love affair begin", The Independent, 17 January 1998. Retrieved 14 August 2010.
  11. ^ "'Shock Art' or Porn?". National Public Radio. 2008-06-10. Retrieved 2008-12-07.
  12. ^ AP (2008-06-13). "'Shock art' trial stalled by porn report on judge". Times of India. Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-12-07.[dead link]
  13. ^ World's best art piece? A urinal CNN. (December 2, 2004). Accessed October 31, 2007.
  14. ^ Sotheby's, asta record per "merda d'artista"
  15. ^ Miller, John (1 May 2007). "Excremental Value". Tate Etc (10). Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  16. ^ Mahoney, Jeff (1 October 1999). "The 20th Century Has Seen Plenty of Examples of Shock Art". The Spectator. p. A.12. Retrieved 20 April 2011.
  17. ^ Walsh, Erica. "Museums and Culture: the Brooklyn Museum". Archived from the original on 7 December 2008. Retrieved 7 December 2008.
  18. ^ Robinson, Hilary (2001). Feminism-art-theory: An Anthology, 1968-2000. Blackwell Publishing. p. 536. ISBN 0-631-20850-X.
  19. ^ a b Babich, Babette E. (2006). Words in blood, like flowers: philosophy and poetry, music and eros in Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. SUNY series in contemporary continental philosophy. SUNY Press. p. 202. ISBN 0-7914-6835-6.
  20. ^ "Outraging public decency with foetus earrings", The Times, London, United Kingdom, p. 37, 12 July 1990
  21. ^ "Never Mind the Bollocks…", Time Out, London, United Kingdom, p. 11, 12 April 1989
  22. ^ Stueck, Wendy (15 July 1989), "Would-be cannibal's appetizer confiscated", Vancouver Sun, Vancouver, Canada, pp. A7
  23. ^ Kastor, Elizabeth (6 January 1990). "Snuffing Sniffy for Art". The Washington Post. pp. D1, D7.
  24. ^ Kastor, Elizabeth (7 January 1990). "Sniffy Unscathed by Art". The Washington Post. pp. D1, D3.
  25. ^ Alberge, Dalya (April 10, 2003). "Traditionalists mount shark attack on Hirst", The Times: London. Accessed June 3, 2010.
  26. ^ Julia Pascal, Nazi Dreaming, New Statesman, UK, 10 April 2006,
  27. ^ Gwen F. Chanzit, Denver Art Museum, "Radar, Selections from the Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan" Archived 2007-11-16 at the Wayback Machine, 2006
  28. ^ "Beyond Shock Value". Newsweek. 9 November 2003. Retrieved 20 April 2011.
  29. ^ Zinsmeister, Karl. When art becomes inhuman. The American Enterprise, a magazine of Politics, Business, and Culture. Hosted with permission at Art Renewal Center. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, June 3, 2010.
  30. ^ Field, Corinne (3 October 2003). "Jake & Dinos Chapman – A Retrospective At The Saatchi Gallery". Culture 24. Retrieved 20 April 2011.
  31. ^ "Shock Art Hits London". BBC. 23 September 2000. Retrieved 20 April 2011.
  32. ^ "Mark McGowan to re-enact the death of Raoul Moat". spoonfed. 20 August 2010. Archived from the original on 2 October 2010. Retrieved 20 April 2011.
  33. ^ "Art that Shocks". 3 December 2007. Retrieved 20 April 2011.
  34. ^ "Davey D's Daily Hip Hop News-Obama Is My Slave' T-Shirt Peddler Gets Beat Down in His Store". Davey D's Daily Hip Hop News. 2008-08-14. Retrieved 2023-06-21.
  35. ^ Nolan, Hamilton (2008-03-21). "'WHO KILLED OBAMA?' Asks Sweatshirt". Gawker. Retrieved 2023-06-21.
  36. ^ ""Obama Is My Slave" Shirt Sparks Lawsuit Threat In New York". HuffPost. 2008-07-25. Retrieved 2023-06-21.
  37. ^ "Who Killed Obama? T-Shirt Designer Just Misunderstood". 22 March 2008.
  38. ^ "Sruli Recht, Designer, Creates 'Forget Me Knot' Skin Ring Featuring Slice Of His Own Flesh". huffington post. 22 January 2013. Retrieved 27 January 2013.