Art as Shock and Awe

George Packer – the son of two Stanford professors and current writer for The New Yorker -(fairly) recently posted on his blog a link  to this online exhibition of art, “Join or Die” by Justine Lai.

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Ms. Lai is a recent alumna of Stanford. I encountered her several times from a distance in the Art Department building as I took the course Painting 1 two years ago. At the time I knew of her she had just begun her current project: painting herself in sexual situations with all 43 presidents of the United States. She was up to Thomas Jefferson, I believe, at the time.

Packer links to Ms. Lai’s works because, in his eyes, they serve to “humanize the presidents.” He writes, “There’s something heroic about this project, but I won’t be able to look when Ms. Lai reaches Taft and Wilson.”

I agree on the latter point, but to label the project “heroic,” as Mr. Packer does, strikes me as over-the-top.  The works themselves are well-painted but the project concept is more about shock value than anything else.

Granted,  Ms. Lai clearly intended to shock. She, of course, is drawing on a long line of self-consciously shocking works of art. Modern art has riled up the *bourgeois *for quite a while now. The Fauvists’s (translated: “wild beasts”) first exhibition in Paris in 1905, shocked the Parisian art community by simply using bright colors to paint landscapes. Later Marcel Duchamp shocked people by presenting a urinel as a piece of art (“Fountain,” 1917.)

Ms. Lai’s works clearly intend to subvert the typical exaltation of U.S. presidents. She wants to rip the presidents’ images off the wall of schoolhouses and put them in a less, um, formal place. Here is a portion of Lai’s statement:

The presidency itself is a seemingly immortal and impenetrable institution; by inserting myself in its timeline, I attempt to locate something intimate and mortal. I use this intimacy to subvert authority, but it demands that I make myself vulnerable along with the Presidents.

Ms. Lai clearly chose the U.S. presidents because of their centrality to America’s democratic heritage. She wants to connect now mythic figures to the most human acts of all – sex. It is, indeed, subversive to the cultural authority of the institution of the presidency. It is, indeed, shocking. But should art strive just to shock?

Since the counterculture’s fever pitch in the 1960’s, an array commentators, including conservatives, Straussians, and more, have pushed back against deliberate destruction of cultural norms. Here is an eloquent passage  by noted cultural critic Roger Scruton  from an essay on the nature of modern art:

Now it seems to me that the public space of our society has in fact begun to surrender to the kind of degradation that I have just described. It has been taken over by a culture that wishes not to educate our perception but to capture it, not to ennoble human life but to trivialize it.

Scruton desribes Ms. Lai’s project perfectly: it is not meant to enoble the lives of American presidents, to build them up as symbols of democracy, but, rather, to tear them down.

The concept, admittedly, is novel. But is it noble? Not as much as Packer believes it to be.

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