Far from being cutting-edge, the British cultural establishment ignores the biggest threat to artistic freedom: radical Islam
Delivering this year’s Reith Lectures — the first contemporary artist to do so — the media-friendly transvestite artist and potter Grayson Perry posited the notion that perhaps art had lost one of its central tenets: its ability to shock.
Sure, there was no shortage of claims being made by both the media and the art world: that Tom was “radical”, Dick was “cutting edge” and Harry was “breaking boundaries”. But all this obscured the truth, which was that art was no longer any of these things, that artist and audience had got well and truly used to each other, and familiarity had bred jadedness.
There’s no denying this but, in keeping with art itself, Perry’s observations were rather behind the times. For art has not shocked, provoked or otherwise challenged for years now. The belief that it does, should or could is almost endearingly quaint when one hears it voiced.
Certainly the words used to describe creative activity, such as those above, are a product of the general hyperbolic drift in many aspects of our everyday language. And, rather like racism, the more the arts diminish in relevance in relation to both our personal and national life, the more overblown and indiscriminate are the claims made of it.
Of course the notion that the arts should shock is a thoroughly modern one in historical terms but, even as it became accepted and then entrenched as a cliché, wider social developments throughout the latter half of the 20th century were working to undermine it. The gradual dismantling of social and moral boundaries left art with less and less room for manoeuvre, if to challenge and provoke was its purpose.