Why Modern Art Is Not Shocking Enough

Maurice Sendak

Our newest columnist Rosy Wiseman asks what Contemporary Art could learn from Maurice Sendak…

A crop of careful art has emerged by artists who don’t want to disturb or upset, spurred on by a perceived need to cheer people up during a double-dip Olympiad. As a diabetic amputee hops away from the pick n mix, so the public, their teeth of perception rotted by these cloying sugarlumps, are edged further and further from modern art.

The recent death of writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak reminds us that everyone likes to be scared. Presenting his readers with the precariousness of life through monsters who want to hug you one minute and eat you another, Sendak acknowledged their ability, despite their stubby limbs and runny noses, to cope with trauma and recognise its visceral appeal. Looking at their posters for the Paralympics, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Tracy Emin and Bob and Roberta Smith hold their audience in somewhat lower esteem. While Emin patronises with the staged vulnerability of a handwritten: ‘You inspire me with your determination and I love you’, the Smith effort (‘Courage, Sweat, Inspiration, Love’) reads like self-help and looks like sweat rash.

Public art pieces such as these, and what Jeremy Deller has critiqued as ‘keep calm and carry on’ art, waste a good crisis. Director of the Hayward Gallery Ralph Rugoff notes ‘when times are difficult, values are going to be questioned’. The recession is a ‘time when culture and art can play an important part, whereas in a boom period there is too much focus on the hype around the boom and on all the alluring baubles it holds out before us.’ Manipulative sweetness becomes all the more obvious looked at with newly pepper sprayed eyes. Try as it may to intoxicate with simple joy, art made with this goal arouses suspicion and alienation. Just see shit/fan response to Martin Creed’s bell ringing project.

Meanwhile, a few days before it hits the water, the Boat Project (part of the same Artists Taking the Lead initiative as Anthony McCall’s much troubled column of mist) has enjoyed critical and, if you believe the artists, public acclaim. Turning once prized possessions, some with tales of death and loss, into a boat makes a stab at immortality while acknowledging its futility. The recent sale of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ shows the lasting power of artists who pin down our troubles, rather than obfuscate them. Sendak once said that he ‘refuses to cater to the bullshit of innocence’, and his works have proved more enduring for it – Dora the Explorer who?

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