In the 20th century, audiences were remarkably vocal when they believed a work of art was controversial or lacked artistic or intellectual value. I give you three examples:
- Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. On May 29, 1913, the ballet The Rite of Spring, set to Stravinsky’s commissioned music of the same name, debuted in Paris and the Théâtre des Champs-Élysée. The audience began to boo a couple minutes into the piece, probably during that discordant minute when various instruments are fighting for the lead voice, right after the bassoon solo that sounds like a weeping lost bird, and before the entrance of the percussive strings. As the piece revealed its modernity and violence, many members of the audience became more riled up. A few people admitted they liked the work’s audacity, and they argued with the booers. Soon, the two sides began to fight. The police came and calmed everyone down during intermission, and the audience started the second half of the show in their seats. But they quickly became perturbed again when one girl was chosen to dance to death in the rite, and there was soon a full-blown riot. (I like to imagine that the audience members were stomping and throwing punches in time with the music, unaware that they had been initiated into the rite.) Stravinsky was in the audience and saw this all. He ran out of the theatre before the end of the show.
- Marcel Duchamp painted his “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” in 1912. Looking at it now, it seems to belong between the cubist and figurative art movements (figurative referring to almost-abstract art that refers to some aspect of reality). But the figurative movement didn’t exist in 1912, and the Cubists rejected it because they saw “Nude Descending” as too futuristic, so it began its world tour not belonging to any one movement. It then crossed the Atlantic and was shown at the Armory Show in New York, where it was put in the Cubist room (the Cubists weren’t there to keep it away from their work) and was met with hostile eyes. Critics said it was “an explosion in a shingle factory,” “un-American,” and “a threat to their religious faith.” For the following years, it was mocked by cartoonists and other artists, and although sometime later in the century, people started looking at it through different glasses and now consider it a classic, but Duchamp probably died thinking it was a failure.
- And then there was the light of everyone’s life, which of course was met with extreme controversy (and still is—how many people do you see reading Lolita openly around town?). Upon release, it was declared “literature of the highest order,” and sold 100,000 copies in the US in three weeks, yet it was banned in several countries, and a certain writer of the New York Times said of it, “Lolita, then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news… It is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion… (and) it is repulsive.”
Astounding, no? In this day and age, we tend to be much more open-minded about modern art. Many of us
search for meaning and value in all works of art, especially ones that seem provocative in some way. Instead of rioting, we often accept. But I believe we are often too accepting, and that we do not question enough. Last year in Spain, I saw an art exhibit of an American artist who sought to capture scenes of the Ku Klux Klan in paintings, sculptures, and masks. Many visitors of the gallery conversed with each other about how this artist’s work was social commentary, and that it was an attempt to resolve historical issues. However, while I didn’t see any signs that this artist was pro-Klan, his work didn’t seem to reject or even comment on the horror of the Klan’s activities: it appeared to just be a recreation of horrifying images of the past without posing questions or answers. I was shocked that none of the other gallery-viewers seemed outraged by images of the Klan, and I have to wonder if we have become too tolerant of art. I don’t suggest that we riot at the sight of newfangled or controversial art, and I think that every creation deserves to be considered and fairly analyzed, but I believe that more people outside of universities need to be willing to start discussions of when and why a piece of art is problematic.