Shock and art
Transgressions: The Offenses of Art. By Anthony Julius. University of Chicago Press, 272 pp., $35.00.
In word and image this volume tells the story of "transgression" as a movement in the visual arts, from Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe in the 1860s to Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (a urinal) of 1917 to Andres Serrano's Piss Christ of 1987 and Marisa Carnesky's Jewess Tatooess of 2000. The "transgressive" has a wide range of meanings, from offenses against God, to violating pieties and taboos, to erasing or exceeding accepted boundaries.
We might well expect, therefore, that this book's almost 200 images from 1860 to the present will disturb viewers. Among the images are mutilated humans and animals, decaying corpses, blood, urine, feces, acts of sacrilege, sexual violence and torture. There is something in these pages to threaten, shock, offend, disgust or anger almost everyone. The serious question posed by the author is whether such breaches of rules and limits in art do more to shatter our illusions and liberate us from confining prejudices or to demoralize both artists and viewers, perhaps signaling the end of art itself.
Anthony Julius, an eminent lawyer and lecturer, began this inquiry years ago by examining the question of censorship in the arts. He then expanded his research to "art crimes," and finally wrote this careful history of transgressive art in the West. Julius does far more than appeal to our visual curiosity or prurient interests. He puts his legal expertise to use in analyzing the many varieties of transgressive art, from experiments in art-making that expand art's own accepted materials and subjects, to an art of taboo-breaking that seeks to violate the beliefs and sentiments of its audience. In a minor key, he examines art that challenges the rule of the state, art that has had very limited success. What interests Julius the most is the art that violates the tacit prohibitions and loyalties we might call pieties and taboos.