Freedom of Expression

Freedom of Expression

Freedom of Expression

‘I don’t think it is the function of art to be pleasing… Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.’- Richard Serra. Perhaps Serra has partially hit the nail clean on the head here. But surely art is for the people? Art is to disrupt the people, to make the people think, to provoke the people. Indeed it is not always to please the people, but for the people, it certainly is (World Record for how many times you can fit the word ‘people’ into an introduction? Nailed it).

Controversy has been at the forefront of art for centuries gone by; it is part of what allows it to evolve and pushes the boundaries of what even constitutes as art. An artist’s freedom to express is something that challenges ideas, opens minds and pushes what is socially accepted, but as such ideas are challenged, minds open and social acceptance grows we grow accustomed to once controversial matters. We become slowly immune to particular topics that, years ago, would have left us as shocked as Leonardo DiCaprio at this year’s Oscars (you’ll get there, Leo). It is such immunity from controversy that drives artists to push their freedom to express to the limit. In order to shock, heart strings must be tugged with gore, brutal honesty, crudeness, disgust… the list goes on.

As it stands it would seem nudity and sex will always be a point of controversy, whether that be in the form of artistic expression or otherwise. The naked body draws attention, it’s a fact, and such was so in the early 19th century when Francisco Goya’s The Nude Maja was followed by The Clothed Maja. The Spanish Inquisition rejected the first of the two paintings on the grounds of its perceived obscenity- stemming from both the element visible pubic hair and the brazen way in which the subject gazes at the onlooker. If only the Spanish Inquisition could now see Andres Serrano’s A History of Sex; a book full of photos of sexual acts and displays which are sure to have provoked a few to think ‘is that? Surely not…’ in its time. Put it this way, it takes more than a painting of a brazenly naked woman to draw a double take nowadays.

As with nudity, honesty in artistic depictions is often provocative due to portrayals ordinarily being subdued. The decades surrounding the turn of the 17th century saw the works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio cause a stir with honesty shining through in his paintings. His truthful style irked the Church; causing discomfort through painting religious figures with dirty fingernails and bare feet; essentially portraying them as common people. Now see Don McCullin’s photographs capturing the devastation in Biafra post-war or Kevin Carter’s Child Crawling, showing a starving child being preyed on by a vulture. Such shocking images put into perspective the issues we may only be aware of through restrictive news reports and articles. In such an instance however, perhaps brutal honesty is necessary to lessen our ignorance to what happens across the world and open our eyes to issues we would otherwise be forever blind to.

In terms of a more light-hearted manner of surprising, rather than shocking, Marcel Duchamp managed to catapult the concept of a readymade into the world of art. Taking a bog-standard (pardon the pun) urinal, signing it, naming it ‘Fountain’ and submitting it for an exhibition defined a work which has been reproduced several times and is now exhibited across the world; truly highlighting the simplicity of creating controversy as a basis of work. Initially, the piece was rejected as artwork by the exhibition it was intended for; ‘Society of Modern Artists’ but has since become a symbol of contemporary art and -controversial though it may be in terms of its artistry- remains a significant piece from the last century. So when Pierre Pinoncelli, a ‘performance artist’ asserts his freedom to express by treating Fountain as what it is in its purest sense by urinating in it, it sparks the question about to what extent actions can be classed as performance art. What concept is he exploring? What is he trying to achieve? This being the first of two attacks on replicas of the piece -the second being taking a hammer to it- it seems that certain ‘artists’ are exploiting what art is or can be in order to create shock, controversy or just simply humour: in short; taking the piss.

With the freedom to express artistically, continue to shatter glass ceilings and expose unseen imagery it is inevitable that controversy will sometimes follow. It is interesting to wonder what immunities we’ll become accustomed to; what will begin to be repetitious rather than repulsive and what new or existing issues will come to be pushed in order to grab at and twist our perception. Only time will tell whether concept’s reign over aesthetics will continue to enthrall and provoke.

Text: Leanne Westbury


Image 1- work by Richard Serra,

Image 2- Leonardo DiCaprio

Image 3-Francisco Goya’s The Nude Maja

Image 4-  Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Image 5- Kevin Carter’s Child

Image 6 Marcel Duchamp
Image 7- Pierre Pinoncelli,

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