The User-Friendly Guide to Shock Art

Artist: Marcus Harvey, Myra(Click to enlarge Myra by Marcus Harvey.
Harvey's large-scale portrait of a well-known child molester
was constructed from images of children's hands dipped in paint.)


About 30,000 years ago, some vagabonds, living in a cave, invented art. For around the next 29,800 years, that invention happily served the needs of priests and kings and nobody was ever offended by the stuff. Sadly, by the 19th century, this nice little arrangement broke down. Kings were in increasingly short supply, and demand for icons had dried up. Instead, artists had to market their work to whoever would cough up the dough to buy their work, and they needed a way to get attention. Thus, the fine tradition of offending people with art was born.


Artist: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Nymphs and Satyr(Click to enlarge Nymphs and Satyr by William-Adolphe Bouguereau)

The start was slow. William-Adolphe Bouguereau caused a stir with prim Victorians by painting sexy group scenes, while Manet got Paris going with a painting of well-dressed men having a picnic with naked chicks.

Artist: Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass[Click to enlarge Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)
by Édouard Manet

In truth, people were not offended but titillated. It would take the rise of Modernism to shock people.

Artist: Henri Matisse, Green Line(Click to enlarge Green Line by Henri Matisse)

At the beginning of the 20th century, the most nauseating, laughable, awful thing in the art world was a green stripe on the face of Henri Matisse’s wife. The Parisians who first saw it hated the painting. Derided in the press, it was spat on and attacked with canes. Sadly, after decades of splattered paint and bits of garbage recast as art, you can’t even startle anyone with formal innovation. I think the last person to pull it off was Rauschenberg and his stuffed goat.

Artist: Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram(Click to enlarge Monogram by Robert Rauschenberg)

Thankfully, there are new art methods you can use to really piss people off.


Artist: Damien Hirst, Mother and Child(Click to enlarge Mother and Child, Divided by Damien Hirst)

To make British shock art, you need to be a filthy rich ad executive or maybe a worn-out rock star with deep pockets. Start by buying up all sorts of outrageous art: A carefully sliced cow or fingerpainted portraits of child molesters…it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you tell the “journalists” down on Fleet Street about it. They tell everyone how ugly, obscene, disgusting and icky it is. A big fuss ensues. Fleet Street sells copy, and you’ve made shock art.


Artist: Andre Serranos, Piss Christ; and, Artist: Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary[Click to enlarge: (left) Piss Christ by Andres Serrano;
(right) The Holy Virgin Mary by British artist Chris Ofili]

What is that you say? You are not a rich, wrinkled rock star and you don’t have buckets of cash? No problem. Just follow this simple formula for American shock art:

Artist: Les Paterson, Formula for Shock ArtAlways remember, it is a better shock if you make it with government money.


Artist: Rick Gibon, Sniffy(Click to enlarge Sniffy the Rat by Rick Gibson)

And finally, to make Canadian shock art, three simple words: KILL YOUR PET.

An object lesson in the Canadian style and the dangers of shock art in general can be seen in a piece by conceptual artist Rick Gibson. Way back in 1990, Gibson planned to squash his pet rat, Sniffy, under a 50-pound brick on the steps of the Vancouver Library. On the day of the performance, activists stole the brick. Furthermore, a large hostile crowd gathered before the scheduled performance and nearly kicked the shock out of Gibson.

Both Sniffy and the artist escaped — scared, but unharmed.

So be careful when creating shock art and remember: There is more than one way to skin a cat.

Les Paterson is a Toronto artist and funster who works in neo-pomo and post-mumbo-jumbo traditions. Please visit his Web site at


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