L'art qui fait débatCours

Art is a huge and complex concept that encompasses and confronts many different genres, forms, media, opinions and artists. Apart from their imagination and creativity writers, visual artists and performers share one essential thing – the fact that their art always emerges in response or reaction to specific social, political and economic contexts. As eye-openers, activists, genius transgressors or independent outsiders, artists use their art to convey messages, raise awareness and challenge norms and conventions. Art gives them unlimited freedom to reinvent themselves and the world as they or we know and experience it. That's why it is a particularly well-suited medium to question and debate existing rules, beliefs and values. Art can create controversies, initiate changes and generate new trends. By shocking audiences, some works of art can start debates and discussions, and trigger revolutions. Debating through art may eventually lead to (re-)defining what art is or should be. 


The art of controversy

Controversy in artistic fields often sprouts from rebellious artists rejecting or changing the rules to find new ways of defining or doing art. Many novels, paintings, photographs and films have become well-known for causing a stir among audiences and critics who disagree on how to interpret and understand them.


Breaking the rules


Academic disputes

In art, particularly in painting, there are a lot of academic disputes when artists break the rules that normally applied.

In 1768, Sir Joshua Reynolds, a portrait painter, became the very first president of the newly-founded Royal Academy of Art. He proceeded to grant national art and artists legitimacy and recognition. In his Discourse on Art, published in 1778, he laid down the founding principles to which visual artists should conform to earn academic consideration and support. Among Reynolds's chief principles was his claim that genius was not innate, but could be acquired and cultivated by emulating the Old Masters, whom no living painter could surpass. 

According to Reynolds, artistic talent could only flourish thanks to long strenuous work, a view inherited from the French classics, who conceived of art as resulting from the application of strict rules in poetry, drama, painting and music. However, Reynolds's rules would soon be perceived as too limiting and restricting by a growing number of artists. Romantic painters, with tormented minds and ecstatic visions, made it an artistic point to free themselves of Reynolds's academic shackles. Among them was William Blake, painter, engraver and poet, who dismissed Reynolds's conception of genius as utterly ridiculous, stating that "The Man who says that Genius is not Born, but Taught – Is a Knave." A true Romantic in his own peculiar way, Blake believed that genius – in Greek "born with" – was innate and that no training could generate talent. Either one possessed it or one didn't. Needless to say, this view of genius was controversial and a good reason for serious disagreements and arguments among artists. Indeed, it established a hierarchy by distinguishing between gifted artists and writers and the rest of humankind. It raised the genius artist to the position of superior being, above the common man. True art is not accessible for every artist, but reserved for a blessed elite of chosen people. William Blake, along with other Romantics, also believed that true art couldn't result from copying former artists, but was to be totally new and innovative.

Lady Talbot by Joshua Reynolds et Newton by William Blake

© Wikimedia Commons/©Wikipédia

Lady Talbot seems to be posing on a stage with symbolic attributes that liken her to the Roman goddess Diana. Even if Lady Talbot is the portrait of an actual person, the painting includes all the staple elements of history paintings – references to Ancient mythology and architecture, nature as a backdrop and theatricality. Looking at Reynolds's painting, the viewer is aware that it is an artefact and that the painter did not seek to imitate nature, but only the Old Masters. If one compares Reynolds's work of art with Blake's, one notices the latter's rejection of perspective and realistic proportions. The ruggedness of Blake's painting contrasts with the smooth textures of Lady Talbot's clothes that contribute to the lightness of Reynolds's balanced composition, conveying timeless harmony and stability. Blake's Newton is depicted as a Greek mathematician drawing something on a blank sheet with a pair of compasses, completely oblivious of the natural world around him. Through his portrayal of a scientist trying to understand and represent nature with mathematical tools, William Blake despises classical art and science, because they appeal to reason and restrict the imagination, which he regarded as the best-suited medium to decipher nature and unravel its secrets and mysteries.

Not only did Reynolds advise painters on how to become talented, but he also recommended them which subjects to choose and how to represent them. In the 18th century, history painting was regarded as the highest pictorial genre, as opposed to landscape painting, which was deemed a very minor one. Another academic dispute started in the early 19th century when some painters claimed that landscape painting was on a par with history painting. In the latter, nature traditionally served as a backdrop to heroic achievements and epic fights. This began to change in the second half of the 18th century under the aegis of painters like Claude Lorrain in France, Ruisdael in the Netherlands and Gainsborough in England, who took great care when representing nature, sometimes even turning the subjects they depicted on the canvas into mere pretexts to paint landscapes.

Lady Bampfyle by Joshua Reynold, Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough, Hay Wain by John Constable

© Wikimedia Commons/© Wikipédia/© Wikipédia

  • Reynolds's vertical portrait painting enhances the human figure which occupies centre stage. The dull colourless natural environment in the background looks almost as artificial as wallpaper, all the more so because the trees are not represented whole. Indeed, one would imagine the upper part of the landscape had been cut off by the artist, like a gardener who would prune unruly tendrils or sprigs in a carefully organised garden. Nature looks tamed and stifled, man disconnected from and oblivious of it. 
  • Gainsborough's painting offers a much different representation of nature. The landscape fills the canvas with its dramatic cloudy sky and bright shades of green that are so genuinely British. Mr and Mrs Andrews are represented as part of a natural environment that will outlive them and the generations to come, which is reinforced by the horizontal format, better suited to landscape painting. The piece conveys a sense of harmony between man and nature, as is also suggested by the harvested field on the right-hand side. Man, whatever his rank and place in society, will always need nature to be fed and thrive. Although primarily meant to showcase the Andrews family's estate and wealth, this painting contributed to elevating landscape painting. It can be interpreted as a celebration of the British landscapes anticipating Constable's nostalgic reaction to industrialization which destroyed nature to make it subservient to humans' mercantile needs and ambitions. 
  • Constable's paintings convey a peaceful atmosphere, as in Hay Wain with its glittering brooks and protective trees keeping factories and toxic fumes at bay.
English French
Controversy  Une controverse
To cause a stir Faire du bruit
Innate Inné
To emulate Imiter/émuler
To flourish Croître/s'épanouir (talent)
Shackles Les fers
Engraver Un graveur
Knave Un idiot
Staple elements Des éléments de base
Artefact Un objet d'art
Ruggedness Le caractère brut de quelque chose
Oblivious Oublieux
To decipher Déchiffrer
To unravel Élucider
On a par with Sur un pied d'égalité
Under the aegis of Sous l'égide de
Backdrop Une toile de fond
To enhance Mettre en valeur/améliorer
Dull Ennuyeux/insipide
Tamed Domestiqué/apprivoisé
Stifled Étouffé
Canvas Une toile
Brook Un ruisseau
Glittering Scintillant
To thrive Prospérer
To keep something at bay Maintenir à bonne distance

Transgressors and visionaries: J.W.M. Turner and John Martin

Turner and John Martin were considered as transgressors and visionaries. Theirs paintings were completely new.

The two British painters, who had been trained at the Royal Academy, were familiar with Reynolds's aesthetic principles and preference for history painting. Both borrowed and subverted the conventions of this genre in their own special way. Turner was fascinated by Claude Lorrain's sunsets that filled the whole canvas with a dazzling light Turner sought to imitate and surpass in many of his early paintings. Martin found most of his inspiration in natural disasters such as devastating fires, storms, avalanches, landslides and earthquakes. 

Through his untiring endeavours to capture and recreate natural light, Turner re-founded history painting, paving the way to impressionism and abstract painting. A painter at the cross-roads of academic and romantic conceptions of art, he used the mythological, biblical and heroic scenes he represented as pretexts to explore new ways of painting nature and light effects. His goal was to enable viewers to feel what he felt when impressed or mesmerized by a landscape, a view, the scorching sun or pattering rain.

Turner's paintings
Regulus/Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge/Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)

© Wikipédia/© Wikimedia Commons/© Wikipédia

  • In Regulus, after a painting by Claude Lorrain, Turner subverted the rules of history painting to challenge the viewer's perceptions and aesthetic experiences. He drew upon the true story of Regulus, a Roman general who went back to Carthage after failing to have Carthaginians freed from the Romans. He was sentenced to having his eyelids removed. The protagonist is nowhere to be found, though. With his misleading title, Turner tricked the viewer into believing this was a conventional history painting, when what is represented is not Regulus's failure or punishment, but the painfully blinding sunlight he was forced to look at without being able to close his eyes. The viewer is made to identify with Regulus and feel his agony, which means that the painting doesn't only appeal to the viewer's intellect, but also stirs up emotions in him or her. 
  • In later paintings, like Light and Colour, the subject is hardly identifiable without its title. It is difficult to make out the boat and the waves behind the driving rain. Everything is churned into an oddly distorted version of reality to recreate the vivid sensation of being in the middle of a storm. Looking at the stormy chaos from the painter's own vantage point, the viewer loses his/her bearings and sense of control, not least because the painting seems to be turning upside down to convey the violence of the raging elements. 
  • It feels as if the viewer was in the painting, an impression one also gets when observing Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge. The titles given by Turner to both his paintings draw attention to what Turner intended to represent – shades and light effects –, not the biblical subject of the paintings, which is only mentioned to help the reader recognise the scene. The twin art pieces can be viewed as an abstract form of sublime. Although Turner is hailed as a genius today, hardly any of his contemporaries understood his approach of painting and aesthetic experiments. His paintings were scoffed at and despised by many critics and visitors of the Royal Academy who considered them as daubs. John Martin's sublime paintings were also underrated because of their enrapturing emotional impact on viewers.

The sublime was defined by Edmund Burke as different from the reassuring beautiful as follows: "whatever is fitted to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, […] whatever is in any sort terrible […] or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of" in his essay An Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1757). Painter John Martin translated Burke's definition into pictorial terms in his impressive paintings representing natural catastrophes and apocalyptic scenes of destruction. Like many history painters of his time, Martin's main source of inspiration was the Bible. However, contrary to them, he broke the rules of orderly geometrical composition and created sharp, unrealistic colour contrasts to stimulate heightened emotions and inspire fear and awe. That's why his paintings, albeit very popular, were never taken seriously by the Royal Academy of Art.

The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin

© Wikipédia

In this representation of the Day of Last Judgement, a biblical episode probably chosen for its highly dramatic potential, the painter decided to depict various natural catastrophes happening at the same time. A thunderstorm is brewing while an erupting volcano is spurting fire and lava, and barely recognisable torn human figures are driven down a dark pit by a landslide. This apocalyptic scene is made all the more frightening by the opaque clouds gathering above the ravine, giving the viewer the impression that the tumbling humans are going to be crushed by the elements to be later engulfed by eternal darkness. Martin's painting presents the viewer with a powerful pitiless God giving His anger free rein, inflicting pain and terror on humankind in order to punish them for their sins. Although the painting shows utter chaos, it has been carefully organised into two main horizontal parts thanks to a stark contrast between light and darkness. God's inaccessible heavenly realm on the upper part of the canvas and hell in the lower part. Far from creating stability, this organisation, which is consistent with men's idea of the world with God up in the sky and hell underneath their feet, heightens the viewer's terror.

English French
Trained Formé
To borrow Emprunter
To subvert Subvertir
Landslide Un glissement de terrain
Endeavour Un effort
Mesmerized Subjugué
Scorching Brûlant
Eyelids Les paupières
Agony Une douleur insoutenable
To stir up Susciter (des émotions/des sentiments)
To make out Distinguer
Churned Mélangés (de churn = baratte à beurre)
To scoff at S'esclaffer de
A daub Une croûte
Underrated Sous-estimé
Enrapturing Exaltant
Wrath Le courroux (divin)
Tumbling Dégringolant/précipités
Spurting Crachant
A pit Un précipice
Awe L'effroi

Creating new art

The 19th and 20th centuries saw unprecedented changes and variety in the arts, as artists broke away from conventions and experimented with new media, playing around new concepts and values. Path-breaking artistic and philosophical movements took root in this fruitful period.


Aestheticism: art for art's sake

Aestheticism is a late 19th century artistic movement that asserted the superiority of aesthetic and artistic considerations over social and moral values. According to its proponents, among whom Oscar Wilde and Whistler, art shouldn't be a medium to teach viewers how to behave according to the strict moral standards of their time, but should be taken for what it is.

The aim of art was art itself, a rather daring stance to take at a time when artists were expected to uphold the values the Victorian society rested on. Aestheticism worshipped the artist as the wisest of men who could sense artistic beauty and potential in everything he looked at.

"The artist is the creator of beautiful things. […] Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things only mean Beauty."

Oscar Wilde

Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

These provocative statements read like a manifesto vindicating aestheticism in response to industrialisation and cheap art. Whistler's paintings are emblematic of this approach to art that focuses on colours and shapes. Oscar Wilde named his works of art after musical pieces to make it plain that his aim was not to offer realistic depictions of reality, but purely aesthetic experiences.

Whistler's Paintings
Arrangements in Grey and Black – Whistler's Mother by Whistler / Nocturne in Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge by Whistler

© Wikipédia/© Wikipédia/© Wikipédia

In the three paintings, one can trace the artist's gradual move towards abstraction. 

  • In the first one, the viewer is struck by the detailed designs on the curtain and the deep contrast between the different shades of grey and black which almost make us forget the figure represented in it. 
  • The bridge over the Thames and the ghostly figure in the second painting seem to disappear behind a blur of blue paint.
  • In the last one the subject is totally erased by Whistler's brush strokes. 


Just like an expertly composed musical piece, this painting is to be interpreted and enjoyed as pure art. Like Turner before him, Whistler only took a mild interest in reality, rejecting realism in favour of artistic beauty. The viewer is invited to see the world around him or her with an artist's eyes. Aestheticism created new ways of relating to art and to reality. It has opened people's eyes to aspects of their daily environment they had so far been blind to – colours, shapes and light effects. Everyone can cast a fresh look on reality and rearrange or recreate it through one's perceptions and aesthetic emotions.

English French
Path-breaking Totalement novateur
Fruitful Fertile
Art of art's sake L'art pour l'art (traduction de la formule inventée par Victor Cousin en 1816)
Proponents Apologues/défenseurs
To worship Vouer un culte à
Stance Une position
To uphold Mettre en avant
To vindicate Défendre
Blur Une couche floue (ici)

Scottish Art nouveau 

In the 1890s, Glasgow witnessed the rise of a group of budding artists in the wake of an emerging European movement called Art nouveau – new art. While aestheticism would only take purposeless art into consideration, Art nouveau artists conceived of art as something that could serve both aesthetic and practical functions. 

According to them, art could be both beautiful and useful, a source of aesthetic delight, even if it was part of people's mundane daily lives. Art nouveau pieces are recognisable through their elegant symmetrical patterns and stylized botanical designs reminiscent of roses, lilies, creepers and tendrils and their representations of women as nymph-like, ethereal creatures. These artefacts were meant to be both artistic and decorative objects. Many critics and artists were outraged, since they believed that Art nouveau would be the end of art.

In the creative cradle of Scotland's most industrial city, sisters Frances and Margaret MacDonald and their husbands, respectively James Herbert MacNair and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, inaugurated a new way of doing and using art. These pioneers, who relied on each other's complementary skills to design and create works of art, became known as the Glasgow Four and their unique artistic trademark became typical of the Glasgow Style. Frances and Margaret owed their fame to their delicate watercolours and ornate gesso panels which were used to decorate private homes and fashionable tearooms, like The Willow Tree in Glasgow.

Spring, Frances Macdonald-MacNair			 The May Queen, Margaret  Macdonald-Mackintosh

© Wikipédia/© Flickr

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the leading member of the group, advocated "shak[ing] off all the props – the props tradition and authority offer you – and go[ing] alone." According to him, artists should obey their creativity and only be supported by their talent. As a path-breaking architect who had travelled in Europe to extend his knowledge of medieval and classical architectures, he invented new ways of designing public buildings with more harmonious façades stripped of unnecessary decorative items. Mackintosh's architectural work bears witness to the legacy of previous centuries. It represents a surprisingly functioning synthesis of the old and the new, the rational and the imaginary, as is exemplified by his House for an Art Lover. The plans for this mansion were laid out in 1909 by Charles and his wife Margaret, who designed the interior, but the house was only built in 1996 thanks to a businessman. Charles Rennie Mackintosh's absolute masterpiece is the building of the Glasgow School of Art, which is a landmark of the Glasgow Style. Its curvy symmetrical lines and large stained-glassed bay windows were considered as his most radical architectural statements.

English French
Lilies Des lys
Creepers Des plantes grimpantes
Tendrils Des vrilles (de vigne)
Ethereal Éthéré/diaphane
Cradle Un berceau
Trademark Une marque de fabrique
Gesso Gesso (technique qui utilise du plâtre pour créer des reliefs sur une fresque)
Prop Un tuteur (ici)
Stained-glass window Un vitrail

Black artists matter too

Equally innovative and talented were the writers, musicians and painters of the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American artistic movement which emerged in New York during the Roaring Twenties. 

In tune with the festive Jazz music, a new brand of literature and street art was created out of African traditions and Western culture. The Black artists of the Harlem Renaissance wished to establish and promote a culture of their own in a country where they belonged and yet didn't belong. They wanted their novels, their songs and their art works to tell their history and deal with their daily lives to show other people what it's like to be an African-American, torn between two cultures.

"Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway...
He did a lazy sway...
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man's soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
"Ain't got nobody in all this world,
Ain't got nobody but ma self.
I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
And put ma troubles on the shelf."

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
"I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can't be satisfied—
I ain't happy no mo'
And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead."

Langston Hugues

"The Weary Blues"


The writings of Harlem Renaissance novelists and poets were characterized by their colourful language and rhythmical style, as exemplified by Langston Hughes's poem "The Weary Blues" written in 1926. In this poem, Hughes portrays a wistful jazz musician who finds inspiration in his own melancholy. It is an ode to black musicians and African-American culture ("coming from a black man's soul"). The poet highlights the musician's unique talent and creativity, which both take root in his own life: "Ain't got nobody in all this world,/Ain't got nobody but ma self./I's gwine to quit ma frownin'/And put ma troubles on the shelf." With his despondent musician, Hughes created a black version of the archetypal Romantic poet, seeking meaning where there is none and pursuing happiness when it can't be found: "In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone/I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan––." Just like European poets, this one's got real talent, because "he made that poor piano moan with melody." The poet also plays with common racial stereotypes about black people, "Negro[es] [with] a lazy sway" speaking a different kind of English: "Ain't got nobody but ma self." Thus, this poem attests to the Harlem Renaissance artists' mixed cultures and diverse sources of inspiration.

English French
Despondent Mélancolique
Wistful Déprimé
To moan Se plaindre/geindre
Sway Un lent déhanchement de droite à gauche

Clashing interpretations

When critics, readers, viewers or audiences disagree on how the possible interpretations of a work of art, controversies often begin, dividing generations of people within the same family or nation. 

This happened to Conrad's polemical Heart of Darkness, published in 1899, due to the author's ambiguous take on colonization which is now understood by some as plain racism. The narrator's description of the Congo as threateningly wild territory ("the earth seemed unearthly") and his portrayal of the native people as "prehistoric" and "ugly" prompted Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe to claim that "Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as "the other world," the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality." Heart of Darkness deals with a sea-faring explorer named Marlow who has been commissioned to travel from Belgium to Africa and sail up river Congo to bring back Kurtz, a lost ivory trader, the epitome of the white predatory colonizer. The story is told orally by Marlow himself. According Achebe's reading of Heart of Darkness in his essay "An Image of Africa", published in 1975, Joseph Conrad expressed the impossibility for white Europeans to acknowledge that African cultures and societies might have been as sophisticated as theirs. Hence their need to belittle African people's customs, traditions and lifestyles through racist writings and art pieces, a reading consistent with quite a few passages in the novel, including the following.

"We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. […] we were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. […] The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand, because we were too far and could not remember, because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign and no memories. 

The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly."

Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness


Despite a number of decidedly questionable word choices ("prehistoric", "accursed", "subdued", "madhouse", "unearthly", "monster", "monstrous", "inhuman", "horrid", "ugly"), what this excerpt shows readers is Marlow's powerlessness in a totally foreign and overwhelming environment ("We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings").The adventurous Marlow sounds embarrassed by his newly-found fear and weakness ("secretly appalled"). His uneasiness is conveyed by the numerous dashes that punctuate his narrative speech. That's why another interpretation of Conrad's representation of Congo's indigenous people is possible. Far from considering white European men as superior to Africans, Conrad's protagonist narrator seems to realise how weak and delusional they are. Civilization turns out to have made them totally oblivious of some of their true nature – their "bestiality" indeed, or nature in each and every one of them. Europeans have forgotten where they came from and who they used to be before civilization, a fact the narrator is keen to remind readers of right from the start: "I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here [to England], nineteen hundred years ago – […] But darkness was here yesterday […] Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages – precious little to eat fit for a civilised man, nothing but Thames to drink." This excerpt resonates with Marlow's explanation: "We could not understand, because we were too far and could not remember, because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign and no memories." Finding Kurtz, who has gone wild in more ways than one, is a moment of epiphany for Marlow who is forced into the complete realisation of man's wildness – his or her heart of darkness. Deciding whether Heart of Darkness is or isn't a racist book is hardly the point. The controversy generated by Heart of Darkness should instead be taken as a good example of the many possible interpretations of one single work, depending on readers' background.

In The God of Small Things by Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, in which her main characters, Ammu and her twins Rahel and Estha, keep referring to Conrad's novel. It is the name given to a derelict house which is later transformed into a luxury hotel for wealthy tourists. It seems to stand for India's turbulent history of century-old traditions and colonization.

English French
Unearthly Étranger à ce monde
Sea-faring Marin (adj.)
Epitome Un parfait exemple
Appalled Affligé
Marshes Un marais
To howl Hurler (comme un loup)
To spin (spun, spun) Tourner sur soi-même
Kinship Un lien de parenté

Shocking and debatable art

Whether a deliberate artistic gesture or just an unexpected side effect, shocking people can be used as a creative principle to challenge audiences or force them to see what they shy away from or would rather ignore. Playing with audiences' sensibilities may be a dangerous double-edged thing, as it can turn against artists and writers by making readers and viewers misunderstand or miss the intended message.


Immorality and impropriety: the example of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Most works of art or books deemed shocking were thought so for breaking the rules that defined morality and propriety, i.e. what audiences were entitled to think and do and what they weren't. Quite a few artists owe their fame to challenging or transgressing these rules. Playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde was considered a scandalously decadent artist, because he flouted morality and propriety. His shocking masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is an illustration of this provocative statement.

"There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well-written or badly written. That is all."

Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a conscience-free murder and fin de siècle rake obsessed with youth and beauty is totally out of keeping with Victorian values. It presents readers with an idle, pleasure-seeking young man who dedicates himself to revelling and seducing men and women. A sheer hedonist, he has no intention to settle down and lead a less turbulent life, his only purpose being to be admired and sought after. Through Dorian Gray, Wilde brazenly promotes capital sins such as lechery, laziness, greed and vanity. At the beginning of the novel, Dorian commissions a painter, Basil Hallward, to make his portrait. Like Narcissus, he falls in love with his own image which starts bearing the ugly marks of his immoral conduct and murderous deeds. Dorian's face on the picture becomes more and more shrivelled and repellent with the passage of time, leaving him spotlessly young. When Dorian finds out about this supernatural fact, he hides his portrait in his attic to avoid facing his ugliness and his conscience. It is as if not seeing the painting enabled him to be in denial of his evil nature and repress his sins, thus never feeling guilty or atoning for it all. When Dorian dies after stabbing his portrait at the end of the novel, his hideousness, so far reflected by the painting, is transferred to his lifeless body. When the servants and the police find him, they don't identify him with Dorian Gray. That's how he gets away with murder and disgrace, leaving his reputation unblemished by what he did and will never be discovered.

What was deemed particularly outrageous in Wilde's novel is the fact that Oscar Wilde doesn't really punish or dispose of his protagonist. His body may have died, but his riveting beauty will continue to fascinate people thanks to the painting. Some may even turn him into a legend or myth, ignoring they would be worshipping a criminal. What remains of Dorian is a picture that will be considered as a faithful representation of who he was. He will be remembered as a charming young man, when he was actually an evil person. There are two possible interpretations of this ending; art is superior to real life because beauty is above morality or hypocrisy will always win over honesty. Thus, Wilde demonstrates the truthful relevance of his aesthetic principles and throws light on the dire consequences of people's hypocritical behaviours. Far from being all virtuous, the Victorians were experts at hiding their immoral desires and deeds whilst lecturing others on their conduct like paragons of morality. Beauty was one of Wilde's leading life principles, as is evidenced both by this story and the author's finely crafted prose. 

The controversial moral of Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray is not the only thing that shocked readers in 1896. The original text, which was discovered and published very recently, contained explicit references to extra-marital sex and homosexuality. That's why the publisher expurgated the manuscript without its author's consent in order to make it more marketable. In other words, the text was censored. It was so common in Victorian times to remove words referring to the facts of life or to alter passages describing inappropriate situations and behaviours that a verb was created – to bowdlerize – after Thomas Bowdler, an editor who published The Family Shakespeare, an expurgated version of the bard's plays suitable for children.

English French
To shy away from S'écarter de/éviter
Double-edged À double tranchant
Deemed + adjective Jugé + adjectif
To flout Faire fi de
Propriety La bienséance
Out of keeping with En faux de/en totale contradiction
Idle Oisif
Pleasure-seeking Hédoniste
To revel Faire la fête
Sheer Pur
To settle down Se ranger
Brazenly  Sans vergogne
Lechery La luxure
Greed La cupidité
Shrivelled Ratatiné/bouffi
Repellent Repoussant
Spotless Intact/immaculé
Attic Un grenier
To atone Expier
Unblemished Sans tâche
Paragon Un parangon/un modèle absolu

Iconoclastic art

Much like Oscar Wilde in his own time, iconoclastic artists seek to question or debunk founding myths, beliefs and values a society or community of people was built on. Their aim is often to throw light on the hypocrisy or the lies that serve to manipulate people or lure them into a sense of belonging. 

In the 1960s Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol tapped into the booming popular culture of their time to create controversial iconoclastic works of art. They both derided and revealed the full artistic potential of this emerging new culture made of soap operas, comics, malls, blockbusters and weekly stars. Their flashy compositions combined quintessentially American items and people like one-dollar bills, burgers and chips, film stars, popular brands or the star-spangled banner. Pop artists' work offers us a critical reflection on what defines America and Americans after all – is it a set of common values or material things and magazine icons? The consumer society was Pop artists' main target. They denounced the growing need for useless mass-produced objects stimulated by adverts and commercials which turned people into compulsive buyers on the hunt for the latest item of clothing or cooking utensil. Their paintings act as eye-openers on the viewer, who feels overwhelmed with objects and images put randomly together, as if to imitate consumers getting more and more things as they go, without any real purpose to acquire them. 

Lichtenstein used comic strips to mock and denounce the superficiality of American society, which only valued men's material success and women's artificial beauty. Reynolds and the Romantics would have screamed at, indignant. 

He aim may also be to reveal what some artists regard as the true hidden or underlying meaning of an existing work of art. Fairy tales, for instance, are often retold or revamped.

Jane Campion's and Julia Leigh's 2011 Sleeping Beauty gives the classic children story a brand new meaning, perhaps to teach audiences, and especially little girls, that real life is not like a fairy tale. By being passive, you are choosing to fall prey to evil people. 

English French
To lure Leurrer/appâter
To debunk Pourfendre
To deride Tourner en dérision
Malls De grands centres commerciaux aux États-Unis
The star-spangled banner Le drapeau américain
Target Une cible

Disturbing art

Art can be disturbing. Writers can write without filters. In art, to unclothe and disclose the human body has also always been quite disturbing.

Many writers today have discarded propriety in favour of a filter-free authenticity often expressed through graphic violence and crude language, as in Southern literature. It specific brand of genuinely American literature, well-known for its depictions of pathetic characters and tragic misfits trapped in unsettling environments. It is called "southern" because its most prominent representatives such as writers William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers lived in the southern states. Their fiction explores the complex mysteries of love and family relationships through their destabilizing use of exaggeration and the grotesque.

"The house is very old. There is about it a curious, cracked look that is very puzzling until you suddenly realize that at one time, and long ago, the right side of the front porch had been painted, and part of the wall—but the painting was left unfinished and one portion of the house is darker and dingier than the other. The building looks completely deserted. Nevertheless, on the second floor there is one window which is not boarded; sometimes in the late afternoon when the heat is at its worst a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town. It is a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams—sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief."

Carson McCullers

The Ballad of the Sad Café

© Penguin Modern Classics, 1951

Carson McCullers's novella The Ballad of the Sad Café is the heart-wrenching love story of the manly Miss Amelia and her effeminate husband whose marriage goes to pieces when the latter becomes infatuated with a midget who doesn't reciprocate. Through these characters' very peculiar triangular relationship, McCullers seeks to unravel what makes people fall in and out of love and how they express their feelings in their own special ways. Miss Amelia shows her love for her husband by beating him up, while he commits himself unconditionally to his beloved dwarf. The grotesque triumvirate serves to magnify the irrationality of love-induced human behaviours, while showing how humans deal with loss and unrequited love, often to no avail. Towards the end of the story, Miss Amelia has isolated herself in her house forever, like Dickens's Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Whether she also keeps on living in there as a recluse or dies of grief, the reader never finds out. The last page presents the reader with the ghostly vision of Miss Amelia at the window, suggesting that she has thinned into nothingness. What may disturb readers is not the disquieting wraith-like apparition, but the fact that a strong person can become so diminished because of love. The novel opens on this somewhat expressionistic scene of inner and outer desolation. The dreary environment disquietingly mirrors Miss Amelia's loss: "the right side of the front porch had been painted, and part of the wall—but the painting was left unfinished and one portion of the house is darker and dingier than the other. The building looks completely deserted." Carson McCullers manipulates Gothic conventions to convey loneliness and abandonment, transforming the dilapidated house into a metaphor for her heroine's devastated heart.

The human body is an unmissable feature in the art world and a source of inspiration for many sculptors and painters. From ancient nudes to quattro cento lascivious Venuses and Nikki de Saint-Phalle's buxom Nanas, most artists' aim has been to enhance the beauty of the human body and celebrate its perfection. Because they were consistent with the changing conceptions of feminine and masculine beauty through time, these idealised representations became the norms for centuries. It was only in the 19th century that artists' views of human and aesthetic beauty started to shift from ideal representations to more realistic – and therefore shocking – depictions of actual men's and women's bodies suddenly appeared on painters' canvases, much to the dismay of critics and viewers.

British painter Lucian Freud has shocked audiences with his crude and immodest representations of the human body. As if to counter the modern cult of youthful beauty, the painter took an aesthetic interest in wrinkles, love handles and sagging breasts. Representing human flesh through a great variety of tones became Freud's focus towards the end of the 20th century. His naked middle-aged men reclining on sofas and sensuously plump women on unmade beds have caused quite a stir. And yet to shock people is not Freud's main purpose; to be authentic and force humans to look at ageing bodies and faces that may be like theirs was his aim. He seemed to delight into presenting viewers with what they ugliness; fat women, naked elderly people, genitals. Freud's is a radical artistic stance at a time when one's appearance has never mattered more to express and define oneself as an individual. Everyone is bound to put on weight and wither away with the passage of time, a fact of life hardly anyone is prepared to face and accept. Imperfections, not beauty, are what define the human body. Quite disturbing also is the fact that the nude figures of his life-size paintings strike the viewer as unbearably vulnerable, unlike the perfect, idealised nudes of Botticelli's or Titian's paintings. Those are timelessly young, beautiful and fit.

English French
Misfit Un inadapté
Unsettling Dérangeant
Disquieting Inquiétant
Novella Un court roman
Midget Un nain
To magnify Agrandir
Derelict Délabré
Dilapidated Décrépit
Wraith-like Fantomatique
To shift Changer
Dismay La désolation
Immodest Impudique
Wrinkles Des rides
Love handles Des poignées d'amour
Sagging Qui pendent
Reclining Alangui

Debating, reinventing and (re-)defining art

The controversies and scandals resulting from artists' rebellions or provocations may be taken as opportunities for discussions and debates about what art is and how to define it. This may ultimately lead viewers and critics to (re)consider artists and art pieces that have been overshadowed or underestimated.


Women's art and literature

Whether art by women should be labelled as such or not be distinguished from men's art has been and still is a much debated question."Women's art" would become a specific category that would single out female artists as peculiar artists, thus using their gender as the main lens or filter through which to view and appraise their works of art.

Women's art and literature

© Flickr

Historically, women have been male artists' and writers' muses and/or assistants, i.e. reduced to ancillary partners or objects. As such, they tended to play a minor, even passive role in creative processes. This is what the Guerilla Girls humorously intended to denounce with their famous poster. 

There is also the question as to whether female artists focus on or specialise on allegedly feminine subjects such as interiors, gardens, mothers and children, fashion. Many critics and art historians have underlined that women would favour these subjects because they were part of the daily environment in which they were confined, hence the limiting sources of inspiration and the assumption that female artists weren't as creative, innovative and talented as men.

American painter Mary Cassatt is well-known today for her endearing representations of children with or without their mothers. Her paintings introduce viewers into a peaceful feminine world of quiet pastel-coloured rooms and maternal love. However, these (stereo)typically feminine subjects shouldn't overshadow her creativity. Indeed, her paintings show how she succeeded in making the most of her environment's artistic potential, exhibiting her unique talent for representing patterns and textures.

Georgia O'Keeffe's misinterpreted flower paintings (her own imagination and inspiration, she flouts gendered expectations to create art pieces thanks to her imagination and sources of inspiration. Among these, her world-famous flowers showing irises, arums and poppies from close-up and often interpreted by male critics and artists, including her own husband photographer Alfred Stieglitz, as symbolic representation of female genitals. O'Keeffe angrily dismissed this erroneous interpretation as a sexist failure to consider her art for what it is. She explained that painting the inside of flowers enabled her to work on shapes, colours and textures. Far was it from her to seek to produce metaphors for women's sexuality or her own. What O'Keeffe and some female art critics found most upsetting was the fact that women's art works were always associated with their bodily functions and never appreciated for their aesthetic qualities.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote that "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." in her landmark essay on women's literature A Room of One's Own. She insists that female artists and writers need a creative space that they can claim as theirs, separate from the rest of her home where she performs her domestic duties. Whether a studio or a study, this room would be her private refuge and territory, allowing her to enjoy a few necessary getaways into her inner world. During the second half of the 20th century, a new approach to women's art and literature emerged under the aegis of American academics Sandra Gilbert, Sarah Gubar and Elaine Showalter. These three scholars claimed that literature by women should be dealt with and studied as a literature of a kind, because whatever women wrote had been informed by their reduced economic and social circumstances. Theirs is quite a controversial stance insofar as it implies that there are essentially feminine subjects and ways of writing, an argument that is still used today to discredit female writers and artists. This notwithstanding, women's traditional place and roles in society has long caused them to juggle their artistic ambitions and wifely duties, often to the detriment of their creativity which couldn't thrive. That's what Gilbert and Gubar emphasize in their edifying body of literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979).

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wall Paper", a repressed female artists locked up in her bedroom starts having hallucinations and sees the patterns on the wallpaper move into different shapes. The story illustrates how stifling creativity can lead to madness. The heroine's overwhelming imagination finds a way out through the curlicues of the wallpaper which starts peeling off. The blank walls thus laid bare become the female artist's makeshift canvas on which to express her talent and creativity mentally. Indeed, led by her inspiration, she begins to paint the wall mentally and gradually transforms her cell into a studio of her own. Gilman resorted to the supernatural to warn women and men of the danger of repressing the imagination, which is bound to run riots. What the story powerfully demonstrates is that nothing or no one can stop a woman's imagination and creativity. Readers might think of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Rochester's mad wife in the attic who killed herself after setting fire to Thornfield Hall, where she was held captive.


Experimental art 

Experimental art has different forms. Ever since its tremendous development in the early 18th century, the novel has been one of writers' favourite media to carry out narrative and literary experiments. Over the last decades, quite a few visual artists have started to experiment with new technologies.

Novel is a very popular and malleable genre, the novel offers writers limitless possibilities, whether they want to experiment with characters or narration, or even language. Through their characters, novelists can also convey political ideas and moral values, as did Ayn Rand in her two novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957).

The protagonist of The Fountainhead, architect Howard Roark, was modelled after Frank Lloyd Wright, an rebel and radical who never agreed to alter his building projects or compromise to suit contractors. The novel promotes individualism and selfishness as the key to personal and collective success. Ayn Rand herself proudly stated that "Man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress." Rand radically individualistic philosophy ran counter to Christian values and the socialist ideas of her time, which led many publishers and booksellers to reject her novels. Progress, according to Rand, must result from independent individuals' creative initiatives and achievement, and should not be entrusted to any government. She was a staunch supporter of absolute freedom and individual responsibility, like her hero Howard Roark, who is the embodiment of unshakeable willpower. Ayn Rand's view of men and the social relation between them takes root in libertarianism, a philosophy proclaiming that the individual is paramount and shouldn't rely on others to succeed and thrive. The Fountainhead chronicles Howard Roark's struggle against the social and aesthetic conventions aimed to sacrifice creativity and originality to the benefit of the collective. Through this non-conformist's strenuous progress towards fame and recognition, Ayn Rand denounces humans' gregarious need to crush those they find too dangerously different because they pose a threat to their well-established beliefs, values and world views. Howard Roark is a dissenter and a rival, and therefore has to be ostracised and prevented from succeeding by all means.

"Then he thought suddenly of Howard Roark. He was surprised to find that the flash of that name in his memory gave him a sharp little twinge of pleasure, before he could know why. Then he remembered: Howard Roark had been expelled this morning. […] The event proved conclusively that he had been a fool to imagine Roark a dangerous rival."

Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead

© Penguin Modern Classics, 1943

Painters are also experimenting.

American painter Jackson Pollock is famous around the world for his action painting. He would cover huge panels with random criss-crossed patterns resulting from his dripping technique. Pollock would stand high above the canvas with a dispenser from which he released paint to cover the panel in colourful splashes. His aim was not to represent nature or people, but to let himself be guided by his inspiration, as if he, as an artist, was only a medium for creation. This conception of art harks back to ancient times, when philosophers and artists thought that artists were under the influence of the mania, an overpowering creative force that enabled them to sculpt, paint and write without them knowing what exactly possessed them. Pollock explained that his aim was to give vent to the inner chaos of his emotions on the canvas, but his art was so innovative and original that it was misunderstood and undervalued.

David Hockney's various attempts at representing landscapes from various standpoints at the same time have led him to use camcorders and tablets to purse his very fruitful artistic research.

Hockney's 2011 Four Seasons is a series of videos made successively in the same natural environment in spring, summer, autumn and winter. The artist equipped a car with multiple camcorders that filmed the trees and roadsides while he was driving. The experiment resulted in a digital art work that enables the viewer to see the same natural environment change through time and space. In many of his previous life-size landscape paintings, Hockney used inverted perspective to give viewers the impression they are entering the scene to step into deep colourful forests or walk on roads, up and down the hills of his beloved Yorkshire Dales. Yet other of Hockney's paintings consist of same-sized rectangles, each corresponding to a different part of the landscape and vantage point. The Four Seasons is Hockney's ultimate immersing aesthetic experience, which offers viewers a unique opportunity to see far more than the human eye and mind could take in in one go. As the four different scenes unfold in front of us, the artwork seems to come alive and remind us of the passage of time. Hockney's experimental video art pieces raise an important question: does the future of art lie in digital technologies and artificial intelligence?


Interpretation and alterations

Just like beauty is said to be "in the eye of the beholder", meaning can be found these in the viewer's minds and therefore depends on his or her background and gender. Another fashionable tendency in the art world is to modify, adapt or refresh plays or operas to make them resonate with contemporary world views and values. 

It has become a tendency among critics and viewers to relate to and interpret a work of art through the lens of their emotions, beliefs and political ideas.

In 2018, the Manchester Art Gallery decided to remove one of its paintings to initiate a discussion between critics, historians and viewers about the representation of women in art. Indeed, one can't fail to notice that women are all too often represented either as chaste or as promiscuous in stereotyped situations. The painting the Gallery took down is John William Waterhouse's 1896 Hylas and the Nymphs, which shows a group of seven topless women luring an innocent young man into his death, is seen by many as a sexist representation of the venomous femme fatale. However, this painting isn't so much sexist as very ambiguous. On the one hand it can be seen as representing powerful women, because they outnumber the one man in the picture. He is represented as weak because lustful and therefore unable to resist temptation, which ultimately causes his death. On the other hand these women are portrayed as fatally alluring seductresses tempting an innocent/gullible man into his death, which can feel quite negative and offending to women. This representation hinges on the virgin/whore dichotomy according to which women are either virtuous or promiscuous. Power women or beautiful but dangerous objects? That's the question! Knowing that the Pre-Raphaelites were quite keen to denounce women's limited place and role in Victorian society, it is doubtful that this painter intended to convey a derogatory image of women.

Hylas and the Nymphs

Hylas and the Nymphs by J.W. Waterhouse, 1896

© Wikipédia

To modify, adapt or refresh pieces of art is often done. As a result, these works of art are no longer considered as part of a given social, political, economic and cultural context, but studied, interpreted and understood as illustrations of what today's society rejects or disapproves. This often leads to censorship.

Gone with the Wind was removed from VOD platforms because of what could be viewed as its partisan take on slavery. Black people as servants speaking an allegedly simplistic English language of their own, featuring as white landowners' inferiors. Far from contributing to the necessary fight for equality against racism, such measures tend to maintain the current situation by hiding a disturbing past instead of facing and coming to terms with it. An alternative to complete censorship is the use of trigger warnings, i.e. short forewords that can be included in books, films and even museums to inform readers of possibly shocking contents – usually graphic sex or violence. Deemed insanely politically correct by many people, trigger warnings are becoming the norm in university and academia. According to them, these warnings do not protect sensitive people, but make them even more sensitive and vulnerable and denies them access to masterpieces. It would probably be more relevant to let each and every individual decide what is shocking for him or her, instead of adjudicating upon what is shocking and what is not on audiences' behalf. Otherwise, there will only be one-sided interpretations and single stories.