Modern Art of Provocation (Part IX)

Postscript: In Your Face (with Mine), or Children’s Play

by Donald Kuspit

Part III of this essay focused on the Ruskin-Whistler debate as emblematic of the modernist rejection of traditional aesthetics.


…the primary difficulty which children experience is in establishing a sense of their own power and a place in the human hierarchy…their sexual difficulties are secondary to this, not primary.

…sado-masochistic preoccupations reflect a failure to achieve an established place in a real and actual hierarchical structure with other human beings; a step which appears to be an essential prerequisite to becoming capable of a true love involvement.


—Anthony Storr, Human Destructiveness56

Robert Mapplethorpe, (1946-1989), Self-Portrait with Horns, 1982I’m looking at a photograph of Robert Maplethorpe, a bust-length Self-Portrait with Horns (1985), that is, as a devil.  He stares intensely at us, his hair unruly, his body naked, or so the lack of a shirt suggests.  Here’s another self-portrait, this time a 1993 photograph of Christa Näher, with a hand-drawn moustache (á la Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., 1920, otherwise known as “Mona Lisa with a Moustache”), outlined lips and nose, and a chin ornamented with a “Todesvogel” (“Bird of Death”), perhaps a take on the Angel of Death, but looking rather cute.  The word kill, repeated three times, appears in a balloon aimed at her forehead, which is pierced with a knife that comes out on her cheek.  Both cheeks are ornamented with little hearts, glasses are added to the eyes, her eyebrows become a mischievous scrawl—the right one seems to have grown a curling horn, scroll-like but devilish—and a nose ring is thrown in, completing the transformation of Näher’s pensive face into a perverse mask.  Mapplethorpe and Näher have come a long provocative way from Duchamp’s provocative Please Touch (1947), a bare breast displayed as an in-your-face work of art.Marcel Duchamp, (1887-1968), L.H.O.O.Q., 1919, Private Collection, Paris, France

What is behind the face has become its front:  the crudely drawn—not to say “primitive”—mask seems to convey the way she thinks of herself.  And what goes on in her mind:  underneath her thoughtful look, she’s obsessed with love and death, not to say sex and violence (violent sex?).  The pirate earring suggests she regards herself as an outlaw, perhaps because she’s bisexual; the tension between her full feminine lips, given to her by nature, and the thin, tidy moustache—added by choice—suggests as much.  Just as Duchamp defiled, mocked, trivialized Leonardo’s masterpiece—de-idealized Mona Lisa by sexualizing her, changing her into a male transvestite, even suggesting that she’s a hermaphrodite (“she’s hot between the legs,” as L.H.O.O.Q. says, but what’s between her legs may be a penis), and with that changing Leonardo’s masterpiece into a dirty joke and sex into a joke played on human beings by nature—so Näher defiles, mocks, trivializes her self-portrait, suggesting her psychic if not physical bisexuality, more broadly, her contradictory view of herself and masochism.  However overlaid the male self is on the female self, the two remain incommensurate. The male self is a crude, quickly drawn sketch, involving a stereotyped idea of male features, in contrast to the photograph, which is carefully posed, conveying a self-possessed woman.  Näher is more certainly a woman than she is a man.  Indeed, the fastidious, finicky, artificial moustache seems unmanly, superficial, farcical—a dandyish detail in a slapdash act.  But, then again, the joke is on her, not us:  she decomposes in front of us, suggesting that the composure she has in the photograph is a deception—her self-deception.   The photograph creates a social illusion, the drawing mocks it, suggesting that Näher is disillusioned with herself. 

Like Duchamp, who used a cheap photograph of the Mona Lisa, a tacky copy that makes the original look bad and that can be reproduced ad infinitum, unlike the one-of-a-kind masterpiece, Näher uses a photograph, which can be reproduced ad infinitum, repeated in a limitless series that undermines its uniqueness, suggesting that she is not original, however original and unreproducible the hand-drawn details she adds to it seem.  The photograph is exacting, the drawing is inexact. Its inexactness makes it unique whatever the clichés of its visual and verbal language, while the informational precision of the photograph suggests that it’s just another product of the technological society.  Leonardo is sadistically cut down to size, suggesting that he’s not the creative genius he has been said to be, and Näher masochistically cuts herself down to size, suggesting that she has no creative pretensions.  Indeed, the childish artless graffiti drawing is a kind of joke she plays on herself—and on the artful, serious photograph.  Both Duchamp and Näher have a child’s ignorant, immature, spiteful, disrespectful—even stupid--attitude to an adult work of art. Leonardo made his work for mature adults, not for nasty children who couldn’t begin to understand, appreciate and respect it. Näher treats the photograph of herself as an adult woman with the same childish incomprehension and disdain as Duchamp treats Leonardo’s portrait of an adult woman.

The nasty child in Duchamp got the better of him:  for all his professed concern to make an “art for the mind,” his desecration of the Mona Lisa is mindless.  It is equivalent to pulling the wings off a butterfly or spray painting a swastika on a synagogue.  The rare and sacred is vulgarized and profaned.  The child’s mind is vulgar and vicious, never innocent, as Freud showed, for it is both orally and anally sadistic, and masochistic, for the child feels powerless and helpless in a world of powerful and not always helpful adults.  Duchamp is mocking a powerful, great, famous artist, undermining his masterpiece by suggesting that it has a sexual underside, and scandalously making it manifest, thus suggesting that Leonardo’s masterful art is a kind of cover-up. He may have been calling attention to Leonardo’s homosexuality, explained by Freud in terms of Leonardo’s “two mothers” and seeming fatherlessness, in an essay, which Duchamp probably read. Duchamp provokes the public, giving himself a certain ironical power, and, perhaps above all, gaining attention, coming to the public notice.  What began with Duchamp’s annihilative attack on Leonardo’s Mona Lisa dead-ends in Rauschenberg’s nihilistic erasure of a Willem De Kooning drawing (was it of a woman?).  Both are destructive childish acts, Rauschenberg’s more extreme and above-board than Duchamp’s, which has a certain tongue-in-cheek restraint, as the fact that he uses letters rather than spells out their meaning, available only when they are read out loud.  Duchamp gives himself power over Leonardo, Rauschenberg gives himself power over De Kooning. This allows them to imagine that they are more powerful artist and that more pointedly, childish destructiveness is more powerful than adult creativity.  They, in effect, confuse and fuse them by appropriating the power of Leonardo’s and De Kooning’s art for their own puerile purposes.   

The modern artist is a child, Kandinsky says:

He acted just as children would, the greatest fantasists of all time….The artist his whole life resembles the child in many ways….There is an unconscious, enormous power in children that expresses itself here and places the work of children on the same level as (and often much higher than!) the work of adults.

—Wassily Kandinsky, “On the Question of Form” 57

A child provokes adults to show his power, to gain power over them—tyrannize them.  His provocations are an expression of his desire for power, even as they act out his delusion of grandeur. The imperialism of what Freud called the “imperial infant” has to do with the fact that he is (ideally) the center of his parent’s attentions, and thus imagines he dominates them.  The modern artist wants that archaic feeling of dominance once again, but he can only get it by provoking the public, in effect his parents.  Their disapproval of his art paradoxically becomes their approval of his person, for it indicates that he has their attention:  they’re mirroring him, however distorted the mirror, as he sees it.  Better any public mirror than none at all.  Better seeing himself in the eyes of the public than seeing himself with his own eyes—than reflecting on the meaning and purpose of his urge to provoke the public. 

What psychoanalysts call the child’s feeling of omnipotence is his feeling of impotence defensively turned inside out.  It is confirmed even when it is stopped short by the public, for its rejection of his art confirms that he has power over it.  Provoked enough, it will finally idealize the artist and his art, as though he was doing the public a favor by giving it a new consciousness of art, and, perhaps more crucially and unconsciously, in order to suppress the destructive feelings it regressively aroused with its own destructiveness.  It has a bad effect on the public because it is bad art, in the sense that it treats adult art badly, and the public has to make it good by finally giving it approval, however qualified.  Modern art becomes a “critical” moment in the history of art, a moment when art “criticizes” itself, as Greenberg proposed, and it finally must be “critically” accepted to give it social credibility, and with that restore the public’s faith in art in general, in the saving grace of art. 

If “dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence,” then decadent dandy artist such as Duchamp and Rauschenberg are the last heroes left in modernity, all the more so because their art shows the “absence of conviction and sincerity” (indeed, ironically attacks them) that Jules Castagnary saw in Manet’s works, where “everything is uncertain and left to chance.”  For Ruskin, “the most startling fault of the [modern] age [is] its faithlessness….Founded on the inferior and evanescent principles of modernism, on its recklessness, impatience, or faithlessness,” art cannot help but be “vulgar, dull, or impious.”  “In politics, religion is now a name; in art, a hypocrisy or affectation…. All sincere or modest art, among us [moderns] is profane.”  “The best among them [modern artists] are in doubt and misery; the worst in reckless defiance; the plurality in plodding hesitation.”  And yet religious faith in art remains alive in modernity—look at money’s faith in it—which is why the public accepts whatever art comes its way, however unconsciously disappointing it is.  The modern public believes in the most questionable art—questionable from Ruskin’s point of view—if only to offset its unquestioned faith in technology.    

Duchamp and Näher suggest that it is easy to make art in modernity.  All one has to do is to make a few “adjustments” to a found object—a painting in Duchamp’s case, a photograph in Näher’s case—and call the result art.  Art is “assisted” into existence, to use Duchamp’s term, but the result is not necessarily art—it’s anti-art.  Superficially artists and making superficial art, Duchamp and Näher not only mock the idea of the masterpiece, but what has variously been called “creative apperception” (by the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott) or “creative intuition” (by the theologian Jacques Maritain).  They work hard at being destructive rather than creative.  Indeed, they are self-destructive, if we assume that Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. is an ironical self-portrait—Man Ray’s photograph of him dressed and made up as a woman, make-believe but believable, suggests as much.  Sexual ambiguity undermines the self the face signifies.  

Like Mapplethorpe—apparently also bisexual, as his portrait of himself wearing lipstick and make-up suggests (however flamboyantly homosexual he is in other photo-self-portraits)—Duchamp and Näher stare at us, unflinching and confrontational, almost breaking through the picture plane, the boundary between the public and picture.  Their faces, however defaced, are in our faces.  We’re the loser in this face-off and face-down, because they can’t see our faces, with our approving or disapproving, accepting or skeptical expressions.  We are anonymous but they are getting personal. Indeed, they show a sort of personal originality by daringly presenting themselves bisexually, “abnormally” and self-conflicted, however psychically normal it is to be bisexual and self-conflicted.  They’re “artistic” and we’re not, suggesting that we’re inferior to them—certainly less “stylish” and self-dramatizing.  Another artist, Chuck Nanney, bearded and ponytailed, has himself photographed full-length in a woman’s dress, a 1992 portrait for a 1993 exhibition called “Are Today’s Artists Hung Up on Clothing?”  Confirming that he’s an artist, not just any bisexual or transvestite, Nanney’s dress features a geometrical design, making it fashionably if familiarly abstract. 

Perhaps more provocative of all, at least from a social historical, if not art historical point of view, is Jonathan Borofsky’s pairing of a 1993 photograph of himself, casually wearing a blue t-shirt, with a photograph of Hitler formally dressed in a brown trench-coat and officer’s cap.  The tyrannical artist and the tyrannical politician could be kindred souls.  Borofsky and Hitler have the same determined face, the same look of self-determination.  Dare one say that it conveys the same “triumph of the will?”  Is Borofsky suggesting (wittingly or unwittingly) that the artist has a Nietzschean “will to power”— that sick philosopher, endlessly preoccupied with health, thought he could be restored by a ruthless will to power, for illness meant powerlessness.  Hitler admired Nietzsche, and so did many early German modernists.  Is the avant-garde artist a self-proclaimed Führer, a fascist taking over the country of art the way the fascist Führer Hitler took over Germany?  In the photographs, Borofsky and Hitler are clearly in charge—unequivocally commanding male figures.  Both the avant-garde and Nazi Germany were powers to be reckoned with—powers that took control of the realms they operated in.  Is Hitler Borofsky’s alter ego or shadow self, or is Borofsky the artist Hitler might have become if he had been an American born after World War II, rather than an Austrian who started it? 

 “Facial expression is a form of non-verbal communication in which an affect display is communicated via the face.” 58 The faces in avant-garde portraits are typically aggressive, sometimes showing an uncontrolled aggression (and animosity to the viewing public), as in Lucas Samaras’ violently in-your-face Photo Transformations (1973–74).  Aggression seems to be the ruling affect, from the provocative green stripe that passes for a nose in Matisse’s Portrait of Madame Matisse (1905) to the grotesque faces in Karel Appel’s Angry Landscape (1967).  Sometimes the aggression is muted, as in Chuck Close’s early portraits of artists, which have the cold fastidiousness that Baudelaire said was characteristic of the superior dandy. Their coldness is more insidiously provocative than Samaras’s hotness, not to say hot-headedness. Sometimes it is masked by sexuality, as in Eric Fischl’s The Old Man’s Boat and the Old Man’s Dog (1982).  Aggressive affect is often implicit, whether in the strong, often openly hostile faces of Lucian Freud’s portraits and self-portraits or in Philip Pearlstein’s paintings of passive, peculiarly cold and remote femme fatales.  They project their unconscious aggression—and self-conscious sexuality--into the decorative objects around them, which radiate with the hot instinctive life their naked bodies seem to lack. 

Perhaps the most obvious sign of aggression in modern art—“what do you do that isn’t aggressive?”, the abstract expressionist painter Milton Resnick asked the modern artist59—is what a student of Ingres called “the avenging palette knife” of Monet and Cézanne.  It drove him “out of his mind,” suggesting its mindlessness. 60 Orlan seems to have used it on her face, and Rudolf Schwarzkogeler seems to have used it on his penis.  The naked female body of Manet’s Olympia and the one visible through the peep hole in the door of Duchamp’s Etant Donnés, and the naked bodies of Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke, confirm that the lure of provocation remains a constant of modern art, although it is no longer as provoking as it was when Courbet painted The Meeting, or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854).  He proclaims his superiority to his patron and public, as his patronizing, arrogant attitude shows.  Conceptual art may be the most patronizing, arrogant, provocative of all modern arts, by reason of its indifference to and contempt for the material medium, and its delusion of intellectual grandeur. 61 But it’s still not as provocative as Mapplethorpe’s photograph of himself with a whip in his anus.  His buttocks face us, but he turns his head to smile at the viewer, sadistically drawing him into the work, and taking masochistic pleasure in doing so.  But the viewer has eyes only for the prominent whip, which points directly at him, as though inviting him to hold it.  The viewer has whipped Mapplethorpe, who relishes the pain this causes him—the viewer as well as Mapplethorpe. 

Mapplethorpe’s sado-masochistic self-portrait is an extreme case of what Daniel Bell calls “the emphasis on ‘self-expression’”—what the psychoanalyst George Frankl calls “the cult of unrestrained self-expression” 62—that is, “the debasement of modernity.” It involves “the erasure of the distinction between art and life, so that the [provocative] acting out of impulse, rather than the reflective discipline of the imagination becomes the touchstone of satisfaction.  To have significance, a culture must transcend the present, because it is the recurrent confrontation with those root questions whose answers, through a set of symbols, provide a viable coherence to the meaning of existence.” 63 “The modalities of culture are few,” he adds, “and they derive from the existential situations which confront all human beings, through all times, in the nature of consciousness:  how one meets death, the nature of tragedy and the character of heroism, the definition of loyalty and obligation, the redemption of the soul, the meaning of love and of sacrifice, the understanding of compassion, the tension between an animal and a human nature, the claims of instinct and restraint.  Historically, therefore, culture has been fused with religion.” 64 From this point of view, Mapplethorpe’s photograph is unimaginative, anti-cultural, anti-religion, although not as obviously as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987)—and lacks existential purpose. Still, there is a tragic, animal character to his exhibitionistic acting out of his immature sexual instincts. They seem self-destructive rather than self-affirmative—notice his abject, vulnerable position—for he seems to be punishing himself in the act of expressing them. These blatant examples confirm that the roots of modern art lie in a strategy of provocation.



56. Wassily Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, eds., Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), pp. 146, 251, 252.

57. Anthony Storr, Human Destructiveness (New York:  Basic Books, 1972), pp. 66, 73.

58. Andrew M. Colman, A Dictionary of Psychology (Oxford and New York:  Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 265.

59. Milton Resnick, Out of the Picture:  Milton Resnick and the New York School (New York:  Midmarch Arts Press, 2003), p. 140.

60. ”The elderly copper engraver, genre painter and popular playwright Louis Leroy 91812–1885)...claimed to have visited the show” with this person.  Ingo F. Walther, ed., Impressionist Art 1860–1920 (Cologne and Los Angeles:  Taschen, 2006), p. 141.

61. The exhibition of conceptual art at the Institute of Contemporary Art of the University of Pennsylvania (May 1 to August 1, 2004) makes its nihilism clear.  Titled “The Big Nothing,” one could spend the two months drinking coffee and discussing “non-existent objects” at the Café Nothing, otherwise known as the Arthur Ross Gallery.  On July 21, ARM/Cinema 25, affiliated with the Institute, showed Andy Warhol’s film Sleep (1963), “a provocative exploration of the empty.”  In conjunction with the exhibition, Philadelphia’s Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site offered a tour “exploring the empty space of the house,” and the gallery offered “an on-line project” which “explores the ways in which…absence can serve as an organizing principle for the artists.”  It was appropriately titled “Avoid.” 

At Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, an artist named Michael Lonier exhibited his “nadagraphs” (nothing-graphs), inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s sacrilegious version of the Lord’s Prayer:  “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada as it is in nada.  Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada.  Hail nothing, full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”  Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” The Portable Hemingway, ed., Malcolm Cowley (New York:  Viking, 1944), p. 531.  There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, one in Matthew 6:9-13, the other in Luke 11:2-4.  The latter asks the “Father” to “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”  In the former “sins” are called “debts.”  Both ask the Lord for “our daily bread.”  The latter ends with the line “And lead us not into temptation.”  In the former, this is followed by “but deliver us from the evil one.”  New International Version of the Holy Bible.  The last line of Hemingway’s prayer mocks the Hail Mary, a Roman Catholic prayer based on the angel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary (Ave Maria), repeated by Elizabeth.  Hemingway supposedly converted to Catholicism in 1918, but remained skeptical of it, as his “Nothomist Poem” suggests.  The two published lines of the poem (1927) read:  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want him for long.”  See Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway:  A Life Story [New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), pp. 595–96.  John Cage’s equally nihilistic statement “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it” graces a page of the folder offering a map and guide to the “constellation of music, art, film, and talks on the themes of nothing, independently organized by thirty-six venues throughout Philadelphia.”  A half century earlier, in 1952 Matisse remarked:  “As for the so-called abstract painters of today, it seems to me that too many of them depart from a void.”  Jack Flam, ed., Matisse on Art (Berkeley and London:  University of California Press, 1994), p. 147.

62. George Frankl, Civilization:  Utopia and Tragedy (London:  Open Gate Press, 1992), p. 171.

63. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York:  Basic Books, 1976), p. xv.

64. Daniel Bell, “The Return of the Sacred?”, The Winding Passage:  Essays and Sociological Journeys 1960–1980 ( New York: Basic Books, 1980), p. 333