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Survey: The Best Art That Offends Us

Survey: The Best Art That Offends Us

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this survey.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

The murders of 12 people at the
Paris newspaper Charlie Hebdo clarified with new urgency the importance
of protecting speech even, perhaps especially, when it gives offense.
What’s your favorite piece of offensive art, and why is it important it
crosses the lines that it does?

Richard Brody, New Yorker

Shakespeare, Voltaire, Dostoyevsky were anti-Semites; the great cathedrals were the work of a Church rampaging on Crusades; the “stereo” scene in “JLG/JLG” is reminiscent of a scene from a Nazi propaganda film. It’s virtually impossible to love art without overlooking or reconciling oneself to offense — by which I mean, one’s own, my own (it’s easy to wave away with an aesthetic benediction offenses to the feelings of others). “The Merchant of Venice” finds echoes (no way for Jews to find betterment except through Christianity) in an extraordinary early short film by D. W. Griffith that I only recently saw, “A Child of the Ghetto,” and, as everyone knows, Griffith had more and worse in store along with his greater achievements. The modern cinema is born under the curse of racist caricature and incitement to murder, with “The Birth of a Nation”; I hate it for what it is and what it caused, but I love it for other films that it made possible. There, Griffith invented the cinematic toolbox for psychologically intimate yet grandly stirring historical action that leaps into the present tense and into the imagination. Griffith used that kit of epochal astonishment to spread disgusting and destructive lies — yet that kit quickly passed into the hands of other filmmakers, including those who, even now, make movies in the spirit of virtue and in search of truth. Principled directors and movie-goers alike are Griffith’s ineluctable and perhaps unwilling heirs, the inheritors of an ill-gotten treasure that imposes a special burden of self-consciousness and historical consciousness. The modern cinema, in its obsession with history and with the history of cinema itself, reveals its essential mode of expiation and of mourning.

Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com, Vulture

Right now I am appreciating “Natural Born Killers,” which was hit with a lawsuit claiming that it was incitement  to murder. I didn’t like it much when I came out, but now that I’m working on a book about Oliver Stone and revisiting all his work, I see it in a new light. It’s about life in a Hobbesian universe without law, order, or decency. Probably very much like Vietnam circa 1968, I would bet.

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com, Some Came Running

I’d have to call a four-way tie between Tom Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag,” the “Every Sperm Is Sacred” sequence in “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life,” the Butthole Surfers’ “The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave,” and Glenn Greenwald’s Twitter feed. 

Farran Smith Nehme, Self-Styled Siren, New York Post

This is a tough one, because while I know this isn’t at all the intent, the question strikes me at first as an invitation to be smug. You know, “Here’s a work of art that offended all the yokels; but I, of course, am a sophisticated critic able recognize its greatness.” Many of the movies I love from the studio era have offensive moments, but are redeemed by the quality of the whole. (Preston Sturges and Raoul Walsh both have several films in that category.) If I believed my disgust at something in a film meant the film (or even one ugly scene within a film) shouldn’t be shown, I wouldn’t be a critic. But the truth is that if the overall thrust of a work of art genuinely and personally offends me, I nearly always conclude it’s no good. If I take the question as an occasion for soul-searching, and restrict myself to movies, my example is no big surprise: “The Birth of a Nation.” Watching it was often an ordeal; some scenes almost made me ill. But the trailblazing genius of D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer, and moments of beauty such as Robert Herron and Maxwell Stanley dying in each other’s arms, mean I don’t think we ever can or should shelve it for good.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

The tricky part of this question is to find something that is almost an oxymoron — by definition, something that offends me will not normally be my favorite anything. I like and appreciate plenty of things that offend other people, like, say, “Gone With the Wind,” but I think it’s safe to say at this point that nobody considers that to be a gritty, realistic portrayal of how things actually were. I think you have to look at films like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Triumph of the Will” to get into the sorts of extremes any free speech, art vs. artist argument has to go.

However, I do have a go-to touchstone for such things. Any time somebody wants to bring up Roman Polanski, or Bill Cosby, or Orson Scott Card or any art creator who seems personally repugnant for one reason or another, I have to think about the fact that I own a CD of songs performed by Charles Manson. It’s not especially “good” music (though it has its moments, like the Guns N’ Roses-covered “Look at Your Game Girl” and the goofy “Garbage Dump”), but it is a moment in time from a historically disturbed psyche captured and preserved. Much like my defense of the new “Sin City” movie this year, I go back to the fact that some art, while it does not come from good people, may be a fascinating representation of their damaged interiors, and one I’m curious to explore even if it frightens or repels me on some level. And since Manson is pretty objectively worse than everyone else I mentioned in this paragraph, I think appreciation of his artwork — if that’s the word — necessitates that of theirs too.

Tomris Laffly, Movie Mezzanine

Would a TV show count as offensive art? I would then pick each and every episode of “South Park.” Satire through generating deep offense and ridiculing all privileges is not only important, but vital. Satire magnifies everyday injustices and shines a light on the truth during small or significant moments where majority somehow ends up on the wrong side of the history. And South Park continues to do that superbly and bravely.

Greg Cwik, Indiewire, the Believer

I’m gonna avoid movies for this question (though my answer would be “Blue Velvet”). My instinctual response is Andres Serrano’s notorious “Piss Christ,” a sallow image of Christ on a crucifix, submerged in a amber-hued abyss that’s actually Serrano’s urine, which got Rudy Giuliani’s panties in a bunch. But that’s kind of a cop out answer at this point. Also coming to mind, though it’s certainly not my favorite, is Hokusai’s “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” a salacious woodcut in the shunga tradition (licentious Japanese art from the 17th-19th centuries) depicting a women getting fucked by an octopus. Really. Tentacle erotica is a (strangely)  fairly popular bestial form of pornographic art, to which I’m not normally drawn (really), but Hokusai’ woodcut has a certain potent, galvanizing effect. It has genuine meaning within the overarching themes of Hokusai’s career and within Japanese folklore, but I’m more drawn to its immediate visceral nature, and the insinuation of a domination fantasy during exceptionally prudish times.

Nell Minow, Beliefnet

I don’t have a favorite example of offensive art, but I do have a favorite example of my favorite aspect of “offensive” art.  I love to track the trajectory of art initially considered transgressive or offensive or shocking as it moves, often very quickly, to merely edgy, then acceptable, then quaintly retro.  Some people thought that the Beatles’ haircuts spelled the end of civilization.  And the Sex Pistols were considered very offensive in their day.  They showed their contempt for society’s standards that went beyond their songs and performances.  They turned down induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a letter that showed that contempt in form and content.  A few years later, Johnny Rotten’s voice was on the audio guide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s History of British Fashion exhibit. On the other hand, some material that was considered acceptable is now considered offensive.  Take a look at those blackface numbers in “Swing Time” and “Holiday Inn” and films with Katharine Hepburn, Alec Guinness, Marlon Brando and Mickey Rooney playing Asian roles. So all “offensive” art is important, whether it is crossing the line toward or away from acceptability because that is part of the way we test and define ourselves.

Kristy Puchko, Pajiba

Offensive is in the eye of the beholder. What some people find repulsive, others treasure. (Pretty sure that’s an unwritten rule of the internet.) But in my case, it applies perfectly to one of my favorite films of 2014, “Wetlands.” It focuses a teen girl who is willfully disgusting as means of defiance against her prim and proper mother. Her brand of rebellion is downright nauseating at points, including tampon swapping, an actual angry asshole, and an urban legend that could scare one off delivery pizza. It’s graphic in gross-outs and in sexual content. Yet making a movie this filthy is downright subversive when it’s about a girl, since gross-out comedies are mainly a boys-only brand. And beneath its crust and oozings, there’s a vibrant beating heart that pumps a charming coming-of-age tale I couldn’t get enough of. I know the descriptors above are enough for some to declare Wetlands as trash, site unseen. It’s not for everyone. But it doesn’t need to be. Its inaccessibility actually fits its message of romance: a lid for every pot, or maybe an ass for every toilet. 

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

Robert Mapplethorpe’s show The Perfect Moment was the center of controversy, because the images were as explicit as they were provocative. The show sparked a debate about taxpayers funding the arts, and I applaud Mapplethorpe’s work and the use of tax dollars to fund it. His photos, such as “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” address images and meanings that consider race, class, gender and sexuality, as well as identity in ways that make viewers think. These things that are always linked in my mind and deserve attention. Artists like Mapplethorpe should be allowed to push buttons and tax dollars should be available to support them.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I don’t know that I can pick one specific work, but I can definitely pick a specific theme. Whenever there’s a movie that doesn’t portray Christianity in the most basic, straightforward way possible, there’s a contingent of people who take offense. From “The Last Temptation of Christ” to “Dogma” to “Noah,” it seems that some folks get all worked up about films that actually try to make the audience think about the issue of faith and what it means. Personally, I believe faith is at its most powerful when we ARE working at it. Such films make us think harder and reach deeper. It’s easy to go on autopilot with faith. Having works like these that engage us (even if we’re enraged or offended) is vital to get the most out of our personal beliefs.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, What the Flick?!

I’m an atheist, so what do I know, but I think the most moving depiction of the life of Jesus is in Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a film that fundamentalist Christians did their best to keep from seeing back in 1988. (I was living in Nashville and had to drive four hours to Atlanta if I wanted to find a theater that would screen the film.) It’s one of the few works of art that accentuates Jesus’s mortality and presents him as a man who goes into the crucifixion not knowing whether or not he’s going to come out the other end, and that makes his sacrifice more meaningful than the “Can we get this over with, please?” attitude struck by so many movie Jesuses.

Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine

Let’s go with “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” which arguably courted controversy based on its very premise. The film is, 35 years after its release, still enormously funny — the question “And how shall we fuck off?” is my favorite line — and still an enormously important statement on the freedom of expression and religion. It’s important that “Life of Brian” as well as any piece of culture that offends someone crosses the line because that freedom has to exist. Specific to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, while I may not personally find the cartoons in question to be terribly incisive in their satire, they need to be able to exist in our society. We can defend freedom of expression (and should) without automatically giving a blanket endorsement to every piece of art.

Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

I don’t think it should ever be censored, and I do think everyone should see it at least once, but there really is something obscene about “Eraserhead.” It’s a singular masterpiece that somehow manages to transgress boundaries that we, or rather, I don’t know how to articulate.

As far as traditionally offensive art, I guess I’ll have to stick up for ’80s comedy albums. Particularly Eddie Murphy’s “Comedian” and Sam Kinison’s “Louder than Hell,” which are indefensibly homophobic and misogynist documents.

And yet I hang on to them as performance art pieces, as portraits of personality, and as slices of the fucked-up time that produced them. I’m not proud of them, but I do still listen to them periodically.

Q.V. Hough, Vague Visages

I’ve always admired the work of Caravaggio, especially after learning about his ability to push the boundaries of art. He challenged the ideas of the sacred/profane, and his influence can be seen in the works of independent filmmakers who play by their own rules (see Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”). 

John Keefer, 51 Deep

“Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom.” It’s certainly an unusual experience of a film. By the end I felt two things: Pasolini really really really hates fascism and even though every single sadomasochistic activity ever envisioned by mankind wasn’t depicted it felt as though they had been, all of them, and that’s quite an accomplishment. Oh yes, and the banality of evil etc., etc. 

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

“Offensive art” is an oxymoron. Art, in all its forms is a necessary tool against complacency. “Safe” entertainment that does not challenge has its own dangers. The attacks this past week have to be condemned as the horrific crimes they are. Individual voices continue to need to be heard. To name a work as having the potential of being offensive is an arrogant and offensive label in itself, that can be used to provoke those who want to censor.  

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

Whenever I think of art that is controversially received I think of Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game,” which was banned for a number of years upon release in France, due to the manner in which it lampooned the country’s society of the time. The film was banned in 1939 under wartime measures by a censorship authority set up to keep spirits high. Alongside a number of other high profile movies, Le Jour se leve included, “The Rules of the Game” was suppressed until the mid-1950s, with the official notice claiming that works that could carry a “depressing, morbid, immoral [and] having an undesirable influence over the young” ought to be kept from the public during times of national concern such as that upon the outbreak of war in Europe. 

Viewing the film from the vantage point of the 21st Century it’s quite difficult to see what all the fuss was about. Renoir himself discusses the infamous response the film inspired in a wonderful filmed introduction recorded some decades later. Remembering an occasion on which he was asked to explain why the film was deemed controversial to a young fan some years after the fact, Renoir responded with the following anecdote, which in it’s own way captures the complexity/stupidity of the whole episode. “This movie could be considered controversial for the following reason. At the movie’s premiere at the Colisée, I saw one gentlemen in the audience very solemnly unfold a newspaper, take out a matchbox, strike a match and light the newspaper with the obvious intention of setting the room on fire. I think any movie that provoke a reaction like that is controversial.”

Michael Pattison, Fandor, Sight & Sound

I can’t think of anything less progressive than championing “offensive art”, especially the sort frequently perpetuated by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. But, I can’t think of another example other than “an art that offends ‘Islamic extremists'” that might prompt a question like this. Consider the absurdity, for instance, of defending an art that deliberately offends or “crosses the line” on the black community, the working class community, the disabled community, the homosexual community and so on; there’s good reason why we call bullshit on such works. But two bampots kill 12 people one afternoon and suddenly we’ve got a hashtag claiming solidarity with satirists who, let’s be frank, weren’t very good or progressive or important to begin with (regardless of how “free” they ought to be to “offend” or “cross lines”).

Rather, give me an art that speaks of the social and economic foundations of, say, religious extremism (if we’re talking about that), and of the reasons why the killings this week (if we’re talking about those) quickly became about “free speech” and threats to “our civilised world” (pull the other one, eh?). Implying that hornet’s nest-kicking, lowest common denominator-appealing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad by white middle-class satirists was somehow important in its line-crossing is itself offensive, and the “Je Suis Charlie” march that happened today in Paris is hypocritical horse-shit, featuring none other than a representative of the Saudi Arabian “government”, which two days ago dished out the first of its 50 lashings a week for 20 weeks, sentenced to a blogger for “insulting Islam”. Ha!

Anyway, to the question: I laughed my arse off last week at a sketch in “The Viz”, a thrice-monthly UK comic, founded in 1979 and illustrated and written by people who can actually draw (!) and, um, write (!). The sketch in question was about the life and times of posthumously disgraced child rapist, BBC DJ and beloved telly icon Sir Jimmy Savile. See also: Jerry Sadowitz’s stand-up routine about Savile back when the latter was still alive enough to be raping children, being protected and enabled by the BBC, being loved by everyone and being knighted by our very own Her Majesty the Queen. Now then now then eeehhhg eeehhhg. 

Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter

Even as a fervent atheist, I recognise the supreme historical importance of the Tyndale Bible (1534) — the first translation of the Bible into English — written in vivid, imaginative style by William Tyndale. This translation was seen as such a radical and “offensive” act by the powers-that-be that Tyndale was within two years hunted down and executed for heresy: “strangled to death while tied at the stake, and then his dead body was burned.” The Tyndale Bible provides more than 80% of the text of the King James Version of the Bible (1611), which has exerted an immense and complex influence over subsequent western European literature and thought.

Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?

Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?

Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?

Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?

Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?

Shall the companions make a banquet of him? shall they part him among the merchants?

Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears?

Lay thine hand upon him, remember the battle, do no more.

Job, 41

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

Perhaps this makes me come off as classless, but I’m not sure any of the offensive art that I enjoy qualifies as particularly important. I can’t really make the case that Kevin Smith dialogue or the like is essential to the culture, but I will say that when you limit what someone can express in the arts, you walk a fine line that rarely leads to anything good. We live in a society where nothing is actually forced on you, media consumption wise, so if dick and fart jokes don’t do it for you, change the channel, etc. I’m not exactly taking a brave stand, I know, but I guess I just see all “offensive art” as being as worthwhile as its classier peers.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “Selma

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Inherent Vice,” “A Most Violent Year

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