How To Tell If Your Subversive Artwork Is Really That Subversive

Here's your handy guide to separating the shock from the schlock.

So you want to make a work of art. And not just any work of art, but a work that truly pops, shocks, offends, and mortifies. You want gasps and expletives and perhaps an outcry about the end of Western civilization.

Well, dear readers, crafting a work of truly subversive art is more than just a matter of slapping some blood on a canvas or running naked through a museum. Let's walk through it together. 

1. Has it been done before?

In the words of subversive spirit guide Marcel Duchamp: "Art is either plagiarism or revolution." Back in 1917, the artist aligned his work with the latter, by submitting the now illustrious "Fountain" to the Society of Independent Artists. The work, of course, is a porcelain urinal signed "R.Mutt" -- thought to be either the pseudonym of Duchamp himself or his Dada contemporary Baroness Elsa -- that has been flipped upside down and displayed proudly as a Work of Art. 

Marcel D. breaking down boundaries one toilet bowl at a time. 
Marcel D. breaking down boundaries one toilet bowl at a time. 

Many very serious art lovers of the time were very seriously pissed off by the assertion that a basically unmodified toilet, not all that different than those in the bathroom down the hall, could be hung alongside traditional portraits and landscapes. The surrealist journal The Blind Man came to the defense of the work:

"Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view -- created a new thought for that object."


Duchamp's subversive move doesn't have much to do with the potty humor of the toilet itself, but rather his influence in shifting the artist's role from creator to curator. This distinction contributed to the rise of readymade art, found art, conceptual art and assemblage art, inspiring future artists to attempt similarly rupturing moves of their own.

For example, take Sarah Meyohas, the MFA candidate and young artist behind BitchCoin, a feminist cryptocurrency that encourages patrons to invest in artists themselves. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Meyohas explained Duchamp's role in coming up with the project: "Duchamp moved the point of creation to the conception of the piece, this is the opposite," she said. "Moving it to the valuation of the piece."

Some people see Duchamp's urinal and presume the (kind of) grotesque nature of the toilet is behind all the hoopla. Cue an endless onslaught of art incorporating poop, pee, puke and blood. But the reality is far more nuanced than that. Duchamp's subversion has little to do with the toilet itself and more with its recasting as a "Fountain" of art. Most notably, no one had really done this before, which gave his recasting the gravity it needed.

Damien Hirst makes art with drugs. Cool dude! 
Damien Hirst makes art with drugs. Cool dude! 

2. What exactly are you subverting?

Subversive is defined as "tending or intending to subvert or overthrow, destroy, or undermine an established or existing system." So before you embark on this game changing artwork of yours, make sure you know exactly what it is you're fighting against. Or, exactly what kind of system -- be it political or social or cultural or economic -- you're attempting to subvert. Too many artists don bad boy personas and rebellious dispositions without actually challenging anything at all. 

On that note, here are some things that rarely count as subverting a system anymore in their own right: getting naked for a performance piece (in America, at least), photographing nude women's bodies that conform to mainstream beauty standards, making sculptures out of illicit drugs (see: Damien Hirst above), working with bodily excrement, and creating anything to do with Tinder or Grindr. That's not to say that these ideas can't be incorporated into a thoughtful and provocative piece, but these once-shocking-but-now-kind-of-cliche elements alone do not a subversive artwork make. 

3. Does the work relate to your own experience?

There are, in 2015, many widespread systems of oppression and discrimination that should be examined through the lens of art. Make sure, however, that the experiences and realities you're illuminating through your work are yours to showcase. If not, the resulting artwork, even unwittingly, can veer into the realm of blind privilege and exploitation.

Take, for example Kenneth Goldsmith, the white poet who read Michael Brown's autopsy aloud as poetry, or Ti-Rock Moore, the white artist who created a life-sized sculpture of Michael Brown's dead body. Although Moore's piece was meant to comment on the injustice of white privilege, the work ended up embodying it. As Kirsten West Savali expressed in a piece on The Root, "a working definition of white privilege is white artists’ belief that they can claim artistic ownership of black death, while disowning their white guilt and being applauded for their 'courageousness.'"

Another example of an artist overstepping his boundaries is male photographer Cary Fagan, who took it upon himself to "reclaim women's bodies" through his relatively normative depictions of beautiful women. Although artists like Fagan and Moore may mean well, creating art based on an experience that remains alien to you, frequently comes off as tone-deaf and, even worse, exploitative. 

If, however, your work is based on personal experiences, the result can be immensely powerful. Columbia art student Emma Sulkowicz comes to mind, a young performance artist who, following her claim that she was raped by a fellow male student, carried a mattress around campus with her at all times, pledging to do so until either her alleged rapist was ejected from campus or she graduated.

The piece, called "Carry That Weight," translated the emotional burden of sexual assault into the physical realm. "Rape can happen anywhere," Sulkowitz explained of the piece. "For me, I was raped in my own dorm bed. Since then, it has basically become fraught for me, and I feel like I've carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then." The work garnered a lot of attention, inciting protests against campus sexual assault around the world.

4. What's at stake?

If the masterpiece you're cooking up is so damn disruptive, what are its repercussions? Many of art history's greatest disruptors have made enormous sacrifices for their work. We're not saying you should seek jail time or persectuion as a means to becoming subversive, but you should be aware of the potential consequences of your work.

Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, for example, consistently speaks out against the Chinese government in support of human rights, refusing to silence himself in a country where self-censorship is the norm. As a result, he's had his work erased from China-based exhibitions and has faced time in prison. 

Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi also risked jail time for her artwork -- specifically, for making a boat in the shape of a vulva. Using 3D technology to replicate the shape, Igarashi hopes to make vaginas "casual and pop" in a culture where they're all but invisible. In response to her work, she was arrested for violating Japan's obscenity laws.

Political artists aren't the only ones who endanger themselves and their reputations for the sake of art. In 1945, Italian artist Carol Rama exhibited a series of erotic watercolors featuring depictions of women with snakes emerging from their naked bodies. Very feminist proto-punk. Well, the show was shut down by authorities and many of the works were destroyed.

Similar fates struck similarly erotic feminist forces like Dorothy Iannone and Cameron, Cinderella of the Wastelands. Cameron resolved never to show her work in a gallery again, and stuck to it, never compromising her creative vision. The list of artists censored and attacked for their work goes on. Robert Mapplethorpe, Chris Ofili, Andres Serrano. 

There have been artists who've interpreted the whole "what's at stake" concept very literally, attempting work that radically challengers or alters their very bodies. In Marina Abramovic's "Rhythm 0,"she let audience participants do whatever they wanted to her immobile body, including tickle or cut her. French artist Orlan endured multiple rounds of plastic surgery to comment on the male gaze and standards of beauty. Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch choreographed a cult ritual involving animal carcasses, blood, crucifixion and other super fun things. These case are extreme, but they represent a number of artists who knew quite clearly the consequences of their work before they even embarked upon their subversive acts.

tl;dr: Take risks but no cheap tricks. 

These bullet points are a guide, but there's really no perfect recipe to creating an artwork that will drop jaws and open minds. Use your own experiences as a guide and don't be afraid to take a chance. Stay away from the go-to shock tactics and you'll be more likely to yield a work that's authentic and powerful. 

At the end of the day, please, don't pee on a canvas and pat yourself on the back. You're a better artist than that. 

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