Transgressive Art in the Vacuum of Western Culture

Transgressive Art in the Vacuum of Western Culture May 26, 2023

For some time, many artists and writers, having given up on the concept of “beauty” as a mode of cultural oppression, have developed an aesthetic that seeks to be “transgressive.”

By creating work that shocks their audience by transgressing the moral and cultural norms, these artists and writers are rebelling against the systemic oppression of the culture and causing their audience to question their beliefs.  That’s the theory.

But today our moral and cultural norms have become so weakened that artists and writers can’t be “transgressive” any more.  There are no values left to transgress.

That’s the point made by Carl Trueman in his article for First Things entitled “Transgression Is Passé.”  He is discussing a set of blasphemous photographs of Jesus in the company of his disciples who are dressed in the leather-and-chains garb of gay sado-masochists.  This exhibit was showcased by the European Union, no less.

What struck Trueman was how boring it all was.  This sort of thing has been done so much that its power to shock has faded.  It might still offend Christians, of course, but few viewers among the EU secularists will be shocked at all.  Which leads him to some interesting thoughts about the state of Western culture (my bolds):

The display represents both the bankruptcy of modern culture and its inability to offer anything even approximating a positive vision for humanity. For generations now the artistic establishment has been in thrall to the notion of transgression. But transgression is only significant if there is something—some rule, some custom, something sacred—to transgress. Without such, transgression itself rapidly degenerates into a series of empty gestures that tend to become both more extreme and more vacuous at the same time. Art then ceases to be about embodying and transmitting cultural value and is instead a momentary iconoclastic performance that parasitically and paradoxically depends upon resurrecting icons that have long since fallen. Only because there is a folk memory of religion does the general public have some notion that these banal photographs are meant to be shocking. And only to the increasingly marginal numbers of actual Christians are they truly so.

Such derision of Christianity is now decidedly passé. . . .The mockery of Christianity is today as clichéd and predictable as the lighting in a Thomas Kinkade painting. Nor does it “speak truth to power.” Rather, it merely offers smug affirmation of the triumph of one of the most powerful lobby groups within Western culture. . . .

[This art] is emblematic of the vacuum that has replaced Western culture. Such art says nothing new because it is part of a culture that has nothing to say. All it can do is rehash the images of a religious past and flatter itself that in doing so it is tearing down an oppressive power structure.

Trueman’s analysis is spot on.  And yet I would argue that it is still possible to be transgressive.  What are today’s moral and cultural values?  Not Christian ones, to be sure.  But our current culture seems more moralistic than ever, though the moral principles are very different.

Artists and writers could, for example, transgress the sacred cows of transgenderism.  J. K. Rowling is a transgressive writer by insisting that men who identify as women–often without the commitment of surgery–are not, in fact, women.  For that radical position, which is so shocking to many of her former Harry Potter fans, she is paying the price.

If a work is truly transgressive, it will not earn the praise of one’s peers or help you score a gig with the European Union.  Rather, it will make people angry at you.

Most artists play at being transgressive, but they only transgress the values of people they despise and who probably won’t see their art.  But there is wide scope for transgressing the dogmas of the woke power elite, if they dare.


Photo:  J. K. Rowling (1999) by John Mathew Smith & from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


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