Art and Deviance

As we were learning about deviance, I often associated to 19th century French artists who mad efforts to break the middle class norms – or to the contrary, tried hard to integrate and fit in.

There was, for one example, the poet Gérard de Nerval who often walked in the parks of Paris leading his pet lobster on a blue ribbon. Of course he was getting surprised looks from the passers-by: walking a lobster instead of a dog? When pressed for an explanation, the poet just asked back with a false naive attitude: why, what is the difference? A lobster at least doesn’t bark.

While this is an example of violating a folkway in a rather harmless way, other artists in the second half of the 19th century went farther in provocating the public. “You must shock the Bourgeois,” said the symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire. Shocking the middle class through mocking their values and violating their norms became the program of a group of writers referred to as the ‘decadents.’ Many of these poets were interested in the effects of drugs on the consciousness, launching themselves in experimentation, and even founding a ‘Club of Hashish-Eaters.’ (The above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval was a member, along with Victor Hugo and others.)

The theme of drug-induced hallucinations appeared in art and poetry a lot. Also, many artists of the time were a fan of a green-colored alcoholic drink called absinthe, which was believed to be strongly mind-altering (although it probably wasn’t,  but it still became a symbol of decadence). Drinking absinthe, along with going to cabarets, made part of the ‘bohemian’ lifestyle the artists of the Montmartre were famous for. The term bohemian means gypsy-like, and suggests that these artists were standing apart from the mainstream society.

For an artist at the time, finding a respectable place in the contemporary society would have meant to either get large commissions, or to exhibit at the Salon. The latter was an official yearly art show, where the works accepted by a jury were shared with the public. Those artists who did not stick to the fashionable style of the time, but rather tried new ways of painting, had poor chance to get admitted to the Salon. Frustrated, the group of the ‘impressionist’ painters decided to give up trying, and to accept their separate standing, exhibiting their works in alternative ways. (One could associate here to what we have learned about possible reactions to an experience of anomie.)

An exception was Edouard Manet,  who was in fact a bourgeois in his heart, and never gave up trying to become an accepted Salon painter, even though he was regularly rejected – and many of his works were considered as scandalous. One of his masterpieces, The Luncheon on the Grass, was not accepted to the 1863 Salon, but was displayed at an independent art show. Even there, it created a big scandal. A nude woman sitting on the grass, next to two fully dressed men? This would have seemed acceptable to the public if there had been a mythological theme to justify the nudity, but there was none. The picture just represented a group of contemporary people having a picnic.

3 thoughts on “Art and Deviance

  1. It is interesting to think of artists struggling to “fit in” while creating their own style. Today, art is more accepting of deviance, almost demanding it. Today, a giant cube in the middle of New York city is “art” and well known at that. I am sure that there are many creations that are still rejected as art today, but it seems that the ideas of what can be considered art are much more open today.

  2. When I read what you wrote about Charles Bauedlaire and “shock the Bourgeois” it reminded me of a gang. They were going against what their society saw as normal. Now a days there are still groups of people who go against our norms, just our norms have changed.

  3. It seems as though the greatest art is usually that which pushes the norms of society. Nudity like that in Manet’s was seen as shocking, as was the human plastination exhibit that was in a previous blog. Blurring the line between art and deviance, or combining the two, can usually result in the most thought provoking art, which can challenge the norms of society. Today a lot of art seems like it’s almost too simple or not “worthy,” but I think even seemingly over-simplistic art is pushing the norms of what art should be. Art is something that has always pushed the norms, and I think that’s what’s so great about it.

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