You’re standing in an art gallery, puzzling over an exhibit that looks like a random pile of junk. The text on the wall doesn’t offer much help:
bricolage of cowboy belt buckles, Mickey Mouse night-lights, power drills, movie receipts and other found objects is used with unsettling effect to critique the power structures of the Western world. The playful incorporation of the artist’s soiled panties completes this epic work from a paradigm-busting enfant terrible.”

You step back for another look, thinking you’re missing something. You wonder if you’re being conned.

I’m making up the scenario, but we’ve all been there. There’s really no mystery, though. Some varieties of contemporary art aren’t meant for the rubes. They’re make-work projects for curators, critics, speculators, and institutional artists. And if the work confuses or irritates everyone else, so much the better. To hell with the rubes if they don’t have deconstruction decoder rings. Let them putz around in the museum art shop, and waddle home with their Monet calendars and Edvard Munch “Scream” coffee cups.

Along these lines, a Vancouver-raised artist whipped up some controversy last week at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, with his depiction of Christ with an erection. The public outrage meant more free publicity for Terence Koh, who sometimes smears his work with his own blood and semen. (Something to do with the high cost of art supplies, perhaps?)

According to wikipedia, the Emily Carr graduate's "diverse work involves queer, punk, and pornographic sensibilities." But he's hardly a marginal figure, considering his work has been shown in the Whitney Museum of Modern Art and The Royal Academy in London.

You could call Koh’s angle on Jesus inspired, confrontational, edgy, manipulative, blasphemous -- or just plain stupid. But you can't call it original. In 1989, the US artist Andres Serrano created controversy with his "Piss Christ," a photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine. Human waste is as old hat as trashing religious icons. In 1961 the Italian artist Piero Manzoni exhibited 90 tins of his own excrement as an ironic statement on the art market. (In 2002, The Tate Gallery paid out £22,300 for an edition of Manzoni's masterpoo, a price that made the contents more valuable by weight than 24-carat gold.)

Let’s not forget the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art, which exhibited a resin-coated 1995 canvas by the German artist Anton Henning, called
Meatballs, Gherkins, Beetroot, Potatoes, Watermelon, Lemon Juice, Riesling, and Large Brownie. You can guess the medium. There have been other “artists” working along the same lines, but I’ll spare you the details.

Not surprisingly, taxpayers tend to be a bit tetchy about how their money is spent on the arts. Back in the early eighties, Canadians were outraged when the National Gallery of Canada spent $1.75 million on painter Barnett Newman’s “Voice of Fire,” which has been described, quite accurately, as a big red rectangle on a blue background. That’s pretty tame, controversy-wise. Considering the crap the National Gallery could have purchased, it seems almost endearing that Canadian taxpayers once went ballistic over something resembling a racing stripe on a Sudbury headbanger’s Camaro.

These days the public is overwhelmed with visual information. So what’s a poor artist to do to break through? In arts, as in comedy or theatre, the impulse to shock usually signals desperation, a failure of the imagination. Yet with “serious art” so peripheral to popular culture, notoriety is one of the few ways left to break through the noise.

Controversial artistic exhibits keep critics, curators and artists believing that they’re engaged in important work, and defending the ramparts of sophistication from know-nothing philistines. The chardonnay-sipping museum patrons gets a cheap thrill from “transgressive” exhibits, while the rubes reading the arts section at home experience a bracing blast of indignation. The shock-artist, who’s at the centre of this tempest in a tempura can, gets a bump in the international art market. Everybody wins -- except for the majority of the public, which has never had time for the subsidized head games and speculative frenzies of a privileged few.

In other words, this sort of shock-and-art will always remain peripheral to popular culture. Today, most visual artists graduate to industrial design, video-gaming and the film industry. Their efforts are often more challenging than anything the gallery scene has to offer. For example, the TV cartoon series South Park tips over more sacred cows, with greater cleverness and for a much wider audience, than all the sphincters of North American installation artists combined.

Geoff Olson