Transgressive art is art that aims to transgress; i.e. to outrage or violate basic morals and sensibilities. The term transgressive was first used in this sense by American filmmaker Nick Zedd and his Cinema of Transgression in 1985. Zedd used it to describe his legacy with underground film-makers like Paul Morrissey, John Waters, and Kenneth Anger, and the relationship they shared with Zedd and his New York City peers in the early 1980s.
From an academic perspective, many traces of transgression can be found in any art which by some is considered offensive because of its shock value; from the French Salon des Refusés artists to Dada and Surrealism. Philosophers Mikhail Bakhtin and Georges Bataille have published works on the nature of transgression. Probably the most thorough book on the early transgressive movement is Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression by Jack Sargeant.
Transgressional works share some themes with art that deals with psychological dislocation and mental illness. Examples of this relationship, between social transgression and the exploration of mental states relating to illness, include many of the activities and works of the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Fluxus-related artists, such as Carolee Schneemann – and, in literature, Albert Camus’s L’Etranger or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
Changes in movement
Since the late 1990s a new group of transgressive artists have emerged, such as the Canadian artist Rick Gibson who made a pair of earrings out of human fetuses and ate a piece of human testicle. In China several artists became well known for producing transgressive art; including Zhu Yu, who achieved notoriety when he published images of himself eating what appeared to be a human fetus; and Yang Zhichao for extreme body art.
Perhaps the most famous transgressive artist of the early 1980s, Richard Kern began making films in New York with infamous underground actors Nick Zedd and Lung Leg. Some of them were videos for musical artists including those for the Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth.
Subsequent transgressive artists of the 1990s overlapped the boundaries of literature, art, and music, most famously GG Allin, Lisa Crystal Carver, Shane Bugbee, and Costes. With these artists came a greater emphasis on life itself (or death) as art, rather than just depicting a certain mindset in film or music. They were instrumental in creating a new type of visionary art and music, and influenced artists including Alec Empire, Cock E.S.P., Crash Worship, Usama Alshaibi, Natural Athlete, Liz Armstrong, Lennie Lee, Weasel Walter, Andy Ortmann, and the later work featured in Peter Bagge’s comic Hate.
Newer transgressive artists of the 2010s such as Nickk Dropkick, Joan Cornellà, Aleksandra Waliszewska, and Molg H seem to have brought about a revival of transgressive art in recent years, with some small measure of popularity.
However, the term can also be applied to transgressive literature as well. Recent examples include Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, and J.G. Ballard’s short story The Enormous Space. These works deal with issues that were considered to be outside the social norms. Their characters abuse drugs, engage in violent behaviour or could be considered sexual deviants. Trangressive writing can also be reflected in non-fiction, such as the writing style of Jim Goad.
Among the most notorious works of transgressive art among the general public have been sculpture, collages, and installation art which offended Christian religious sensibilities. These include Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, featuring a crucifix in a beaker of urine, and Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, a multi-media painting which is partially made of elephant dung.
Rock and roll music has inspired controversy for the entirety of its existence. As the music grew in popularity, some artists used controversy to make a statement or turn it to their advantage. For musical genres such as shock rock, punk rock, horrorcore and its parent genres hardcore hip hop and gangsta rap; grindcore, black metal and death metal, as well as various bands within the avant-garde rock genre, offending modern sensibilities was an integral part of their music. Musicians such as Alice Cooper, Slayer, Kiss, N.W.A, Iggy Pop, Misfits, W.A.S.P., GWAR, GG Allin, The Plasmatics, Cannibal Corpse, Tyler, The Creator, Throbbing Gristle, Marilyn Manson, Die Antwoord, Costes, The Mentors, Anal Cunt, The Sex Pistols, The Meatmen, Brotha Lynch Hung and the Dead Kennedys used anti-Christian, anti-establishment, satirical lyrics that were generally considered to be evil by those who did not understand them. Some bands used the controversy to increase their popularity. The idea was, if people complained about their music enough and truly hated them, then the band’s name and knowledge of their existence would reach the ears of people who would appreciate their music.
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