What People Don’t Get About Controversial Art

Kate Kretz
28 min readJul 30, 2019

(Warning: This article contains imagery that is not suitable for children and may be triggering for victims of sexual assault. I write this in the few days preceding my solo popup exhibition in San Francisco, which will contain a plethora of “difficult work”.)

“I don’t want to produce a work of art that the public can sit and suck aesthetically… I want to give them a blow in the small of the back, to scorch their indifference, to startle them out of their complacency.” — Ingmar Bergman

I loved finding this serendipitous quote a few years back, when my work had recently shifted in a new and unexpected direction. I was trying to figure out what was happening in my studio: it was as if something had taken over my practice, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. The work was intensely disturbing, even to me, yet I was dead certain that I was doing the right thing in continuing to make it. I have always created the work “that needs to be made”, but this time, I could not keep up with whatever was working through me in the studio. I kept telling my husband, “I just want to finish this body of work before I die”, and he would look at me as if I was nuts. I queried my network on Facebook, asking them if they had ever seen work that was “too intense”. I requested studio visits from friends, because I truly felt like I was in the process of jumping off some kind of cliff, and I wanted some feedback to get my bearings. Several unrelated people responded to the work with an identical descriptor: “I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut… but in a good way.” This procession through my studio five years ago was unlike any previous studio visits I had: it was as if a meteor had crashed into my creative space, friends were coming over to check out this curiosity, and we would both stare at it together, trying to make sense of it, and how it got there. I could easily explain my decision-making processes for each work, but not specifically why I felt compelled to make this series of endlessly disturbing pieces.

Motivations for making art vary widely from artist to artist, and very few of them espouse Bergman’s philosophy. But I have, at least for the past six or seven years. I felt something building to a head in our culture, and I believed that the power of my art needed to match the intensity of the news I was consuming: I sensed that what was going on required a scream, not a subtle whisper. I know there are some people who prefer my less political, more subtle work, but…

Kate Kretz

Artist / Speaker / Professor perfecting The Beautiful Gut Punch. Obsessively made, timely, truth-telling work, in paint, thread, hair, & heat. www.katekretz.com