What People Don’t Get About Controversial Art

(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 for the past few years, when I see what is happening in the world around me, I find I lose patience with art that claims to address political issues but just seems to skirt around them in a safe, saleable way.

Most of the art that we see each day is pretty innocuous, and I would venture a guess that it’s rarely noticed by most of the people who pass it by. It takes a lot to have people actually see (much less be affected by) art in a world where millions of images are vying for our attention each day, but I have found that telling the unvarnished truth usually does the trick. It seems that difficult work has the potential to elicit feelings of anger or trauma from those who are not accustomed to being challenged by art, and often, dismissal or cynicism from those who are entrenched in the Art World. Both inside and outside the art establishment, there seem to be people who regard shocking art as merely an attention-getting device or publicity stunt, and I believe, with few exceptions, that this is simply untrue.

Each artist has their own process, their own unique obsessions and concerns. Some artists’ interests will simply never lead them to make work that might be considered controversial. Their art may be potent and art historically important, but, in general, very little art tends to be discussed outside the small ecosphere of the art world unless it sells for scads of money or makes for compelling “news”. As a result, artists whose concerns and obsessions drive them to make art that challenges conventions get more exposure and more discussion… but they also pay a greater price for making that work, and can easily be labeled and dismissed as publicity-seeking.

If you are willing to dive in past a single offensive image to discover the context of an artist’s body of work, and perhaps read what they have written about it, you will likely find that their motivations are not what you might think. I often use the phrase “to trust someone as an artist” when I am referring to unwavering artistic integrity. I firmly believe that for many serious artists, art making is a kind of addiction, as well as the way that they process information from the world, and they cannot really “help” the kind of art that they make. They are simply on a path, driven to distill, to find ever stronger or more effective ways to convey their own, unique vision. Barnett Newman once said, “Aesthetics is to artists what ornithology is to birds.” Artists, like birds, are simply driven by their nature to “do what they do”.

My particular modus operandi is to tell difficult truths, in a formally seductive way. My goal is to create “a beautiful gut punch”. In the studio, I make the work that that seems most urgent and relevant to the world that I am living in, as I perceive it. Those who are close to me know that I live my whole life saying what needs to be said, calling out the elephant in the room, for good or bad. I could not exist if I was not able to process information through my work this way: I would go crazy. I read about and experience things that are happening in the world, and, because of the way that I am wired, the stories enter my body in a violent, visceral way, and they often stay there. (From talking to my friends, I believe many artists experience this and are what I call “super empaths”… I have one friend who describes it as being “too porous”.) Most people I know try to forget about these news stories through distraction, by turning on the TV or reading a magazine, but, for me, those distractions don’t work: the stories of man’s inhumanity towards other beings plant their hooks in me, and stay. Once something has pierced my consciousness, I turn it around in my mind… for days, weeks, or even years, I revisit the thoughts, looking for a way to transform them, exorcise them out of my body in a way that will get others to feel, look and think about the absurd and problematic world we find ourselves in. When I’m in the studio, it’s my job to create the strongest, most layered work possible to get viewers to put down those beloved distractions and confront the object I made, which is also, in essence, confronting aspects of the world they might not want to think about. That challenge tends to upset people.

It is important to note that if artists worried about who would be disturbed by the work they create, nothing would EVER get made. When I am in the studio, I DO think about how people might receive the work, but only to help me make decisions about the most effective way to communicate my idea. Our job as artists is to make a series of thoughtful decisions about medium, technique, mood, and formal elements like size, scale, composition, palette, etc. that will maximize the feeling or concept we are trying to convey.

While in the confines of the studio, I never think about my work with an eye towards potential sales, publicity or controversy. One of the reasons I make representational art is that I want the work to function on many levels, to be accessible to those who have no art education, but be layered enough to engage those who can access the contemporary art context. I am aware that by making the work in a visual language that is easily read, at least on a superficial level, it reaches more people, so there is the potential of some people to miss the point or be offended when I try to tackle a difficult subject, but making people angry or upset is not my intention. It simply is not a workable paradigm to create art that is designed to shock: it raises all kinds of problems for the artist. I agree with Richard Misiano-Genovese (who is often described as a “Practitioner of Transgressive Art”): “If you approach art with the intention of creating shock value, then you limit yourself and your audience, and will be put in the unenviable position of trying to top yourself with each succeeding effort. However, if you allow the process of creation to unfold in a more subjective manner, let the subconscious guide the pathway, and by chance shocking images present themselves, then you are released from the responsibility of intent. You no longer need the burden of expression to outdo yourself in a shocking manner — and it is of no purpose to focus merely on shock value for its own sake. Let the images give rise to their own intentions.” Or, as critic Jerry Saltz succinctly stated, “Once artists are expected to shock, it’s that much harder for them to do so.”

However, once the art is made, I put on a completely different hat, and work hard to get the work “out there”. Like many artists, until my mid-thirties, I just made the best art I could, had exhibitions, and “hoped someone would notice” what I was doing. One day, I decided that this was a feminist issue, and that despite all I was taught about the virtues of humility, I am the best advocate for what I create. I believe my work is important and relevant, and I want to maximize the potential for people I respect to see it. So, that’s my particular career formula: make the strongest art I possibly can, then get as many people as possible to see the fruits of my labor.

I get why people are cynical about art they find challenging: we live in a celebrity culture where people seem to be doing ever more outrageous things to “stay on people’s radar”. I have even met a few artists (but only 2 or 3, in my lifetime of knowing thousands of artists) who have told me outright that they were just making work because they wanted to “piss people off”, or because their dealer suggested they should “make one with guns in it”. But, here’s the thing…

Most artists, no matter what kind of work they do, are not sitting in their studios, thinking “What outrageous thing could I do that will get me more attention, or create controversy?”, we are just making the work we are compelled to make.

In 2006, I painted the work, “Blessed Art Thou”, a piece on the confluence of celebrity worship, consumerism, and globalization.

“Blessed Art Thou”, 2006, 88 x 60", oil & acrylic on linen

I am an ex-Catholic, but I love the lurid colors and light in all the kitschy Catholic imagery that surrounded me as I grew up. “Blessed Art Thou” began as a strong impulse… I wanted to create my own assumption painting. I had always loved the imagery of Mary, in her voluminous robes, rising up through the sky on a cloud surrounded by putti.

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Assumption of The Virgin”, 1612–17

Some of my earlier work contained some allusions to Catholic imagery, but I had never done a straightforward “religious” painting, and there was no reason in my mind to simply paint a copy of an Assumption if there were not going to be any more layers to it. I did extensive research on depictions of “Mary in Art”, following the serendipitous breadcrumbs, looking for an answer… the drive to make the painting persisted, but I kept dismissing the idea and putting away all my references because I couldn’t figure out how to make it “work”: how to make it relevant, contemporary and complex. This cycle occurred three or four times before I happened to be standing in line at the supermarket one day, and noticed that virtually every magazine cover around me had an image of Angelina Jolie carrying one of her children, or anticipating her new child with Brad Pitt. I knew immediately that was to be my painting. I researched Angelina Jolie (I’m not one to follow celebrities), and read about the psychology of celebrity worship, paparazzi, and tabloids, and their ties to consumerism and marketing. I thought about the people who seemed to be most consumed by celebrity worship, folks whose lives contrasted most with the idealized lives of our new heroes, our new saints, as depicted in the tabloids. I spent time in Walmart, studying the oppressive lighting, the postures and mannerisms of the people who shop there. When you are poor, for example, (something I experienced firsthand growing up) you do not just swipe a credit card to pay: you mentally add up the contents of your cart, double check to make sure you have enough cash, and often grip the money tightly in your hand, as if you are afraid it will fly away before you can pay.

I honestly never dreamed anyone would be upset by “Blessed Art Thou.” Initially, I thought that, like all the paintings that had come before, it would only be seen by a few hundred people from the art world if I was lucky, but I sent out my press releases as I always do, and this one caught fire and went viral before it ever hung on the wall at the Art Miami art fair. Mayhem ensued.

Conservative Christians claimed it was obscene and railed against my using the face of a “husband-stealing whore” in the context of an iconic religious construct. (They knew all about her because they had read it in the tabloids… making my point.) This being my first go round in the circus, I tried to have conversations with these critics: I reminded them that we don’t know WHAT Mary actually looked like, and that many of the famous paintings of the Virgin hanging in museums were actually made using prostitutes as models. What was most fascinating to me was the realization that if these Christians did not just have a knee jerk reaction, instantly yelling “blasphemy” in response to the image, if they allowed themselves to really look at the painting and think about it, they would likely agree with some of the major themes in the painting.

I think a lot of “shocking” contemporary art is like that. An open mind, curiosity, and the ability to step outside of one’s comfort zone might transform an initially affronted viewer into an accepting or even an admiring supporter…. I know I have come to love a lot of work that I did not initially like or understand. Americans who never received any elementary art education may not trust themselves enough to unpack and read the image.

Of course, studying and teaching art for 30 years, there are few art works that I personally find offensive anymore. Upon completion of this work, when it was time to put on my “publicity hat”, I did come to understand that “Blessed Art Thou” was different. It dawned on me that after creating personal art for several decades, this was a piece that looked outward, rather than inward. This realization caused me to draft a press release that was sent to some of the news sources that might be interested in this subject matter, in addition to my usual art list. I was as shocked as anyone when it started appearing in newspapers and on TV stations around the world. I got lots of love mail, and almost equal amounts of hate mail. I received death threats on my cellphone, and we put an alarm system in our house. As exciting as it was at the beginning, this painting has its own complex history, and there were many negative things that happened that I never even talk about. I know it is technically not the best painting I have ever done (in my own personal narrative, it became a lesson/cautionary tale for working to finish something for an art fair… I wish I had 3 more months to obsess over it, and now don’t release anything before it’s ready) but despite the fact that there are lots of paintings of celebrities out there, this one struck a chord. At the time, “helpful” strangers suggested that I hire a publicist. Magazine editors emailed me and wanted to know when the next one would be coming out so they could get “the scoop”, etc. But, of all the absurd and mean-spirited things that were said to me, there was only one that hurt: “She did it for the publicity.” After 20 years of making rarely saleable, ridiculously time consuming, personal work, not compromising my vision in any way, these people who had no concept of me or my lifetime of work accused me of pandering and selling out. At the time, I had a large cartoon for the next related painting ready to transfer to canvas, but I rolled it up and put it away, because I did not want that kind of publicity for my work.

Money, celebrity, status… this is what our culture values: it is hard for people to imagine that anyone might be motivated to act on any other impulses. When I made my recent “Gunlickers” series about the fetishization of guns in our culture, the gun-lovers thought that someone had paid me to make the work. Along with being puzzled that the public at large does not understand why artists do what they do, the cynicism of this accusation left me feeling sorry for people who dismiss idealism and can only envision profit as a motivator.

(from top left) “Gunlicker”, “Gunlicker III: Militia”, “Gunlicker II”, and “Gunlicker IV”, 2015–2016, acrylic and oil on gatorboard

When the first of the Gunlicker paintings were published in the Huffington Post’s “Hot Off The Easel” feature in 2015, “Ball Bustin’ Patriot” posted the following image on Facebook, with a band aid placed over an image of my daughter:

Facebook post by “Ball Bustin’ Patriot”

This was a stray image from an old interview that lingered online despite my thorough attempts to keep my daughter off my public pages. I discovered this image at 2 a.m., when I was the only one awake, and was horrified, fearing for the safety of my family. I didn’t want to tell my husband. I texted a lifelong supporter of my work because I saw that he was awake on Facebook: he declared that I was “asking for it” by making the work that I make. (I wondered if Picasso was ever threatened, accused of “asking for it”, or if that was a pleasure reserved exclusively for female artists.)

Also, among art aficionados, there is a tendency for people to be so anti-censorship that they will automatically cheer, “Don’t let the trolls silence you, Kate! Don’t let them win!”, with little regard to the fact that (especially when you are a woman and a mother) there are very real safety issues at stake…. it is not simply some abstract principle. It’s easy to encourage other people to put themselves and their family at risk for artistic freedom, but, when you start making difficult work, it is not like The Artist Protection League automatically sends you a few thousand dollars for security upgrades. When well-intentioned friends say, “we’ve got your back” with regard to my work, they mean that they might (in the best case scenario) pen a comeback to some online trolls, not that they will take turns guarding our house at night.

After “Blessed Art Thou”, I went back to doing personal work for years, until I was driven to make the “#bullyculture” series, much of which will be featured in the upcoming San Francisco show. A friend recently joked, “There is something in this series to offend just about everyone!”, but that is not why the work was made.

The series was the result of 7 years of intense research that is still ongoing. For the first time, I kept a bibliography of the books, documentaries, and articles I have read: it has currently reached 30 pages. I always prepare when creating bodies of work, but have never researched or documented to this extent: this series is a thesis as much as it is a collection of art.

I combed through Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species”, and the subsequent reframing of his concepts by Julian Huxley, which led to the (mostly false) justification for bad human behavior, “survival of the fittest”. I read contemporary scientific articles further demonstrating that animals are much more democratic and cooperative than we ever suspected. For seven years, I read about (and looked at countless images related to) trophy hunting, rape culture, corporate crimes, misogynistic pornography, and mass shootings: it was emotionally debilitating. I saw some things I wish I had never seen. By the end, I came very close to checking myself into a psych ward for the first time in my life, but I was also motivated by my discoveries and the prospect of this new series. The significance of my direction seemed to be reinforced daily by one current event after another.

My lack of an adequate painting studio in my home during this period allowed me an unusual amount of time to gestate this series, while finishing up a previous one. By the time I got a grant to afford a warehouse studio space, I saw that the series was going to take me many years to realize. I have never had a clearer vision for a body of work. Although some may claim that it is not possible to do something new in this day and age, after all my research I feel confident that some of the more controversial works are art-historically unprecedented.

“The Appetites Of Oligarchs”, 2018, oil, acrylic & gold leaf on canvas, 72 x 50.25 x 8" (top hangs away from the wall to hover over the viewer)

The initial impetus for “The Appetites of Oligarchs” was the 2011 Strauss /Kahn Sofitel Hotel rape case: the tired trope of a powerful man raping a less empowered woman (in this case, a housekeeper at the hotel) and getting away with it. As it often does, the painting “grew” other layers and became a more expansive piece about entitlement and the need to dominate, with the night bombing of Baghdad in the background, and world’s most expensive Persian carpet in the foreground. The work was begun in 2015, so it preceded the #metoo movement by several years.

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus”, ca 1618

Traditionally, the depiction of rape has been illustrated by male artists throughout the centuries as an heroic, even romanticized pursuit, viewed from a distance, similar to battle scenes and other great conquests. Because male artists did not identify with the victims, they rarely depicted scenarios that even approached the actual horror of rape, and most of the female victims look mildly dismayed, rather than terrified. So, after all the centuries of women being presented as little more than a prop in male artists’ fantasies of masculine self-actualization, it is no surprise that when female artists of the 1900’s were finally granted the opportunity to share their point of view, virtually all chose to create imagery that focused primarily on what it feels like to inhabit a woman ‘s body and psyche in the isolated, withdrawn, numbing aftermath of rape.

Kathe Kollwitz, “Raped”, 1907, lithograph

During the course of my research, I discovered websites, such as rapefilms.net and rapebait.net where men post and view short film clips of rape scenes for entertainment (!), cut from their original context (e.g., mainstream, porn, and foreign or obscure films). To my mind, when there are vast audiences using rape imagery for self-gratifying purposes, depicting a rape victim in a work of art becomes problematic, to say the least: I was determined to avoid that imagery. The imagery I DO employ is a deliberate physical manifestation of a profound revolutionary shift that is happening in our culture. It is shocking to think that it has taken us thousands of years to untangle the systemic misogyny that, throughout history , has repeatedly blamed women for inciting rapists’ supposedly uncontrollable desire. But, unbelievably … finally, we are pointing our finger at the rapist, rather than the victim . The point of view in my work reflects that monumental shift: it redirects the gaze, creating a battle cry to point at perpetrators and bullies, not just in circumstances of rape, but in many disparate areas where their actions have long been accepted as the status quo. Much of the work “calls out” the aggressor, employing what Bell Hooks calls “The Oppositional Gaze”. (In Hook’s Black Looks: Race and Representation , she describes “being punished as a child for staring , for those hard, intense direct looks children would give grownups , looks that were seen as confrontational, as gestures of resistance, challenges to authority.”… She recalls being “Amazed the first time I read in history classes that white slave owners punished enslaved black people for looking … the slaves were denied their right to gaze”. She comes to the conclusion that “all attempts to repress black people’s right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming desire to look, a rebellious desire , an oppositional gaze . By courageously looking, we defiantly declared : ‘Not only will I stare . I want my look to change reality.”)

I am employing this oppositional gaze in my own work to continually keep our eyes fixed upon perpetrators everywhere. Sue Coe, one of my hero artists (who also makes difficult work), once said that art cannot exact change from our society until the viewer is able to align himself with the victim. My refusal to show the victim allows for openness regarding their gender , reminding us that it is not only females who get raped, and that the act itself is not one of sex, but one of dominance, violence and degradation that is encouraged by our culture in a myriad of ways .

Sometimes, I am a bit surprised when I step back to look at this body of work and find so many penises: when people already know me personally and then see my art for the first time, they often have a hard time reconciling my work and my everyday self. Naked female bodies are ubiquitous in our culture, but access to male bodies is tightly controlled.

“V.I.P. (Very Important Penis)” 2017, Gold over Bronze, gold chain, gold charm, with online component tagging perpetrators of rape, 4.5 x 2.5 x 8"

Someone who turned the corner in a recent exhibition and was faced with “V.I.P. (Very Important Penis)”, compared it to being flashed: men expose their penises to unwilling women like guns, as a threat that they “just might use it”. A review of a recent show in York, PA, warned the public that there was not just “nudity”, but “MALE nudity”. (If you’ve never taken an art history class, you might want to acquaint yourself with some information about “The Male Gaze” as background to these works.)

My point is, I did NOT just walk into the studio one day and say, “Let me do something really provocative that will stir up some trouble, upset my family, and, if I’m really lucky, get me banned from Facebook, my greatest art distribution resource. I know! A penis! If that doesn’t work, I will try something else… a bigger penis, or maybe three of them!”

As a matter of fact, as I pointed out earlier, a savvy artist is going to think twice about wielding a male appendage in their work, because it would be judged and dismissed by some of their peers as being an easy solution to “charging up” a work, but I believe it to be absolutely necessary in the series that I am doing, and would not be putting forth my highest truth if I did not do what the work requires.

For the past 6 or 7 years, many curators have responded to this in-progress series excitedly by saying, “This needs to be seen!” followed by “But sorry, I can’t be the one”, when they started to think about logistics of showing it in their space. It was discouraging, but I had faith that there were people out there who would believe in what I was doing and who would be willing to walk through the fire with me. DC artist John Paradiso, who makes challenging work himself, gave me the first show. Two more fabulous artist-curators, Matthew Clay-Robison and Jim Arendt, brought the work to their university galleries.

A few months back, my Facebook account was disabled for posting art works made from deconstructed MAGA hats. I wrote about it, and there was some subsequent press.

“Hate Hat”, 2019, deconstructed MAGA hats, thread, cotton, 28 x 9 x 12", edition of 3. Hate Hat 1/3, Manuel De Santaren collection, two remaining.

When I initially conceived of “Hate Hat” back in January of 2019, I was actually concerned that it was too obvious, but felt so strongly that this object needed to exist in the world that I had to go ahead and make it. I wanted to call out MAGA hat wearers who claimed it was an innocuous fashion choice, and to sound the alarm that history was repeating itself.

Only The Terrorized Own The Right To Name Symbols Of Terror, 2019, armband made of deconstructed MAGA hats, cotton, thread, 5.25 x 6 x 6"

When I followed with “Only The Terrorized Own The Right To Name Symbols of Terror”, several people (artists included) took me to task for comparing the current administration to Nazi Germany, saying that it minimized the horrors of the holocaust. I stood my ground: now everyone is comparing our horrific child detainment camps to concentration camps. To paraphrase Picasso, “Art is a lie about the truth”: I am not a politician or a newscaster, I am an artist. I see it as my obligation to make art about my fears and my observations about what is happening beneath the surface of our culture. The holocaust did not begin with “The Final Solution”. It began with isolating and demonizing categories of humans. I believe with all of my heart that anyone who was in a Nazi concentration camp would want us to do everything in our power to stop what is happening right now in our country and to keep it from going any further. So, I am screaming as loud as I can in the only way I know how.

Jen Tough, a San Francisco gallerist, saw this work, and offered me a solo exhibition during a month where she just had a cancellation. It was a Cinderella moment: I had been making this work, confident that someday, I would find a gallerist who saw value in it and was brave enough to take it on, and here she was. I was on cloud nine for less than 12 hours when I saw the awful comments section of a FOX San Francisco TV news station on Instagram that had run images of my work. I emailed her, and said “There is nothing I would like more than to have this show, but please go to Instagram and read these comments. I want you to know what you are getting into, and I understand if you want to change your mind.” Luckily, she was more determined than ever, but she decided to move the exhibition to a more secure location which would remain secret until right before the show, and make it a weekend-long “pop-up”. She started getting threatening phone calls to the gallery. A Huffington Post article came out, mentioning the threats, and the owners of the planned pop-up building told her they “had reservations” about allowing her to use the space. She offered to buy extra insurance. In addition to this work being banned on Facebook and Instagram when I initially posted it, when Jen tried to post about the show, she checked with lots of people, and came to realize that while the post was visible on her page, it was not appearing in anyone’s feed. All attempts to publicize the show by buying ads through Facebook were denied. Next, I received a really vile letter addressed to me in care of the gallery. (I’m a woman, so, of course, the first two paragraphs were jam-packed with graphic sexual violence.) Jen emailed the letter to me, then took it to the police. She told the officer (who was obviously a conservative) that the gallery had also received threatening phone calls. He looked the letter over, decided that there was nothing to worry about, and they would not be making any extra drives past the gallery…. at least until Jen spoke to his boss. I only read the letter once. There were suggestions to display it at the exhibition, but I felt no need to give it any more attention.

So, what would normally be a great moment for an artist (a gallerist finding my work, liking it, and offering me a show) turned into a several-weeks-long emotional roller coaster. Every day, I wonder if/when she will decide that it is too much and it is just not worth dealing with. She had to install extra security and cameras in her gallery, and we are both spending tremendous amounts of money to exhibit the work in a popup this weekend, with the utmost security to see there is no damage to persons or property.

I believe in the power of art, or I would not make what I make. While it might not necessarily change the world, I am fairly certain it can be one of many catalysts that nudge cultural conversations forward. But, sometimes, when people are upset by the work, I think, “Geez…. It’s only art, don’t get so upset!”. Artists make work about what concerns them, and you can pay attention, or not. But the gallery or museum is a discrete space, and when you pass through the portal, you expect to be challenged by new ideas. In the past decade or two, the internet has created an environment where people can be confronted with art images that they are not prepared to see. It is a good thing because it has democratized art, bringing it to people who never attend art venues, but it is problematic, in that the work is not seen in a context where people are prepared to be challenged. They feel ambushed by it.

But I am concerned that non-artists think that a certain perverse pleasure is derived from upsetting people, and then we simply reap the imagined plethora of benefits that being a “controversial” artist provides. One of my favorite studio wall quotes is by Susan Sontag, who said, “He who transgresses not only breaks a rule. He goes somewhere that the others are not, and he knows something the others don’t.”

And here’s what I know: the reality is that unless you are a top 1% artist, being driven to make challenging or confrontational art works is NOT an enviable position: it works AGAINST you in a dozen ways. If people are upset by the first image of your work that they see (even curators), they may never want to delve deeper into your long lifetime of varied art making. You are much less likely to sell work that makes people uncomfortable…. few people will want to hang it in their house because it can make guests uncomfortable, and museum acquisitions are often reviewed by boards who may be conservative. Less sales mean that you rely upon grants and self-financing to make your work, which is problematic for those of us who are not wealthy. Many of the popular websites that art lovers follow to discover new artists will not risk alienating viewers by featuring your work. You are severely limited in the venues where you can exhibit… non-profit spaces often have classes for children, curators may not want to deal with the hassle of potential backlash. In university settings, some curators don’t yet have tenure, and can’t afford the risk of bringing your work to campus. You may not be hired for some teaching jobs because parents might complain. Your studio mates may ask you to keep your studio location a secret to keep the crazies away. People may confront you face-to-face with scary responses to your work. Trolls will call you lots of ugly names, and sometimes, they get threatening. They discuss you and your work on creepy websites that you cannot even access. You have to regularly police your social media pages for comments and names you need to block. (Though I am amused by the 20-something trolls who tell me, an art professor who has been making work for thirty years, that I am not an artist and I should give it up). If you are making feminist work, (i.e., work that shows the point-of-view of 50% of the people who make up this planet), your work is often labeled as something that “most people” are not going to be interested in. Work that shows a distinctively female point of view is pigeonholed, not considered part of the “mainstream” and might only be shown in alternative spaces that are rarely reviewed and are taken less seriously by the Art World. If your work DOES get reviewed, you have to hope that the critic is educated/open minded enough to not be dismissive of work that represents a point of view they are unfamiliar with. (A recent male critic referred to my fiber work as “an avocation”.) In addition, you are always wondering who from your private family life is Googling you, how much control they might have over your (or your family’s) well-being, how deep they are going, and whether they understand the function of art. You need a really supportive spouse who believes in what you are doing, and who is not afraid of what others might think. Your work can alienate you from beloved family and friends who don’t “get” what you are trying to do. This makes you feel completely isolated, like a sane, mission-obsessed movie protagonist that everyone regards as crazy.

In short, my life would be a lot easier if I could just go back to painting night landscapes. But I can’t. People remark that I am brave, and some ask me why I don’t just stop making less controversial art to have more peace in my life, but I really don’t have a choice. If I tried to make something other than the work that is begging to materialize, it would be like The Real Art That Needed To Materialize was sitting right behind me, looking over my shoulder and reminding me every second that I am wasting my time on some sort of cheap, compromised substitute… and to what end?

So I harbor the hope that, while the PTA moms might not want to talk to me or have a play date, my daughter will know that I followed my path in life, did what I thought was right, and even tried, with the knowledge and gifts that I have been given, to make the world a better place for her by raising a few uncomfortable questions.

Some of you are still scratching your heads, wondering, “How does a painting or a sculpture of a penis make the world a better place?” If you really want to know, follow the link I suggested, read a book on feminist art, take a class… an art history class, a women’s studies class. Ask a female friend how she feels when she looks at my work. Ask yourself why marks on a canvas upset you so. Ask yourself why another scandalous image such as this one, painted by Courbet and hanging in the Louvre

Gustav Courbet, “L’Orgine Du Monde”, 1866

while still being provocative, might somehow feel less offensive or threatening than mine. If you have occasion to see my work and it upsets you, remember to ask yourself why you get your panties in a twist about some paint on a canvas or some ripped up hats, but are not nearly as outraged at the reality that prompted me to spend weeks, months, or even years crafting a response to those horrific things that are happening around us every day, be it manifestations of rape culture, authoritarianism, misogyny, racism, the orphaning and imprisonment of innocent children, mass shootings, corporate destruction of our planet, the 1% exploitation of the poor, killing for sport, factory farming of sentient animals, or any other form of cruelty and oppression against our fellow beings.

You know…. the stuff that I find obscene.

Don’t shoot the messenger.

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

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