(Since I’m British, I’ll be focusing on examples of controversies [and their effects] in Britain, mainland Europe and America – since I know more about these controversies and these cultures.)
It was Manet’s “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe”, the works of the Maquis De Sade and Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture Of Dorian Gray” that caused a scandal in the 19th century.
It was Tijuana Bibles and the “excesses” of the cinema that ruffled the feathers of 1920s America.
It was horror comics, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Bettie Page, The Rolling Stones and D.H.Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” that sent gavels flying in the 1950s and 60s.
It was heavy metal and hip hop music, a banned poem by James Kirkup, Peter Wright’s “Spycatcher”, “video nasties”, a banned art film about a few nuns and many other things that caused a lot of outraged murmuring in the 1980s.
It was a banned song by the Pogues, a David Cronenburg film, violent videogames, “South Park” and other such things that grabbed tabloid headlines in the 1990s.
It was an opera about Jerry Springer, “South Park”, a TV show by Chris Morris and countless other things that provoked otherwise reasonable people to absolute fury in the early-mid 2000s.
And, in the present day, the recent controversies seem to surround depictions of certain timeless human activities on the internet, a few horror movies, pictures of the human body on the third pages of certain badly-written conservative newspapers and, of course, evil music videos that corrupt the youth!!!!11111
Controversy and moral panics are nothing new. But, should you (as an artist, writer or musician) try to be controversial?
Controversy is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a fast-track to instant fame and a place in history. But, on the other hand, it requires a lot of courage to be controversial, not to mention that something is also only truly shocking the first time that it happens.
After every controversy, western society matures slightly and gradually becomes a tiny bit more open-minded and tolerant. So, something which was controversial even ten or twenty years ago may just be fairly ordinary these days.
Something which was controversial or banned seventy to eighty years ago is, quite rightly, deemed quaintly amusing and suitable for most modern audiences. And, something which was controversial over a hundred years ago usually ends up being part of the respected and revered canon of Western art and literary history.
If it wasn’t for controversy, we would still probably be living in the middle ages. As much as some people may hate to admit it, we owe many of the social and technological advancements of modern western society to heresy, pornography, blasphemy, obscenity and indecency. And this is a good thing.
If you don’t believe me – then don’t buy anything over the internet or watch Youtube (which types of sites do you think pioneered online payments, video streaming etc..?). Don’t use anything that involves satellites in any way (after all, the sun revolves around the earth and heaven is directly above the earth, right?).
Don’t watch any film produced after 1939 (After all, Clark Gable used a rude word and things went downhill from there..). Don’t wear modern clothes. Don’t vote. Don’t use modern medicine in any way (you may imbalance the four humours of your body!). Don’t fall in love with someone you actually love (if they happen to be the same sex or gender as you are). Don’t listen to any type of music other than hymns and classical pieces. Don’t choose your own spiritual beliefs etc…
I’m sure you get the idea. Controversy is necessary for the development of a society. And it is the best way to get whatever you’ve made into the history books too.
But, if controversy and shock value fade over time, then your controversial work of art, fiction, music or drama must also be extremely well-made, because your work can’t last on shock value alone.
If whatever you make would be still be good even if it wasn’t shocking, then publish it. If it wouldn’t, then don’t.
In other words, shock value is not a proper substitute for talent. But it can compliment talent quite well.
In addition to this you must remember that, by it’s very nature, controversy causes reactions in people. People from many religions can conveniently forget the parts of their own scriptures about peace, love and/or forgiveness. Democratic governments can forget that free expression is the foundation of any democracy. Conservatives become even more conservative than they already were and even liberals can temporarily turn into conservatives.
Not to mention that there are, of course, trolls on the internet too.
In other words, there is less protection for people who use their right to free speech to create controversial things than there used to be.
Controversy isn’t for the faint-hearted and it can sometimes even be a dangerous game in legal terms too (eg: in Britian, the limits of free speech are more vague and restrictive than they are in America).
In addition to this, whatever controversial thing you create may possibly get banned. Thankfully, due to the internet, this is more of a symbolic gesture than anything else these days. Plus, as countless people have said over the years, being banned is paradoxically the best form of free publicity that anyone can get.
So, as I said earlier, controversy is a double-edged sword and shock value alone is no substitute for talent. I can’t really tell you whether or not you should be controversial, but it’s something you should always think carefully about beforehand.
Anyway, I hope that this article has been interesting 🙂