Cheap thrills: what happened to bad taste?

Friday 28 October, 18.30 - 20.00 , Cinema 2, Barbican UK satellite events


Tickets: £9 (standard), with discounts for concessions and Barbican members, available here.

From John Waters’ camp celebrations of sexual and social outcasts through to pop star Miley Cyrus’s sexually explicit transformation, vulgarity in culture retains a potent ability to shock. Hardly a day seems to go by without the announcement of a new ‘taboo-busting’ artwork – such as performance artist Milo Moiré‘s naked protest against the sexual harassment of women in Cologne – which seems to generate more eye-rolling than apoplexy. Twenty five years on from Damien Hirst’s ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, there seems little appetite for a new generation of shocking Young British Artists; a revival of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed at the National Theatre earlier this year seemed to upset the stomachs, but not necessarily the sensibilities, of a younger generation of critics and audiences.

At the same time, however, film and television seems to find itself under the scrutiny of a new generation of tastemakers more than ever. From complaints of casting Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl and mixed-race actress Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina through to debates over the depiction of onscreen sexual violence and offscreen gender dynamics, outrage over offensive art seems to lie in who is producing the art rather than in its content. While some see this as part of the healthy democratisation of debate online, where marginalised voices can demand greater representation on screen, the likes of AO Scott and Mark Kermode have expressed concern that the loss of informed and sceptical professional critic – the supposed cultural ‘tastemaker’ of yesteryear – risks hollowing out the territory for serious artistic discussion of movies. Oscar Wilde famously declared that there is ‘no such thing as a moral or immoral book’ and that only its artistic quality mattered; but when taste is in the eye of the beholder, are we only left judging art on whether it has the ‘right’ message?

Is good (or bad) taste an outdated concept, or have debates over offence taken its place? Have audiences simply become more willing (and able) to express their discontent, or more sensitive to material which shocks them? In the twenty-first century, does film still maintain its cultural edge at the vanguard of battles against censors, or has even extreme arthouse become safely mainstream? Is shock art passé, or does it just need to grow up?