A Brief History of Outrage


This has been the summer of the Hundred Greatests—those lists of books and films intended to goad consumers into asking the question, “Citizen Kane? Is that out on DVD?” Admittedly, the lists are fun to ridicule, since all but your own are so obviously wrong.

Still, I feel challenged to prepare a truly important list: of avant-garde manifestations that changed the world because they stretched the boundaries of what art can be. Note that the list is chronological, and that space constraints kept me from reaching the magic number of 100. (Which probably explains your absence.) Besides, in keeping with the avant-garde spirit of subversion, it behooves me to challenge the power of 10.

1. 1863: Artists assume the task of épater le bourgeois, when early modernists challenge academic painting at a Salon des Refusés. Many spectators are offended by Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, now a French national treasure. Harold Rosenberg’s observation about this moment applies to most of those that follow: “Vanguard art must be synonymous with rejected art—not because advanced art desires to fail but for the deeper reason that only art officially cast aside can arouse in the spectator authentic feelings uncoerced by vested authority.”

2. 1873: Arthur Rimbaud stops writing poetry at the age of 19.

3. 1896: Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi opens with the word “merdre” introducing obscenity to the stage and prompting a riot at Paris’s Théâtre Nouveau.

4. 1897: While serving a sentence of two year’s hard labor for the crime of homosexuality, Oscar Wilde writes De Profundis for his callow lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.

5. 1907: Picasso’s first Cubist painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, distresses even his biggest fans.

6. 1909: The first Futurist manifesto promises to destroy all museums, moralisms, and cowardice.

7. 1910: Wassily Kandinsky creates the first completely nonrepresentational painting.

8. 1913: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring provokes such an outcry during its first performance that the dancers onstage cannot hear the orchestra.

9. 1914: Marcel Duchamp buys a bottle rack and signs it as an artwork, thus becoming the first conceptualist.

10. 1916: Hugo Ball recites phonetic poems (no real words) while dressed in a cardboard costume at his Cabaret Voltaire.

11. 1916: Dadaists proudly embrace nonsense and negation, attacking all art, past, present, and future. Their tracts announce that Dada is “a tomato,” “soft-boiled happiness,” and “nothing, nothing, nothing.”

12. 1929: André Breton asserts that the ultimate Surrealist act is someone firing a pistol into a crowd.

13. 1930: Spectators throw stink bombs at the screen during the premiere of the Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dali film L’Age d’Or.

14. 1934: Hitler rages against Dada in a speech, threatening the artists with arrest. (Three years later, the Nazis organize a show called Degenerate Art, hoping to arouse disgust against modernism.)

Here a gap occurs due to the ultimate atrocity exhibition: World War II.

15. 1947: Jackson Pollock begins the drip paintings that will come to be understood (inaccurately) as spontaneous emotional outpourings.

16. 1952: John Cage composes 4′ 33″, in which the musician sits in silence for that length of time.

17. 1953: Merce Cunningham removes emotion and narrative from modern dance.

18. 1955: Allen Ginsberg gives the first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, with the audience yelling, “Go!” at the end of each line.

19. 1957: Soon after Kerouac publishes On the Road, a journalist invents the word “beatnik.”

20. 1957: The Situationist International declares itself “the last avant-garde.” Instead of critiquing earlier art traditions, they critique “the spectacle,” a world ruled by images and consumerism.

21. 1959: Allan Kaprow creates the first “happening” in an environment where the audience participates to an unprecedented degree.

22. 1960: Yves Klein makes his “leap into the void” from a Paris wall—the most influential art event that never happened. (It was manipulated in the darkroom.)

23. 1961: Piero Manzoni cans his own shit and sells it for its weight in gold.

24. 1962: Warhol exhibits portraits of soup cans at his first one-man show.

25. 1962: In what would later become SoHo, Fluxus artists make art from picnic garbage, play soccer on stilts, and create a musical score with a machine gun.

26. 1963: Nam June Paik exhibits “prepared” televisions, inventing video art.

27. 1964: Police break up a screening of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and arrest Jonas Mekas for programming the film.

28. 1965: The Viennese Actionists bring self-mutilation, blood rituals, and orgies into the art realm.

29. 1966: At London’s Destruction in Art symposium, Yoko Ono performs Cut Piece, inviting spectators to cut her clothing off.

30. 1967: Charlotte Moorman is convicted of indecent exposure for playing the cello topless during a performance of Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique.

31. 1971: Chris Burden performs Shoot, in which he has a friend shoot him in the arm with a rifle.

32. 1972: Vito Acconci performs Seedbed, in which he masturbates under a ramp at the Sonnabend Gallery.

33. 1974: In I Like America and America Likes Me, Joseph Beuys lives in a gallery with a coyote for four days.

34. 1975: In Interior Scroll, a naked Carolee Schneemann pulls a paper scroll from her vagina and reads its text on “vulvic space.”

35. 1975: Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader attempts to cross the Atlantic in a small yacht as part of an art project—and disappears at sea.

36. 1977: Through the imperfect vessel of the Sex Pistols, Dada’s negation passes into pop.

37. 1980: Schizoculture emerges from the alternating currents of postmodern theory and nightclub energy, manifesting in antispaces from Fashion Moda to the Mudd Club.

38. 1984: Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh cut the eight-foot rope that has tied them together at the waist for a full year; during that time, they had never touched each other.

39. 1984: To illustrate “the obsolescence of the body,” Stelarc suspends himself over East 11th Street by 18 fish hooks stuck through his skin.

40. 1984: Holly Hughes puts lesbian desire onstage in her first dyke noir play, The Well of Horniness.

41. 1986: Karen Finley’s scabrous and hilarious monologues like I’m an Ass Man are obscenity in its purest form—never just a litany of four-letter expletives but an attempt to express emotions for which there are no words.

42. 1986: James Luna (Luiseño/Diegueño) displays himself as a relic at the Museum of Man—near the Indian exhibits.

43. 1986: Adrian Piper, an African American artist sometimes mistaken for white, makes calling cards that read: “Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark…”

44. 1988: Artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay cross the Great Wall of China on foot, starting at opposite ends and meeting in the middle.

45. 1988: Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s Border Brujo begins to shape the multicultural debate.

46. 1989: Annie Sprinkle inserts a speculum onstage and invites spectators to look at her cervix.

47. 1990: Mexican, Chicano, and Anglo artists from the Border Arts Workshop / Taller de Arte Fronterizo travel from the Gulf to the Pacific in a bus, “suturing the border wound” by planting steel staples with one prong in Mexico, one in the U.S.

48. 1990: Robbie McCauley travels the country to turn remembrances of racial trouble (busing in Boston, voting rights in Mississippi, rioting in Buffalo) into “performance dialogues” between local black and white actors.

49. 1994: Nina Sobell and Emily Hartzell do the first live performance in the history of the World Wide Web.

50. 1996: Mel Chin directs a team of artists inserting vanguard art into the set of television’s Melrose Place.