Watching The World Burn: Shocking the middle-class today isn’t about engaging in political or moral therapy. Today, it’s about shocking people literally. As in alarming, disturbing and frightening them. As in outraging, appalling and provoking them. The sofa-burning revels of Otago students are a case in point. Except, of late, even these ritual fires have been deemed too tame. New shocks are in store for Dunedin's long-suffering citizenry.
AS IS THE CASE with most things arty, the French have a name for it. Épater le Bourgeois! (Shock the Middle Class!) became the catch-phrase of the French decadent poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. Their artistic mission was to cultivate a lifestyle of such unrelenting transgression as to throw into sharp relief the dull torpor of middle-class existence. Like a bracing bucketful of cold water, the uncompromising radicalism of their art was supposed to shock its victims into a new level of consciousness.
By the early Twentieth Century, épater le bourgeois had morphed into the notion of an artistic avant garde (advance guard) dedicated to all things new and challenging. From Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the mostly middle-class consumers of art were taken on a dizzying journey to worlds so utterly unlike their own that they could scarcely take them in. The debut performance of the Rite of Spring provoked first cat-calls and then fist-fights amongst its Parisian audience. Le Bourgeois was very épater indeed!
There was more than a little épater le bourgeois about the youth rebellions of the post-war era. Rock-n-Roll scandalised the buttoned-down middle-class suburbanites of the Eisenhower Era. (All those nice, white, boys and girls gyrating to “Negro Music”!) Events took an even more radical turn in the 1960s when thousands of nice, white, middle-class college students began “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out”. Mum and Dad may not have known much about Baudelaire’s or Rimbaud’s sybaritic predilections, but they harboured deep misgivings about the (very similar) hijinks of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. As Bob Dylan wryly put it in his Ballad of a Thin Man: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?”
But, if the Middle Class was being shocked by the artistic avant garde, it was also being improved. The innovative and experimental work of all these poets, painters, playwrights, novelists, musicians and composers more than repaid the “squares” who were willing to lay aside their prejudices and wrestle with artistic expressions as exciting as they were illuminating. Regardless of whether they were listening to the Rite of Spring or Highway 61 Revisited, there was always a lot more than shock on offer. People emerged from these experiences changed – for the better.
In its most recent iteration, however, épater le bourgeois has undergone a dramatic change. In the past, the artistic and political avant garde shocked people for purposes that were more-or-less noble. The bourgeoisie had, after all, started out as a revolutionary class, preaching the gospel of universal emancipation. Avant garde artists were hoping to shock the smug and self-satisfied middle-classes back into loving freedom; scandalise them back into demanding justice.
No such nobility impels today’s avant garde. Shocking the middle-class today isn’t about engaging in political or moral therapy. Today, it’s about shocking people literally. As in alarming, disturbing and frightening them. As in outraging, appalling and provoking them. Not for any transformative purpose, but simply for the thrill of traumatising one’s fellow human-beings.
If you’re looking to pin the blame for this sorry state of affairs on someone or something, look no further than the Post-Modern ethos. Post-Modernism, like a carnival mirror, makes everything that is big look small. Even the possibility of nobility is denied. And if men and women are neither good nor bad, then damnation’s as pointless as redemption. Épater le bourgeois no longer has a purpose – other than to give pleasure to the people doing the shocking.
When I was a student in Dunedin, I cultivated a romantic persona: styling my hair like one of King Charles I’s cavaliers; writing articles for the student paper; and singing songs attacking the pretensions of my smug university city. If I ever set out to shock Dunedin’s middle classes, it was only in hopes of waking them up.
Forty years later, I read about a vanload of Dunedin students pulling-up alongside a car containing a woman and her dog. Suddenly the door of the van slides open, and one of the students yells at the startled driver: “If it wasn’t for the dog, we’d rape you!”
As performance art, it was certainly a case of épater le bourgeois. The driver was shocked. I was shocked. Whether either of us were improved is less certain.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 March 2016.