The Meta Shock Value

Sometime before the First World War, ohhhhh, no need to be exact, let’s say about 1910, Virginia Woolf concluded that human nature changed. Like an asteroid laying waste to a whole species, she and others felt the conditions of modernity had wiped out the old dinosaurs of art, those crude beasts who transported their audience, who believed in such petty bourgeois elements as plot, representation, and the major scale. In their place, out of the primordial ooze left behind by their carcasses, arose the charming aristocracy of art, the newly evolved holy beasts who would not stoop so low as to entertain. Now Art would require a secret hand-shake to understand. Epater les bourgeois! 

Of this trend, Robin Hanson asks

In the art world something is “edgy” if it might well shock ordinary folks, but of course not in-the-know folks.  The idea seems to be that ordinary folks are shocked too easily by things that should not really be shocking.

The opposite concept, which I’ll call “anti-edgy”, is of something that does not shock ordinary folks, but should.  In the know folks are shocked, but most others are not.  Why does the world of art and fashion emphasize the edgy so much more than the anti-edgy? 

It’s an interesting thought. Outside of art, I would think any political philosophy outside the mainstream fits this category. Having unorthodox views myself, I interpret current events through this very lens. The bailout package is shocking to my sensibilities. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for the man on the street. But to return to art: I’m surprised Hanson, the king of meta, hasn’t noticed that there is a slight meta-shock that occurs in the art he refers to. An epiphenomena of shock. Like he says, the respectable middle class is shocked by some art, the charming intellectuals delight in that, but there’s also a normative tinge to the intellectual’s laughter. For the middle class should be shocked at their own reaction, but they aren’t.


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