Writing and the Art of Provocation

At last year’s Readercon I participated in a panel called Myth, Midrash, and Misappropriation (actually, I was the leader/moderator) with an interesting group of writers and Claude Lalumière. The panel was supposed to be about the appeals and challenges of creating fiction from a religious source and how to avoid or deal with the dangers of cultural appropriation and/or offending people.

I won’t recap the entire discussion for you, but the major highlight of the panel (for me) was when, in his introduction, Claude announced that the purpose of art is to be offensive or to offend people I can’t remember if he initially said offensive or to offend, but this was definitely the core of his argument. Art should offend! He said more than once until he started to backpedal pretty hard in the middle of the panel.

Not knowing much about Claude before that moment, I was unprepared for the douchewankery he brought to the discussion1. He was unprepared for how hard I would not allow him to get away with that statement or how prepared I was to challenge him on it. And he was super unprepared for how much the audience was not on his side when question time came. That’s when the backpedaling started.

We spent a good deal of time on the panel unpacking that initial statement and talking about all the ways in which it’s completely problematic (along with all the other problematic stuff he said such as how it’s okay for him to use any religious or spiritual trappings from any culture because he’s an atheist, anyway, and doesn’t believe in them oh and also he is from French Canada so he understands what it means to come from an oppressed, occupied culture). I believe it was Jack Haringa who, after initially agreeing with his understanding of what Claude meant, actually came around to something more like: artists may hope to offend if their message is aimed at a group or idea that they find offensive. Writing with an eye toward pointing out a horrible injustice, say. The ones perpetrating that injustice may be offended — good.

I sort of agreed with that as well, but still didn’t feel it was quite the right way to think about art. In the many months since I’ve poked at the idea more and more, but still hadn’t come up with a better way to think about what Jack was getting at. Then last month someone else came along and nailed it.

NPR’s Weekend Edition interviewed National Book Award-winning poet Nikki Finney, and toward the end of that interview she said this:

Art is about being provocative; art is also about beauty and if you leave the latter out, the former doesn’t matter.

I immediately thought: YES, THAT. That is what we were reaching for around the 600 pound gorilla of Claude’s initial statement.

There is no beauty in being offensive. Offending someone, especially when you’re coming from a place of privilege and oppression, is not the basis for great art, for beautiful art, even if the beauty you’re reaching for is terrible and tragic and real.

Consider the context in which Finney made this statement:

As a young poet, I grew up in the ’60s and early ’70s, when difficult things were being said and shouted and screamed,” Finney says. “I remember saying to myself, those things are very, very important to hear, but there must be another way to say them so that they will truly be heard. I mean, that’s what art is. Art is about being provocative; art is also about beauty and if you leave the latter out, the former doesn’t matter.

I haven’t read any of this woman’s poetry yet, but I want to. I feel like she can teach me the art of saying difficult things. I am often among those who say and shout and scream because that’s important, too. And I know for a fact that engaging in this mode of discourse does result in being heard, because I often have conversations with people who listened and appreciate it. But I’d also like to be adept at that other way she speaks of.


  1. Later, when I related the goings on to others, several people said “Oh, you didn’t know? Claude Lalumiere is a total douchecanoe.” No one warned me! []

9 thoughts on “Writing and the Art of Provocation

  1. I was pretty sure this was the argument most likely to be brought out next. Having been over this ground a bit, I’ve deleted beauty from my personal understanding of art, and here’s why:

    If a piece of art has beauty because it has emotional resonance, that is, because of its inherent “art-ness”, then defining art as that which has beauty plus some other properties is simply a circular definition. It’s art, because it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful, because it’s art.

    I will grant that Faulkner’s “Sanctuary” has a certain beauty in that sense, but I deny that this beauty makes it art. It is not a priori beautiful. A priori it is almost completely horrible, but I find it to be art.

    Tying it back to the original quotation with which I took issue, how can one leave beauty out of art, if art-ness makes it beautiful, then?

    I shall ignore your condescending remark about dictionaries, apart from, of course, this sentence.

    1. Well, Andrew, should I save myself the time in continuing to have a discussion about this with you or will you anticipate the next 5 things I’m going to say? I’ll wait until you’re done.

  2. I disagree vigorously with the notion that art needs to be beautiful. These are two completely orthogonal axes upon which to measure things.

      1. My opinion is that art is about emotional communication, primarily. Art should evoke a response and make us in some way larger. It should cause us to change and grow as humans. So, my opinion of art cites nothing about beauty. There are deeply ugly books which made me think and grow, I consider those books art.

        Consulting a few dictionaries, I see that the definitions tend to cover beauty OR emotional significance. This leads me to understand that my personal definition of the word “art” at least overlaps substantially with the generally accepted one. Common usage as embalmed in the dictionary allows beauty as one of several roads to art-ness, as I read these definitions, but does not require beauty.

        Each of us uses each word in a unique way, and if you choose to use the word “art” to mean beautiful, or beautiful AND something else, that is entirely your right and I respect that. I do think that your usage will not well-align with common usage, however.

        1. First thing: it’s really never a good idea to consult the dictionary in discussions that involve deep thinking and reasoned response between educated adults. Dictionaries are not designed for nuance or depth.

          Second, I think you’re taking my meaning of beauty as “pretty”, but that’s not what I’m saying at all. Even an ugly book can have beauty if it has the emotional resonance you get at in your definition of art.

  3. There’s a major difference between provocative and offensive. “Provocative” can be trying to get someone to look at things in a new way, and it may upset people, but the goal isn’t to anger them or make them unhappy.

  4. Art is about being provocative; art is also about beauty and if you leave the latter out, the former doesn’t matter.

    I’m not sure that goes far enough, though I agree — I guess I see provocation and beauty both as necessary but insufficient conditions to what I value in art. Because the danger of offensive things is that they are so OFTEN beautiful, such that they bring something good and wonderful to the non-oppressed majority at the expense of an oppressed minority.

    I recently rejected a poem from Goblin Fruit that was profoundly beautiful to me, on the grounds that I couldn’t get away from the fact that it was also contributing to the objectification of NDN women. A year ago I wouldn’t have been able to see how it was doing that, and just seen the beauty of it to me, a woman who isn’t NDN, and published it.

    My thoughts are a muddle at present, but I wanted to weigh in all the same.

    1. Provocation, beauty, and something, anything, other than affirming of hegemony?

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