Can Art Ever Offend?

Kevin (Kal) Kallaugher - cartoonist The Economist magazine
The other day, I had the pleasure of hearing Kevin Kallaugher, the political cartoonist for The Economist magazine. You don’t meet political cartoonists every day—there are actually very few of them—so I was eager to hear what types of questions people would ask during the Q & A.

One gentleman asked “Kal” how he handled taboo subjects in his art, like gun control, abortion, religion, etc. He told us, while it’s tempting at times, he opts not to offend. He said the point of political cartoons is to engage the reader and make them think. If you automatically offend someone, say by drawing a ridiculing picture of a prophet, their anger will keep them from considering your point.

As artists we face this dilemma often. Can we depict a controversial topic in our art, can we show a beloved figure in a less-than-flattering light, can we cross the lines of “decency”? And if we do, will we be admired for our courage or hated for our disrespect? Akin to Kal’s comments, will our decisions prove more distracting than useful? I call that “pulling us out of the story.”

For example, I once saw a production of Les Miserables, my favorite musical. In the number “Master of the House,” which takes place in a bawdy inn, the innkeeper sings as he picks the pockets of guests or sidles away with their belongings. But in this staging, our gaze was drawn to a couple in the background who were simulating sex in an upstairs bedroom. All eyes were on them, hence, most viewers missed the misdeeds of the innkeeper, which was the point of the scene.

Art, like so many things, is subjective. What is offensive to me, may not be to you. What is funny to me, may be distasteful to you. So even if an artist tries to walk the politically correct path, he/she will likely sometimes stumble.

To me, it all comes down to the purpose and intention of the art. If you are purposefully pushing the boundaries in order to challenge or shed new light on them, that is one thing, even if I don’t agree with you. If you are seeking to shock or offend simply to garner attention for yourself or your work, that is another.

And please don’t think we are fool enough not to recognize the difference.