One of these things is not like the other … (clockwise from top left) Jordan Eagles, “HEMOFIELDS” (via, Andres Serrano, “Piss Christ” (1987) (via, Marc Quinn, “Self” (1991–) , Blood, stainless steel, perspex and refrigeration equipment 208 x 63 x 63 cm (via, and Chris Ofili, “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) (via

It all started with a write-up on the Gallerist blog about Jordan Eagles’s new exhibition at the Krause Gallery, where his blood paintings are currently displayed. I immediately cringed when I went on a journey following all of his press, posts about him on Facebook and Twitter, and real life opinions with real life people (I didn’t know that could still happen, either). Everyone seemed to be so in awe of paintings made out of blood, finding it so shocking that someone could use such an “unusual” and “disgusting” material to create something so beautiful. All I could do was roll my eyes.

It’s a trope that permeates the art world now and again: not simply the use of bodily fluids or other abject materials to shock an audience, but basing an entire work and its merits (or, more aptly, its notoriety) on shock value. Have we as an audience actually become so jaded that we’ve been catapulted 180 degrees back to childish naïveté? Is shallow spectacle all we need now to get our pants moist over something?

The paintings have a certain calming and ghastly aesthetic quality, mainly because they look like something a teenage goth Mark Rothko would make in his parents’ basement. The novelty of his newly invented process of encasing the blood in Plexiglas and UV resin to preserve its natural qualities wears off quickly, as does his grad school student habit of sticking “Hemo-” in front of any word for the titles.

Of course the implementation of spectacle is as old as art itself, and bodily fluids have been a staple for centuries, though not always for shock value. Medieval stained glass windows used to use urine as a pigment, and congregants just thought it was the light of God shining down on them.

More recent periods have witnessed the use of bodily fluids to assault audiences or make political statements. Andres Serrano naturally comes to mind with “Piss Christ” (1987), as do Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) and Marc Quinn’s “Self” (1991–). But those works used the scatological materials in tandem with provocative subject matter, utilizing shock in part for spectacle, but also to enhance the meanings of the works. Now it seems people will just jizz onto a canvas in two minutes and give a nine paragraph spiel on what it means.

Bodily fluids certainly have a place in art, and always will (of course), but we’ll have to suffer through juvenile attempts to simply shock audiences before something really moving made out of blood comes our way.

Eagles’s paintings are pretty, I guess, but also pretty lame. I don’t know why I’m not shocked.

Alexander Cavaluzzo is a Pop Poet, Cultural Critic and Sartorial Scholar. He received his BS in Art History from FIT and his MA in Arts Politics at NYU. His interests focus on the intersection of fashion,...

7 replies on “The Art World Needs Some Shock Therapy”

  1. Alexader, I’ve been reading your work for quite some time now and I can tell that you are really growing as a writer. You’ve got an edge and you’re keeping it sharp. This review had some clever turns of phrase that got me to laugh. It sounds like you are over shock value when it functions like a one liner that a work is riding on. Shock for the sake of shock can ring hollow. And I also can get more into works that seem to be more about a shocking message and offer some nuanced content. But I’m wondering if you think there is some shock value fatigue among art viewers these days. When so many art objects have played the shock card it starts to feel like the stale joke on the playground that was funny last week, but now has lost its punch since everyone already heard it. As a critic, are you also picking up on this shock value fatigue?

  2. so true! It’s common to find work with an aesthetic that reformulates work that happened decades ago with a little superfluous twist to make it seem fresh.

  3. Nothing new here. Caput Mortuum was used as an alternative name for Mummy brown (alternatively, Egyptian brown), a pigment that was originally made in the 16th and 17th centuries from ground-up mummies, and whose use was discontinued in the 19th century when artists became aware of its ingredients. Today, known as Cardinal purple, it is the name given to a purple variety of haematite iron oxide pigment, used in oil paints and paper dyes. It was a very popular color for painting the robes of religious figures and art patrons. Caput Mortuum is a Latin term whose literal meaning is “dead head” or “worthless remains”. The name for this pigment may have come from the alchemical usage, since iron oxide (rust) is the useless residue of oxidization.

Comments are closed.