Is it still necessary to shock in order to be creative? And when creativity shocks those who contemplate it, is it about provocation or bad manners? Or neither, as it is just as it should be? In a land of offended prudes, as is the world we live in today, those who are brave enough to defy the laws of creativity, rule.
“I’m shocked”. In the city of Porto, people use this expression a lot: “I’m shocked”. And it’s not because people from the Invicta are easily shocked, not at all. It is just a way of, for example, exacerbating the reception of news, which might even be trivial. It doesn’t have to be, necessarily, something shocking. According to the dictionary, the word shock – besides its literal definition (a shock between cars, for example) – means: a) state of great mental or psychological disturbance. Shake, commotion, concussion; b) divergence between people or ideas. Antagonism, collision, conflict, fight; c) the physiological effect resulting from the passage of electric current through the body. The latter refers to electric shock. And how does an electric shock leave us? Fanned. Dizzy. Not really knowing “how we’re doing”. And, though it is not the best of ideas to stick our fingers in the power socket to feel a shock and, perhaps, “waking up”, sometimes a little shock therapy is necessary to shake up our ideas, beliefs, and convictions. So that, essentially, they get sorted out and, who knows, we might be able to see things from a new perspective. Shock therapy would then be something like getting our butt kicked by life. Those that look like – there you go – an electric shock, capable of shaking even the most solid of structures and guarded of beliefs. Those we don’t want to see. But that, with the shock, we will. And why do we shock ourselves? Because, evidently, we don’t want to look in a certain way. Then, when an image, word or evidence appears in front of us, without asking for permission, our brain goes into short-circuit. And then it becomes “shocking”.
In the previous month of July, Vogue Portugal was the target of a wave of criticism that set the media and socials on fire, both in Portugal and abroad. In an issue dedicated to madness, called The Madness Issue, one of the covers showed a model sitting on a bathtub while being looked after by two nurses (who, in that case, were the model’s grandmother and mother, according to a post on her own personal Instagram account), in a psychiatric hospital in Bratislava. The act of bathing was portrayed there with care and affection, but the audience (or part of it) spared no accusations, as it has become common for cancel culture to do. “If the image looks dark it’s because the subject also is”, said a Vogue correspondent to the English paper The Guardian amidst the polemic. The image would be, besides that, an homage to patients and healthcare professionals who deal with an often-forgotten disease: “We also want to bring to the table the institutions, science and fields that deal with mental illness today”, the text added. Though many voices also commended the cover – but those, as we know, seem to make less noise… - for normalizing a theme that is usually dealt with extreme caution, it never made it to production.
Once again, “shocking”. The word could resume the work of Franca Sozzani (1950-2016) and her realm at Vogue Italia. The director had a certain kick for being polemic, for “shocking”. Or maybe, she only wished to be relevant, to point out the flaws of human beings and the world, in an attempt to “wake up” her readers. Though, it is surely known, that the world doesn’t always react well to provocation. Human beings don’t always enjoy having their eyes opened to the real problems surrounding them (many times not even to the ones of their own lives), since it would force them to wrap up all their fantasies and, somehow, make them change. In August 2010, Sozzani published Water & Oil, a fashion story (which, obviously, was much more than just a fashion story) of 24 pages inspired by the oil spill in the Mexican Gulf, that had occurred months before. The pictures, by steven Meisel, showed the model Kristen McMenamy laying down, defenseless, on a desert beach, with clothes covered in black oil and feathers. From those images, the cover would resurge, whose only title was The Latest Wave. The media reaction was immediate, generalized and divided. Both the cover and the editorial were described as “nauseously insipid”. The platform Refinery29, though capable of recognizing the images were beautiful, wrote the following: “Glamorizing this recent ecological disaster for the sake of ‘Fashion’ reduces the tragic event to nothing more than a piece of an attention-grabbing newspaper stand.” On the contrary, on another Fashion website, one could read: “Though the irony of using clothes that are worth thousands of dollars which, probably, were flown from across the world just for those photos, is not lost, we can’t help but think that is not art, we don’t know what that is.” Italian Vogue themselves said that “the photos have the weight of a reportage and the impact of an art piece.” One thing is for sure: if Sozanni’s goal was to shock, she managed to do exactly that. But was it her goal? Did she mean to be shocking just for the sake of it?
We don’t know if it’s necessary to be shocking in order to be creative, however, the contrary might just make sense. Lots of it, actually. “One needs to be creative to be shocking! And also, very brave to own up to actions and the inherent responsibilities of creative work”, the fashion producer Filipe Carriço states. And he continues: “We have to be, obviously, honest and realistic when we cross a line, and knowing that doing so might entail unpleasant consequences. About the wonderful Franca Sozanni, all we know is that all the risks she took by publishing or even inciting some photographers she loved, were actions that were ‘covered’ by a certain bourgeois environment where she came from. I would say, in current lingo, that she had ‘friends in high places’ somehow. I don’t mean by this that she should receive anything less but full credit for always following her creative intuition, and mostly for not being afraid to do so. Working with fear and under pressure is completely counterproductive. And Franca, as much as we know and can see through the incredible legacy she left us, never let fear take over. She always did her job without any fear of the consequences, and that’s what made her, out of all people like her, someone with a superior gift.” Are those “geniuses” behind some of the most impactful images of all times? Let’s see. Sex, for example. As it is usually said, sex sells. It is no myth it actually does. But it also offends. And Fashion has always been an excellent stage on which to challenge these irrefutable truths, whether through editorials or ad campaigns. In their trial in 2013, Beauty… and the Beast of Advertisement, Jean Kilbourne, a specialist in publicity psychology, defended that the advertorials sell a lot more than products: “They sell values, images and concepts of success, love and sexuality, popularity and normality. They tell us who we are and who we ought to be.” By promoting diversity – of sexuality, race, gender – the role of Fashion is to shake those structures and mirror the times. That being said, why not go beyond the politically correct?
Terry Richardson (expert in “shocking”, also for the worst of reasons) and Sisley made the industry roar with a suggestive advertorial that showed the model Josie Maran drinking milk from a cow’s tit. The 2001 campaign was the beginning of a partnership between the photographer and the Italian brand, where the briefing behind each photo appeared to say “talk shit, but talk”. Yves Saint Laurent caused quite the scandal too. In 2002 they launched a new perfume and, to introduce it, they conceived a campaign with a partially naked man. Or almost naked, similarly to what Mr. Saint Laurent himself had done before, in 1971. “Perfume is used on the skin”, Tom Ford explained at the time, while he was the creative director for the maison. “So why hide the body?”. Another campaign, equally “bold”, and coincidently also with Tom Ford’s signature, was the one he launched for the spring/ summer of 2003 for Gucci. The image revealed a huge Gucci logo stamped on the crotch area of the model Carmen Kass. In this case, the “shock” had consequences, since the ad was even banned from the United Kingdom. Today, the same campaign is praised for its irreverence. Shocking? Well, we could say that the topics and political faux pas that we don’t see resolved are shocking, shockingly so, in the XXI century, there is still hunger in the world, shocking is the violence of everything and amongst everyone, shocking is the evil that still hovers the Earth – and the digital world in general. These images are not shocking. Do they hurt susceptibilities? Nothing a pair of dark sunglasses can’t fix.
In 1982, the photographer Oliviero Toscani was named art director of the Benetton Group, creating commercials that viscerally confronted the audience such as one of a man with AIDS, near-death on a hospital bed or – what seems to have been equally shocking at the time – people of different ethnicities going out together. “There are no such thing as shocking images, there are only shocking realities”, Toscani declared in an interview with CNN. “An image can be stronger than an army.” And just like that, through the attention the media gave to his campaigns – that didn’t show just colorful jackets and sweaters, but alerted, above all, to questions such as the Gulf War or racial inequality – he exposed a reality that was frequently ignored by the world. Just like he underlines that purpose to Dazed magazine: “People like underestimating Fashion publicity as if it were some sort of frivolous fantasy, but those images are the ones holding the power to change our cultural landscape.” It is said that order is the result of our tendency to look for security; whereas chaos is the result of our will to rethink the world creatively. And how can one think about the world more creatively if we don’t look at it in a raw, no-fuss way? Learning to pose ourselves questions, such as “Will I be able to alert my readers to the problem X?” or “Will I bring any insight to help fix problem Y?” Instead of fearfully thinking: “Will this image shock X or Y?” The conclusion here is not that it is necessarily mandatory to shock in order to be creative. But, surely so, a shocking creative path will always be the better path to take. Maybe not the prettiest one, nor the most pleasant to the eye. But one that provokes emotion beyond the ones we’re used to feeling. An emotion that goes beyond the purity of things. An awakening of the mind, to life. It’s more of a looking-at-things-the-way-they-are kind of thing because, most of the time, that’s exactly how things are. It’s the audience that doesn’t want to see them.
Translated from the original article of Vogue Portugal's Creativity issue, published in March 2021.