Shock of the not so new

There will be blood; there will be guts; there will be mutilated genitals - the Royal Academy's exhibition 'Apocalypse' opens this week. But a short examination of the history of horror in art uncovers a truth more disturbing than any of the works on display
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And once the red shoes were on the little girl's feet, she began to dance wildly and exuberantly. She danced and danced. But when she became tired and wished to rest, she found that she could not stop herself dancing. She danced on until her feet bled and each new step delivered more pain and exhaustion. She wept and cried for help until the cobbler, finally taking pity on the child, chopped off her feet with a cleaver and brought her the rest she craved.

And once the red shoes were on the little girl's feet, she began to dance wildly and exuberantly. She danced and danced. But when she became tired and wished to rest, she found that she could not stop herself dancing. She danced on until her feet bled and each new step delivered more pain and exhaustion. She wept and cried for help until the cobbler, finally taking pity on the child, chopped off her feet with a cleaver and brought her the rest she craved.

Or something like that. I can't quite remember whether this was my favourite Grimm brothers' tale, but I do know that this terrible paradox of beauty and horror gripped me from an early age. And I know that the nightmarish fascination of this story has endured for me.

It was therefore with some bemusement that I read the results of a recent psychological survey, which claims that disturbed children can be spotted extremely early in their development as they are the ones who dwell on the nasty aspects of children's stories. Can a child's attraction to witches and ghosts, the ugly and the macabre, really be an indication of behavioural problems later in life? Surely the implication here is that far more children are disturbed than are not? Don't children love to be scared or disgusted? Isn't that precisely why the Grimm tales endure, why Roald Dahl endures, and why Harry Potter is only now, in the fourth "darkest" book, becoming truly, mesmerically, powerful?

Of course this particular survey is by no means the first one to link a preoccupation with nasty material with the impetus to go out into the world and commit atrocious crimes. The examples of such links are legion - Charles Manson and the Beatles' song Helter Skelter; Jon Venables and Robert Thompson watching the Child's Play videos again and again; Peter Sutcliffe and his constant visits to an end-of-pier chamber of horrors. But of course the examples of people consuming vast quantities of this sort of material and getting on with living blameless lives entirely swamp these isolated extremes. The assumption has to be that while very many people enjoy feeling vicarious disgust, vicarious fear or vicarious revulsion, only a very few develop a desire to experience the real thing.

This summer one British artist decided that he did wish to experience the real thing. This artist did not take part in the now-legendary "freeze" show at Goldsmiths, or sell his work to Charles Saatchi or even feature in the Royal Academy's block-busting "Sensation" show. He is too old now ever to be referred to as a "young British artist" - as indeed are the original "YBAs". But if there is one piece of art that the Royal Academy's upcoming sequel to "Sensation" - "Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art" - should have but doesn't, it is his.

Sebastian Horseley was until recently an old-fashioned sort of artist, a figurative painter in oils, who exhibited his paintings in gilt frames. Early this year he became extremely interested in the rituals of a Christian sect in the Philippines who each year re-enact the crucifixion. This event in itself has for some time been a regular recipient of the kind of macabre attentions that one would expect. Over several years as the editor of a colour supplement, I was offered pictures of these crucifixions for the pleasure-in-repulsion of the nation's educated liberals.

Horseley though, was not interested in such small beer as merely depicting this barbaric testament of faith. Instead he resolved to go out there and offer himself up as a victim. Many of his friends were deeply worried by his plans, or disturbed by thoughts of the injuries to his hands that such an exercise would entail, and the idea that these might inhibit his ability to paint for the rest of his life. Unbelievably though, he went ahead with the project, taking with him to the Philippines, among others, Sarah Lucas, an artist with the most impeccable of YBA credentials, to film it. He has now returned to London, the wounds on his hands healing, and reports that crucifixion is extremely painful. He is preparing for an exhibition next spring.

I must confess, I'm very much looking forward to this one. I find that chopped-up cows, messy beds, Myra Hindleys made up of toddlers' handprints, and conjoined children with genitals for noses, seem rather tame in comparison to such a show. If nothing else, it will certainly help us work out exactly what sort of buttons "shock art" really are pushing, if only because the project combines pretty much each of the aspects of the contemporary art scene that exercise us most of all.

The most crucial element is of course the horror and pain that the artist himself has experienced. But further, and entirely in tune with contemporary mores, his work is literally autobiographical, and our interest in it is literally voyeuristic. It is important, too, that this artist is unknown. Whatever his motivation for taking part in such a project, the result will be celebrity. Among those who will suggest that this project is not art, not even performance art, there is a tradition of portrayal of crucifixion in art to point to. This tradition is so solid that Horseley's stunt is not even a new one. A radical Austro-German art group mounted a crucifixion in the 1960s, with the removal of genitals for good measure.

It has been interesting watching the pre-publicity for "Apocalypse" mount, because a consensus has been building around it, even though none of the writers who have vouchsafed their opinion until now have seen the show. The recent Channel 4 series Anatomy of Disgust focused in its final episode on contemporary art, showcasing Stuart Brisley, and his artworks exploring bodily excretions and rubbish, and offering the obligatory historical context, including the tradition of paintings of the crucifixion (with an unknowing nod to our own St Sebastian) as well as a reprise of the influence of Goya and Hieronymus Bosch.

Of all the artists working now, the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman seem most closely allied to the tradition of the latter two artists. Many of their artworks have been straightforward reinterpretations of works by Goya, while their tiny, teeming models are easily compared with Bosch.

It is their latest work which is being hyped as the centrepiece of "Apocalypse". Hell is a painstaking and complex representation of the atrocities of the Holocaust, and has been subject to the usual criticisms that follow artistic representations of this subject. I always find it odd that there is such a groundswell of resentment about the appropriation of the Holocaust for artistic purposes. What on earth would it say about the world if such a short time after it happened, artists where no longer exercised or inspired by history's most spectacular display of inhumanity to man?

What bothers people is motive. The motive of the artist in commenting, and the motive of the viewer in looking. Last week's announcement that Britain's film censors will relax their guidelines on sex and violence for adults was interesting, largely because there is an implicit admission that it is now unquestionable that adults have a right to be entertained by images of sex and violence. This liberalisation makes little reference to "artistic" expression. It is all about the right of the adult to have a good time. Children, on the other hand, will be more protected from images that may be "corrupting". They have to wait until they are 18, when these images will magically become not corrupting but entertaining.

Bizarrely, we are now more bothered by sex and violence which purports not to entertain but to be art. Soaking up disturbing images and finding them "entertaining" is all right. Looking at them more cerebrally, thinking about what is before us and responding to it intellectually, or absorbing it for its own sake and responding emotionally, is the activity now considered suspicious and corrupt.

It has become a widespread belief that shocking contemporary art has come to serve a Ballardian function in our society. We are so safe now and so secure that grotesque and horrible images provide us with some kind of necessary personal catharsis. Further, while this art provides us with an escape from the protections of capitalism, the artists themselves are portrayed as capitalists - bought by Saatchi, earning vast amounts of money, politically unengaged. They are seen as using subversion of capitalism to exploit it. This, too, is mistrusted.

There are complaints too about the quality of the art itself. One work which has received much pre-publicity is Maurizio Cattelan's portrayal of the Pope felled by a small but perfectly formed meteor. This, I'm afraid, does nothing for me. It doesn't seem shocking. It just seems silly - a pocket cartoon in Technicolor tableau form, but sadly lacking in a witty caption. The question here is not, why has such an offensive image been put on public display, but why do people bother to work themselves into a lather over something that is so banal?

This is an extreme example - much of the art in "Apocalypse" will be neither banal nor silly. Some of it will be neither horrific nor beautiful. These large contemporary arts shows are coming to resemble nothing so much as fabulous lumber rooms, which you can rootle through searching for gems among the junk. Even some sympathetic critics suggest that there is "too much" shocking art around, that all of this over-exposure will result in art losing its all-important ability to shock.

In an odd way, this is true. Except that it strikes me that it is among those who do not look at or feel stimulated by all this art that the Ballardian function is truly being served. It is the outraged who are shaken from their passivity by their Pavlovian reaction to modern art. For those who are engaged in it or by it, the good, the bad, the subtle and the shocking, it offers sometimes more, and sometimes less, than mere entertainment, and something more valuable and unusual than catharsis. At its best, contemporary art does not shock us. It confounds us. It offers us the liberation of not knowing what reaction we should have. It speaks to our confusion, rather than taking our minds off it. There are more shocks to come, and we'll continue to want to see them for ourselves. For the real shock that contemporary art keeps on giving us, is the knowledge that we do not understand ourselves, or our world, in the least.

'Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art': Royal Academy, W1 (020 7300 8000), from Saturday to 15 December