A couple of days ago I gave a short talk and had a public conversation with the dramatist Ludvig Uhlbors at Moderna muséet (Museum of Modern Art) in Malmö. This is the text of the introductory talk.
The dictionary says provocation is ”something that incites, instigates, angers, or irritates”, from the Latin provocatio, ”calling forth”.
The interesting question is why anything would do any of these things. What is it that provokes and why is it provoking, why does it call forth a reaction, in the first place?
And, even more pointedly: why would you want to provoke anyone?
A very interesting use of the word is in the secret services. Russians are said to be especially adept at it. Provokatsiya in the former KGB meant taking control of your enemies in secret and encouraging them to do things that discredit them and help you. You plant your own agents provocateurs and flip legitimate activists, turning them to your side. Or you simply plant extremists who superficially are on the opposite side from you. They provoke reactions which make your agenda seem legitimate. This is subterfuge for political purposes, often called a dark art.
There's no shortage of self-consciously provocative art these days. Sometimes it feels like the very purpose of so-called art is to provoke. Sometimes it gets interesting and effective. Often, not very. If you are really out to provoke for some good reason, it's not evident to me that art, in a conventional sense, is the most effective means to do so, unless skillfully coupled with other activities, and other disciplines.
The problem here is that we live in a society of spectacles now, where spectacles are everywhere and provocative art, more often than not, is just another short-lived spectacle.
I think it's useful to remember that historically, what has turned out to be most provocative often has had no intention to provoke. It just did. Perhaps the best, quite iconic, example of this is Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by means of blind natural selection, which strongly contributed to intellectually killing the earlier Christian world-view. This also gives us the key to why something is provocative, why something calls forth an interesting strong reaction. It has to do with the disturbing, the unsettling of some hitherto taken for granted, deeply entrenched concept of your world and life.
There are many crude provocations – you can easily think of everyday examples – that are really not very interesting, because they are only based on immediate shock value. The most interesting and historically significant provocations have either been unintentional (as provocations) or has deliberately and with great insight targeted entrenched points of view regarding the world, or society. For example, these days, when Darwinism has become scientific orthodoxy, the research of biologist Rupert Sheldrake is provocative enough to have him banned from the official TED talks.
The worthwhile focus then is not really on the provocateur but on the effects of what turns out to be provocative. This means that, in a way, a culturally successful provocation is quite selfless. The person of the provocateur is the least interesting component in the equation.
Another implication of this would also be that provocation for provocation's sake, provocation for the purpose of calling forth immediate, strong reactions, serves a useful or interesting purpose only if it is deeply contextually aware. Only then can provocation be a means of enlightening investigation, and not just a temporarily shocking behavior or event.
This may seem self-evident to some here, but what is perhaps not so self-evident, if you agree with this, is that there can be no such thing as provocative art. There can only be an art of provocation.
Finally, I would venture that deep provocation, really effective provocation, with possible lasting consequences, is closely tied to personal risk. Unless you, as provocateur, put yourself on the line – morally, financially, reputationally, maybe even risk your life – there is no real substance to your provocations. This does not mean, however, that you get to be interestingly and effectively provocative only by risking yourself. That's just stupid.