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When was the last time you were shocked?

Like many words, ‘tragedy’ and ‘scandal’ among them, the word ‘shock’ is grossly overused by the media. For instance, a quick scan of the front pages of the gossip magazines this week yields three ‘shock’ stories: ‘Jordan and Pete’s shock reconciliation’, ‘Kristen and R-Patz’s shock phone call’ and ‘Downton Abbey shock storyline’ – but I’d bet, reader, that you aren’t actually shocked by any of the above.

Medically, shock, or ‘acute stress reaction’, is the name for the way your body reacts to frightening or upsetting events, incorporating disorientation, increased breathing and heart rate, and a shaky, weakened feeling afterwards. Although this reaction can be triggered by upsetting news stories – the news of the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks caused shock reactions in viewers not directly affected by the events – generally, medical shock occurs in those who have been directly involved in traumatic events.

So if shock only happens to participants, can art ever shock? Considering the above, we might argue not – viewers of artwork are usually spectators, not participants, distanced from the shocking art by an auditorium, a frame, or by virtue of experiencing the art digitally. And yet, certain types of art can provoke physical reactions which look very similar to medical shock. Watching Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic this summer, one friend was shocked to tears during a particularly upsetting scene: ‘I wasn’t crying out of sadness; I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach, my throat went tight and I just started to cry.’ Similarly, there are scenes in films like Flight and Dead Poets Society to which I’ve seen people react with symptoms of physical shock. Experiencing something upsetting in art, the body reacts as it does in a real-life traumatic event.

‘Tumultuous scandal’

And yet art also has – or used to have – the power to shock in a different way – that is, to shock or appal our cultural sensitivities. When Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was first performed in Paris in 1913, the result was, as the Guardian calls it, ‘a tumultuous scandal’. During the premiere performance, ‘this score did intend to shock. Its savage violence confronted head-on the aesthetics of impressionism – then at the apogee of Parisian musical fashion […] This, in a way, is cubist music […]challenging the musical perspective and logic that had dominated European ears for centuries.’

The poet Stéphane Mallarmé shocked the French literary establishment with the publication of Un coup de dés n’abolira le hazard, experimenting with free form and typography at a time when most French poetry was rigidly formal, with a set of conventions and rules including a  standard number of syllables in each line.

Can we be shocked?

Today, can any kind of art work shock us in this way? Perhaps not, when, in 2012, a field full of people can sing along cheerfully to ‘the worst word in the world’ in Azaelia Banks’ song ‘212’ (you know which line I mean).

But for those of you preparing for Oxbridge interviews for arts subjects this autumn, this is a very productive issue to consider. Can art shock today? What was so different about the cultural landscape of the past that made people react to Stravinsky and Mallarmé with such outrage? If you think about the political, social and cultural goings-on contemporary to the artworks you plan to mention in your personal statement and interview, you can ensure that your answers are well-rounded and knowledgeable about the circumstances which helped to bring about their creation.

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