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Shocker: promises of drenchings of blood, vomit, diarrhea and pus.

"Conditions in society are shocking, and art really does become a mirror to society in that way," said the performance artist Karen Finley, who became a national symbol for shock art during the early 1990s battles over public funds for controversial art. And sometimes that mirror turns into a magnifying glass.

Such work may seem to stretch art's immunity plea -- its argument that "we are only reflecting the brutality of the world, and your complicity in it" -- past the breaking point, conveniently projecting its own exploitive tendencies onto the viewer. In "The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning" (2011), the critic Maggie Nelson questioned the lingering hold of what she called Modernism's "shock doctrine," summed up for her in the Austrian film director Michael Haneke's stated desire to "rape the audience into independence."

Not that Ms. Nelson, who teaches at California Institute of the Arts, dismisses the value of confrontation. Art still needs to "say things the culture can't allow itself to hear," she said. "But all shock is not created equal," she continued. "Once the original 'ugh' is gone, you've got to look at what the next emotion is."

"If you could think of something that would get an NC-17 rating with no sex or violence," he said, "you would have the most radical movie of the year."

-- John Waters

The filmmaker John Waters began his 1981 autobiography, "Shock Value," with the declaration that having someone vomit while watching one of his movies was "like getting a standing ovation." But mere shock for shock's sake, he said recently, is "deathly."

"If you're shocking by subject matter alone, it's not enough, and it never was enough," he said. "It's easy to shock, but it's much harder to surprise with wit."

To him the most shocking thing about "Pink Flamingos," his 1972 exploitation classic that depicted the drag queen Divine gleefully eating dog feces, was the fact that people laughed. "It was a commentary on censorship," he said. "It was about what was left once 'Deep Throat' became legal."

To ask if art can still shock is quickly to invite another question: Shock whom, and where? Connoisseurs of the highbrow jolts delivered, say, by European movie directors like Lars von Trier and Gaspar NoƩ (whose "Irreversible" assaulted audiences with a nine-minute rape scene) might find themselves shocked at the guilt-free pleasure taken by fans of the torture-porn "Saw" franchise. And violence that might seem humdrum at the multiplex might seem shocking in a live theater, to say nothing of an opera house.

"There are a thousand different audiences," said Vallejo Gantner, the artistic director of Performance Space 122 in the East Village. "At 'The Book of Mormon' the shock is all part of the fun. But it's much harder to shock a downtown theatergoing audience."

A "Rite of Spring"-style riot, Mr. Gantner added wryly, is "every presenter's dream." But if such melees are rare, plenty of artists succeed in causing deep discomfort today.


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