Lexicon: Art Trolls

Though actually predating its namesake by a generation or more, the Art Troll gets its current name from the Internet Troll, a special class of Internet users who post “controversial and usually irrelevant or off-topic messages…with the intention of baiting other users into an emotional response or to generally disrupt normal on-topic discussion.”#

Certainly art has been shocking and occasionally scandalous for most of its history, but I say the Internet Troll only predates its namesake by about a generation because the Art Troll requires the mass media in order to exist–requires that particular combination of uninformed opinion, moral grandstanding, sound bites and short attention spans. The simplest route to art-trolling involves depicting anything–but particularly a recognizable persona–using excrement or any type of bodily fluid. The most recent (and perhaps most ultimately relevant) example of the Art Troll is the Yale-Art-student-who-induced-and-collected-miscarriages-for-an-eventual-art-installation-which-was-pre-emptively-closed-but-then-it-turned-out-that-she-probably-didn’t-even-induce-any-miscarriages-but-no-one-really-knows (I’m neither naming the artist nor linking to any publicity because the Troll only grows in power through attention, and the only way to counteract the Troll is to ignore it.) At its most successful, in fact, the Art Troll is referred to in hyphens (“The-guy-who-paints-baby-portraits-with-dog-diarrhea”)–the art itself inevitably taking backseat to the concept associated with the artist.

Immediately following (though these days, frequently before) the initial shock, the artist releases a statement “attempting to clarify” his/her intentions. These statements usually involve the phrase, “To make people rethink x” or “To raise awareness of y” or “To call into question preconceived notions of z.” In reality, however, the Art Troll deliberately and strategically hijacks whatever cause or concept s/he pays lip service to for the purpose of gaining personal attention–by making any non-emotional reaction impossible. The Art Troll requires the easy and inevitable outrage of an audience who has not–and will never–encounter the work, and who have in turn been whipped into a pre-emptive frenzy by brief and sensational reporting. It’s a symbiotic relationship in which each is complicit in the other’s success: the artist receives massive exposure and attention and the “opposition” (usually some sort of culturally conservative outrage group) receives another round of ammunition (and massive exposure and attention). In this way the Art Troll actually has the exact opposite effect of whatever his/her stated goals were: no one “rethinks x,” and in fact those who oppose the rethinking of x only gain in power. The Art Troll plays, in the end, a conservatizing function, enabling those who attempt to delay social and cultural evolution to mobilize their forces, and giving extra credence to their views. In return, the Art Troll receives enough attention to launch a career (though usually only a career rehashing the same strategies that generated the initial attention).