Beauty, the source of art for the classic aesthetics, has been replaced by an aesthetic of shock. Like a horror movie that uses a popping out hand to scare the audience, the art of shock surprises with outrage in the moment. Like the horror movie, we know it is not real and the shock is the fun. Especially fun if the shock directs one group to look down at another group.
When Andres Serrano dipped a crucifix in his urine, and took a picture, he was thumbing his nose, not at his own culture, but at an outside group — Christians. The people that went to the exhibition are not going to be outraged, but glad that the other, conservative Christians were outraged. That was part of the fun, angering people they did not like.
Then there is a veneer of intellectualization to mask that it is not challenging the artist’s community, but the other. The aesthetic of shock, with it's harmless safeness, has gone mainstream since about the 1960s. Especially in pop music, Madonna, being the most astute at this aesthetics, goes out to shock in this harmless manner. Her tool and trade is sexuality, but the same attacking the conservative ethos for people that neither subscribe to it, nor are outraged by her antics. Lady Gaga and Katy Perry continue these aesthetics. Their fans are not outraged or challenged but they are fond of the outrage others have.
They all harmlessly thumb the eye of the conservatives. The problem with it is that once the shock is done, like the hand that reaches out to grab the teenage girl’s arm in Carrie, the joke is done and all is left is the story of outrage. The shock art works with those that agree with it and by the sideways glance at the community it aims to outrage. The people that go to the exhibition or buy the music are not challenged in their beliefs, rather they are supported in their beliefs. They look at the cross in urine and think this it right that the sacred is brought down low, even as they have weak understanding of the sacred. It works at two levels, by supporting the supposed liberation from the church (strange as most have never been to church) and to feel superior to the church goer. The reality that most of the people that applauded Serrano’s photo don't even have a clue or understood of what the cross means. St. Paul pointed to the challenge of the cross was greatest symbol weakness as a symbol of the almighty God.
The aesthetic of shock really works by keeping everything in place. The aesthetic of challenge is different.