Books: Jennifer Doyle
Jennifer Doyle discusses her new book, Hold it Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art
Why are responses to art often guardedly sober? Jennifer Doyle’s new book, published recently by Duke University Press, endeavours to answer this question. Focusing on performance art and interdisciplinary genres, including artists such as Ron Athey, Aliza Shvarts, Carrie Mae Weems and David Wojnarowicz, Doyle offers an alternative narrative of their controversial works as ‘difficult’ – invoking profound, and often maligned, sensibilities of empathy, love and anger, rooted in the form of the confessional and personal: emotion is, according to Doyle, that which arrives alongside the expressive act. A cri du coeur of sorts, not only against the institutional practices of normative curatorship following the ‘Culture Wars’ of the 1990s, but also upon the phlegmatic ‘cool’ of October-inspired critique, Hold it Against Me seeks to return art spectatorship to the body’s sensorium – with all of its messy complicities.
You write that: ‘Emotion actually does more than mark the boundary between the self and the other. Emotion brings those boundaries into being, and artists frequently explore the poetics of this fact in their work.’ How might artists rethink our relationship to the ‘heart’ and the way in which we express it?
Consider Audre Lorde’s writing in her essay ‘The Uses of the Erotic’ (1981): ‘The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need [...] is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love.’ Many of the artists I discuss in Hold it Against Me and in Sex Objects (2006) do not separate out work from love. They work and love in the sense that Lorde means.
EM Did you choose to highlight bloodletting performances in the book because there is a common misperception of their destructive violence?
JD Yes, I centred the book on performances that are hard for a lot of people – blood work pushes our buttons. The performances I’ve seen that involve blood are far less sensational than the photographs taken of them, however. In the book, I discuss how these particular performances allow us to accommodate ourselves to the action. It’s important to write about this kind of work in a way that both respects its difficulty and also resists sensationalizing it.
EM Franko B’s I Miss You (2003) particularly fascinated me because it focused on the conjunction between a feeling of unrequited love and the act of bleeding – or, as you describe it, ‘leaking’. What do you think vasovagal performances tell us about the limits of the perceived body in art?
JD The thing is, in contemporary art we do less to the body than we do, for example, within medicine, sport, the prison system, detention centres or the military. The things we do to the body in art can be framed as an ethical problem, and a collective experience in a manner that is quite distinct from those institutional settings. In performance we might keep company with the body – with the demands of that experience. In the scenarios I write about, limits are acknowledged and explored within a consensual framework – or in a framework within which consent is encountered as an explicit problem.
It was important to me that this book be about not what drives people away from intense work, but what draws people to it.
EM You make the case that the distinction between performance and theatre often upheld in contemporary art criticism is based on an innate scepticism toward sentimentality. Are there still valid distinctions to be made between art works and theatre?
JD They are interesting as markers of disciplinary boundaries – explanations as to why some artists and writers just don’t figure in certain conversations about contemporary art, for example. They are important for sociological and historical reasons – for understanding how people in different disciplinary locations view their work. Theatre is a discipline. I don’t think you can do performance studies responsibly and not think about theatre, and also about the anti-theatrical positions taken within the history of contemporary art and performance.
EM It seems like there is another related thing at play here: essentially, the assumption that with the absence of any ‘intellectual craft’, the overly sentimentalized work is commensurate with the ‘fake’.
JD You can’t teach for 15 years or circulate within and around the world of contemporary art and not be aware that people simulate this thing you call ‘intellectual craft’. I do not know why people worry that somehow work that leads with sentiment, emotion, is ‘worse’ than pseudo-intellectual prattle. Why should fake feeling be any worse than fake thought? I’m not the kind of intellectual who imagines that being unsentimental is synonymous with being interesting or smart. Sentimental isn’t a category of judgment for me. It’s a genre, a mode, a kind of relationship.
EM Most of the works you discuss are performances, so I found it intriguing that you included David Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blue (2002), an installation that immerses the viewer in a dark room with various blue light-sticks.
JD That section of the book is really about art historian Darby English’s reading of Concerto; he gives an elegant, perfect analysis of how a racist politics shapes the reception black artists’ work. His book How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (2007) is a must-read. I can’t take any credit for the discussion of Hammons’s work – I am paraphrasing English there. There are whole sections of Hold it Against Me that were enabled by English’s work. A frightening amount of art criticism is shaped by a racialized – racist – vision. Not only are those kinds of critics blind to the work, they can’t see how their feelings about race limit their vision.
EM The final chapter on Wojnarowicz, AA Bronson and General Idea seems to prove that, while queer artists who invoke pathos – particularly those working around aids – are acceptable in public discourse, those who express or invoke anger are deemed dangerous or, worse, offensive, as hate speech. Is there a risk of sanctifying Wojnarowicz in the post-aids era?
JD I don’t think that queer pathos is particularly acceptable in public discourse – and it certainly wasn’t in the 1990s. Wojnarowicz, Bronson and General Idea are really different, too. I don’t know if I would describe General Idea’s work as at all pathos-laden. They could be quite controversial, in fact, for their refusal to go down that route.
Is Wojnarowicz canonized? For whom? I don’t think his work has been removed from the context of aids – far from it. If anything, hasn’t his capacity to generate emblems for the aids crisis – a face buried in dirt, buffalos going over a cliff, a mouth sewn shut, etc. – anchored him to the aids crisis more than any other artist of that era? I don’t think it’s possible to separate his work from the aids crisis any more than you can separate Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps (1865) from the us Civil War. I mean, you can, but you would miss something profound and important.
EM Athey’s Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociative Sparkle and Adrian Howells’s Held (both 2006) show the unique propensity for performance art to highlight forms of silence – touch, smell and even taste – as capacitors of meaning and knowledge. I’d like to know what you think forms of silence in performance art can teach us about emotion?
JD I’d rather talk about silence in relation to noise. Which, perhaps, is to think more about volume. There are so many different forms of silence: silence has discursive, rhetorical power; silence is both undervalued and overrated. There’s a real romance with silence within the space of contemporary art and performance.
It’s more accurate to say that both works encourage forms of listening – from the audience or from the artist. You have to narrate silence in criticism. You have to engage it. If you’re a writer and what you do is write with art, then you translate the way silences work into prose, you bring it into another register. You play that silence – or quietness – in a different key; for me, that means listening in my writing.
The forms of difficulty I engage in this book are pretty noisy. High intensity, high-volume practices. The noise of the flesh. That’s what’s at stake in much of the art I write about. That’s what I want my writing to touch.
Erik Morse is the author of Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012) and Dreamweapon (2005). He lives in Los Angeles, USA
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