On transgression – Laura Kipnis in Liberties Journal:
It was 1971, Nixon was in the White House, and artists were shooting, abrading, exposing, and abjecting themselves, deploying their bodies to violate whatever proprieties had survived the 1960s, and shatter the boundaries between art and life. This would, in turn, rattle and eventually remake sclerotic social structures and dismantle ruling class hegemony, or so I learned later that decade from my Modern Art History instructor, a charismatic Marxist-Freudian bodybuilder who fulminated about Eros and Thanatos and seems never to have published a word, but greatly influenced my thinking on these matters.
Transgression had been so long implanted into the curriculum that it had become a tradition — a required introductory course at the art school I attended as an undergraduate. Transgression was the source of all cultural vitality, or so it seemed. We learned that aesthetic assault was the founding gesture of the avant-garde, which had been insulting the bourgeoisie for over a century, dating back in the visual arts to 1863 and the Salon des Refusés in Paris. The classic on exhibit was Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, previously rejected by the jury of the annual sponsored Salon de Paris. Manet was his day’s godfather of transgression, though the real scandal of the painting wasn’t that a nude woman was casually picnicking with two clothed men and gazing directly at the viewer. No, according to my instructor, it was that Manet let his brushstrokes show, an aesthetic offense so great that visitors had to be physically restrained from destroying the painting. It seemed like an enviable time to have been an artist.
In this lineage, we took our places. I felt it was my natural home, a mental organizing principle. It augured freedom, self-sovereignty — I was angry at the world’s timid rule-fol-lowers and counted myself among the anti-prissy, though my personal disgust threshold has always been pretty low. Acconci I found both disgusting and intriguing. The heroic transgressor mythology, I eventually came to see, definitely had its little vanities, its preferred occlusions. Even the origin story was dodgy; in fact the Salon des Refusés was itself officially sponsored, something I don’t recall my instructor mentioning. Hearing of complaints by the painters who were rejected by the Salon de Paris, Emperor Napoleon III had given his blessing to a counter-exhibition, cannily containing the backlash by accommodating the transgressors. Possibly there’s always a certain complicity between the transgressive and the covertly permitted — shrewd transgressors, like court jesters, knew which lines not to cross.’
‘Transgression has been replaced by trauma as the cultural concept of the hour: making rules rather than breaking them has become the signature aesthetic move, that’s just how it is, there’s no going back. New historical actors have taken up places on the social stage and made their bids for cultural hegemony, having sent the old ones to re-education camp. These days it’s the transgressed-upon who are the protagonists of the moment: the offended, people who are very upset by things, their interventions a drumbeat on social media, their tremulous voices ascendant. (Online cultural commissar is now a promising career path.) And the mainstream cultural institutions are, on the whole, deferring, offering solace and apologias, posting warning signs and caveats to what might cause aesthetic injury. Aesthetic injuries flourish nonetheless.
Sure, there have always been offended people, but those people used to be conservatives. Who cared if they were offended, that was the point. What has changed is the social composition of the offended groups. At some point offendability moved its offices to the hip side of town. The offended people say they’re progressives! Which requires some rethinking for those of us shaped by the politics of the previous ethos.’
‘ In the version of twentieth-century art history that I was taught, art audiences and upright citizens generally were all deeply in need of psychical jolts and emetics. These benighted people needed to have their complacencies rattled; as an artist, you were meant to take up that task, defy the censors, search out and assault social norms and conventions, especially the ones embedded deepest within our (or their) sensibilities.
Art had already abandoned objecthood by then; now the mission was plumbing your depths and darkest instincts, then assaulting the audience with the ickiest stuff. Art was supposed to be perilous and messy. Psychoanalysis had long ago told us that the modern personality structure was a hardened carapace formed around traumatic memories or fantasies that had become bottled up and fetid, and had to be manumitted. Sure this was aggressive, but sublimating aggression into art was what made art feel alive, a collective therapeutics, maybe not unlike love: potentially transcendent. It was a world peopled by depressives and jerks who doubled as therapists, putting culture on the couch and then joining it there; we diagnosed its pathologies and our own, we invented curatives. Sometimes those were painful: success was measured in outrage generated.’
‘To be sure, these skins were by default white — race wasn’t yet part of the curriculum, though another of my teachers was Robert Colescott, who was at the time painting massive and funnily bitter canvases substituting African-Americans for whites in reprises of iconic history paintings (George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware). In quest of whatever permeability was available I underwent Rolfing, a sadistic form of therapeutic massage designed to dislodge and release the emotional injuries stored in your connective tissues; this entailed paying to have someone grind the heel of his hand and occasionally an elbow into the soft parts of your corpus until you cried. It really hurt. But how was anything going to get transformed socially and politically if our rigidities remained intact, bolstered by aesthetic politesse and safety-mongering?
The possibility of smashing everything, your own boundaries included, made for a wonderful political optimism. Aesthetic vanguards and political vanguards seemed like natural allies — the revolutions to come would be left-wing ones, or so we assumed. What innocent times those now seem, when “right-wing radical” was still an oxymoron. Aesthetic conservatives were political conservatives, that was the assumption. The disrupters were on the left; disruption was a left- wing idiom. It was very heady: signing on to the avant-garde linked you to a revolutionary past and future, from the barricades to Duchamp’s urinals to Mai 68. Everywhere the mandate was to dismantle the art-life distinction, and to embrace whatever followed.
Yes, I do now see there were some convenient fictions embedded in the romance with transgression. For one thing, as much as we hawked dismantling the art-life boundary, we also covertly relied on it: artistic transgressions were allowed to flourish because the aesthetic frame was itself a sort of protective shield. In 1992, in an aptly titled essay “The Aesthetic Alibi,” Martin Jay, while naming no names, gently mocked the whole genre of performance art, invented, he says, to permit behaviors that would put artists in jail or mental wards if art and life were not distinct realms of experience.’
‘In some ways of telling this story, feminism and transgression were always on a collision course. For one thing, and needless to say, women’s bodies were pretty often transgression’s raw material, in art and in life, on canvas and in the bars. I recall reading the painter Audrey Flack on her first meeting with Jackson Pollock at the Cedar Tavern decades before — he pulled her toward him as if to kiss her, then burped in her face. Flack, twenty at the time, wasn’t particularly offended, she just saw him as desperate. De Kooning chopped women up on canvas, charged early feminist art historians. The artist Ana Mendieta either fell off her 33rd floor balcony or was pushed by minimalist superstar Carl Andre, who was tried for it and found not guilty.
By the time #MeToo hit, transgression’s sheen was already feeling pretty tarnished. #MeToo was about a lot of things and among them was a cultural referendum on the myth of male genius, which as thousands of first-person accounts have elaborated over the decades, is pretty frequently accompanied by sexual grabbiness and bad breath. Sexual transgressiveness has always been the perquisite of gross men in power, but there is also an added perk, which is that treating the boundaries of less powerful people as minor annoyances makes insecure men feel like creative geniuses, like artists and rock stars. Post #MeToo, the emblematic transgressor was starting to look less like Vito Acconci at Sonnabend and more like Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the Sofitel.’
‘Creative umbrage flourished more flamboyantly in 2013, when the Metropolitan Museum staged an exhibit of the painter Balthus’ work and included Thérèse Dreaming, with its notorious flash of the pubescent Thérèse’s white panties smack in the center of the canvas. As to be expected, the Met attempted to accommodate offended sensibilities by posting a safety warning at the entrance to the exhibit advising that “some of the paintings in this exhibition may be disturbing to some visitors.” Though the image of Thérèse is quite stylized, a petition called for the painting’s removal because of “the current news headlines highlighting a macro issue about the safety and wellbeing of women of all ages.” You’d have thought there was a living, breathing pubescent girl flay-legged in the museum (over eleven thousand signatures to date have concurred).
Speaking of artistic choices, I noted that the anti- Balthus petition was written in the first person, an aesthetic decision that every creative writer faces — whether or not to deploy that all-powerful “I.” “When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend, I was shocked to see a painting that depicts a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose,” it read, in bold type and melodramatic prose as aesthetically stylized as Balthus’ rendering of Thérèse, the degree of effrontery so precisely calibrated. If the painting was not going to be removed, the petition-writer offered another option: the museum should provide signage indicating that “some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus’ artistic infatuation with young girls.” The demand was that the painting be repackaged as a cautionary tale. And since we live in culturally democratizing times, Thérèse Dreaming now comes swathed in lengthy explanations. From the Met’s website: “Many early twenti-eth-century avant-garde artists, from Paul Gauguin to Edvard Munch to Pablo Picasso, also viewed adolescent sexuality as a potent site of psychological vulnerability as well as lack of inhibition, and they projected these subjective interpretations into their work. While it may be unsettling to our eyes today, Thérèse Dreaming draws on this history.” No longer will a viewer’s eye be drawn to that glimpse of white panties and be unsettled, and wonder what to make of it. Goal to the offended, who have seized the license to be outrageous and impose their stories and desires on the polis, much as the transgressor classes once did. But let’s not imagine there is any less cultural aggression or cruelty being unleashed here than before.’
‘Literary criticism has always had the sociological move up its sleeve, available to whip out and flay transgressors as necessary — Irving Howe indicting Philip Roth as bad for the Jews, and so on. But when such a prominent writer decides, so late in the day, that Nabokov is bad for pre-teens, it does seem like some major sands have shifted. Reading Amis reread Nabokov’s oeuvre through the lens of Laura, you notice the transgression jumping from the art to the artist, like a case of metaphysical fleas. We have left literature behind and been plummeted into the sphere of moral contagion. The anxiety isn’t just that our glimpses of the violated bodies of pubescent girls have arrived too stylistically unadorned. I wonder if it is also that whatever’s corrupt and ignoble in there will seep out and taint the reader.
If I understand him correctly Amis’ problem from hell is something like this: What if there resides at the center of this deeply transgressive oeuvre not the “miraculously fertile instability” he reveres about Nabokovian language but, rather, the rigidity of a repetition compulsion?’
‘The world is becoming a tough place for anyone who still wants to separate the artist from the art — then again, pretty few people any longer do. Creative writing students across the country now refuse to read Whitman, a man of the nineteenth century who, they believe, said some racist things in addition to the great poetry. I guess reading him now feels disgusting, as though a cockroach had crawled in your ear and deposited a bunch of racism that you are helpless to expunge.
Things were much less confusing when the purists were right-wingers, when the “moral majoritarians” railed against cultural permissiveness while concealing their private transgressions behind facades of public rectitude. I loved the last few decades of the twentieth century, when one after another fundamentalist minister was exposed as a scummy lying adulterer and the world made sense. The right was still at it throughout the 1990s, waging their losing culture wars — it was almost too easy to get them to huff and puff. When none other than the reptilian Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor of New York, threatened to shut down the Brooklyn Museum in retribution for an art exhibit he deemed offensive, the museum produced a yellow stamp announcing that the work in the exhibit “may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, eupho-ria and anxiety.” Note that as of 1999 it was still possible to be ironic about offending people, because offended people were generally regarded as morons.’
‘There was already a general consensus that pernicious racial and ethnic stereotypes have been among the factors impeding social equality for marginalized groups. The last few decades have introduced a new vocabulary of cultural must-nots: cultural appropriation, microaggression, insensitivity. New prohibitions keep being invented, and political coherence is not required. An obviously antiracist artwork like Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, which depicted Emmett Till’s mutilated face and body and was included in the Whitney Biennial in 2017, could be accused by its critics of attempting to transmute “black suffering into profit and fun,” because in the new configuration the feeling of being offended licenses pretty much anything. (Schutz had made it clear that the painting would not be sold.) Protestors blocked the painting from view and petitions demanded that it be destroyed. Offended feelings are like a warrant for the summary arrest of the perps, and prior restraint is expected: the offending thing should never have been said or seen. Culture is no longer where you go to imagine freedom, it’s where you go for scenes of crime and punishment.’
‘However you draw your causality arrows, there’s no doubt that the more fun the right started having, the more earnestly humorless the social justice types became, and the more aesthetically conservative. Especially problematic for the younger crowd are jokes: every comedy routine was now examined for transgressions, like a team of school nurses checking kindergarteners for head lice. Comedy is no longer any sort of protected zone, it’s the front lines, with id-pol detectives on house-to-house searches to uncover humor offenses from decades past. Old jokes are not grandfathered in, obviously; old jokes are going to be judged by current standards. Irony has stopped being legible — it puts you on “the wrong side of history,” a phrase you suddenly hear all the time, as though history always goes in the right direction.’
‘This is hardly new: wounds have long been sublimated into style or form — so argued Edmund Wilson, and before him Freud. It seems like injuries more frequently enter the cultural sphere minus the aesthetic trappings these days — perhaps there is more patience or attention for unembellished pain. The question we’re left with is how much of the world can be understood from the standpoint of a personal injury: does it constrict or enlarge the cultural possibilities?
Reading about Matzneff, I’d been wondering what the French plan to do about Sade in the post -#MeToo era and was happy to stumble on an essay by Mitchell Abidor pondering the same question. An American who has translated many French avant-gardists and anarchists into English, Abidor rereads Sade through the lens of Jeffrey Epstein, concluding that it is impossible not to see Sade as Epstein’s blueprint. His point is that Sade did not just fantasize on the page, he acted out what he wrote, kidnapping, sexually abusing, and torturing young girls, also numerous prostitutes, and a beggar named Rose Keller — women who supposedly didn’t count, and don’t count to Sade’s legions of readers. Epstein’s victims were, likewise, financially needy teenagers. Two sexually predatory rich guys separated by a few centuries, both monsters of privilege: Sade had his chateau, Epstein his townhouse and his island. Both were arrested and tried; both got out or escaped prison and did more of the same.
What is inexplicable for Abidor is how many of his fellow intellectuals fell under Sade’s spell and became his great defenders, despite what a verbose and repetitive writer he is. They see him as an emissary of freedom — or as in Simone de Beauvoir’s reading, at least it’s on the itinerary. Abidor says that Sade’s freedom is the freedom of a guard in a concentration camp who does what he likes to his victims because they cannot escape. It’s not just the liberties of surrealism that Sade heralds, but also the death trap of fascism.
I arranged a coffee date with Abidor not long ago, wanting to meet this assassin of the avant-garde; he suggested a spot where old Brooklyn socialists congregate. He had become a despised figure on the Francophone left, he told me, glancing around nervously and spotting a few former compatriots. The old guard was furious at him for putting their revered transgressive lineage — Apollinaire, Bataille, Barthes, the heirs of Sade, to which they still cling — in such an ugly light. It is the question of our moment: who gets to play transgressor, and who is cast in the role of the transgressed upon. When transgressions — in art, in life, at the borders — repeat the same predictable power arrangements and themes, what’s so experimental about that? Yet putting it that way gives me a yucky tingle of sanctimony, a bit of the excess amour-propre that attends taking the “correct” position. What’s left out of the anti-transgression story are the rewards of feeling affronted — how takedowns, shaming, “cancelling,” the toolkit of the new moral majoritarians, invent new forms of cultural sadism rather than rectifying the old ones. All in a good cause, of course: inclusiveness, equality, cultural respect — so many admirable reasons! The truant in me resents how much cultural real estate the anti-transgressors now command, while positioning themselves as the underdogs. Witness the new gatekeepers and moral entrepreneurs, wielding not insignificant amounts of social power while decrying their own powerlessness. And thus a new variety of hypocrite is born, though certainly no more hypocritical than the old hypocrites.’
Read the article here.
Yes, indeed, the offended used to be the ‘conservative pigs’ or anyone who could be labeled a conservative pig because he was offended by an artist or someone close to that profession.
As Kipnis points out, this transgression was not always as honorable as some people hoped it was, and it was built on the concept that bourgeois and bourgeois taboos (also post WW II taboos) were stable and permanent.
Some hypocrisy is unavoidable, we are all diplomats to a certain degree, but wherever the hyperbole loses its ambiguity (burn this, burn that, dismantle this, dismantle that) the hypocrisy of the believers becomes rather soon naïve, distasteful or just dull. Unless of course you are ready to die for your own hyperboles. Which is rarely the case. Most anti-capitalists are not even willing to pay one penny for their anti-capitalism, quite the opposite, they hope to make some decent money out of it, and yes, why not?
What changed rather quickly after 1999 is that it not any longer the enemy who is offended and should be ridiculed for that, no it’s us, the artists, the saviors of the world or at least of our communities, us survivors, because we are all survivors now, who are happily offended. The more offended we are the better our speeches and our art works. Show me your wound, Beuys famously said. But this is more like, celebrate your wound, or a cynic might say, sell your wound before it’s getting worthless.
‘Witness the new gatekeepers and moral entrepreneurs, wielding not insignificant amounts of social power while decrying their own powerlessness. And thus a new variety of hypocrite is born, though certainly no more hypocritical than the old hypocrites.’
Unfortunately, even for moralists this is bad news. If being and doing good means first and foremost being offended this will just result in the legitimation of aggression and more aggression, as Todorov already knew.