(The following is a draft of an in-progress and/or abandoned essay, which is why there are no links nor citations. It was abandoned in its current form because, really, it constitutes several different pieces and should be read as a rough stab at a set of ideas.)
Back in March 2012, a bizarre media spectacle unfolded over Clifford Owens’ solo show at MoMA PS1. As part of the exhibition, Owens had commissioned 26 performance scores from other African-American artists, including Kara Walker. Dubbed “art rape” by the art blogosphere, Walker’s score called for Owens to “force” a “sex act” on a member of the audience. He was to continue forcing the act on them (to points left vague) unless the audience member acquiesced, at which point he was to flip the tables, accuse them of sexual assault on him, and beg for help from others.
What made the entire thing so strange was how lackadaisical it seemed, all the juicy pseudo-controversy notwithstanding. By the time the story made the media rounds, Owens had been performing the score to one degree or another for some weeks, but without going all the way (see the above photo); in fact, his failure to take it sufficiently far enough led him to announce that it would be fully realized the last Sunday of March, turning the completion of the score into a sort of spectacle. Adding to this entire muddled sense of purpose was the fact that the artists seemed somewhat ambivalent about actually doing it–Owens called it “problematic on so many levels,” and Walked dubbed it “evil.”
In the end, far from aggressive sexual assault (to say nothing of flipping the dynamic as the original score called for), Owens enacted a mild form of invasion, kissing two audience members with his hands behind his back, Walker herself in tow as though to minimize the aggressiveness of the act, and making it a female transgression rather than a male one (which seems to subvert the entire purpose of staging black male sexual aggression), and the entire thing felt like a let-down. The press had been primed for sexual assault as art, and what was delivered was a timid pantomime that called into question the entire, already questionably-premised, affair.
What’s fascinating about transgression in art (and here I will limit myself to performance, though transgression is by no means limited to such) isn’t how rarely a performance incorporates acts or gestures that are actually shocking, but rather how little critical attention has been paid to “transgression” as a mode of expression. Attempts to provide a unified means of exploring and understanding transgression have been few and far between, with such attempts proving limited and nearly useless. Which is odd considering that reading any history of performance art (for instance, Roselee Goldberg’s) reads like a history of artists seeking to one-up one another in terms of shock and transgression.
There are, by my count, two primary reasons for this. First, aside from rare cases (such as Nick Zedd’s transgressive cinema, and even that is problematic in this regard), transgression is rarely an end unto itself, but rather a means to achieving another form of critique or exploration. Transgression in performance since the 1960s has more often than not occurred as a technique to explore issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. As such, limiting a discussion to transgression at the expense of the rest of the material realized in a given performance risks not seeing the forest for the trees, of avoiding the clearly broader set of ideas incorporated and reducing such art to mere shock value.
Second, it’s almost impossible to determine what, exactly, counts as a transgression. If we were to limit ourselves to stated intent, we’d find ourselves muddling about every undergrad attempt to shock to perceived bourgeois morality of students’ suburban upbringings, often through acts or gestures that seem timid in comparison to countless other works. Yet if we leave aside intent, we encounter the highly subjective qualification that a transgressive act much actually transgress against a spectator in order to be deemed transgressive. And given the artistic community’s broad tolerance of transgression (if that’s even the right word) over the past 50 years (at least), it’s difficult to argue that most work we might deem “transgressive” actually transgresses against anyone who sees it.
In other words, we’ve wound up in a situation where transgression in art is about as easy to define as pornography–we know it, at best, when we see it. But if we consider the history of material that may constitute a transgression as incorporated into performance since the 1960s, the list we come up with is remarkable for its breadth. To limit myself to acts which have occurred in performance more than once, we can say that performance has incorporated not just the predictable social transgression of presenting nudity and auto-erotic acts in performance, but: erotic encounters between performers; consensually between performers and spectators; testing the boundaries of consent to such contact; stalking; the incorporation of bodily secretions including piss, shit, semen, and blood (and the sharing and consumption of the same); violence either self-inflicted or consensually inflicted by another, including burns, cuts from various instruments, and gun-shot wounds; the use of both live and dead animals; the killing of animals in performance; radical permanent body modification; the use of narcotics by performers and spectators in performance; the incorporation of terminal illness by performers; and the exchange of sexual acts for monetary compensation.
In other words, if transgression were to be defined exclusively in terms of violating the law, performance sports an impressive rap sheet of criminality, which alone would suggest at some practical level that we should take a long, hard look not only at what transgression means in and of itself, but where we now stand in relation to the violation of certain social prohibitions, and why it is that what in any other context would be considered troubling in the utmost is, within the arts, considered nearly unremarkable except when some piece or another sufficiently crosses moral boundaries that would lead to some sort of outrage. (Interestingly, of all the transgression named above, the one most assured to produce a response is harming or killing an animal, which says something when we’ve already apparently incorporated sexual assault into the repertoire of acceptable art acts.)
To make sense of how transgression has entered the vocabulary of artistic material, we need to consider a pair of seemingly contradictory tendencies in visual art since the 1960s. It’s true that performance has a much longer history (indeed, most of the acts listed above and then some have antecedents in the earlier avant-gardes, through various Futurist, Dadaist, and Surrealist provocations), but in the contemporary context, it’s clear that the incorporation of transgressive material operates in a substantially different fashion. The avant-gardes could credibly claim their intent was to shock bourgeois morals as a form of radical protest; today it’s clear that the institutional embrace of transgression suggests that such acts serve a different function. Transgression, as a means of artistic expression, holds a different discursive value, and to understand the weird juncture it finds itself at, we need to consider the development of the arts in the west since the 1960s.
Performance in general had a resurgence at this time in relation to various efforts to “dematerialize the art object,” a phrase coined in 1968 but which in principle had enjoyed some currency in years prior. Following the post-war success of Abstract Expressionism, a new generation of artists sought by turns to further or to challenge the achievement of that diffuse tendency. Jackson Pollock provides a crucial example of this turn: the very physical distance he inhabited from his canvases–as documented in the famous Life magazine photos–suggested that rather than viewing his paintings as objects in and of themselves, they could be seen rather as documents of a sort of heroic art gesture. This understanding permitted artists to reimagine the location in which artistic meaning is produced. Beginning with minimalist sculpture (which placed the human form in scale-relation to the object), visual artists began a long and remarkable series of experiments to shift the location of where artistic meaning is produced: from conceptualism (which relied on the interpretive power of the spectator), to body and live art (which presented the materiality of the body as the nexus of meaning), through relational aesthetics (which is experiential) to various social practices (participatory). Not only were various forms of performance crucial to these developments, but at nearly every stage, critics of these new modes of expression accused them of being merely theatrical, which–to leave aside the more specific aesthetic critiques–was based on the work’s attention to the subjective spectatorial experience, rather than the assumption that an object could possess meaning in and of itself, which ties each successive generation of experimentalists back to the same radical negation of the object.
As such, it’s no surprise that performance has arisen–as it did during the pre-war avant-gardes–as the primary incubator for new formal strategies. But for all that being said, the long process of challenging the object as the primary location of artistic value produced a perverse effect: Given that artists were challenging the very notion of what “art” was, how was their work to be defined or interpreted as art in the first place?
The answer was provided in 1966, a couple years before the idea of dematerialization was actually articulated, when a Columbia University philosophy professor named Arthur C. Danto was provoked by a Warhol gallery show which included his iconic Brillo boxes. While it was always somewhat obvious that Warhol’s Brillo boxes weren’t actual Brillo boxes (as in a Duchampian readymade), for all intents and purposes they looked exactly like Brillo boxes. So how was it, Danto wondered, that they could be seen as art objects at all?
The idea, which Danto became most prominent advocate of, was of the “Art World” as a discursive network of critics, curators, and gallerists, who could, by virtue of incorporating such an object–by framing it and dealing with it as art–cause it to be seen as art, and take on the sorts of associations and values that distinguish one of Warhol’s boxes from a quotidian consumer good. Although this theory has been problematized, expanded, and critiqued in the decades since, it remains a seemingly impenetrable frame-work by virtue of the fact that any such critique which affords contemporary work value must comes from within the Art World. The only real alternative is that of the conservative culture warrior, who simply declares contemporary art not actually art at all, and therefore value-less.
Thus the various attempts to shift the location and production of artistic value and meaning are perversely dependent for validation on the same system they sought to critique.
It would tempting to see the opposition between these two tendencies as dialectical, with each successive shift in the production and location of artistic value posing a new challenge to the dominance of the market-driven Art World, with transgression an ongoing strategy by which artists challenge each successive reconfiguration of the Art World’s means of valuing artistic production. But this is, at best, a romantic notion. It’s clear at this point that no matter how outrageous the act, the Art World is more than capable of incorporating and co-opting it (and probably already has).
The events of the past few decades have proven this point. In the 1980s and early ’90s, performance artists could at least attach themselves to independent art spaces and galleries to produce work outside the formal, market-driven system, in particular by allying themselves with the emergence of punk and various post-punk music and subcultural movements, which upended simple dichotomies of low- and high-culture and which collapsed certain contemporary art movements into their stridently anti-commercial, anti-mainstream realm. But this independent sphere collapsed by the 1990s (epitomized, perhaps, by the fact that Nirvana, the band that moved indie rock into the mainstream, played its first NYC gig at the Pyramid Club, a long-time incubator of performance in the East Village). “Alternative” cultural products became mainstream. Independent galleries collapsed. A crucial generation was lost to the AIDS epidemic. The spate of artist-run art spaces which emerged in the US in the ’70s and ’80s either went under or became professionalized, with the rise of the “performance curator” and the development of international touring as an aspiration for artists.
At the same time, the rise of “interdisciplinarity” as a buzz-word in the art world furthered the critical incorporation of performance into the broader Art World. Whereas “performance art” might be thought of generally as performance emerging from a visual art context, that’s never really been true. Even for Roselee Goldberg, the boundaries between visual art performance, experimental theater, dance, and various other modes have been fluid at best–in practice, her history incorporates nearly everything theatrical short of a well-made play. Interdisciplinarity, which explicitly ignores such genre distinctions, has furthered this by expanding the purview of both contemporary performing arts centers and more traditional visual art spaces into one another’s realms. As a result, the Art World’s market-driven discourse has increasingly incorporated traditionally non-visual art forms into its realm of critical evaluation, in the absence of any equally well-developed or compelling performing arts discourse.
If “transgression” is difficult to define, “performance art” is less so. It is, essentially, the presentation of social interaction as an art act, and–by virtue of the expanding submission of various performances traditions to the discourse of the Art World–the incorporation of such social interaction into the specific discursive and evaluative framework of the Art World. While individual performances may, to a more or less successful degree, grapple with exposing or critiquing particular forms of social relations, on the whole performance art is focused on exploring the relationship between the spectator and art as its essential function, whether such performance art is time-based, embodied, or merely relational and interactional. Insofar as interdisciplinarity has provided a framework for viewing art across multiple disciplines as sharing similar concerns, it has correctly pointed to a shared concern by artists working across such disciplines (theater, dance, performance art, etc.) to interrogate the nature of the spectator’s experience.
Yet the Art World persists throughout, providing–regardless of the artists’ individual practices–the critical framework for interpreting, evaluating and ultimately valuing performance. Interdisciplinarity has increasingly highlighted the fractures between performance which emerges from older traditions and those forms which remain wedded to a commercial or conventional form. That is, conceptually the notion of interdisciplinary art has allowed us to begin seeing progressive forms of theater or dance as closer to visual art performance than to, say, Off-Broadway theater or the ballet. As such they take part in the ongoing reconfigurations of producing artistic meaning and value that undergird the Art World’s market imperative to continue producing new products. Consider Performa, Goldberg’s own “performance art” biennial, in which contemporary dance, theater, music, and visual art meet under a broad tent funded primarily by the constellation of museums and commercial galleries for whom the discursive evaluation of contemporary visual art is crucial to the defining the (economic) winners and losers of the present moment.
Seen from this perspective, what’s so troubling about performance in general is that it offers into the Art World’s marketplace of cultural products various new forms of social relations by reifying them; that is, defining them as commodity through their realization as a cultural product, which commodity can be traded on the art market for gain. And this is where “transgression,” becomes so disturbing. In this regard, transgressive performance is really just a series of staged events that in one way or another violate or attempt to violate legal, social, cultural, or individual values and limits, and by doing so as an art-act, transform the violent transgression into a commodity which can be valued within the Art World’s market-based system. Clifford Owens and Kara Walker are, in other words, essentially producing sexual assault as a commodity which plays a role in establishing the value not only of their own individual work but that of the institution–MoMA PS1–which presents it as art spectacle.
Art is discursive, but particularly in this moment in which artists continue radicalizing the location of and production of artistic value, the art becomes interdependent upon the discursive framework around it. In other words, regardless of the broader, racial context of Clifford Owens’ and Kara Walker’s performance, it necessitated its presenter marking the decision to permit a form of sexual assault to occur in their art space, and the acceptance of this act can and should be morally and ethically separated from consideration of artistic production. It’s not just “art rape,” it’s a call to commit a sexual transgression against a spectator beyond the level that they willing agree to. It may be art, but is also sexual assault at the same time, and once presented, tied to the brand-identities of the creators/performers/curators behind it, it becomes a means not only of establishing their own value within with the Art World, but also opens up sexual assault itself as a commodity which carriers provides some benefit to the assailant. And thus incorporated, co-opted, and permitted, it becomes easier and easier to justify further such transgressions in the art space. The imperative to defend artists from censorship emerges as a wedge to push for ever more tolerance of transgressive acts, with each seeming “unique” circumstance serving to increase the space for transgression, and each such submission to the expressive imperative further decaying the standard of what actually constitutes a transgression deserving of suppression.
In his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” Herbert Marcuse attacked the establishment of a permissive, liberal regime in which tolerance required society to indiscriminately accept both the positive and negative, the liberatory and repressive, tendencies in the name of social stability (provided neither extreme attempt to enact its agenda on the broader society). For Marcuse, such tolerance served a repressive function in that denied society the ability to repress what should rightly be regarded as wrong or unjustifiable (e.g., a tolerance that would permit the promulgation of fascist beliefs on the same basis at it permits a push for racial or gender civil rights). Interestingly, he located this problem as quite old in the arts, noting that, “The danger of ‘destructive tolerance’ or ‘benevolent neutrality’ toward art has been recognized: the market, which absorbs well…art, anti-art, and non-art, all possible conflicting styles, schools, forms, provides a ‘complacent receptacle, a friendly abyss,’ in which the radical impact of art, the protest of art against the established reality is swallowed up.”
This is not to say he was in favor of censorship, which he thereafter vehemently opposes. But it is to say that art, incorporated by and informing the market-driven superstructure, comes to offer up its wares to the market. (This is to leave aside any discussion of Marcuse’s notion of what is and is not authentically art, per his own aesthetic theory.) What was once a legitimate artistic gesture can become–by dint of time alone–non-art, commercial, subjugated, and defanged. The question is where this leaves the issue of transgression in performance, a vulgarized form of realism in which an act devoid of psychologism or interpretative framework is incorporated into a repertoire of actions in the service of the Art World and its market.
In June 2013, another performance of sexual assault took place in an art space, this time in Hai’an, China, which tidily reversed the dynamic of Owens & Walker. During the Contemporary Art and Ideology Forum, artist Yan Yinhong presented a performance about sexual assault during which she was actually assaulted by a pair of audience members who rushed onstage repeatedly, groping and grappling with her. The audience, either subdued by spectatorial expectation or genuine reluctance, did little to interfere.
The outrage in the artistic community internationally was immense. I saw it referenced on social media by artists throughout the world after the issue was raised in an article in the New York Times. It would be tempting to see it as an outrageous by extreme, atypical event. But if MoMA PS1 has already seen fit to tolerate, at least in notion, the sexual assault of a spectator, is it actually all that surprising? Even if we permit that the Chinese offenders are not likely knowledgeable art critics, surely the fact that a space as prominent has MoMA has shifted the line toward ever more extreme forms of sexual transgression against spectators suggests that, however horrific Yinhong’s experience, we’re moving toward rather than away from tolerating such action?
We’ve arrived at a moment in which, by my still admittedly rough and incomplete account, the number of activities which have not yet been enacted in performance is extremely limited. The forced sexual penetration of a spectator. The intentional infliction of substantial bodily harm on a spectator. And the taking of a human life for and during a live performance. Rape, harmful assault, and murder. All actions already qualified by virtue of the lengthy history of performance transgression.
I wouldn’t argue that the Art World in any way demands or is pushing artists toward such transgressions. For from it. In fact, it’s just as likely possible that these narrow exclusions from the list of what’s already been done are due to purely actuarial and legal considerations. Performance transgression has stopped its forward march to toe the line of what causes damaging lawsuits and undeniable criminal charges. Yet I suspect that even if such acts were performed in the name of art, as an art act, that at this point our discourse would be sufficiently tolerant to broker dissent. That some critic would publish essays exploring the peculiar aesthetic value of the gesture or act, and that said essays it would be published by a reputable press, or, at the very least, become a cause célèbre.
This is not to suggest that art is evil, or that transgression in performance or any other art form should be suppressed or censored. Nor is it to deny the contextual value of a transgressive act employed to one or another end. Far from it. But it does stand to reason that we’ve long since arrived at a moment when the enactment of transgression (or at least potential transgressions) against the rights (both human and civil) of spectators is so clearly accepted as tolerated within the Art World that we should begin to ask what value is achieved by doing so? It is no challenge to–and ultimate serves the market imperative of–the Art World. This is not to say that transgression has been rendered an affectless act, but it is to point out that by taking transgression in and of itself as a context, with an attendant and complicated history, that we should demand that artists also grapple with the choice of transgression rather than relying on it as a crutch with which is to destabilize problematic social relations, however biased or objectionable.