On the Aesthetic of Vulnerability
Flattered as I was to be invited onto the dais for this special installment of the Brooklyn Rail, I was, to be frank, a little unsettled by the thesis statement.
All this talk of rending and opening, of fragility and vulnerability, gives me, or the recovering New England Yankee and lapsed Lutheran in me, the fantods.
I abhor the sanctification of vulnerability, especially in the aesthetic realm, and have never, to the best of my knowledge, been made to feel fragile or vulnerable by a work of art. The cancer that nearly ate me alive, yes; art, no. Art simply doesn’t affect me that way, perhaps partly because the works of art that speak to me—Duchamp’s “Étant Donnés,” John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark,” Homer’s “Gulf Stream,” Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” nearly anything by Max Ernst, Goya’s graphic works, Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,” Da Vinci’s “Saint John the Baptist,” Klee’s “Sinbad the Sailor,” Giacometti’s “Palace at 4 AM,” Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” the grotesquely grimacing heads sculpted by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt—affect me intellectually and aesthetically and, indeed, emotionally, but the idea that they, or any work of art, would induce feelings of fragility or vulnerability has, to my mind, unfortunate associations with the 12-step sensibility that pervades our therapy culture, or New Age sentimentality, or both.
I’m with Duchamp, who liked to repeat the French colloquial expression, bête comme un peintre! (stupid as a painter), which is to say: emotion is overrated, ideas insufficiently valued in the artworld. (And when artists do decide to Make an Intellectual Statement, armed with just enough theory to be dangerous, caveat spectator!)
The presumption that the best art is art that “breaks down” our “defense mechanisms,” art that makes us “fragile,” so much so that we “question fundamental beliefs,” seems to confuse the guiding principle of avant-gardism—namely, that the Shock of the New should rattle the bourgeois worldview to its foundations—with the New Age presumption that the fortified self must be breached, its defenses overrun, in order to Build a Better You. Haven’t we heard this talk of demolishing defense mechanisms before, from lapel-grabbing converts to past-life regression therapy, rebirthing, and primal screaming?
More to the point, why is emotional fragility—the editor’s statement strongly implies that the fragility in question is an emotional one—a prerequisite for the intellectual interrogation of our founding assumptions about ourselves and the world around us? We’re prompted to regard “vulnerability as wound,” albeit a weirdly fructifying wound, one that “unveils” our true selves, punctures the psychic armor of “cynicism, despair, intellectual exhaustion.” But this intellectually invigorated cynic wonders: why must yielding to the power of a work of art necessarily involve the sort of be-still-my-heart histrionics that can only be cured by an hour spent reading Ruskin, with a cold compress on the forehead?
I’m all for Aristotelian catharsis, Artaudian cruelty, and the Sublime, but the works of art that have made me “question [my] fundamental beliefs” have done so with a visual rhetoric that isn’t necessarily an emotionally potent one. To be sure, the mode of address is so potent it punches through my everyday somnolence but that mode may be coolly cerebral, like Duchamp’s “Large Glass”or Kubrick’s 2001, or almost autistic in its flattened affect, like Warhol’s “Lavender Disaster”or the photographs of Richard Misrach, or encrypted in the secret language of a private world, like the films of the Quay Brothers or Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana or the drawings of Adolf Wölfli.
So an emphatic yes! to a ruthless critique of everything existing, but a fist-thumping no! to any theory of criticism that demands some sort of nervous collapse as prelude to an interrogation of our historical, cultural, epistemological, even ontological blind spots. Yes! to art that inspires us to train the crosshairs of our critical intellects on our own foreheads; no! to a neurotic aesthetics that beckons us toward the fainting couch.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic and essayist, based in New York. His latest book is the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. Born To Be Posthumous, his biography of the artist and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey, will be published by Little, Brown in November 2018.