Vulnerability and its Vicissitudes
In modernity the sacred has appeared, if at all, through the lens of vulnerability.
Avital Ronell, Stupidity
I am interested in experiences with art that have made you fragile, made you question fundamental beliefs about your self, the world, or art in general; moments when the art before you made you question the very discourse you have learned in order to evaluate art in the first place. In other words, all the art history, all the awareness of what’s faddish and not, what’s politically and ethically correct, all the super ego defenses you may have adopted in order to “appreciate” and evaluate art as “sophisticated” viewers. I am not interested only in vulnerability as wound but also as a ground, as a prelude to unveiling and revealing personal as well as cultural platitudes both unconscious and conscious. Are there experiences you have had with art that have broken through moments of cynicism, despair, intellectual exhaustion, especially when the kind of art that provokes this may surprise you?
—Prompt sent out to artists and writers for this issue.
No one likes to feel vulnerable. In fact if one is honest, more energy than not is put into protecting oneself from moments when one’s clothes or skin feel peeled from one’s body or you discover, as a friend of mine actually did, that everyone has been smiling at you on the subway, not because you look so pretty that day, but because somehow one of your bras got hooked onto your sweater and is dangling off your shoulder like a scarf, and you’re sitting there like a smiling hen soaking up all the attention. Depending on the day, this is a moment of hilarity or sheer humiliation. Either way, it certainly leaves one feeling vulnerable.
The truth is, neurasthenic vulnerability is no longer as fashionable as it once was when Proust took to his bed or when mental illness was indistinguishable from a certain creative sensitivity. As an artist, you just can’t fall apart, be an invalid, rave alcoholically, or find life too hard.
Nonetheless, vulnerability is a part of what it is to be human and therefore, a force to be reckoned with whether we like it or not. And as a force, it rends and opens. But it also teaches in the sense that when threatened emotionally, existentially, physically, philosophically, or in any of the myriad ways one can be opened up by an experience, defense mechanisms break down. In this way, moments of vulnerability connect us with the fool and notions of stupidity—that pure “other” of philosophy so skillfully put to the test, and what a test (see p. 162), in Avital Ronell’s book Stupidity (University of Illinois Press, 2002). In fact this book has been circling my head, chattering connections between stupidity and vulnerability as I worked on this issue, catalyzing links too complex and nuanced to put down here. But I don’t think it’s being too much of a dumbbell to suggest that vulnerability, like stupidity, haunts and taunts the certitude of Western metaphysics. Stupidity is after all a moment of vulnerability: “I feel so stupid.” (And on this subject, Rousseau and Kant are among the funniest and most illuminating in Ronell’s book). And, what would philosophy be without self-doubt, without “the question,” which needs vulnerability somewhere in its corner in order to stand up and kick dull-witted stupidity or arrogance in the face. Or think about Nietzsche’s nerves generating all sorts of forward motion. Wasn’t his breakdown over the beating of a horse the product of a fine-tuned philosophical vulnerability as much as it was “madness,” or the chemistry of an inherited disease?
The point is, vulnerability does not necessarily mean weak, scared, sniveling, or even primarily emotional. For this reason “fragile” is a buzzword I’d best have left out of my initial prompt as it seemed to be what most befuddled those who didn’t respond or who did and found it cloying. Here it’s best to introduce performance artist Ernesto Pujol’s parsing of language taken from the conversation he and I did for this issue,
There is a difference between being fragile and being vulnerable. Being fragile is being insubstantial, easily damaged, or completely broken, sometimes permanently. Vulnerability consists of a critical self-knowledge, which acts as the solid ground for generous listening toward a compassionate creativity. Vulnerability is part of true intelligence.
Or as Tim Rollins puts it, “the gift of hurt is the ultimate armor, the force field and energy of makers.” And yet, it is hard to pin down exactly what vulnerability is: is it an emotion, a sensation, or an existential condition? Is it something one can grab onto and ride; something one cultivates and seeks out? Or is it just that awful feeling that socks you in the stomach and makes your hands shake? The etymology of the word comes from the Latin “to wound” but a wound is a condition not a weakness or flaw. It just is. Can we think of vulnerability then, as just “is,” i.e. as something that is neither strong nor weak, good nor bad, positive nor negative, but of the world, part of experience, and therefore “endlessly interpretable”—the phrase that just happens to be Carter Ratcliff’s definition of art published in last month’s Rail?
And here is where the subject of the current issue of the Rail’s Critic’s Page came to me. Hurricanes, like any natural or man-made disaster, produce states of literal and emotional vulnerablity. Look at Amer Kobasilja’s “Kissam Ave, Oakwood Beach; October 28, 2012” where there is not a solid step to be made in the aftermath of Sandy. All is busted open, without protection; neither the past nor the future reign, just total exposure. And so I decided to ask: How does this relate to art? Is there anything to be learned from linking such an extreme state of exposure to art? Is it contingent, only relevant to certain kinds of work such as the art of self-confession, of sensational aesthetics, what Mark Dery calls “a neurotic aesthetics that beckons us toward the fainting couch?” Or is there something more essential in the connection between art and vulnerability?
If I were to answer my own question, it is David Wojnarowicz’s writing which has worked with and into my own vulnerability like nothing else I know. Reading Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration in 1991 when it came out, was like seeing John Cassavettes’s Faces for the first time. Moments of rending. Human fallibility and pain—mine, Wojnarowicz’s, all the crazy alcoholic nuttiness of Cassavettes’s characters and Gena Rowlands’s supreme acting (which has mined the dark and loopy chasms of the unconventional female psyche brilliantly over the years, not just in Faces, but also Woman Under The Influence and Opening Night). And in each case it was the art: the details and the honesty, the fine-tuned brilliance of Wojnarowicz’s language that punched through my self-satisified armor, opening me up to what it is to be human, meaning flawed, hurt, passionate, triumphant, and wronged. But other moments come to mind: coming upon Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Riding With Death”(1988)—the painting that served as the exit of his first posthumous retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1992, and finding myself suddenly crying. Or quite recently experiencing an odd sense of vulnerability in the face of thinking more deeply about what Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) have achieved, wishing my own pedagogical practice could be this good and concrete—art rather than the yakkity yak of the classroom (where a whole other side of vulnerability comes out to play). Or where are the women in my litany of encounters of vulnerability and art? Writing on Ellen Gallagher as a white woman has demanded a kind of exposure, even the opportunity to play the fool. Taking the risk of playing the racist, sexist, homophobic, fool is one of the only ways to overcome the prejudice that works in each of us. “Risks between you and me” as Yvonne Rainer puts it in Journeys From Berlin/1971 (1980), a film that mines and probes vulnerability with a kind of genius that has stayed with me ever since I first saw it in the early ’80s.
When it comes down to it, vulnerability is not all that productive a category for consideration of “art” in the grand sense. It’s too personal and context-specific. Too mushy and in a way, brings us back to the irritating side of the “what is art” question. But where it is important is in relation to the “us”—the bodies and the selves we drag around to museums, galleries, art fairs, and artists’ studios. For, as the essays published in this section reveal, it is the vicissitudes of vulnerability that take on importance, the “endless interpretability” of both art as Carter Ratcliff put it and of our experience as human animals living in a time of climate change and storms like Sandy. Perhaps it is here where we link up with the sacred as Avital Ronell suggests, not as piety or even some kind of sappy honesty but as insight driven by our openness to what David Ross calls “the power of the poetic,” what Hoderlin called “poet’s courage” —or what David Wojnarowicz names “the bottom line” in “Postcards from America: X-Rays From Hell”:
Bottom line, this is my own feeling of urgency and need; bottom line, emotionally, even a tiny charcoal scratching done as a gesture to mark a person’s response to this epidemic means whole worlds to me if it is hung in public; bottom line, each and every gesture carries a reverberation that is meaningful in diversity; bottom line. We have to find our own forms of gesture and communication… bottom line, with enough gestures we can deafen the satellites and lift the curtains surrounding the control room.
ContributorThyrza Nichols Goodeve
THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE is the Senior Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.