The Black Helicopter

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Is violent art made by violent people?

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Bjarne Melgaard, untitled?

Yesterday, I saw a TV programme documenting the art and ideas of Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard. His subject matter is violence, paedophilia, perversion, and fear, wrapped in a part expressionist, part conceptual package. Much like his idols Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch, and others on the American “post-punk” scene of “aesthetic terrorism” in the 1980s and early 1990s, he offered a nihilist reading of art – the best art has no use, won’t change anything, and is ultimately uncomfortable. It is better to ask questions than provide answers, he stated.

This past semester I have been wrapped up in finishing, submitting and defending my thesis on modern Satanism. A large part of the work attends to transgression, non-conformity and antinomianism as mimetic acts of opposition and as “technologies of the self”, to use a term from Foucault. That is, trying to discern the subleties between transgression as an end in itself and as a means to an end.

In the first case, it is mostly confirming the norm by transgressing it, as with many rites of passage and theatrical rebellion; in the second, transgression is a necessary means for liberation, expression, growth, or self-knowledge. While the first is usually productive within society (or a subsector within it), the second interrogates the foundations on which society is built and points to a wide variety of alternatives, mainly in the “find out for yourself”-box. This is seldom political or religious, but rather “other”. As formulated by Carl Abrahamsson of Cotton Ferox:

Art is very potent (…) a great non-rational way to leave seeds of change in various places and dimensions.

The two strategies use the same basic package of transgressions, often some combination of blasphemy, political radicalism, violence, obscenity, and general untidyness, and the reception (and thus the result) is often equivalent – total rejection or mild amusement. But the intention and the “ideology of transgression” , whether this is conscious or not, is different; one is an inversion and appropriation of society’s demons, the other is a hybrid adoption and rejection with a logic outside society’s binary mindset. Thus with transgression as a means or technology, it is a state of being that is constantly in flux; transgression as and end is a mask used to shock. Both are mirrors, but one is ultimately pointing inwards, the other outwards.

Watching Melgaard reminded me of one important thing which cuts across these distinctions, namely the importance of symbolization and sanitization of transgression. This is exactly the fine line any transgressor walks between art and life; when churches are burning, kids are molested and people are killed, you have gone too far (for most, anyway). On the other hand, the audience should always be wondering what is real and what is not, as that is one central component of the work itself (regardless if is is performance, theatre, music, stage show, images, sculpture, movies, …). Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle speaks of “charged gestures”, an anti-analytical creativity in the moment involving your whole self and the audience in a process of disgust and discovery:

We were just playing with ideas and fantasies, making them available for people to see. It’s great as you’re going along and learning and finding reasons why you like the aesthetic of it, the feel of it, and the ideas it provokes. I think improvisation will always be there for me rather than sitting down and trying to analyze things and make something from that analysis. By that point it’s become a totally empty gesture. I like charged gestures, so the more real it can be, even if you use fake blood to try and enhance that feeling, then that’s fine with me. It’s about vulnerability as well. You’re laying yourself open completely and then seeing what happens. And that’s what you learn from. You learn from mistakes as well as from positive experiences. You don’t learn by playing it safe, that’s for sure.

Now, this is a beautiful description of a practical “poetics of transgression”. What spurred me to write here was a question from the presenter to Melgaard: If he was as violent as his art?

His answer came quick and it was negative. Of course. Even though his art is constantly breaking down the barrier between art and life, it is nurtured by its existence. Violent art is ART, not LIFE; when it becomes life, it is destructive. Take G. G. Allin and compare him to Marilyn Manson.

This illustrates nicely the basic dilemma of transgression as a technology. On the one hand, transgressive art is not necessarily made by reprehensible people (often they are rather deeply occupied with morality). This is the biographical (or intentional) fallacy described by New Criticism: The art work has to be taken on its own level, not the level of psychology or intention of any “author”. There is no 1:1-correspondence between art/act and artist. If so, all 1st-person narrators would be the author. This is of course what we do assume, especially with images; they must be made because the author likes them or needs them. But they can be interrogative, or provocative, or playful, or ironic, or simply there because they must.

On the other hand we cannot understand such art without the reflections of the authors or artists. They usually have a plan or an artistic concept which is tied to their biography and quirks. Here they are similar to academics who are influenced by experience and pet theories when they select their projects – this is what we call bias, and it is inevitable and human. We shouldn’t remove it, but reflect on it. Of course art asks questions and thus understanding is tied to the viewer’s own experience; nevertheless, why produce it and why ask if not for some interest of mutual discovery? Even if this interest is fulfilled by the production and not the product, it is still there and can be informative when we as viewers approach the work. As such, the experience of the artist is of some importance for the audience, even if the two should be held separate.

In the book Transgressions: The Offences of Art by Anthony Julius, the rhetoric of “art for art’s sake”, of which “art can change our perception through alienation” is a part, is outed as a defence, a rhetorical strategy (2002, p. 25 on). Positing art as an utterly independent form glosses over the real problem with offensive art, namely their subject matter. Paedophilia or torture fantasies masked as art is not art, they are crime. There are other defences, but they hide the same issue. Hence any claim of artistic intention or experience is a smokescreen for the circulation of offensive products, an inversion of the biographical fallacy outlined above.

This is absolutely going too far. Nonetheless, the breakdown of art and life is sustaining ambiguity, and transgressive art caters for people who seek transgressive experiences. This is not bad. Fascist aesthetics is not fascism. Hardcore exploitation is not rape. But transgression needs the limit to transgress. Otherwise, there is no charge. To dismiss the intention is thus neglecting the difference between means and ends.