I’m highly cynical these days whenever I see an academic book on the body or sex. The body is “hot” in academic circles and sex as always is the bludgeon of political ranters (both Right and Left). Usually these are what I call “agenda” books, which are designed to push some sort of political cause. Now I’m not one of those old fashioned Romantics screaming “Art For Art’s Sake”, but I don’t cotton to intellectual poaching of experimental artistic works to support one’s assumptions (especially when the poacher doesn’t have a clue about the artists or their works). So what a pleasure it was when I came across Linda Kauffman’s book this year. Kauffman sets out to examine the supposed “bad girls” (think of Juno’ and Vales’ collection of interviews Angry Women) and “sick boys”. She believes that in order to extensively examine our cultural fantasies that we must explore multiple mediums. As Kaufman puts it:
Why choose performance, film, and fiction? Because we are moving toward a new definition of culture, each medium is at a crossroads, for each must confront the paradoxes of transgression and assimilation in a culture of consumption. While gaining academic respectability, performance has to find ways to keep its cutting edge. Confronted with the fact that they are now merely one element amongst an array of fiction makers in advertising and popular culture, novelists must find ways to reinvent reading and restore it subversiveness. Electronic media have superseded cinema too, as Laura Mulvey points out: “The political and psychological importance of representation systems escalates with the growth of entertainment and communication industries. These industries not only have an ever increasing importance in contemporary capitalism, but spectacle and a diminishing reference are essential to their spread and their appeal.” By “diminishing reference,” Mulvey means that it is becoming more and more difficult to trace the proliferation of representations back to any single referent or historical event. Instead we are surrounded by simulations—what might be called “Disneyfication” (as when Disney America planned to re-create a Virginia slave plantation as a theme park, minus slavery’s “negativity”). (11) This a position that all cultural writers should keep in mind. We can no longer just write about, for example, literature and ignore similar or contradictory influences in other media. Likewise pull in cultural events and historical events (for another amazing example of how to do this check out Douglas Tallack’s Twentieth-Century America: The Intellectual and Cultural Context) in order to contextually ground your work.
Bad Girls and Sick Boys
(Contemporary Art and CultureLinda S. Kauffman(University of California Press, 1998))
Not only does Kauffman do this but she has gained access and the trust of many experimental artists, performers, and writers. This can be clearly seen by the wealth of personal interview materials that she includes in the book. She is attempting to explore what is transgressive in a cultural milieu that thrives on the “New” and immediately absorbs the most antagonistic of artists. Kauffman addresses the question of whether it is even possible to be transgressive these days—the answer is yes, just check out the list of artists in this book. Her book equally explodes the myths and cliches of both the Right and the Left (which should piss off close minded people). Interweaving amongst the interviews, cultural, political, and social analysis, she also manages to introduce the theories (and fully explain in a friendly manner) of many of the most important cultural thinkers. Don’t let her ambitious project discourage you from tackling her book. This is no jargonistic tome designed to put graduate students asleep, instead Kauffman has written a book that is as enjoyable as the most moving fiction. She has a passion for her subjects and writes in a clear and accessible manner.
Some of the artists that she examines are: “The Performers”, Bob Flanagan, Orlan, Carolee Schneemann, and Annie Sprinkle; “The Artists” Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger, Kiki Smith, Barbara Krueger, Matuschka, and various Advertisements; “The Filmmakers”, Peter Greenaway, Isaac Julien, David Cronenberg, Ngozi Onwurah, Scott McGehee/David Siegel, Brian DePalma, John Byrum, and Gus Van Sant; “The Writers” J.G. Ballard, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Kathy Acker, Wiliam Vollman, and Brett Easton Ellis.
I whole-heartedly encourage anyone interested in experimental culture, artistic expression, and cultural censorship to pick up this book. Perhaps the best compliment I can give Kauffman’s book is that I read it six months ago and have now just finished it for the second time.