I began reading Maggie Nelson's 2011 book The Art of Cruelty a few days before going to see the 2017 Whitney Biennial. I hadn't picked it up as a primer for the work I'd find within the Biennial's galleries, but it ended up serving that purpose nonetheless. By the time I visited, the backlash over Dana Schutz's aestheticization of Emmett Till in his casket was already well underway and I'd seen documentation of Henry Taylor's THE TIMES THAY AIN'T A CHANGIN, FAST ENOUGH!, a colorblocked depiction of the murder of Philando Castile. In coverage of the controversy over Schutz's painting, her work and Taylor's were often and uncritically lumped together as two pieces depicting violence against the black body. I repeat that paralleling here to emphasize that a thread has been pulled between these two as works of representational violence—works that aestheticize but nonetheless depict instances of actual brutality—and that Jordan Wolfson's Real Violence has been erroneously omitted from that discussion.
As background, Wolfson's Real Violence (2017) is a 90-second virtual reality film in which "we witness the artist himself engaged in an act of unexplained violence," the wall text states. "The victim makes eye contact with us intermittently, possibly implicating us in the scenario." That's all we get by way of explanation, not to mention a gallery guide at the entrance of Wolfson's installation whose unfortunate job it is to basically parrot the wall text to the crowd and direct visitors back to the wall in the event that they need further clarification.
I, in turn, can only parrot descriptions of the work I've read online, because I did not watch Real Violence. I opted out not because the line was long but because I didn't have enough information about the nature of the image I was about to see; the administration of the image was carefully guarded, monitored, and laden with warnings, and yet all I could glean was that it would be graphically violent. As it turns out, I have no need or desire to watch the artist brutalize an animatronic dummy digitally made to look human, to watch someone reduced to a bloody pulp by means of a baseball bat. It is rare to be able to opt in or out of your own potential traumatization, and so I chose not to watch.
Back to The Art of Cruelty, though—in part, because I'm more interested and invested in this work of Maggie Nelson's than I am in the Whitney Biennial, though the show's chaos offers up so many case studies. A lengthy passage in an early chapter is so helpful in thinking about the Biennial that I reproduce most of it here:
Funny Games, which [filmmaker Michael] Haneke originally made in 1997, and then remade for an American audience in 2007, is the story of two torturers who terrorize and mutilate a bourgeois family over the course of the film’s 108 minutes. As they go about their bloody business, the torturers periodically turn to the camera to impugn the viewer, saying things like, “You really think it’s enough?” or “You want a proper ending, don’t you?” This is about as crude a means of drawing attention to a viewer’s complicity as you can get, which is likely why A. O. Scott, in his review of the remake, described the technique as one that “might have seemed audacious to an undergraduate literary theory class in 1985,” but that today comes off as a fraud. […]
It may simply be that the time for the efficacy of such an enterprise has passed—not because our complicity (in you-name-it) has lessened or grown any less toxic, but because the enormity of certain geopolitical crises has made a viewer’s complicity in the presumed evils of spectatorship seem like small potatoes. (Yes, we like to watch, but so what?) […] More to the point, it may be that the fast-moving pace of the so-called image regime under which many of us live now offers so little opportunity for slow looking, reflection, and contemplation that the indictment of a viewer’s prolonged attention these days seems like a waste of an increasingly rare resource. […] And how does the artist know in advance what we would rather not see, or how difficult the looking may be? And is it really the looking that’s so hard? Or is it all the work that looking at atrocity doesn’t do—namely, as Susan Sontag has it, repairing our ignorance about the history and causes of suffering, and charting a course of action in response, tasks that may fall fairly and squarely outside the realm of art?
Nelson's point about attention is one that I've returned to often since reading it. Though I think Dana Schutz's painting is all wrong—stained, as it were, with the abhorrent commodification of black death—I can understand the impulse to direct a viewer's attention to the locus of brutality, as was Till's mother Mamie's intention. (Schutz actually obfuscates Till's face and the violence written onto it, one of her many missteps, and a subject of discussion unto itself.) What's harder to understand is seizing the "rare resource" of an audience's attention in order to force brutality into its frame of vision with no recourse except removal of the headset. There's no interactivity, and, above all, no reasoning or context: in the Whitney's two-paragraph description of Wolfson's work, a variation on the phrase "unexplained" appears twice to describe the nature of this violence.
And then comes its reception, and the level of discourse and critical thinking around it: for The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz wrote, "The first, instinctive reaction is the empathetic one: disgust, repulsion, anger at being made to watch an atrocity. But Wolfson complicates the violent scene he stages by neutralizing it. He and his victim are both white, both men, both around the same age and of a similar build. The two are apparently evenly matched in strength and social status." When a work is presented in the world—and in the Whitney Biennial, an epicenter, for many, of the American art world—so carelessly, lacking explanation from both the artist and the curatorial team, I suppose we can expect careless deconstructions of the work as well.
Violence isn't neutral, nor can it be neutralized by the skin color, gender, age, or build of its actors. Violence will always carry with it its own context, which neither Wolfson nor the Whitney can erase by merely modifying the word violence with other words like unexplained or pure. Forgive me as I quote from Wolfson himself, as he speaks to an ArtNews writer about Real Violence:
"You put [the headset] on, and you’re looking up at the sky, and you’re in an urban setting, people everywhere, and then it rotates backward, then it rotates to the crowd, and then it comes forward and you see me,” he began. “And then you see me assault a man who’s about 15 years older than me. I assault the person to the point where to you, as the viewer, it is ambiguous whether or not he will survive.” He paused for a second. “That’s the contextual distortion,” he explained. “You’re experiencing pure violence, you’re experiencing real violence. The depiction of actual, real violence is a kind of abstraction.” […]
“You might say to me, how is this real violence if it’s fake?” Wolfson asked, before handing me the VR headset. I didn’t have an answer. “The real violence isn’t depicted by the person suffering,” he said. “The real violence is actually depicted by the person implementing the violence.” Another pause. “And that’s me,” he said.
By definition, violence has an object and a subject, and therefore can never be the "pure," masturbatory gesture Wolfson envisions it to be. Even in his short description of the piece, he outlines the narrative—the context—of it, including setting, characters, and narrative arc. Another piece he leaves out is the headset, though which the viewer hears Wolfson chanting Hebrew prayers. Wolfson's insistence that Real Violence exists in the realm of abstraction when it's clearly a mode of representation apparently permits him to sidestep many of the questions that've been justly launched at Dana Schutz since the Biennial's opening.
What Wolfson does inadvertently accomplish, through his own description of Real Violence, is actually a succinct critique of Dana Schutz's Open Casket: "The depiction of actual, real violence is a kind of abstraction."
No images to be found in this week's entry, because what could make you more weary of the image than the above discussion, but here's a video of Jordan Wolfson's 2016 Colored Sculpture. I'm intrigued by this piece and think the gaze of the sculpture isn't exactly the "crude," simplistic means of "drawing attention to a viewer's complicity," as Nelson writes, but is dealing with violence more complexly: violence in and as choreography.
Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double. "In the 'theatre of cruelty' the spectator is in the center and the spectacle surrounds him." (Not an endorsement, per se, just the text in full.)
Fellow Biennial artist Ajay Kurian wrote a piece called The Ballet of White Victimhood for ArtSpace on Jordan Wolfson in which he aptly describes Wolfson's new exhibitions as a kind of product debut: "This is the new model, the new character, the new gadget, the new monstrosity that we all line up to see." I don't necessarily love the whole article, but the opening section is helpful.