Poetry News

Maggie Nelson and the Limitations of Shock

By Harriet Staff

Poet, Critic, and all-around badass Maggie Nelson offers up her thoughts on shock in art for the NY Times.

Here's a sample. The book mentioned is Nelson's The Art of Cruelty:

Q. At the end of the book you mention a long list of artists whose work “dismantles, boycotts, ignores, destroys, takes liberty with or at least pokes fun at” the idea that shock leads to enlightenment. Most of the artists on your list are women. Have women found a different, more fruitful route to shock?

A. I’d love to claim for my putative gender a claim on more fruitful art making, but I don’t think such a generalization could stand. I will say, however, that men have had the run of the board for hundreds of years now in terms of art history, so we’ve seen and heard a lot of what they have to say. I don’t know any women who would nominate the nine-minute rape scene in the 2002 movie “Irreversible” as an avant-garde tour de force — the whole sex/violence thing may remain horrifying, but it is not novel.

The shock of work by certain female artists often lies in their capacity to say things the culture has a hard time hearing or hasn’t yet heard. (Think of Jesse Helms, who could only perceive Karen Finley as “that chocolate-smeared woman”; that her self-smearing was in part a protest against women being treated like excrement was lost on him.) My favorite work by certain women (and men, and everyone in-between) often makes my mouth drop open — not from being offended, but out of wonder: you can say that? you can do that?

Q. What have you encountered recently that made your mouth drop open that way?

A. Lee Miller’s 1930 prints of breasts on plates (“Untitled (Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy)”); she stole the breasts from a hospital after a friend’s surgery! Carolee Schneemann’s “Infinity Kisses,” which captures a multiyear, erotic engagement Schneemann had with various cats.

Michelle Tea’s blog “Getting Pregnant with Michelle Tea,”, in which Tea gamely ponders the vicissitudes of her discharge and orders black-market Clomid from Mexico, amongst other things. Dodie Bellamy’s “The Buddhist,” which graphically describes having sex as a middle-aged woman, perhaps one of the final frontiers. Eileen Myles’s catalog (in “The Inferno”) of various vaginas she’s encountered over the years — a piece Myles says even Vice magazine initially had cold feet about publishing. Kara Walker’s psychosexual fantasia against the backdrop of American slavery. The tender brutality in the work of Harry Dodge. All of Luther Price. The benevolent audacity of Annie Sprinkle and C A Conrad.

Full article here.

Originally Published: October 5th, 2012