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Hold It Against Me:  Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art

by Jennifer Doyle
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2013
203 pp., illus. 28 b/w, 17 col. Trade, $84.95; paper, $23.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5302-7; ISBN: 978-0-8223-5313-3.

Reviewed by Florence Martellini

florencemartellini@gmail.com

Painters such as Cézanne, Van Gogh, etc. moved away from some of the conventional techniques to represent reality, such as linear perspective, by attempting to express visually how they intuitively saw the world with their own eyes, their own senses. Most of them were rejected during their lifetime, accused of being incapable of drawing and painting. They were actually challenging a deeply engrained belief that the visual representational techniques used up to then were incomplete and required artists to become involved in the scene they depicted - they were not just outsiders looking out from a window frame. Somehow in Hold it Against Me Jennifer Doyle tries to pass on a similar kind of message but one geared towards contemporary performing artists politically engaged in North America. They are still very much on the margin of the contemporary art world not only for their provoking political messages - they tackle sensitive taboo subjects such as abortion, AIDS, and immigration - but also for their means of expression that force the viewers to choose to either participate in the work or stay outside it. Performing artists, such as Marina Abramovic, thanks to her extraordinary perseverance, have helped to open the boundaries of performing art by no longer limiting it to acting on stage. In one of her earlier works Rhythm 0 the audience was invited to use any of the 70 objects, which included sharp devices, lying around Abramovic who was standing up for 6 hours. At the end of the performance she was stripped from her clothes, had been cut, painted, cleaned, crowned with thorns and had a loaded gun pressed against her head.  Her more recent performance the Artist is Present at MOMA in 2010 was also a success.

Left wing Doyle is, no doubt, passionate about her subject. She writes well and is not short of details, sometimes too many, to the point of succeeding in making her reader experience ‘live’ the performances she relates. By describing at great length performances given by a series of internationally known artists, such as Ron Athey, Aliza Shvarts, Thomas Eakins, James Luna, Carrie Mae Weems, and David Wojnarowicz, she shows the challenge of writing about them but, most importantly, reassesses our relationship with the art object at large in a constructive and provocative manner.

In the first part of the book Doyle sets out the discursive context by explaining her notion of ‘difficult’ art and its reception by both individuals and institutions. For example, the latter struggle to argue for the necessity of art that not only is about hard feelings but produces them. Funding tends to support contemporary artworks that are opaque, difficult to understand, hence, unmovable. Doyle believes that emotions can make our experience of art harder but also more interesting. Has provocation not always been the characteristics of genuinely controversial artworks? Any good contemporary art is difficult per se in that it challenges current trends with its own terms, be them conceptual, emotional, or both. More than ever contemporary art actively brings the viewer in its physical space. And with performing art the spectator being directly confronted with the artist is more likely to react emotionally.

The second part of the book is far more innovative and refreshing in that Doyle questions our actual understanding of emotions in art. She explains that since the early 1990s contemporary art - mainly with experiential artworks - has invested into the relational aesthetics by creating art practices that produce relationships as their objects and offer an escape route from art as commodity. But has art writing, be it art history or art criticism, adapted to this development? Doyle shows how controversial works have been oversimplified by critics and journalists in that they miss the ways these artists deploy their body to politicize processes. She claims that it is paramount to look beyond the feelings people have about this type of performances to understand the concrete challenge it brings out. For example, artist Aliza Shvarts, a Yale University art student, set out on a year-long performance of repeated self-induced miscarriages. She artificially inseminated herself over the course of nine months and took herbal abortifacients at the same time of her menstrual cycle to facilitate menstruation or miscarriage. The key question raised in her piece: “Was she ever pregnant?” For the artist though it was rather to explore the discursive field surrounding sex and reproduction and the status of the female body. Doyle claims that it would have been far more embarrassing for Yale University to see the pregnancy through than it was for her to have an abortion. That angle was never raised in the controversy produced by the performance. Yale University disavowed any relationship with Shvart’s project by preventing her from submitting it. Thus, according to Doyle this story shows that the interruption of fertilization and pregnancy is seen as part of the practice of sexual life. The project removes the actual topic of sex and romance from the argument, centering it instead on the artist body and its processes and the abortion discourse. Is it a crime or is it not? She compares it with another scandalous performance that of Joseph Deutch, a MFA student at the University of California. He brought what looked like a real gun to the class, told students that it was loaded, and appeared to play Russian roulette with himself. No one was hurt, but some students were upset – Deutch had to deal with an angry university administration, which reprimanded him for not having thought about the consequences of his performance.

With her case studies, Doyle points out the latent false assumption that we can only be smart about emotions if we are cynical about them, running the risk of over simplifying the artworks’ messages. She argues that we have been working with inadequate models for what feelings are and how they work. In the popular ‘expressive’ model used to date, “feelings are assumed to originate inside the body and to find expression on or outside it”. This underscores emotion as something lifted from a depth to a surface. It leads us to measure representations of emotion according to how well we are convinced that those feelings represent the subject’s interior life and according to how those feelings correspond to the interior lives of the audience. Taking examples of Andy Warhol’s work, Doyle explains that Pop Art flattens out not only the image on the canvas but also the subject. With his use of mechanical reproduction and the impersonal appearance of his portraits, Warhol is dismantling models of expression as the “waning of affect” formulated by Fredric Jameson.

Warhol’s work appears as an attack on authenticity and expression because it works against the models of subjective experience through which expression and emotion are articulated as one and the same process. People did respond to his work. Doyle explains that this emotional charge belongs neither to the artist nor the viewers but instead to the public sphere constituted around the subjects: celebrities, brands, iconic newspaper photos, etc. These works are about the way our own feelings seem to belong to someone else. Warhol shows that an expression does not represent an already existing feeling; it is the thing, the object that sets emotions into motion. Thus, emotions are inter-subjective; they do not happen inside the individual but in relation to others. Emotions do more than marking boundaries between the self and the other: They bring them into being. In effect, artists often declare that they are more interested in the viewer’s reaction than what they personally intended to express as they see their artwork as an object in a context. We could argue that when we are isolated, outside a socially charged context that triggers feelings and emotions, we have more space to become mindful as there is no boundary brought into being by emotions - the Eastern philosophy notion of ‘going beyond your senses’ then becomes clearer. Emotions are neither objects nor property of people. The affective intensity of the space around works of art marks a starting point for critical engagement not a limit.

Hence, this type of difficult artworks questions what emotion is, where it comes from, to whom it belongs and even whether it can be thought of as belonging. Doyle argues that the ‘expressive’ model of expression is to many critics an assertion of a simplistic model for identity, even when such a work refuses those very ideologies. “The feelings imagined as outside art history have been mystified as that which is inside and as therefore belonging neither to the art object nor to the discourse about it. Emotion is in fact the site of connection and intimacy … of political work”. This model was developed for postmodern art and, in particular, politically engaged pieces. Could we argue for it to be applied to all others, irrespective of their time? Despite the challenges it encounters, controversial performance art is becoming popular, seen as a cost effective mean to manifest human rights for example. In 2011, the Egyptian student Aliaa Elmahdy filmed herself and two of her friends nude in front of her embassy in Denmark and posted the video on her blog. She not only claimed the right to expose and do whatever pleases her with her body but also expressed her anger against the Egyptian society dominated by male chauvinism and religion. Time of hardships may not be bad news after all as artists go back to themselves and stop pleasing funding organisations.


Last Updated 2 October 2013

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