'The simplest Surrealist act,' André Breton once wrote, 'consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.' In addition to highlighting the way surrealism frequently collapsed art and political action, Breton's statement illustrates (or perhaps enacts) three of the prevailing features of twentieth-century avant-garde aesthetics: the breaking of taboos surrounding the depiction (and performance) of sex and violence, the desire to shock (épater) the bourgeoisie, and the willful blurring of the boundary lines traditionally separating life and art. Unfortunately, Breton’s statement also demonstrates a certain willingness to sacrifice bystanders (shoot into the crowd); it demonstrates a certain stated need for victims. And it is this last feature—the avant-garde’s apparent willingness to hurt real people for the sake of art—that has created the most stunning dilemmas for both the practitioners and consumers of experimental work. It is also this feature that has aligned the politics of experimental art with those of documentary, low horror, and pornography.
[…]As Susan Rubin Suleiman points out, in its pursuit of the radically transgressive, avant-garde culture has often displayed a disturbingly misogynist cast. In such diverse films as Buñuel’s Chien andalou (1928), Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La belle captive (1938), rebellion against social and sexual constraint is played out—violently—on a woman’s body. And as I mentioned earlier, at least one gynophobic avant-garde film—Anthony Balch’s Bill and Tony—plays explicit homage to Freaks, as Anthony Balch and William S. Burroughs take turns reciting the misogynist prologue from Browning’s movie. The barker’s speech takes on special significance coming out of Burroughs’s mouth. Legendary for both his homosexuality and his drug addiction, Burroughs has frequently been attacked for his ‘nature’ and the ‘freakish’ things he chose to write about. Furthermore, Burroughs—as his biographer Ted Morgan points out—long identified the avant-garde with the marginal world of outlaws and drug pushers, social ‘freaks’ who operate according to a special ‘code.’ (Burroughs himself was a great believer in both vengeance and the occult; he claimed that he successfully places curses on a number of people who offended him.) Finally, despite his marriage to Joan Vollmer Burroughs, whom he appears to have genuinely loved, and his friendship with certain exceptional women—most notably Jane Bowles—Burroughs was a noted misogynist. His intonation of the last lines of the barker’s speech, ’ the most amazing, the most astounding living monstrosity of all time. Friends, she was once a beautiful woman,” points up the latent gynophobia of the text. Like horror movies, then, avant-garde cinema is often ‘spectacularly nasty towards women.’
[…] when Freaks was re-released on the arthouse circuit, one of its most avid fans was Diane Arbus. […] Sontag sees Arbus’ documentation of Tod Browning’s America as ‘anti-humanist.’ […] They ‘undercut politics … by suggesting a world in which everybody is an alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities and relationships.’ The ‘render history and politics irrelevant … by atomizing … [the world] into horror.’
The use of the word ‘horror’ here brings us full circle. […] ‘Much of modern art,’ Sontag writes, ‘is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals—that body of psychic customs and public sanctions that draws a vague boundary between what is emotionally and spontaneously intolerable and what is not.’ Sontag’s description of the moral ‘dangers’ of modern art comes remarkably close to similar descriptions of the moral dangers ascribed to body genre cinema and low culture. It lowers the threshold for what is terrible in art and in so doing makes us more willing to tolerate—or at least look at—the terrible in real life. […] the line between what is generally regarded as low culture and what is regarded as high art can be very difficult to see.
[…] a recent museum exhibit explored the ‘resurgence of a Gothic sensibility’ in art, fashion, music, and cinema. Aptly named Gothic, the exhibit took place at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, 24 April to 6 July 1997. It included the work of twenty-three artists ‘who produce horror as well as amazement through often repulsive, fragmented and contorted forms. Some employ a detached and reductive formal language to evoke discomfort and claustrophobia or to transmute images of gruesome violence, achieving an equally disconcerting impact.’ The catalog includes reproductions of work by Julie Becker, Monica Carocci, Gregory Crewdson, and Jackson Pollock, as well as photographs of fashion designs by Thierry Mugler and musical performances by Marilyn Manson and Bauhaus. The catalog also lists the films that were shown in conjunction with the show. According to the published list, the second art film ‘exhibit’ was Tod Browning’s Freaks.
Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde, Joan Hawkins, 2000. (via aintgotnoladytronblues)