The Suffering Body of 1993: Whatever Happened to the “Abject” (Part II)

Robert Mapplethorpe, "Helmut," from the "X Portfolio," 1978. (Calling to mind Julia Kristeva's "The Severed Head").
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This article presents Part II of The Suffering Body of 1993: Whatever Happened to the “Abject” (Part I).


Construed in broad strokes, identity politics and contemporary art were deeply entwined in the over-determined context of the Culture Wars. Outlining the development of homophobia in reaction to the visual arts in the early 1990s, art historian Jonathan D. Katz writes, “Since the late 1980s, then, the phrase the culture wars has become a kind of shorthand for describing [a] particular constellation of forces: the Christian right political agenda, more moderate Republican appeasement, the National Endowment for the Arts, the cultural avant-garde, the gay and lesbian rights movement, and AIDS activism.”

The development and national reaction to AIDS served as the catalysis in irrevocably linking homophobia and the censorship of visual arts. Contemporary art made its entrance onto the national sphere in 1989 through North Carolina senator Jesse Helms’s presentation of Andres Serrano’s 1987 Piss Christ on the Senate floor, which depicts a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. Joining a burgeoning Christian right that had deemed the photograph anti-Christian and anti-family, Helms condemned Serrano’s work, fomenting a depiction of contemporary art that saw it oppose normative morality. The Culture Wars operated in an analogic field of signification, in which contemporary art, queer sexuality, and bodily abjection triangulated through the literalization of the queer body as a diseased one during the AIDS crisis. In short, art was queer and gross and only for queer (and gross) people, a mentality that saw the US legislature attack specific instances, like Mapplethorpe’s posthumous exhibition The Perfect Moment and the funding delegation of the National Endowment for the Arts, personified through the backlash against the “NEA Four,” or the artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes.

It was their association with the NEA that abject art and Abject Art joined with identity politics in a national discourse, cementing the association between abject identity and abject art. In a 1993 House debate between Sidney Yates and Robert Dornan on NEA funding, the Whitney’s show emerged as the prominent representative for the abuses of tax dollars (and accordingly, the de facto advocacy or even acknowledgement of AIDS and homosexuality). Dornan accused the NEA of backing Abject Art directly through the ISP, though as Yates countered, a fraction of NEA money went to the ISP overall, who distributed it among their initiatives accordingly. The NEA ultimately suffered, in what appears to be a punitive gesture, a five-percent funding cut – better than Dornan’s ultimate desire to completely pull public support.

National journalism seamlessly blended Abject Art and queer identity. In his Los Angeles Times article on the NEA defunding arguments, William J. Eaton reports, “Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind), however said the Whitney show included depictions of a three-foot mound of excrement, two woman having oral sex, and other objectionable works,” in a statement of shocking homophobic honesty. Or, as Dornan himself plainly editorialized in a syndicated article, the Whitney “celebrates excrement, blood, and sodomy.” The Associated Press quoted the Christian Action Network’s statement that “work done by the NEA-funded artists [set] new lows in obscenity and repulsion.” Even Phyllis Schlafly, the foremost destructor of feminist legislation in the 1970s, cemented the binary between diseased queer art and its offended national public, describing Abject Art as “offensive to the American people.”

As a metaphor for social normativity, Kristeva’s dynamics materialized beautifully. White, ostensibly straight, American politicians repeatedly evoked the ghost of abject art and abject people to insist on what counted as good American culture, just as the subject must consistently abject the reminder of the breakage with its mother. Dornan himself performed a whole host of psychoanalytic conundrums during a melodramatic re-reading of the Abject Art catalogue: “I cannot read the next line that my staffers … wrote for me. In this exhibit, a young woman is shown going No. 1 in the toilet…There is also a 3-foot mound of doodoo. I softened that a little bit. There is a dismantled sculpture of two women having – I cannot read that at all …” In the name of the family, Dornan himself regresses to the sexual maturity of a child.

But if this account presents a heroic binary between the villainy of the American government and the resistance of the artworld, that image of political solidarity within the contemporary-art community had already frayed. By Abject Art’s appearance, the 1993 Whitney Biennial had ignited a hostile backlash to the articulation of marginalized people in art. Generally labeled as the “political” or “identity” Biennial, the show (led by curator Elizabeth Sussman), began a public dialogue on the politics of identity and its relation to the production and reception of contemporary art. As Amelia Jones addressed in her recent book Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification in the Visual Arts, the Biennial mobilized a public, often dismissive critical response. It specifically touched on a frequent evaluative trope, where explicitly politicized art polemicized at the cost of its own aesthetic value. For critics like Robert Hughes, Roberta Smith, and Peter Plagens, the Biennial’s didactic moralizing in the hands of artists such as Robert Gober, Kiki Smith, Glenn Ligon, and Daniel J. Martinez ruined their own artfulness.

If the popular critical base dismissed the work of both Abject Art and the 1993 Biennial (even if the former’s curatorial premise invites scrutiny here), abject and identity-based art didn’t fare much better at the hands of more academic art historians and theorists. The journal October published two articles and two “roundtables” between their editors and writers on the Biennial and abject art in registers ranging between analytic skepticism and polemic rejection. Similar to the above journalistic critiques, the October members faulted the work in the Biennial for privileging narrative content above a formal attention to form, medium, and signification. The artists on display centered on their own autobiography, validating their identities through proximity to “signs of oppression and emblems of community,” as Foster stated. Art about the marginalization of identity clung to its own injury without any degree of reflexivity and thus advanced thought.

In the 1994, the roundtable’s participants followed a general division between abjection, with its uncomplicated reliance on representations of bodily materials and substances, and the informe, an idea from the work of George Bataille that aimed to upend hierarchies of matter and form from the very onset. As Helen Molesworth, now the chief curator at LA MOCA, commented, “In [Abject Art], as in Kristeva, there was little attempt to work out the representational act involved in something called ‘abject art’.” Abjection’s insistence on working only with its most literal referents overdetermined its iconographic quality, so that its own abjection could be read by both the left and right as exactly the same. Everyone – on all political sides – agreed that certain bodily fluids were disgusting and the people who enjoyed them might be disgusting, too. As pointed out by the roundtable, the only legitimate way to embody one’s abjection, it seemed, was to consent to the label thrust by the powers at be, instead of analyzing how that label, itself, was shaped.

These points are not invalid. Abject art did operate in a referential loophole – the ISP curators, for instance, consented to the their art’s own abjection while trying to suggest its consent was problematic. In her review of the show, in the Village Voice, Elizabeth Hess writes, “The only critics I know who consider ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender’ as ‘abject’ subjects for art are Jesse Helms and Hilton Kramer,” a reference to the hysterically homophobic US senator, and a particularly conservative art critic.

But in single-authored treatments of the subject, Foster and Rosalind Krauss specifically targeted notions of the abject that originate from ostensibly sound theoretical positions. However their elaborations now expose remaining questions in art-historical debates on abject art and identity politics. In a 1996 article responding to the “insistent spread of ‘abjection’ as an expressive mode,” Krauss set out to detach abjection from connotations of the informe, which in fact was the subject of an exhibition she had curated with art historian Yves-Alain Bois at the Centre Pompidou that same year. Taking on feminist film critic Laura Mulvey’s analysis of Cindy Sherman 1990’s photography, Krauss noted that in self-described abject art, the abject speaks for the “character of being wounded, victimized, traumatized, marginalized” in a flat-footed “thematics of essences and substances.” Krauss abandoned Mulvey’s interest in blood and vomit in Sherman’s Disaster series and instead opted for an almost reckless formalism. For Krauss, Sherman’s main concern was the “horizontalization of the picture, an operation carried out at the levels of the signifier of the image (format, point-of-view) far more importantly than on its signifieds.” Looking at Sherman’s “art history” series, which buffoonishly riffed on the canon, Krauss insisted the works avoided a “revenge of mass-cultural values,” and instead concerned themselves with form itself. In Krauss’s questionable eagerness to invalidate abjection, Sherman’s choice of subject matter appears arbitrary or irrelevant.

In his response to abject art, including a related chapter in his influential 1996 book The Return of the Real, Foster methodologically designed his own psychoanalytic theory of trauma and visuality with heavy emphasis on the work of Jacques Lacan. Yet the most provocative aspect of his analysis dealt with his diagnoses of the affective subject behind art. For Foster, strategies of abjection involved an attachment to extreme poles of feeling, from a sublime maximum of affect to its emptied-out, depressive counterpart. The second corpse-like rendition grabbed Foster’s attention most, specifically in two guises: the first featured mostly female artists who “[assume] an infantilist position” to mock paternal law through an exploration of the maternal body. The second tactic, consisting of mostly male artists such as Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, and Nayland Blake, relied on a “general flaunting of shit” to challenge a normative repression of the “anal and olfactory.” But as Foster saw it, within the “anal world” of the latter abject artists, their cultural politics “celebrate mere indistinction [rather] than trouble symbolic difference,” culminating in a “politics of alterity pushed to nihility.” In the politics of abjection, the depressive, vaguely, apathetic subject holds court in a larger ‘90s culture of “slackers and losers, grunge and Generation X.” (It’s interesting to trace which artists have taken up this mantle now in newer media – in 2013, I nominated Cory Arcangel).

If this seems to caricature an especially dominant sector of the artworld, critiques of “wound culture,” as Mark Seltzer famously called it, also appeared in theory by feminists and politically left critics themselves. In her well-known 1995 essay “Wounded Attachments,” Wendy Brown described politicized identities’ inclination to define themselves solely along lines for resentment (which for Brown, necessarily introduced an appeal to capitalisms’ rewards these identities had yet to enjoy). As she noted, identity politics “[retain] the real or imagined holdings of its reviled subjects as objects of desire,” going so far as to comment that “without recourse to the white masculine middle-class ideal politicized identities would forfeit a good deal of their claims to injury and exclusion.” Marginalized people take up an interest in their own historical subjugation, wherein an imagined group in charge becomes a “site of external blame” upon which the injured can “avenge its hurt and redistribute its pain.”

Notice the characterization of abject art and related politics across these accounts – obsessed with their own injury and the body as a site of disgust. Without an account of its own wounding, abject art would have no definition at all. For Krauss, abject art’s influence simplified work like that of Cindy Sherman, turning it into an encyclopedia of fluids and secretions. For Foster, abject artists basically assume the role of children, either insisting on the status of the lowly body or waging war against assumed parents. For mainstream critics, abject (and identity-centered) art stuck to feelings of depression and morbidity. Infinite regress haunts these accounts. Their artists cannot, seemingly, move forward in time or beyond themselves. This is in effect, an adolescent account: identity-focused and abject artists (often but not always the same) couldn’t “get over it.”

Abject art almost assumed the role of the “unhappy object,” as Sara Ahmed describes it, which disturbs dynamics of happiness and good feeling (or in this case, aesthetic pleasure). Ahmed’s exemplar are the “feminist killjoy,” “angry black woman,” and “unhappy queer,” negative identity-positions that have to be pushed out of the way for the normal functioning of power, no matter what their appeal to injury might be. Unhappy objects find themselves in a vicious cycle, ignored for their unhappiness caused by the deficiencies of that same system itself. If in its context, abject art cannot be separated from an identity politics testifying to abuses of power, then abject artists poignantly reflected the unhappy objects of the contemporary artworld, whose bad feelings were taken at the most superficial level and constituted as their defining factors.

It’s my contention that what abject art posed to its critics was an invocation of the wound, of the suffering body. With respect to the curatorial clumsiness of Abject Art, what the work there and in the 1993 Biennial posed were testimonies to the injury inflicted on certain groups of society. This appeal was read, at the hands of The New York Times and related outlets, as emotionally arch disregard for aesthetic interest or beauty, and at the hands of October as a conceptually-facile interest in the subject’s own trauma. The latter critique, I think, holds water: viable identity politics require much more than the repeated citation of one’s wound, even if the enormous difficulty of those struggles is to find the tenacity to demand more than compensation for pain, as Brown noted in her analysis.

But the imperfect evocation of injury in artistic form does not warrant the wholesale rejection of its political appeal, as Foster and Krauss enacted. Krauss’s analysis introduced a complexity in Sherman’s work but in order to diminish the relevance of Sherman’s thematic interest in commoditized tropes of femininity, the abhorrent body, and the art historical. To replace that with a rubric of horizontality seems to be reading against the grain to a fault. Foster deftly handles the psychoanalysis behind abjection, but his offering of abject art’s depressive subject is curiously universal. He notes abject art’s potential to reaffirm the anal and other normatively degraded erotics, yet looks to art by figures like McCarthy, John Miller, and Mike Kelley, whose interest in queer sexuality is approximate or symbolic at best. In a circular rhetorical gesture, Foster conjures a normative agent of abject art that once established, allows him to abolish the possibility of an activist effort in abject art. Foster looks for the most general instances of abject to find that, surprise, it doesn’t represent the most effective forms of political assistance.

For what it’s worth, no artists of color are mentioned in his account, when those artists may very well have exhibited the valence Foster finds absent (I think of Kara Walker, William Pope.L, and Rebecca Belmore, to name an insufficiently-sized sample). As Jones notes, the art-historical and art-critical efforts to displace art centered on identity conveniently saw them ally with conservative, phobic desires to rid the cultural scene of those identities altogether, even if their ostensible politics represent contradictory positions. In a context for art production as flatly hateful as that of the early ‘90s in America, to mobilize the intellectual shortcomings of a body of work instead of identifying its more valuable message rings as historically irresponsible.

Yet placing abject art and identity-based art in the present moment, Rhonda Lieberman’s fright aside, does disclose a legacy for its contributions. In 2013, Jerry Saltz (not exactly politically spotless himself, but) noted the importance of the 1993 Whitney Biennial for forcing issues of identity front and center. Even Peter Schjeldahl, no fan of the ’93 show, renounced his position in recent coverage on the opening of the Whitney’s new campus. Abjection as an aesthetic technique appeared ferociously gripping in Kara Walker’s Creative Time installation last summer in the form of the sugar-carrying tchotchke boys made of molasses. They melted into gelatinous muck over the course of the exhibition, and smelled rank. Their bodies decomposed as a torturous exhibition of racialized violence; molasses looked like thick blood, but was, in fact, the stuff of candy. In last fall’s elegiac retrospective at MoMA, Robert Gober crafted an eroticized Americana where flashes of queer pain mythologized a national history into something dark and foreboding. With 2013’s Hold It Against Me: Emotion and Difficulty in Contemporary Art, performance scholar Jennifer Doyle paved a productive route for art about identity, violence, and harm: looking at the work of less market-ready figures like Franko B and Ron Athey, Doyle suggested a provocative inversion. Art that might seem to advertise its own violence or cruelty may in fact work in an opposite way, as an invitation to consider dynamics of care and healing. In most instances, abject art and its contemporary variations might only be as self-centered as the critic allows it; it’s far riskier to take art like this on its own terms and attend to its difficult, unhappy valences.

Viewed this way, what the abject art of the early 1990s may have signaled is a cry for help, a need to find witness to a cultural politics willing to extinguish its non-dominant constituents at the highest level of power and governance. The artworld responded with generalized scorn. Identity politics became historicized as a trope of the pre-millennial decade, but that generalization has too easily worked as a barometer to write-off the quality of an artwork by its mere evocation of a subject-position, as Doyle remarks in her book. Perhaps it’s no great surprise that the last art-historically canonized instance of art and activism was Gran Fury, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s propaganda wing, whose members died in droves as abject art found its ire in critical reception. It’s easy to monumentalize an art-activist collective when the large part of its members are dead. The artworld, barring the at-times-problematic and already-ignored wing of social practice has only since entrenched its own conservatism.

This essay attempts to account for an art moment long considered passé, its primary exhibition, and its resulting politics. But it has also tried to offer something by way of a critical reminder, an appeal to look out instead of looking away. Perhaps the next step is to remain attentive to forms of injury as they appear in art production, even if those forms ignore, circumvent, or otherwise demonstrate no interest in the modes of aesthetic production critically acknowledged by the establishment. Ideally, this could lead to a more impactful correlate in actual activism and social concern, and one that doesn’t have to continuously secure its respectability through university-driven skill sets, like critical theory. The NEA’s funding apparatus is definitely not poised to return, and the American government’s overall neglect of the socially-marginalized is literally murderous, in ways both slow and fast. The powers of horror are as apparent as ever.


1 Comment

  • Dave Hickey says:

    Nice essay, I think, with problematic secondary sources. I should also note that I wrote a book in 1993 called “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty” that was “about” abjection and its discontents.

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