An essay in which I trace the artistic roots of Ceara Lynch’s humiliation and degradation videos.
In 1971, 25 year old performance artist Chris Burden stood against the wall of a California art gallery and ordered a friend to shoot him through the arm. It was performance art designed to unnerve.
“Shoot” by Chris Burden (1971)
45 years later, a class of students at Williams College viewed the grainy footage of Burden’s shooting. No one expressed any sense of shock or revulsion. No one took offense that a taboo had been broken. Instead, there was tolerance. Or perhaps more accurately, indifference.
Has society and culture changed so much that what once was shocking is now commonplace? Has art evolved so that the values and social mores of the past are no longer applicable to art’s relevance? And does Ceara Lynch, and her video clips, have a place on this trajectory of art’s evolution? If so, where?
This essay will explore some of the answers to those questions.
Art Is …
I remember the first time I understood art. It was 1986 at the University of Chicago. I was 34 years old, well established in my career, and headed down a path towards inevitable success. Adding a few more graduate-level courses to my curricula vitae would accelerate my progress. I was brimming with confidence – to the point of being downright unlikable. You know the kind of person I was back then. The one with a comment for everything; judgmental, critical, and just plain obnoxious. The asshole in the crowd. That was me. Humility hadn’t yet found a very favorable place in my character.
There was an exhibit of Jeff Koons’s work in a lobby of one of the University’s buildings. This particular work , two basketballs floating in a half-filled tank of water, caught my eye.
“Two Ball 50/50 Tank” by Jeff Koons (1985)
Being a full-throttled asshole, I offered a snide comment to no one in particular. “This is art?! It’s just a couple of basketballs floating in a half-filled aquarium.” Fortunately, there was someone much wiser and enlightened nearby who, upon hearing my comment, replied, “It has to do with shapes.” I looked again. And I saw something different. That was my epiphany moment. That was the moment I began to understand art (and, coincidentally, it was also the moment that genuine humility began to take on a larger role in my life.)
Art was about perspective. Art was seeing the unexpected in the familiar. And, in a larger sense, art was about a willingness to view things differently. This is where artists make their mark, by implanting pictures in the underwater processing that is upstream from conscious cognition. Art smashes through some of the warped lenses through which we’ve been taught to see. And what we see is a different way of seeing things; a new perspective from which to view truth. Art shapes in meaningful ways our image of ourselves or define our collective values. As society’s values and culture has changed and evolved, so has art.
Art Evolves …
For most of human history, works of visual art were the direct expression of the society that made them. The artist was not an autonomous creator; he worked at the behest of his patron, making objects that expressed in visible form that patron’s beliefs and aspirations. As society changed, its chief patrons changed and art changed along with it. Such is patronage, the mechanism by which the hopes, values, and fears of a society make themselves visible in art.
When World War I broke out in 1914, that mechanism was delivered a blow from which it never quite recovered. If human experience is the raw material of art, here was material aplenty but of the sort that few patrons would choose to look upon. The human body—dynamic, beautiful, created in God’s image—had long been the central subject of Western art. It was now depicted in the most tormented and fragmented manner, every coil of innards laid bare with obscenely morbid imagination. Ernst Kirchner and Otto Dix depicted the gore. George Grosz, who refrained from showing actual injuries, was even more disturbing. He made collages of faces out of awkwardly assembled parts, like a jigsaw puzzle assembled with the wrong pieces, suggesting those sad prosthetics that would have been a ubiquitous presence in 1918.
Remember Uncle August, the Unhappy Inventor” by George Grosz (1919)
Christianity had introduced the motif of beautiful suffering, in which even the most agonizing of deaths could be shown to have a tragic dignity. But things had now been done to the human body that were unprecedented, and on an unprecedented scale. The cruel savagery of this art can be understood only as the product of collective trauma, like the babble of absurd free associations that tumble from our mouths when in a state of shock. That kind of irrational expression was the guiding principle of Dada, the movement that came about at the end of the war and that was made famous by Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated urinal turned upside down and named Fountain.
“Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp (1917)
The absurdity of Dada applied unserious means to a serious end: the search for an artistic language capable of expressing the monstrous scale and nature of the war. But the absurdist moment was short-lived and quickly superseded. The toppling of Europe’s three principal empires and the Russian Revolution seemed to confirm that the West had entered into a radical new phase of cultural history, the most consequential since the rise of Renaissance humanism half a millennium ago. There was a general sense that a world radically transformed by war required an equally radical new art—an art of urgent gravity. While modern art had certainly existed before the war, there now came into being a comprehensive “modern movement” that was active in all spheres of human action, not only in art but in politics and science as well. In its wake, Pablo Picasso rose from being a mere painter with a quirky personal style to a world-historical figure whose work was as important to the future of mankind as Einstein’s or Freud’s.
All this gave the modernism of the 1920s its tone of moral seriousness, which became even more serious once the Great Depression began. Artists of that period assumed their role was to express the human condition, and in so expressing, make efforts to improve it. To accomplish this, they did not require the traditional patron. The prestige and power of those patrons had been diminished by the war, and with that diminution went their ability to dictate to artists. A half century of robust artistic patronage by the industrialists who had ruled American life since the Gilded Age was written off with a sneer. The making of art was considered far too serious to be left to sentimental clients.
After World War II and the introduction of the atom bomb, it seemed pointless to try to preserve the confused traditions of a civilization that had brought the world to the ledge of oblivion. Instead, the artists came to believe they had to dispense with the entire accumulated storehouse of artistic memory and the history of the benighted West in order to begin anew. The 1950s painter Barnett Newman summarized this line of thought pretentiously but accurately: “We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of western European painting. Instead of making “cathedrals” out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.’” “We are making it out of ourselves” is a fair summary of the revolution in patronage the modern movement had brought about, in which the artist himself had now been transformed into his own patron. And yet, radical as this new art had become, it remained traditional in one key respect: It still existed in a recognizable moral universe. For all its portentous grandiloquence, the new art still spoke of that ancient durable strand in the Western tradition, a belief in the tragic dignity of man.
But in the early 1960’s, art’s belief in man started to decline, and the age of postmodernism began. It was not so much a change in style or philosophy as in sensibility. Although the condition of the world seemed ever more serious, a younger generation in the Western democracies had determined that the proper response was to be even less serious, to throw up one’s hands and confront the world with irony. That new sensibility was being reflected in painting (Andy Warhol), sculpture (Claes Oldenburg), and architecture (Robert Venturi.) Common to all was a shared posture of irreverence and ironic detachment. The burden art had carried since the end of World War I—the obligation to express ponderous things in ponderous ways, the burden to be on perpetual guard duty in the avant-garde, ever alert to any reactionary tendency—had been cast off.
With the Vietnam War, seriousness returned to the art – a seriousness tinged with fury, indignation, and, increasingly, politics. A whole spectrum of other political causes soon found expression in art—environmentalism, feminism, Chicano rights. This new seriousness differed sharply from the old. If modernism had understood itself to be upholding and developing the culture from within, revolutionizing Western art in order to save it, its postmodern successors offered a critique from without. This was the counterculture that emerged after the collapse of the postwar liberal consensus, and its stance was essentially adversarial, distinguished by hostility to the existing order. It viewed the advanced industrial society of the West not as the highest development of human civilization but rather as a corrupt enterprise whose shameful legacy was slavery, colonialism, and exploitation.
Most of this slipped under the radar of the American public, which had by the 1970s established a kind of concordat with the art world. Whatever art had to offer—minimalism, conceptualism, photorealism—was a zany precinct where anything might happen, a source of entertainment, a zone that might be safely regarded with benign neglect. This concordat fell apart spectacularly in the late 1980s, and when it did, artists were just as shocked as the public.
Disgust, Rage, and Obscenity …
From time to time, so-called conceptual artists had looked to find new ways to use the human body artistically. Their agenda was by no means to express humanist values or even beautiful suffering—quite the contrary. In 1961, Piero Manzoni offered for sale 90 tin cans purportedly containing the Merda d’artista (to this day it is uncertain whether or not the cans actually contain his excrement, since to open one would cost on the order of $100,000).
“Merda d’artista” by Piero Manzoni (1961)
Manzoni’s foray into scatology was a prophecy of things to come. Ten years later, Vito Acconci became a minor celebrity with his performance of Seedbed, which involved his hiding under a platform in a gallery and speaking to visitors above while masturbating.
If these acts had any political agenda at all, it was anarchy. And in the wake of Roe vs Wade and then the AIDS epidemic, there poured forth a great deal of body-centered art. Its one great constant was a high quotient of rage—as furious as any statue-smashing interlude in the long history of iconoclasm. Here was an anguish and loathing not seen since the days of Grosz and Dix, both of the self-hating variety expressed through masochistic acts and generalized rage against society (Ron Athey’s now notorious Four Scenes from a Harsh Life, for which he incised patterns into the back of a collaborator with a scalpel, dabbing up the blood with paper towels that were affixed to a clothesline and swung out over the wincing audience.) Such art, unlike that of Grosz, offered no coordinates from which society could navigate to find a higher purpose. It was purposely disgusting and subhuman. It’s emotional response was unreasonable, animal, and something to be distrusted. And it fulfilled the definition of what the late Philip Rieff called a “deathwork,” a work of art that poses “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.”
Then came 1990 and four artists whose grants were withdrawn by the National Endowment for the Arts because of the obscene content of their work. Their names were Tim Miller, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Karen Finley—the latter especially famous because her most notable work largely involved smearing her own body with chocolate. As it happened, their work was rather less offensive than that of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, who had been the subject of NEA-funded exhibitions the year before. Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix immersed in a jar of his own urine was called “Piss Christ.” Mapplethorpe’s notorious self portrait featured a bullwhip thrust into his fundamental aperture.
“Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano (1987)
“Self Portrait with Whip” by Robert Maplethorpe (1978)
That controversy ended with a double defeat. In a case that was heard by the Supreme Court, the NEA Four failed to have their grants restored. But Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Newt Gingrich likewise failed in their determined effort to defund the NEA. And the American public—left with an impressionistic vision in which urine, bullwhips, and a naked but chocolate-streaked Karen Finley figured largely—drew the fatal conclusion that contemporary art had nothing to offer them.
Given this arts’ flagrantly, deliberately transgressive nature, it is remarkable how surprised and bewildered its creators were when they felt the full measure of public disapproval. After all, having been properly vetted and celebrated at every step by curators and journalists, academics and bureaucrats, these artists quite reasonably assumed that they were beyond reproach. That there was yet another actor out there in the mists, a public upon whose judgment their fate might depend—a public that might act to withdraw state funding of projects that were expressly intended to transgress its values—seems not to have crossed their minds. One Harvard scholar suggested that Serrano erred because while he knew “his photograph to be provocative, he did not count on such a broad audience outside the art world.”
Art and Degradation of the Body …
But what to make of an artist who does not wish to have a broad audience or speak to his own society? At a minimum, it is not even political art—art that seeks to persuade or focus attention—if it exists only within the silo of its own echo chamber.
Although the body-art movement lost its incandescent fury as the AIDS crisis subsided, there lingered a fascination with the degraded human body. This reconfigured itself in the 1990s as the movement known as “abject art,” which the website of London’s Tate Gallery tactfully defines as “artworks which explore themes that transgress and threaten our sense of cleanliness and propriety particularly referencing the body and bodily functions.” The most notorious example came seven years ago when a Yale art student presented a performance of “repeated self-induced miscarriages.” According to her own account, she inseminated herself with sperm from voluntary donors, “from the 9th to the 15th day of my menstrual cycle…so as to insure the possibility of fertilization,” afterwards using “an herbal abortifacient” to induce the desired miscarriage. Here was indeed a deathwork, proud and unashamed. Such projects returned the spotlight to the human body. But this was hardly the body that was, as Hamlet put it, “like a god in apprehension.” Rather, it was a ravaged and wounded thing, degraded and defenseless. One can almost understand the popularity of the ghastly flayed and preserved bodies exhibited by Günther von Hagen, the notorious corpse artist, in his traveling “Body Worlds” exhibition. Unlike the degraded victimhood on display in most examples of abject art, his figures evoked dynamic action and freedom, and at least a shard of hope.
One of many “Body Worlds” exhibit by Gunther von Hagen
Art as Experience …
Even as the public was flinching from the excesses of performance art and abject art, it was embracing museums as never before. If one compares the performance of museums to other entertainment facilities in the United States in terms of box office, the museums come off splendidly. According to the American Association of Museums, annual attendance hovers at about 700 or 800 million, and it did not even suffer declines during the recession of 2008. These figures far exceed the combined attendance at major-league sporting events and amusement parks. This is not by accident, for museums have been assiduously cultivating their attendance for quite some time. The process began with the “Treasures of Tutankhamen” exhibition that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978 and drew a record 1.8 million visitors. Startled museum trustees, previously accustomed to covering the annual deficit with a discreet check, took notice of the lines stretching around the block. The temptation proved irresistible, and the culture of the museum reoriented itself toward the regular production of a reliable blockbuster.
By any measure, there is hardly an institution in the Western world so healthy as the museum today. By any measure—there’s the rub. For some things cannot be measured but are important nevertheless. In 1998, exactly 20 years after the Tutankhamen exhibition, the Guggenheim brought forth “The Art of the Motorcycle,” an exhibition widely panned as without educational merit. Yet it, too, was a crowd-pleasing sensation, and it, too, broke attendance records. There may be a considerable difference between the gold mask of King Tut and a Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle, but not in the calculus of quantifiable data by which museums gauge their success. Still, it did not seem to trouble the general public that art museums now sported motorcycles and helicopters (in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art), for they no longer expected museums to offer objects but an experience. The temple of the arts had been transformed into what the critic Jerry Saltz has called “a revved-up showcase of the new, the now, the next, an always-activated market of events and experiences.”
Art and Technology …
Art, then, is the product of a particular cultural moment. Painting, sculpture and architecture (the “big three” genres of traditional art) are being diminished in their importance by new art genres enabled through technological innovation, such as photography, the motion picture, and perhaps digital art. These new art technologies add to (and in some cases supplant) the repertoire of existing genres, expanding choice for the art consumer (as entertainment) and the art producer (as means of expression).
A new technology can change the cultural moment with shocking speed. America’s culture of vaudeville, vibrant for a half century, sank into oblivion after the introduction of sound in film in 1927. The big bands of the Swing Era and their culture of nightclubs and ballrooms could not survive television. Now it is literary culture that is on the chopping block. According to Publishers Weekly, the greatest sales of nonfiction books was achieved in 2007—the same year that Apple introduced the iPhone. Since then, book sales have been declining steadily, up to 10 percent a year.
Art Evolved …
But technology alone cannot explain what has happened to the arts in the past few generations. The same period has witnessed a catastrophic breakdown of the belief systems that sustained Western civilization. The belief in its goodness and fundamental virtue, once the unspoken premise on which society operated, is something that any high school student, properly instructed, knows how to debunk.
Those beliefs have been largely swept away; their place has been taken by the institutions of mass media, commerce, and advertising. The human experience has been redefined in this new culture. And just as that experience has adapted to this new sociocultural environment, so has art.
And the humiliation videos of Ceara Lynch are part of that evolving art.
The Art of Ceara Lynch …
Art enlightens the mind, affects the imagination, and recodes the mental maps people project into the world. For countless numbers of men, Ceara Lynch has recoded, redefined, or brought into sharper focus a dark side previously denied from, or hidden within, an individual’s self-image. In that sense, her work is art; an art that reflects a modern media driven socioculture of loose one-dimensional affiliations where avatars replace faces, and emoticons replace expression and body-language. Her art did not spontaneously occur. Rather, its roots may be found in a century of avant-garde tradition; a tradition that has both reflected and contributed to sociocultural changes.
The young male ego is a marvelously fragile thing. Feminism, and particularly feminism as a political movement, upended a centuries-old male-dominated social order. Modern males often find themselves in a sort of psycho-sexual angst grappling with the tumult, disorder and uncertainty of gender roles in modern society. And like 1920’s Dada, the humiliation videos of Ceara Lynch use unserious means to a serious end; i.e., they provide an outlet for submissiveness not found elsewhere. Ceara Lynch and her videos offer certain men a glimpse of clarity and order among the internalized confusion brought forth by the demands of more fluid gender roles in today’s culture. Like pop art of the 1960’s, her videos are irreverent, often absurd. Produced for individual patrons, the point-of-view videos usually takes a personalized adversarial stance. Like the art of the 1970’s (which took a similar adversarial stance against society-at-large), her videos depict man as corrupt, unworthy, and without dignity. Her degradation is sexual, perverse, and beyond cultural norms. She is deliberately transgressive; reminiscent of the taboo-breaking art of the 70’s, 80’s and, most particularly, the abject art of the 90’s. In fact, her art is a sort of abject art focused more on the mind rather than the body. In her art, the mind is a ravaged and wounded thing, degraded and defenseless. And of course, like most art today, it’s more about entertainment and visual experience than it is about social merit.
Ceara Lynch’s video art is as much a product of her patrons as it is a product of herself. Art is said to refract the world back to people in some meaningful way; to illuminate human nature with sympathy and insight. In that regard, her art reflects the sociocultural sexual angst of today’s male. It’s on the edge in pushing abject art into the mental realm. It’s absurd. It’s serious. It’s taboo-breaking. And it’s uniquely 21st century.