When Trauma Becomes Art

The most telling lines in Nancy Princenthal’s essential new book, Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, are those that frame the two words of its title with context, complexity, and nuance.

I am thinking primarily of several passages in her first chapter, “Body Language,” which delve into the link between violence and silence — the traumatic silence imposed by violence on its victim — which renders “unspeakable acts” both a literal and figurative term.

Princenthal draws on a range of historical, critical, psychological, and philosophical sources, from thinkers such as Judith Butler, Terry Eagleton, Judith Herman, Elaine Scarry, Edmund Burke, and J. L. Austin, offering shades of meaning to the concepts of language, art, pain, evil, and the sublime.

Citing Butler, she writes that our “sense of selfhood is fundamentally interpersonal” — with language being inherent to our ability to “define ourselves in relation to others.” The crime of violence, in Butler’s words (from Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Verso, 2006) “is, always, an exploitation of that primary tie.”

Princenthal’s lucid and challenging narrative chronicles the efforts of artists and activists (who were frequently one and the same) to find “language for violence [as] the first step in mitigating its effects.” Beginning with the art influenced by Second-Wave Feminism, she examines the interrogations into aggression and victimization by succeeding generations, all the way through Carry That Weight (2014-15) by Emma Sulkowicz — a performance in which the artist, then a Columbia University undergraduate, dragged a mattress around campus after college administrators refused to expel the student she accused of raping her.

Central to Princenthal’s thread is the ethical box in which artists find themselves when they seek to address such concerns:

If there is some agreement on the importance of shared expression in relieving the harms of violent assault, visual art tends to unsettle the assumptions on which that consensus is reached. An equation linking art and terror goes back at least to Edmund Burke, who defined the sublime as an admixture of beauty and mortal peril. Both exceed words. Art too is—at its best—pitched beyond the reach of simple verbal translation.

The attempt to reach beyond verbalization cuts both ways. It can invite the transcendence of mute emotion, but it can also court unreason, the precipitate of violence.

To borrow a concept from Terry Eagleton’s On Evil (Yale, 2010), another of Princenthal’s references, it is possible to look at the bourgeois notion of the artist-hero as an example of “pure autonomy” — the embodiment of freedom from society and its the norms. Fully formed by the 19th century, with roots reaching back to Michelangelo and still functioning in the self-conscious mythos of 1980s Neo-Expressionism, the artist-hero’s genius stems in part from the will or need to violate Butler’s “primary tie” and stand apart from mere mortals as a towering, if tragic, individualist. Such actors are the agents of radical artistic change, which, by design, robs us of our complacency. But in its unilateral demolition of its antecedents, it also arrogates to itself the terms of debate.

At its essence, the autonomy of the artist flirts with forbidden liberties, and, in Eagleton’s words, “Pure autonomy is a dream of evil.” But, Princenthal interjects, art avoids slipping into the dark side because it “is always modulated by thought—by an attempt at intelligibility. Simple terror shuts down understanding.”

Threading that needle makes for a compelling journey through endlessly mutable forms of expression — the interactive performances of Yoko Ono and VALIE EXPORT; the fiery collages of Nancy Spero; the violent self-portraits of Ana Mendieta; the assumed identities, male and female, of Adrian Piper and Lynn Hershman Leeson; the collaborative rituals initiated by Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, Suzanne Lacy, Leslie Labowitz, and others — in which the artist is rarely a dispassionate observer of personal horror, and at times a victim herself.

It’s a journey that is also by turns a head-snapping plunge into the raging male id, incarnated by such purveyors of mayhem as Charles Manson, the Son of Sam, the Zodiac Killer, and the Symbionese Liberation Army, and a compassionate tale of woman-to-woman healing. Performances like the harrowing Ablutions (1972), created by Suzanne Lacy, Judy Chicago, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani, which featured audio recordings of firsthand accounts from rape victims, bordered on emotional exorcisms. Testimonies of attacks were gathered in a special “Women and Violence” issue of the feminist art journal Heresies, and Ariadne, the self-described “social art network” set up by Lacy and Labowitz, “collaborated on events […] addressing rape and violent images of women in record [album] advertising, news, and pornography.”

Princenthal is also deft at drawing a roadmap through the political, social, and aesthetic divisions of the ‘70s, principally the fraught stance toward rape taken by many Second-Wave Feminists, whose concern over sexual violence was haunted by images of African American men lynched over false accusations of assaulting Caucasian women.

The political vanguard, seen up close, was rife with sexual, social, and racial conflict. The revolution, whether it was waged by the Yippies or the Black Panthers, left little room for women, who were viewed as not much more than helpmeets and playthings — La Maman et la Putain of Jean Eustache’s 1973 movie, The Mother and the Whore.

Elsewhere, advocates of free speech and sexual liberation clashed with feminist anti-pornographers, notably Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who, in their campaign against the exploitation of women, made a separate peace with right-wing Evangelicals. Artists like Hannah Wilke, whose photographs often depicted her partially or fully nude body, were both admired and scorned for their candor.

They may have been “newly emboldened women,” in Princenthal’s words, who “stripped themselves naked, literally and emotionally” in defiance of society’s rules, inhibitions, and hypocrisies, but they were also opening themselves up to the lascivious male gaze. And yet, played out in the face of formalist dominance, specifically the endgames of Minimalist and Conceptual Art, “the body’s language, when spoken by women, was singularly free of that patriarchal influence then just coming to be understood as shaping verbal exchange.”

By adapting the theatrical antics employed by anti-art scamps like Tristan Tzara and George Maciunas to the stone seriousness of sexual assault, these women restored “personal meaning to art and [found] a language to talk about embodied experience” — twinned breakthroughs they saw as “inseparable goals.” Their risk-taking at such an aesthetic and political turning point simultaneously replenished art with spiritual urgency and brought it back down to earth.

Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s (2019) by Nancy Princenthal is published by Thames & Hudson.

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