Gene Tanta on Johannes' Theory of Creepy Art

by on Jan.10, 2012

Over on The The Blog, Gene Tanta has posted a response to my &Now paper (which his related to my most recent post). Here’s an excerpt of his post:

Anyway, I raised my hand, warned that my question may seem moralistic, and asked the damned thing: what does it mean when evil becomes fun? What does it mean, as a goal, to meet totalitarian violence with violent (spectacular) art? How does evil (turned out by fascists like Pinochet, or in by artists like Zurita who had poured acid on his face as a metaphor for totalitarian oppression) not become a distraction or an act of mere entertainment? In order words, what happens when injustice becomes fun or a pageant of performing bodies?

Here are a few more questions that come to mind as I reflect: Can art, as a goal, be more than fun? Should art, as a goal, be more than a parade manifesting the gaudy possibilities of experience through the streets or through the halls of academia? What is the difference between a parade and a protest march? Is claiming the privilege to feel proud for existing as the thing that is possible to manifest the best that art can do or is art more imbedded in life than that?

11 comments for this entry:
  1. Lara Glenum

    Why does there have to be a difference between a parade and a protest March? I’m thinking of the group of young people in Ciudad Juarez who’ve started parading in the streets and showing up at crime scenes dressed as angels with enormous wings:

  2. Lara Glenum

    It would seem the goal of meeting totalitarian violence with violent (spectacular) art would be to undo violence in its own language/terms. This is what Stein calls adhering to the letter of the law in order to undo the law, performing the mandates of the law so exactly and completely that the law is made totally absurd and collapses like the straw structure that it actually is.

    Power is largely maintained by affect. Spectacle siphons affect away from power by attracting it to itself. So parodic imitation/disruption (whether the parody is visible or no–in Zurita’s case, the parody pains us and makes us cringe) makes terror into buffoonery and child’s play. It completely dismantles the affects of power. By short-circuiting all anticipation of what “opposition” would look like, it succeeds, arrives ahead of attempts to contain it.

  3. James Pate

    This is a straw man argument. Who is claiming that art should be “fun”? That’s certainly not what Johannes is arguing for.

    And how is Zurita’s radical and terrifying act in any way “fun”?

    Or “mere entertainment”?

  4. Johannes

    I think Gene got this from my use of the word “jouissance.” I think “fun” is just a way of making an implicit argument, that when I talk about “jouissance” I’m really just talking about having fun. When I get a minute I’ll post some of the notes from my talk and respond to Gene’s reply, which in fact was already – a la Eminem in 8 Miles – predicted in my talk.

  5. James Pate


    Thanks for clarifying. But the straw man criticism still holds in the sense that you don’t seem to be arguing for “mere entertainment” or for “distraction.”

    When Gene writes “Can art, as a goal, be more than fun?” the implication is that your essay is somehow in favor of Art as being “fun” in the most superficial, safest sense.

    Whereas the fact that you’re talking about Zurita implies, yes, jouissance. Something overwhelming and terrifying…


  6. Johannes

    Yes, I think you’re totally right. Art should be more serious than “fun”, should be empowered. Should have a “future.”


  7. Lucas de Lima

    The diction here is really interesting. I can’t help but read queer culture all over this vocabulary–spectacle, pageantry, performing bodies, gaudy possibilities, parades! Sounds like a real partay.

  8. Johannes

    I love the “gaudy possibilities”.

  9. Seth Oelbaum

    “What is the difference between a parade and a protest march?”

    I agree with Lara. They’re not exclusive. The Nuremberg rallies were a protest against the severity of the Treaty of Versailles. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a protest against ordinariness.

    Gene’s questions are phrased in a very limited way.

  10. Gene Tanta

    On the limits of straw men, I say puff.

    What solid (non-straw) body do you presume to speak to or from, James? You project, sir, you project (as do I, as do we all). Giggle.

    Lara, I think you (and Stein) have a point. However, it may be easier to speak terror’s name and clutch its affect than to use the effect of its affect AGAINST THE LAW (because the pursuit entire of the meaning-making arc depends on writer, text, AND reader). How do the differences between “what is to be done” and “what is to be said” play out in the variously conjugated marking (marching) bodies?

    Seth: clearly, it’s hard to be clear and not to be limited. Clearly, it’s hard to imagine another subject without starting with a pitchfork and a field of hey (hay, hay, hay).

    Who isn’t interested in truancy and largess of spirit (and of body) and in the future messiness beyond the binary? I am.

    But I thought Johannes did that rare and terrific thing poet-thinkers sometimes do: he was clear. He bit against the grain in saying, look, the Frankfurt School (but this starts way back with the Russian Constructivists) wanted the culture-spectator to feel distanced from whom he thinks he is and thereby to learn that another world is possible. Johannes’ clever intervention said, no: what if culture-makers don’t think of their work as the labor of distance-making but rather think of their production as gay performance, merrymaking, and the exuberant queering of all sort of boundaries. That sounds like fun to me: hurray for superficiality and boo to the positivist trickery of depth psychology.

    I look forward to all of your thoughts!

  11. Johannes

    Thanks, Gene. No you are definitely right about my argument. It was definitely opposed to distancing. I’ll try to write a longer reply soon.