"Strange Circus": Horror Movies, Surrealism, Trauma and Art

by on Jan.09, 2012

In a comment to Lucas’s post, Lara wrote about Trauma:

Johannka, you asked me how I think trauma functions on MV? My sense is that we’re collectively pretty traumatized by the horrific state of things, what Joyelle calls “this present hellish universe.” We are all very hungry for pleasure, despite this. Or maybe, to spite this.

We often feel crushingly trapped/threatened. We are collectively trying to tunnel a way out through art that makes us “susceptible, vulnerable, exhilarated, chagrined, obliterated, changed into Art” (again, Joyelle’s words).

Sometimes I’m able to locate pleasure in my own debasement. Sometimes I’m not. I’m not often able to locate pleasure in the debasement/humiliation of others, even if it’s clearly staged. In fact, it totally repulses me. I don’t feel “intrigued but chagrined.” This is a visceral reaction, not a moral one.

My intestines are my morals. I am a limited creature. Only one of my six legs actually works.

It’s this seeming tension between pleasure and debasement, horror and beauty, trauma and trauma, resolution and compulsion, marked out by both Joyelle and Lara, that I would like to think a little bit about.


Matthias Forshage, one of the founding members of the Surrealist Group of Stockholm, who wrote “Surrealism in Ulterior Times” with Aase Berg (a document frequently quoted on Montevidayo, it’s where Joyelle and I get the phrase “meet us with the lemurs”), has written an interesting article about the surrealism of horror movies (in fact the entire blog is well worth reading):

It is one of the main points of surrealism to not deny the unusual phenomena and their dynamism, but still reject all these more or less religious poor explanations, avoid succumbing to premature rationalisations. In the movies, let them go on with their fairytale concepts, they’re not fooling us, we know that the dynamism of weird happenings, chance and significant casual events is an aspect of life itself, and such a dynamism can be remarkably effectively simulated and savoured in the particular fiction of the horror movie. It contributes to teaching us to see. It orchestrates and emphasises those poetic atmospheres where everything is hanging in suspense and anything seems possible, the moments of the surreal. On the most simple level this is obvious in films of hauntings; all these haunted houses, the poltergeists, the insistent messages and the chaotic disturbances. It’s partly very banal, still often very effective, sometimes orchestrating a liberation of the anti-utilitarian, fetishistic or just poetic surrealist sense of the object, sometimes luminous juxtapositions, constellations of things, true poetic images, classic surrealist assemblage. A literally convulsive beauty is sometimes achieved in the very “over-the-top” absurdness of many stories; where strange events and convergences, personal tragedies and emotions are so densely accumulated together with the unfettered expressionism of blood and gore (for this particular line, Re-animator (1985) remains a centerpiece). In a way this is the old formula of Walpolian Gothic, plausible human reactions to implausible courses of events, the mechanics of the mind encountering the world of inclusiveness where anything is possible, the so-called paranormal or maybe the surreal. Yes, on an aesthetical level, this is clearly a kind of expressionism, but since surrealism is not an aesthetic it doesn’t mind employing other aesthetics for its purposes…

It is the ambience that I love in horror movies, before all the weirdness has been explained away, usually through some idea of the traumatic: ghosts and hallucinations were caused by a child dying or child abuse or some such tragedy. Often it involves the child because the child represents the future; horror movies are often about the tragedy of stalling the future, the descent into anachronism or children who will never grow up, distorted families etc. I get bored with these explanations, but the build up always feels the most tumultuous to me, the most affecting.

It seems perhaps that there are two models of the traumatic at work here: one in which we – as Freud argued – we are only able to conceive of the traumatic retrospectively and we try compulsively to get a grip on it, and another in which the trauma is part of the vibrations of the artwork, trauma-saturated art. Perhaps the haunted part is in a state of trauma while the resolution recognizes it as “trauma.” And this might be why those resolutions always feel like a let-down, as if they were indeed written on to the vibrant, “haunting” beginning. Though in the end it might be a necessary failure.

[One of the best examples of someone trying to avoid this resolution must be David Lynch, in particular Twin Peaks – where the build up was so huge that any resolution would have felt ridiculous and thus Lynch was forced to go into the demon world trying to elude the father-daughter murder. But this is true it seems of all of his movies.]


If we go to Bersani’s concept of art as a “shattering” experience, in which we masochistically submit to the art’s wrecking of our egos (and here we might find one connection between pleasure and debasement), it is interesting that for me it’s not necessarily the most violent images, but rather this atmospheric that is the most undoing.


Sion Sono’s brilliant “Strange Circus” which in the end – after all the beautiful atmospherics, horrific pseudo-memories, occult hauntings, poetic mishaps – turns out to be derangement b/c of child abuse (though interestingly, the mother is deranged and imagines herself the child). But the moment this is revealed – and that the strange guy who has been ingratiating himself with the weird authoress is actually her abused daughter – the story can’t get out of itself.

The only place for the movie to go is for a weird execution where it is revealed that the mother has kept the abusive/incestuous/unfaithful father in a cello case and the daughter chain-saws him to death. And it’s utterly unconvincing, a failure in its over-the-top violence. It’s the reveal that cannot make sense of all the beautiful surrealistic atmospherics; the accounts are settled, but like in most horror movies, it feels incomplete, as if tacked on retrospectively. Perhaps a necessary failure.


I get the same effect in “Shutter Island.” That post talks more about this issue. Back when I talked about “Shutter Island” a couple of years ago, I also talked about Sara Stridsberg’s “Darling River”, which rewrites Lolita in a myriad of ways. But here the trauma seems in the hallucinatory prose. There may have been the murder of a prostitute but we don’t know; there may have been child abuse or that may simply be an intertextual reference. It strikes me that when I think of this novel I can’t remember how it ends; I just think of that baroque, haunted, violent atmosphere. I think of prostitutes and burning forests, I think of the child in the backseat, I think of the rotten house (like Poe’s) in communication with the diseased bodies.

In this regard it’s a little like Sono’s earlier film “Suicide Club,” where the children are not abused, but rather they are open to a kind of media curse spread like a virus through a girl band on Japanese TV. (This movie is almost exactly like my performance piece “The Widow Party” with its Genius Child Orchestra.)

In both works, the idea of the body as mediumized seems essential. People like to think of the body as an emblem of the natural and art as the fake; some people try to undo this binary (The Italian Futurists for example) often in violent ways. But the body has always been mediumized – not only through tattoos and piercings but through religious rituals involving wounds and bodies made electric in movie theaters (Breton, who was also influenced by shell-shocked soldiers, establishing an early link between art and trauma and media) and just the body itself as a kind of medium for experience.

In both Stridsberg and Suicide Club: we get all this imagery of bodily fluids and rags as medium, often violent: the dad and daughter in Stridsberg do shooting practice on the departed wife’s underwear by hanging them up in the forest and when they’re shot they look like newspaper shreds (ie media); Sono’s suicide club messages the world by cutting off parts of people’s skin (esp skin with tattoos) and then calling detectives, as well as appearing in music videos and haunting fax machines (hair pouring out of it, as in various poems by Kim Hyesoon).

More from Forshage:

The notion of atmosphere is partly vague – we typically connect it with situations, we may connect it with persons and objects, we definitely connect it with place. As connected to place can also be a point of convergence between horror and surrealism. The sense of “soul” of place, a sort of intense significance which can be experienced at a particular geographically located nexus, is of course what is in horror quickly interpreted as hauntings.

What i think is at stake in a lot of these atmospheric movies is the idea that the person is not an autonomous being moving through a separate environment; he or she is being influenced and corrupted by the environment. That is the dangers of atmospherics: we are mediumized.

This is particularly true of Stridsberg’s novel, which seems incredibly atmospheric; but it’s an atmosphere where bodies seem saturated in the criminally baroque prose (as much Genet as Nabokov) and lush imagery.


Forshage discusses the importance of “fear” – or rather being able to deal with not being in control:

For if the overwhelming is calmly savoured or sprightly investigated, it seems like it maybe wasn’t really overwhelming, but either just an aspect of poetic hedonism in general, or something we have categorised in advance. And indeed, this perhaps remains one of the fundamental differences between religion and poetry, whether one is happy with fitting those glimpses of the strongest psychic dynamism into a traditional and socially utilisable rationalisation, or letting them remain unexplained and dynamic. Sometimes just a bit too dynamic. Difficult to handle. The centrifugal force, the vertigo – the shards of everything broken in the process…

This reminds me of Dennis Cooper’s interview with Mike Meginnis on HTML Giant a couple of days ago, “My Fear Arouses Me,” where he talks about fear in similar terms:

Well, I just realized as I was deciding how to answer this question that fear is really hard to talk about. It’s easier for me talk about confusion. Maybe my fear grows a protective layer of confusion really swiftly. Or else my confusion attracts my attention as a writer, and the fear is more compulsive and stormy and just sort of functions as an intense fuel. Maybe it’s that the act of writing makes what I fear become pornographic to me, and that when I have language as a buffer between it and me, my fear arouses me, and being aroused either sexually or otherwise is always kind of an inherently confusing state, for me at least. When something is confusing, I’m usually compelled by it. Why, I don’t know. Maybe in the adult world where, unless you’re a conspiracy theorist, the distinction between reality and fairytales is usually very clear, confusion is the only Santa Claus or God left?

For me the “strange circus” is about the experience of Art (or rather: it is Art, it fails to be “about” Art): this is the evil zone of Art, of mediumicity that reproduces itself parodically (rather than hierarchically, lineage-ly). It is in this strange circus that “strange meetings” take place, where stable “selves” are undone, where we are opened up “convivially” to illicit connections (perhaps to Sara Palin, perhaps to a garbage dump in Korea).

In so much of discussions of contemporary poetry, I feel the strange circus is being avoided, through lefty politics or “tradition” or in Kenny Goldsmith’s beloved phrase “thinkership” over “readership.”

(The very title “strange circus” is already a cliche perhaps, inducing eye-rolls. That is why it’s perfect.)

This is what I talked about at ANDNow: how Raul Zurita’s protest against Pinochet takes the shape of “The Scar” – or the “creepy uncle” – from The Lion King: that gothic figure embodying all things foreign, transvestite-y, and above all artificial. Zurita assumes Pinochet’s violence and mediates it into his own face (which he cuts, pours acid on, which he “SCARS” etc) and thus strangely making him into a woman (“Joan of Arc” etc), that same icon as Sion invokes in his “strange circus.”

(When Zurita was in South Bend we talked about his favorite contemporary movie, “Old Boy” which is of course a horror movie of sorts, a horror movie Zurita called a “Greek tragedy like Oedipus,” suggesting some of the same family dynamics again…)


It seems that a lot of people are troubled by the violence of art and in art, from Christian types who want to ban video games (and blame youth crime on this art form) to a lot of theorists and artists. In both cases I sense what Bersani calls “The culture of redemption” – the idea that art should redeem history – and perhaps even more, an idea that these ideas (critiques, subversions) will redeem Art. That Art is something excessive, and thus Evil, that needs to be redeemed for Good.

I’ll end this ramble with the final sentence of Berg’s and Forshage’s manifesto (which was written in the mid-90s when Sweden was going through a political upheaval similar in size as the one we are currently going through, something which might explain how it feels like such a good description of the “plague ground” of the current US situation):

Surrealism in the ulterior times unreasonable, compromising, conspiratory, confused, singleminded, bloodthirsty. Meet it by the lemures or on the blood stained back streets or in the parks that still are ugly!

29 comments for this entry:
  1. Lara Glenum

    Beautiful, Johannes. We are mediumized. Trauma-saturated art. Yes.

  2. Angela G.

    I am thinking out loud here, but perhaps even more important to the artist in the act of creation is anxiety, rather than fear (or what DC calls confusion). What is more terrifying: the actual trauma itself or revisiting the horrifying trauma over and over again (ask any panic attack victim) — and *anticipating* such trauma happening again — in even more horrifying detail? And perhaps what is more important in the act of creation than actual trauma itself is PTSD (as you mentioned, Johannes, Breton’s shell-shocked soldiers). Lynch, as director, was traumatized by the death of Laura Palmer, whom he clearly adored (and canonized in her homecoming picture and later on, in “Fire Walk With Me” with angels in the Black Lodge). Then there are his portrayals of his characters’ PTSD: a bloodied, beaten Ronette Pulaski staggering zombie-like across a bridge, her dress in rags (again, rag as medium). Lynch deliberately began Twin Peaks with a “Strange Circus” of characters suffering from PTSD: stunned, weeping students; a crying Deputy Andy; a hysterical, shell-shocked Mrs. Palmer (although each of the characters are traumatized upon learning that Laura has been murdered). Episode after episode, Twin Peaks portrays the PTSD and anxiety suffered by its characters (and the director), rather than the actual trauma at the center of the TV show: Laura’s murder. In “Fire Walk With Me,” Laura’s PTSD from the trauma of being raped by her father/BOB lingers over the film and carries along not only the film, but also her character development. We are only shown the actual murder of Laura Palmer in FWWM, “the prequel” — at the end of the film and only shown one of the rapes by Leland/BOB very briefly. Kim Hyesoon’s “Mommy Is A Mountain of Feathers” is a testament to PTSD. The body of Hyesoon’s narrator is already wounded: “The sound of Mother’s sewing machine filled the holes in my body one by one.” Anticipatory or generalized anxiety produces stress and tension that fuels the artist. What is more anxiety-producing than the blank page? This is consistent with religious notions, such as the Catholic concept that human beings are all born “wounded,” and with the Buddhist notion that “life is suffering.”

    This is why I am so enthralled with the “cut-up” technique — creating (as did Kurt Schwitters and William Burroughs) with the scraps, rags, and tatters of my traumas. With my thousand-yard stare, I relive the horror over and over again, with a colostomy bag hanging from each of my nine holes.

  3. Johannes

    Interesting post Angela; this might relate it back to Daniel’s post a while back about “shocked” (vs “shock”) poetry.


  4. Angela G.

    I don’t think this is the same as Daniel’s doctrine of “shocked” poetry –- writing from the state of shock, from the state of collapse (of capitalism, the US, etc.), such as Linh Dinh’s work. Maybe I misunderstood aspects of your post.

    I’m thinking of the way anxiety, trauma, horror, and PTSD operate in say, Jodorowsky’s “Santa Sangre,” Lara’s “Maximum Gaga,” and your book, “Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate”: “The baby’s wound is covered with flickering bodies of small insects with twitchy wings. In Hollywood we say that she is born again.” Your book seems to have elements of “shocked poetry” in it as well, in parts including “Miss World” and “The Passenger.”

  5. kim

    Excellent article Johannes,

    I think the dissatisfaction with most horror flicks lies in a simplistic attitude toward its trauma. That once it has been revealed (the unveiling of some repressed abuse or the monster showing itself or both) the popular response is acceptance, followed by the familiar violent ending. The moment of acceptance is not only simplistic but, I’d argue, unrealistic, it snaps us out of the mind of the character. What happens afterwards we come to view with the cold eyes of the voyeur. If the trauma could so easily be accepted, why was it repressed in the first place? Lynch, in most of his films, refuse that kind of redemptive-now-lets-kick-ass easy resolve. Once glimpsed, the trauma is not accepted, but acts more as sublime trigger points that disrupts reality and throws the character (and us) into new forms of unknowing. Where Shutter Island (commendably) uses the trauma as a kind of reset-button, an unending circle of realization and digression, Lynch treats the trauma as endlessly variable. Time and space and even identities are suspended and misplaced. Surrealism as a kind of perpetual circling of trauma (I’m still haunted by the humorous scene in Bunuel when father and mother bring their son to the police station to report him as missing), a far more realistic treatment than your typical Hollywood (or other-wood) output straight-jacket of the linear. It also tests our empathy. While the accepting character is emptied out and everything becomes clear and we no longer see her but the well-structured plot-machine, Lynch’s characters continue to move us even when we don’t know where they are, when they are, who they are.

  6. Feng Sun Chen

    I like this. It is interesting to think about art as arising through or because of trauma and also, more problematically, because of it. recently read this: http://www.traumahealing.com/somatic-experiencing/art_chapter1.html article which focuses on the moment of horror, the face of death, as something which lingers in humans, (or animals, I want to say) that cannot or do not immediately let go, or wash free of the event. perhaps horror movies cannot be satisfying because their purpose is not to release the fear, but to intensify it, and narrative norms often require resolution of some sort.

  7. Feng Sun Chen

    oops. correction: I meant …”to think about art as arising through or because of trauma and also, more problematically, to induce it.”

  8. James Pate

    Great post.

    I really like the line “Perhaps the haunted part is in a state of trauma while the resolution recognizes it as “trauma.” And this might be why those resolutions always feel like a let-down, as if they were indeed written on to the vibrant, “haunting” beginning. Though in the end it might be a necessary failure.”

    I think the tendency to over-explain, to find causes for effect, relates to standard modes of realism too: tension, traumas, and intensities get reduced down to domestic disputes, work related tensions, unresolved childhood issues, etc.

    What I like about horror films is that their excess allows them to be read (at least in the better films) against the grain. You don’t have to buy the causes. In fact, the causes often seem ridiculous, as if the filmmakers themselves only half believed them.

    I recently saw Descent, and the psychological motivations of several of the characters were oppressively clear-cut, but the cave images, the Poe-like fear of enclosure, and the non-human Figures, were all brilliant…


  9. Lucas de Lima

    This is great. Reminds me of the trauma explored in Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene, which illustrates how it’s seemingly minor acts of racism that trigger stress-induced mental illness… it’s a book that “barely said anything,” that makes a medium of itself as all atmosphere and sensation.

  10. Johannes Göransson

    Great description of Lynch. I think it brings out that there are at least two “traumas” – the one that saturates the story, haunts the story, and the one that resolves it (even if that resolution goes back and claims to have unearthened “the real cause”). One is in the tension of the artwork, the other ends the tension by coming up with a proper cause and then resolving it.


  11. Lara Glenum

    James, I think you’re right about the standard modes of realism, which are icky because as Lyotard says, realism is the one aesthetic mode that studiously denies/erases its own artifice (it’s own art). All the rabbit holes have to be explained and incorporated into the fabric of a coherent, recognizable landscape.

    The thing about trauma is that it exists atemporally. There is no time sequence to trauma. It didn’t happen in the past. It occurs in the continuous present. It doesn’t acknowledge time or even identity (the way one person morphs into another in dreams). It dilates an aperture in which all narratives are destabilized.

    Realism’s desire to control/embed trauma with in a stable narrative is not only a way of containing it but of denying its relevance. Trauma denies fixed referents (again, objects and people morph, are unstable) and, therefor, it denies commodification. Which is why realism will always be capitalism’s darling.

  12. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    Hi, Johannes; you write:

    “In so much of discussions of contemporary poetry, I feel the strange circus is being avoided, through lefty politics or “tradition” or in Kenny Goldsmith’s beloved phrase “thinkership” over “readership.””

    I too think this is a great post, but. Sorry for the but, but it’s jsut a question …

    I don’t understand the critique of ‘lefty politics” here. I mean, I don’t understand why “lefty politics” and the “strange circus” are inimical, or why left politics is assumed by necessity to dodge the strange circus.

    I mean, I think you are talking about important stuff here. But I do see common ground with lefty politics, as manifested by an Evan Calder Williams, say, or a Eugene Thacker, or Mark Fisher/K-Punk, or the “old” Nick Land (or anyone, really, who’s ex-CCRU) … or even by the Object-Oriented-Ontology/Speculative Realist crew (from Brassier all the way to Harman), all of whom are at least liberal-leftish, and all of whom see horror as constitutive. I even see overlap with the Association of Musical Marxists, in a way, at least with their sound mashups.

    I’m just delving here, trying to get whether you think “lefty politics” per se is the problem, or “lefty politics” as currently generally practised.

    If lefty politics per se is the problem, do you think you might elaborate a bit on Montevideyan politics?

    Thanks. And happy new year.

  13. Johannes

    Sorry for vagueness. What I mean is when Lefty politics – through cliches such as “critique” or “subversion of norms” – skips the interaction with the art work either to make it into something too plainly moral or to pathologize it (it’s an expression of evil capitalism etc). This is true of most papers I hear at conferences. I just started to read Evan Calder Williams (China Mieville is organizing a little conference with ECW, himself and Joyelle next week in Warwick, in case you’re in the neighborhood), but I don’t have a strong opinion just yet. Fair question, I don’t have a good answer just yet…/Johannes

  14. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    Thanks, Johannes. I guess what you’re going for then is a relation to art that neither overmines nor undermines it, but that takes art as art and not as or at least not merely as a stand in for something else …

    Tho art of course takes place in a word of relations it cannot be reduced to those relations.

    Overmining and undermining are useful terms I’ve got from Graham, Harman, by the way. If they interest you, or seem useful, they’re easy to google …

    I would like to be in the neighborhood of Warwick, but instead I’m 5000 miles away in SoCal.

  15. James Pate


    Really interesting question. I can only speak for myself here, but my own problem with certain types of Leftism is its devotion to the authentic. Behind the “spectacle” of capitalism lies “true” human relations. Also, such thinking often tries to speak with the voice of Truth, claiming that its sense of justice has an absolute and ontological status.

    I agree with Hume: you cannot make an “ought” out of an “is.”

    Which isn’t to say I think the Left should give up its fight, by any means. Only that I’m personally not interested in a fight waged in the name of “truth.”

    As Foucault was always asking: Why Truth? Why has truth become such a touchstone for us?

    But obviously there is a long line of Leftist thinkers who do not fall into those threadbare claims for truth and authenticity, especially the French Nietzschians (Deleuze, Foucualt, etc.)

    And Lara: great quote from Lyotard. Do you happen to remember where it’s from? (I have a love/hate relationship with Lyotard–sometimes his views are incredibly High Art conservative — but this sounds interesting…)


  16. James Pate

    Maybe the fight should be waged in favor of our favorite fantastical vision instead. Or in the name of our favorite phantoms…

  17. Kent Johnson

    Lara Glenum wrote:

    >Which is why realism will always be capitalism’s darling.

    Hm, well, I think realism, or some semblance of it, if you’ll excuse that sort of pun, has been around and loved by millions since, what, ancient slavery.

    It might be more historically specific and interesting to propose that the *avant-garde*, generally speaking, has always-already been capitalism’s darling.

    Even the “traumatic” kind…

  18. Lara Glenum

    Kent, actually, most of the global history of (representational) art has not at all been in the vein of strict “realism.” Even in the Western tradition, late Medieval art is still a far cry from “realism.”

    And yes, we’re all capitalism’s darlings!

  19. Kent Johnson


    You meant by realism, then, Realism? As in 19th century? The kind advocated by the Marxist critic Lukacs? And Molotov? And their heirs at the New Yorker, I guess?

    Anyway, I thought you meant some looser sense of “realist” reference and representation, achieved through purposeful quasi-techniques of narrative, verisimilitude, perspective, syllogistic/hypotactic arrangement, and so on, all of which have been around for a very long time, even if the old techniques tend to look to us now that they’re displaying their “artifice.” Lots of old art and writing attempted to obscure its artifice, to look or sound “natural.” It was something of an ideal for the Greeks and Romans, in fact, and for much of late Medieval art, which desired to copy Nature. Chaucer is very “realist,” for example.

    Sorry if I misunderstood what you meant. But I don’t think realism, with a small r, is anything necessarily icky.

  20. James Pate

    Lara and Kent,

    I’ve been teaching a world lit. class the past few years and have been thinking a lot about this very issue: the lateness of “realism,” how it has only come about recently, and yet how essential it seems to some parts of literary scene.

    From the Homer to the Ramayana to Dante to The Monkey to The Dream of the Red Chamber–all filled with spirits, demons, ghosts, very smart monkeys…

    Even the less magical texts (The Tales of Genji, Shakespeare’s history plays) are a far cry from what we call “realist.” Motivations are frequently sketchy, the narratives twist and turn in sometimes haphazard ways, etc.

    The obsession with cause and effect (or at least “plausible” cause and effect) that you find in so many modern novels is incredibly recent…


  21. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    James, I would never fight a revolution in the name of truth. Truth is a bizarre concept. Given your choices or “our favorite fantastical vision … Or … our favorite phantoms…” I like your second formulation better because there’s something so unidimensional about vision … unless we’re talking a Bernini-St-Theresa vision … (I think the “our” here as some combo of singular and plural … in which the individual’s vision is at the same time more-or-less collective … meaning that the one is not subsumed by the all, but there **are** assemblages)

    I also think that there have been times and places where realist art has thrived prior to capitalism. But as a specific conscious genre, it is a c19 invention. Before that, most art was not realist. The self-conscious avant-garde, too, is also a c19 invention.

  22. Angela G.

    There is an entire chapter on trauma and David Lynch in the book “The Film Paintings of David Lynch” called “Pierced by the Past: Filmic Trauma; Remembering and Forgetting.” Definitely worth a read.

  23. Johannes

    I don’t think that there is a stable category of “traumatic art” – you seem to treat it as a synonym for a style, but for me it’s about a feature of art and how it’s handled in various works. I think there’s an element of “trauma” in stuff I hate, but it’s handled in different ways. I also am not opposed to being “capitalism’s darling.” Often the most popular art is highly unstable. I’m very interested in the aesthetics of the anti-abortion movement, which seems very volatile, and that’s why I’ve engage with its aesthetics in a lot of my work.


  24. kim

    A curious side to the surrealist dish seems to otherwise be the employment not of a particularly realist fiction, but rather a caricatured stick-drawing of some popular manifestation thereof. The familiar faces of Lynch’s 50’s nostalgia, some bland landscape painting, religious ritual or bourgeoisie etiquette. Filling out such empty but familiar surfaces with a contrasting psychological interior.

    I think it is in the pursuit of realism, concealing its origins (the never ending “found tapes”), that generic horror flicks fail to approach any kind of lasting artistic expression. In pursuit of realism any sign of an artist’s vision (yes, why not?) is seen as an unwelcome (self-indulgent even?) interruption of the work. A scene that lasts, against the structure of the narrative, beyond the length of comfortable, a dream sequence that remains unexplained, etc. A good horror-fiction on the other hand, whether in the hands of a Polanski or Lynch or Bergman or Haneke or Trier invents its own realism, sometimes annoyingly (are we being manipulated to feel a certain way? Well sure, but at least the manipulation is noticeable.)

    Sorry. Off on tangents…

  25. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, not sure where you see that I take “traumatic art as a synonym for style”! Not quite sure what you mean.

    I was just reacting to Lara’s notion of “realism”: I was taking the term more broadly than she (or now James) is using it, evidently. I was thinking all the way back to mimesis, frankly, and had in mind Auerbach’s famous study on representation and modes of realism in Western art from ancient times to modern realism in literature. I think it might be helpful for Lara to more precisely define what she means by so-called icky realism. The whole matter can get sort of complicated if terms get thrown around so generally. Not that I don’t throw around overly general terms myself! I’m pretty good at it, actually.

    On a completely other note, I just saw the excellent piece by Danielle Profunda in the Denver Quarterly on your new book. The strange excerpts she quotes (and her own strong commentary) convince me to get it.

  26. Johannes

    I was actually also thinking about Auerbach’s book, which I love and which is also deeply flawed. The whole “realism” debate is troubled by a host of different uses of that word. I think Lara means “realism” as in the contemporary rhetoric of the “realist” novel, which usually means following certain conventions (often attributed to Carver, but I find Carver very strange in a lot of his work). / Johannes

  27. Johannes

    And yes, Danielle’s review was excellent. Hope you like the book! Johannes

  28. James Pate

    Lara and Johannes and Kent,

    I think there’s also a history of a certain kind of rhetoric here also.

    For example, one of my favorite painters, Caravaggio, has usually been praised through the centuries for his intense and dirty realism (Robert Hughes in his Rome book does it most recently), while being dismissed by other critics for his theatricality, his staginess.

    What I find interesting is that few if any of his admirers (at least the ones I’ve read) praise his theatricality. But over and over in art criticism “theatricality” is deemed to be cheap, a copy of real life.

    Personally, I find Caravaggio to be both — filthy and theatrical. Like Bacon and Paul Thek.

    But my larger point here is that “realism” is often rhetorically related to originality, plentitude, etc.

    The baroque was also despised by many nineteenth-century critics for just that reason. Too many flowing robes, too mannered. Nothing but copies of the true Renaissance greats.


  29. adam strauss

    A few weeks ago I looked–well stood in front and stared–at a Caravaggio in Chicago: I didn’t love the actual scene, but whowwwwwwww those fabric-folds, the way paint becomes a kind of kinesticism…I love it!