PRINT April 1995


Victim Art

THERE WOULD SEEM TO BE NO reason in the world why readers of Artforum should want to hear about Professor Harish Chandra, chairman of the Literature Department of the University of Pataniganj—a small cantonment town, 350 dusty, derelict miles from Bombay, where the oranges are sweeter than almost anywhere in India. But the kind of “connectivity” that comes with the entanglements of E-mail turns us all into vernacular cosmopolitans, and it is unwise, anymore, to presume we know where the center lies and where the periphery falls. And there is another reason: like the U.S., the University of Pataniganj is involved in a culture war.

My electronic informant tells me that it all started, those many thousands of miles away, with a few lines from Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”:

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
That knocks me out.

It is the theatrical display of suicide that knocks out Professor Chandra: “dying as an art,” he argues, cannot be the subject of critical study. By working her suicide attempts into a poetic act, Plath violates the critic’s most fundamental requirement of the poet, the “ideal of disinterestedness.” That disinterestedness can only operate when the artist transcends the narcissism of self, when suffering, victimage, hurt, and historical or personal trauma are purified in the uplifting, injury-immolating fire of Spirit.

Some of Chandra’s colleagues have suggested that Plath destroys any vestige of narcissism when she moves from her own suicide attempts to the historical trauma of unwilled mass death—to the Holocaust. This idea leaves Chandra cold and furious, for he believes that the individual sovereignty of the spirit should not be obscured by the trials of history, however urgent they may be. For him, Plath represents victim art. In the name of the autonomy of art and the freedom of criticism, he has decided that Plath’s poem will not be taught in the Pataniganj Literature Department; out of respect for the dead, deeply ingrained in his form of Hinduism, he will remain forever silent on her work.

Despite technology’s hot rush, news that comes over the Internet can easily turn into nothing more than an exotic turn-of-the-21st-century traveler’s tale. Not this time: the debate on the art of dying that is playing itself out in the betel-juice-stained tea-shops of provincial Pataniganj quietly clarifies the afflatus set off in New York last December by Arlene Croce’s now-celebrated New Yorker essay, “Cussing the Undissable,” sorry, “Discussing the Undiscussable.”1 Croce’s succés de scandale, you’ll remember, arose from her refusal to see Bill T. Jones’ dance work Still/Here on the grounds that his use of HIV-positive dancers, and of video testimony by AIDS patients, turned the art of dance into “victim art,” a “traveling medicine show. ” The scandale lay in the fact that her refusal to see the show didn’t stop her from writing about it. What Susan Sontag has described as the “storm of mostly self-serving responses to Croce’s ‘non-review’” is now overflowing the proverbial tea cup, and every available empty vessel and shallow receptacle has been commissioned to catch the effluent.2

Pious pleas that Croce should have seen Still/Here before writing her piece entirely miss the radical point of her polemic. By creating a defiant hole at the very heart of her essay, in the space where, customarily, the experience or analysis of the work would have appeared, Croce makes it clear that hers is no simple act of critical interpretation and evaluation, nor even a meditation on those arts: it is a frankly ideological maneuver. If Still/Here, present in her argument only as the spectral subject of controversy, prepublicity, rumor, and report, is by any standard an example of what Croce deplores as the use of art “to meet this or that social need,” she in turn uses the work to make this or that political argument. For her, Jones’ piece is the culminating achievement of the “ideological boosters of utilitarian art [who] hark back to the political crusades of the sixties”; it is the icon of the undiscussable, “dissed blacks, abused women, or disfranchised homosexuals”; it is a symptom of the death of the kind of esthetic “disinterestedness” in which the “grandeur of the individual spirit” transcends “the political clout of the group.”

Despite Croce’s plea for critical disinterestedness, there is no mistaking the interests of her argument. “Discussing the Undiscussable” is not simply a nonreview of Bill T. Jones (pace Sontag); it is, as the author of an unsigned article in The New Criterion was quick to recognize, a particularly significant moment in the ideological battles of the culture wars. Never before, according to that journal, has such a critique of the “ideology of victim art” “been made so categorically in the mainstream liberal press by a critic with unimpeachable liberal credentials.”3 And New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer should know, for now that the Marxists have gone all post-Modern, and the race and gender critics are fleeing their earlier essentialisms, there is no one left more pristinely ideological than he, following his idées fixes with the fervor of a truffle hound working the gourmet counters at Dean & Deluca.

What is at issue, I believe, is not the turning of illness or madness into art—a project with a long and famous history, elaborated by Joyce Carol Oates in a recent essay in the New York Times.4 Nor can Croce really sustain her objection to putting HIV-positive performers on stage, in performance. To claim that Still/Here represents a monstrous conflation of the existential condition of the person with AIDS and the esthetic conventions that determine his or her “identity” as an actor in an AIDS-related performance is barely credible from a critic of such sophistication and experience. And to go on to suggest that the inevitable effect of such “victim art” is to solicit sympathy and collusion, rather than to invite a properly “disinterested” critical reading, is fatally to confuse the dancer with the dance. All acts of representation and performance require the willing suspension of disbelief; this is, paradoxically, at the very foundation of Croce’s preferred critical criterion of disinterestedness. That criterion, I would have thought, particularly demands that we acknowledge the difference between the HIV-positive dancer as person and the HIV-positive persona as role, especially when they inhabit the same body.

Just as we are in danger of getting mired in the vicious circle of name-calling—the dissed victims versus the disdaining visionaries—the perspective from the orange groves of Pataniganj provides escape. Undistracted by the “bias for utilitarian art” of which Croce accuses the U.S. arts bureaucracy, undiverted by the presumption of cynical manipulation on the part of “minority” arts communities—“dissed blacks, abused women, or disfranchised homosexuals”—Professor Harish Chandra cuts to the bone of the issue. It is not that dying with dignity cannot enter art; pathology has its poetry, too. What troubles Chandra is Plath’s theatrical, mocking, demotic dialogue with dying. Her use of the meter of the child’s counting song and nursery rhyme “vernacularizes” the experience of both history and art, somehow “communalizes” the creative act. This is the quality of “Lady Lazarus” that has made the poem an icon for feminists and Holocaust survivors—to say nothing of thousands of poetry lovers—and, at the same time, has removed it from the possibility of cool critique.

The question is, I think, whether Plath’s poem is a case of self-indulgent victimage or one of survival. Instead of celebrating Croce’s “grandeur of the individual spirit” by releasing the art form vertically into a platonic or Kantian sphere of esthetic transcendence, Plath takes the survivor’s experience of suffering and oppression—its shame, its destruction, its courage—and inserts it laterally into historical and esthetic experience. As the verse moves among artistic registers and poetic techniques—from plainsong, through doggerel, to apocalyptic poetry—it translates its different social and psychic locations into a kind of communal relation. The poetic proximities Plath imagines are instructive rather than emotive or inflammatory: the living death of the failed suicide bears witness to the death in life of the gas chamber; the feminine scene of domestic violence is juxtaposed to the principles of public, political power. “Lady Lazarus” embodies not a simple cri de coeur of the kind Croce describes as a “cozy kind of complicity” but a spirit and technique of survival. At the same time, as biographers and critics have pointed out, the poem focuses intensely on what Croce might call the “dissed and the abused” (Jews and women); it speaks specifically from and of a group.

Could it be that in identifying Still/Here as a narcissistic art of victimage, Croce may be missing the show’s spectacular performance of survival—the attempt, as in Plath’s poem, to counter the privacy and primacy of the individual self with the collective historical memory? I do not know; like Croce, I have not seen the work. Had I seen it, and had she, I could have written a different piece, a piece addressing Jones directly, rather than a piece about the uses and abuses of ideology—and ideology, roughly speaking, is about what we think we see without really looking. But where Croce left a blank, I have introduced an artwork that could be performed on the page—“ Lady Lazarus”—in order briefly to talk of the metaphor of survival as a means of cultural and critical style.

If survival has no place in the esthetics of transcendence, perhaps this is because it is a form of being that is somewhat undecided, ambivalent, about the dialectic of art and indeed the direction of life. To survive, technically, is to continue after the cessation of a thing, event, or process; to carry on in the light and shadow of a break, a trauma, a trial, a challenge. Survival demands a bridging, a negotiation, an articulation of the moments “before” and “after” without necessarily assuming a historical or temporal continuity between them. Survival also requires the courage to live through the flux and transition of the moment of cessation.

If survival is predicated on a break in the structures of continuity—if the sense of identity, tradition, and myth has been subjected to cessation or seizure—then the notion of community or group identity (Croce’s bêtes noires) becomes a crucial location for the dialogic practices of art, criticism, and culture. But if sharing within the community allows for historical revision and the invention of tradition, then by that very token it must be remembered that our sense of community is an imagined and creative performance enacted across the double injunction of survival—cessation and continuance. To forget trauma is to be amoral and amnesiac; to remember trauma alone is to refuse to turn cessation into continuance, to resist the ethic and esthetics of survival. What most disturbs Croce about “victim art” is its form as a collective representation, its articulation of art’s “subject” as a group identity. She cannot envisage an art that would short-circuit the sublime, transcendent option to plug into a dialogue with a community that establishes its solidarity and group identity through sharing a desolate interruption, a cessation—death, mourning, melancholia. This is not a ruse to short-change disinterested criticism, as Croce suggests. For emergent communities or the practitioners of new art forms, it is often a historical and psychic necessity to depend for their creative sustenance on a communal response (often contestatory) from an “interest group” or interpretive community.

Perhaps the time has come for Croce to relinquish, even momentarily, the critical measure of “victimage” and give the language of survival a chance. Perhaps this is the moment for her to make her visit to Still/Here. As for me, I shall repair via E-mail to the restless seminars at the university in the dusty town of Pataniganj, where quite surprisingly this year the oranges have developed blood-red segments, like their Californian counterparts, and their juice is more acid than anyone can remember.


1. Arlene Croce, “Discussing the Undiscussable,” The New Yorker, 26 December 1994/2 January 1995, pp. 54 ff.

2. Susan Sontag, letter to the editor, New York Times, 26 February 1995, section 2 (“Arts & Leisure”).

3. “Notes & Comments,” The New Criterion 13 no. 6, February 1995, p. 3.

4. Joyce Carol Oates, “Confronting Head On the Face of the Afflicted,” New York Times, 19 February 1995, section 2 (“Arts & Leisure”) p. 1 ff.