I wanted to pick up on Greg’s idea about provocation as the exciting in art. Greg, I’m not sure I’m with you. I feel like “provocation” tends to carry the valence of didacticism and condescension. I fear that I may have a slightly cartoonish idea of what “provocation” is—that I focus too much on artists that announce that they’re being provocative. I remember reading the wall text for a Chapman Brothers exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that was quite sure that the statues on display were making me rethink my ideas of childhood sexuality. The sculpture in question consisted of prepubescent mannequins with penises, vulvas, and sphincters where their noses, mouths and other parts ought to be. It had nothing to do with my thoughts on children. All it did was make me think that I wouldn’t let a Chapman Brother babysit. I almost got kicked out of the Hirshhorn for taking the wall text seriously at a Félix Gonzalez-Torres show. The wall text said that by taking the top sheet of a stack of paper the viewer “completed” the art. I rearranged the paper. Apparently there was only one way to “complete” the art. Though I wasn’t provoked by the work (I quite like the work)—I was provoked by the limiting interpretation the wall text was imposing.
I went to a reading where the poet refused to read the first poem. She passed out copies of her book, told us the page, and then breathed heavily into the microphone and told us after a minute or two that we could finish on our own. I wasn’t provoked into reconsidering ideas of performance, poetry, the technologies of writing and paper, as the reader seemed to be quite sure I would be. I’d actually already thought about all those things. I was, however, provoked by the fact that she was wasting my time. All I really left thinking was that this was a poet who hates her audience and likes herself. The next day on her blog, she announced that she was offended that so few people had come to the reading. It made me think of Artaud “dying of the plague” for two hours—while only Anais Nin stayed to watch—and I can’t imagine she would have stayed if not for the diary entry. This for me is not a high point in artistic experimentation. It’s a high point in the history of narcissism. I’m not sure that I would ever want to attend a performance whose intention is to provoke me. I mean I did make it all the way through Dogville, but I’d like those three hours back.
So, Greg, my question is what you mean by provocation? I will admit that I love being shocked. These lines from Natasha Saje shocked me: “Reading the Late Henry James/ is like having sex, tied to the bed. / Spread-eagled, you take whatever comes” Kiki and Herb have often shocked me, and I want to be shocked. Eldridge Cleaver shocks me. Todd Solondz shocks me. For me shock consists of having something un-thinkable or un-say-able suddenly forced upon me in such a way that I can’t immediately process it, but I know that I want to. I think the sublime is a close parallel or synonym. That moment of being literally beside oneself as the work works on you.