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This poem is taken from PN Review 37, Volume 10 Number 5, March - April 1984.

Violence Brian Morton

To K. G. M.


Mur b'e thusa bhiodh a'ghaineamh
'na clar biothbhuan do mo dhuilean
.


Autobiography is a risky substitute for argument. Theories filleted straight from memory will always seem personalized into abstraction, a bogus hunt for 'epiphanies'. Yet looking back, a bit self-consciously, for those things that have acted most strongly on my tastes and convictions, three moments do push forward. If they're conveniently private and usefully obscure, they do at least belong to a realm that is immitigably public and shared, and to a specific time and place.

The first 'work of art' I was made aware of as a child was the Dali Christ of St John of the Cross, Tom Honeyman's bitterly controversial purchase for the City of Glasgow Art Galleries at Kelvingrove. I was taken to see it in its curtained and spotlit alcove and I was startled by its size, subject and its strange, dizzying perspective.

It was at school in Dunoon that John Jenkins, an English teacher, introduced me to work of a new generation of Scottish writers, work too current and notorious to supplant Scott, Gunn and Neil Munro on the official curriculum. Alan Sharp, Archie Hind, William Mcllvanney, Gordon Williams were the first writers that really mattered to me; they were recognizably of my time and place in a way that Scott was tediously not. John Jenkins was too modest to make much of the fact that, as Robin Jenkins, he was the best of the lot, the most thoughtful and most acutely aware of the strange position Scotland and her culture were in, moving crab-wise into the twentieth century. His novels The Changeling, A Toast to the Lord and The Cone-Gatherers were set in what was identifiably my home town and they dealt with things far removed from the SCE curriculum; Jenkins was unabashed and unpatronizing about these things usually closed to us - drink, violence, sex, metaphor, irony - and the first to show me that morals, worth, literary worth were not simple and straightforward. We didn't cull our class readers for moral lessons; reading was the moral lesson. To us astoundingly tolerant, no one was more contemptuous of real obscenity, unjust violence, dishonesty. He was one of the few who discussed with us the reality of what lay a mile away. The government that permitted the siting of Polaris submarines in an inlet known as Holy Loch lacked much sense of irony. And that sense was just about all Dunoon gained on the deal - apart from a larger-than-usual crop of taxis, brothels and streetfights.

Irony and violence were the two main lessons I learnt and Jenkins, Sharp, Hind and the rest wrote potently on violence as few others had. Sadly the only reason I remember being taken to see the Dali - and probably the reason I was taken at all - was that it had just been restored to view after being slashed by an enraged Glaswegian woman in an access of Protestant or aesthetic fury. The controversy about the painting's worth had died down before I was born, but I'm afraid she was right; it's a bad, bad picture, a ghastly vulgarizing of something as tremendous, and as violent, as the Passion. She completed what was lacking and even then I responded to that.

I lived, even given the Holy Loch's megatons, a life far removed from the literal violence of Glasgow, Jimmy Boyle and the gangs, and the 1960s. In a town with so many Americans, Kennedy's death, now twenty years ago, was a lesson; we could watch the impact of a distant, violent act that didn't touch us. What they call the 'kailyard' lent us a smugness about things like that, but at the same time I acquired an obsession with the way violence is represented. Archie Hind suggested that Glasgow's gang violence was a perverted art-form, a ritual. The American arts, which increasingly interested me, showed the slippage that I'd felt with the Dali. American art betrayed a violence that constantly shifted over into the actual, the 'literal': Jackson Pollock's fierce gestures and self-destruction, Arshile Gorki's, Mark Rothko's, Mailer brawling and stabbing his wife. Holy Loch and Kennedy seemed to prove that violence and self-violence were one and the same; the missiles were aimed at us, the Americans killed JFK - 'Soon as you people get yourselves a good president, you go and kill him'. What separated Mailer from the wife-beaters that (occasionally) made the magistrate's column in the local paper was what I thought of as 'art', a rationalization of violence not hindered by three thousand miles and swanky settings. Art was becoming a dangerous business. Van Gogh's ear was somehow more compelling than his paint.

That recognition and those obsessions awaited my third moment, though. As a literature student at Edinburgh I was being taught the names of things I'd been guessing and grasping at. Irony was the big word and I sought it out eagerly, learning that it appears most potently when it's least expected.

The last and most important tumbler fell into place in 1970 when I watched Stefan Wewerka and Klaus Rinke smashing wooden chairs on the steps of Edinburgh's normally douce art school. The performance was part of Richard Demarco's Festival programme, 'Strategy: Get Arts', and it introduced the Düsseldorf avant-garde to a bemused Edinburgh (and rather more sophisticated) international public. Again, 'art' speciously redeemed something for me. The tasty irony of the piece was that what Wewerka and Rinke were doing was being matched daily in pubs and bars not half a mile and a light year of incomprehension from the art school.

Performance art was one of the central movements of the 1960s and 1970s. It grew out of the gentler indulgencies of the Happenings and out of Conceptual Art. Both, like a Stockhausen score, substituted loose notions and vague instructions to the performer for any finished blueprint. The movement was a logical response to a society and culture that had mastered 'instantaneous' communication and mechanical reproduction and which had all but completely colonized the artist. At the same time, as Philip Roth memorably pointed out, the imagination could scarcely hope to rival what was going on in the streets, in Vietnam, in the White House and Kremlin. Imagination was being pre-empted by 'reality'. I'd want to reverse that and suggest that reality had begun in some way to confirm Wilde by imitating the imagined. The imagination re-entered 'everyday life' with a vengeance.

Kafka had created the trope for performance art in the 1920s with 'A Hunger Artist', the story of a showman who fasts for forty-day stints to amuse the crowd. In the 1960s and 1970s, Kafka's metaphor was acted out; his shattering irony was literalized in the most dangerous and damaging way. Chris Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm; 'Shoot' is appalling to watch and, apart from one or two intriguing points of interface (like how to fill in the hospital form - accident? foul play? art work?), is worthless. Later we had him dropped naked from a gym ceiling, crucified on a Volkswagen bonnet.

It's easy enough to demolish the argument by pointing to these as the extremes they were. What was deeply wrong was not the acts in themselves, though they were perverse enough, but the kind of weighty rationalization that went with them. In 'Arbeit Macht Frei', Stuart Brisley vomited and retched painfully over a bucket for many minutes. Again, it's the kind of thing they do better in Scottish pubs. Worse, the title was a cynical bid for relevance and 'importance'. Idealized violences were being yoked by ingenuity together. No bracketing of grant-assisted pain and the Holocaust will do. There is no catharsis in this, just a steady anaesthetization. Real violence increases in direct proportion to the adulteration of our imaginative resources. Wagner hints at that; pornography proves it.

It's perfectly possible to defend performance art of this type historically and sociologically by pointing to the violence of the societies in which it emerged, the USA and the post-Hitler Germany of the RAF and Baader-Meinhoff gang. It's equally possible to defend it on aesthetic grounds as the logical culmination of romanticism, a kind of ultra-ultra-expressionism. There may be some merit in occasionally exploring the extreme limits of a genre or aesthetic. Rimbaud and de Sade both did so and enriched their language; even de Sade, Rose Kelleir aside, didn't act out his fantasies, except in the most obviously theatrical way. The logical outcome of generic extremism is something like the notorious 'snuff movie', the ultimate degradation to be perpetrated in the name of art or entertainment. Even more vigorous tags like satire or subversion can't justify such things.

The problem with much performance art is that it acts only as a form of extreme and exhibitionist therapy for the artist. Kafka's Hunger Artist recognised that he was bound 'to be the sole completely satisfied spectator to his own fast' and yet remain unsatisfiable. And why the paradox? Because 'it was the easiest thing in the world'. There is no resistance from a medium or form. The target, as with the 'snuff movie', is not just the unfortunate victim or the artist but ourselves. The audience. We are reduced by any reduction in the constraints imposed upon expression. The suffering that we'd tolerate in a life like Delius' or Pavese's as part of a price that has to be paid becomes an end in itself. 'Real' tears used to be hidden from us, in news and interviews. Nowadays, grief has become a media staple, but we are no longer able to comprehend suffering presented as fact, rather than as part of some imaginatively constituted whole. Reality is the biggest liar and the coldest heart of all.
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