Revelatory Monsters

Deconstructive Hybrids, the Grotesque, and Pop Surrealism

The following general introduction by Nancy Hightower was first published in the catalog for the Cute & Creepy Show curated by Carrie Ann Baade (Florida State University). The catalog also contains Hightower’s extended exploration of specific pieces in the exhibit. Please see our other Cute & Creepy coverage this week, including a gallery, read the Curator’s Note, and visit Nancy Hightower’s website. — Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

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We need monsters in our lives.

We like to fear them, to run hiding under the covers or clenching a lover’s arm until the monster is destroyed or banished to far off lands. They are wonderful like that, refusing to ever completely disappear from our lives, affording us the opportunity for self-introspection if we take a moment to recognize that monsters don’t die because they are essentially us (Cohen 5). Once they are eradicated from our cultural memory, we go, too. And that monstrous, wondrous body is at the heart of the grotesque. From the playful grotteschi unearthed in the Domus Aurea to demons of the illuminated manuscripts that overflowed from the margins onto the actual text, the monstrous body has always threatened what our culture has desired to contain (or perhaps more accurately, trapped, vetted, and fixed to incorporate whatever impossible standards it has set up to differentiate us from them). But the monstrous body is also prophetic in nature. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues that as a “construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals’ that which warns…like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself” (4). What sets up this kind of fulcrum is society itself: “The too-precise laws of nature as set forth by science are gleefully violated in the freakish compilation of the monster’s body. A mixed category, the monster resists any classification built on hierarchy or a merely binary opposition, demanding instead a ‘system’ allowing polyphony, mixed response (difference in sameness, repulsion in attraction), and resistance to integration…” (7). These kinds of juxtapositions are what form the definition of the grotesque.

The grotesque, however, is not a thing in itself. It’s not a genre or trope or an “ism” that can be qualified by a time period. It is an operation, a process that occurs when one is caught in between a moment of humor and horror, or horror and beauty — held in perfect suspension so that neither overrides the other. We are left in momentary paralysis, unsure of what to think, unable to look away. It is within that space, Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues, that the grotesque can cause “the death of the theorizing mind, the temporary reign of the senses (or, more accurately, the confusion of theory), followed by a resurrection of theoretical certainty,” (17). This paradigm crisis happens only at a point in time when there is enough discontinuity to “discredit an old explanatory paradigm or model,” yet no new system or paradigm has been fully adopted yet to put the subject back into sense of ease (17). I would add that the grotesque, then, operates within the field of rhetoric, as a persuasive act which, because it rests upon the intersection of humor and horror, utilizes pathos (appeal to emotion) rather than logos (appeal to logic) or ethos (appeal to authority).

This is a critical distinction to make, for the grotesque never transgresses merely for shock value, or as Flannery O’Connor argues “This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal” (162). Just what, exactly, this art reveals depends upon the binaries it seeks to playfully challenge, for no distortion can occur without some concept of the ideal. Harpham believes that much of the grotesque is “marked by such an affinity/antagonism, by the co-presence of the normative, fully formed, ‘high’ or ideal, and the abnormal, unformed, degenerate, ‘low’ or material” (9). Citing Leonardo’s “grotesque heads” sketches, he describes them as “Barely but recognizably human, they grade toward some species lower down on the evolutionary or ontological scale, toward a principle of formlessness, primitivism, or bestiality. The result is a compromise, a taboo, a non-thing” (9). These monsters, then, must play by a semblance of rules — they cannot totally be unrecognizable — there must be something familiar about them, an uncanny place of remembrance, in order for the grotesque to work. This is not an arbitrary distinction. As Philip Thomson asserts, “the grotesque world, however strange, is yet our world, real and immediate, which makes the grotesque so powerful” (23). Grotesque monstrum cannot be easily dismissed as the world of fantasy or science fiction — those realms of once upon a time or a time yet to be — where we suspend our disbelief. The grotesque wants us to come with all our beliefs held tightly in our doubled-up fists. The tighter we hold, the more power the grotesque has to play with our boundaries.

The grotesque body must also resist any kind of narrative closure. Bakhtin states that the carnivalesque body is one that is “always becoming. It is never finished, never completed: it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body” (317). This wondrous body belongs to “the people” — not to those in power: “The body that figures in all the expressions of the unofficial speech of the people is the body that fecundates and is fecundated, that gives birth and is born, devours and is devoured, drinks, defecates, is sick and dying” (319). It is the vehicle for transgressive laughter, that which frees us from the fear of dogma. In part, this why the grotesque — and all the other tropes and movements for which it can be an umbrella term — deals with representational art as opposed to the abstract or conceptual. It is rooted in this world and life, rooted in what we are familiar with. Otherwise, we cannot experience the categorical confusion that is at the heart of any paradigm shift (Harpham 17).

While the grotesque has existed since early Western civilization, relatively little scholarly study has been given to it. The few authors cited have worked steadily to gain acknowledgement for the grotesque in the academic world, but it has been mainly the argument of English professors or fiction writers. It was a welcomed sight to see Frances Connelly’s Modern Art and the Grotesque from the University of Cambridge Press (2003) and Robert Storr’s show Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque (2004). Also in 2004, Kirsten Anderson’s Pop Surrealism: The Rise of Underground Art showcased the kitschy side of the grotesque — that bricolage of our culture repackaged in bright colors — even as it critiqued the darker aspects of the American Dream.

The artists gathered for this exhibition bring in more traditional aspects of the grotesque into their work: the carnivalesque, macabre, hybrids and freaks, and monstrum. In the past ten years, we have seen a rise in reality TV, social networking, texting — a mediated, plastic culture that is desperate to be called back into the beauty of the real body, into our animal selves that decay and in turn fertilize new life. Cute and Creepy represents a richer, darker, more joyous examination of the injustices and hypocrisies of a society which boasts of its freedom from the rooftops and out every satellite dish. The playfulness and apprehension of pop surrealism still coexist but with more aggressive intent to make us question what we know to be “true.” It is doubtful whether this kind of art will ever be mainstream — indeed, I wonder if it would then disassemble the very nature of its essence, which is to question every false, culture-constructed boundary we create. It might be that monsters only do their prophetic work if they stay on the edge of our dreams and waking lives, just waiting to shock us into a different kind of reality.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1968.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Thompson, Philip. The Grotesque. London: Methuen and Co Ltd., 1972.

Nancy Hightower earned a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Creative Writing from the University of Denver. Her graduate research primarily focused on 19th and 20th Century American literature, while she taught classes such as The Memoir, Madness in Literature, The Ghost Story, Literature Within the International Scene, and The Multicultural Short Story, among others. Currently, she teaches at the University of Colorado where her classes focus on Writing in the Visual Arts and The Grotesque and Fantastic in world literature, film, and art. She has lectured at the ISE Cultural Foundation in New York City and in Florence, Italy, among others. For more information, visit her website.

4 replies to “Revelatory Monsters

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