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Reviewed by:
Linda S. Kauffman. Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998. xii + 328pp.

Framed as an intervention into the pornography debates, Linda S. Kauffman’s latest book is a descriptive celebration of the performance artists, film directors, and novelists who are the “bad girls and sick boys” of her title. Beginning with the premise that “contemporary culture is saturated not with pornography but with fantasy,” Kauffman situates her girls and boys (so called “to highlight fantasy’s infantile origins”) as “savage satirists,” who produce work that is “too literal for art, too visceral for porn,” who “approach the body as material in every sense of the word,” and who thus radically challenge “society’s most cherished assumptions about the body’s integrity and rectitude.” At issue for Kauffman is not only the complex question of the relations among bodies, fantasies, and the lived realities of contemporary culture, but also “the impact technology has had on the human body” and the extent to which that impact inscribes the postmodern as “the posthuman.” Kauffman’s girls and boys engage in an “antiaesthetic” that not only “pays homage to past masters of carnality, rebellion, and carnival” (such as Sade), but seizes “new technologies” in order “to radicalize artistic practices.” By “uninhibitedly portraying spectacles that open the eyes and upset the mind,” these artists “all underscore precisely those aspects that humanity disavows: cruelty, blood lust, barbarism.”

Kauffman’s celebratory parade is long and fairly diverse. Performance artists include Carol Scheeman, “super sadomasochist” Bob Flanagan, “post-porn-modernist” Annie Sprinkle, and “beauty school cut-up” Orlan, the French art history professor who stages her own plastic surgery operations, “transforming her face into a composite of the icons of feminine beauty.” Filmmakers include Peter Greenaway, Ngozi Onwurah, Isaach Julien, Brian de Palma, and, predominantly, David Cronenberg, while the writers include “atrocity exhibitor” J. G. Ballard, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Kathy Acker, and William Vollman. In perhaps her most audacious move, Kauffman ends the book by considering in tandem Andrea Dworkin’s Mercy and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, placing both novelists in the context of the censorious attacks upon them and highlighting the politically disastrous ironies of Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s antiporn alliance with Reagan’s [End Page 1088] Meese Commission and the antifeminist religious right: “The fact that two novelists at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum have both been targets of censorship should make one wary of censorship campaigns in general.”

Kauffman’s desire “to reclaim to word radical for anticensorship feminists” is welcome, and her pro-art/sex position in the culture wars is astute. (For the obvious reason of my own name, I particularly appreciate anyone who exposes the idiocy of that other Cal Thomas, the conservative syndicated newspaper columnist.) But in her deployment of artists in this battle, she is rather too exclusively celebratory, offering no criticism and often saying little about the girls and boys that doesn’t amplify or repeat what they say (or might like to have said) about themselves. This is particularly the case with Cronenberg and Ballard. Granted, some of the artists Kauffman considers have been under such heavy attack by Jesse Helms and his minions that they may deserve particular strategic immunity. However—and this for me is the most problematic aspect of her celebration—Kauffman, who has edited three feminist anthologies, is so determined to protect some of her boys from puritanical Dworkinite feminism that she immunizes them from feminist critique altogether. She brushes aside, but never convincingly answers, charges by Andrew Parker and Barbara Creed that Cronenberg’s films are homophobic and misogynist. When Coover compares a woman to a blank page in Spanking the Maid, he is “perhaps satirizing” Susan Gubar rather than, say, proving her point in an all too conventional manner. When Ellis piles up mutilated female bodies in American Psycho, he is attempting to remind us “of the distance between representation and reality.” Kauffman reads all of her sick boys’ signs of anxiety and hostility as self-consciously ironic deconstructions of male dominance rather than as exemplifications of it, though sometimes it’s hard...

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