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  • Thinking Feeling Contemporary Art
  • Catherine Zuromskis (bio)
Review of Jennifer Doyle, Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. Durham: Duke UP, 2013.

In the summer of 2004, toward the tail end of my graduate studies, I spent six weeks at Cornell University, attending the School of Criticism and Theory. There I witnessed a memorable and dramatic public lecture and presentation by Richard Schechner, one of the key figures in the foundation of performance studies. The lecture focused on the meaning behind contemporary performance artworks that employ self-wounding and mutilation in various forms. After encouraging his audience not to turn away from the difficult material he was about to show, Schechner screened a lengthy montage of video documentation of such works, beginning, relatively innocuously, with Chris Burden’s 1971 Shoot piece and reaching a crescendo with Rocío Boliver’s Cierra las Piernas from 2003. As the artist on screen pushed a plastic Jesus figurine into her vagina and proceeded to sew it closed, the audience at SCT expressed audible discomfort and horror. One student got up to leave and fainted just outside the doorway to the lecture hall, at which point the event ground to an angry halt.

Reactions to the presentation after the fact were mixed but generally negative. Many of my colleagues felt duped by the sensationalism of the presentation and what they felt was Schechner’s inability to offer a coherent rationale for the difficult performances they had been asked, further, exhorted, to watch. Having some previous familiarity with the works in question and knowing well my own very low threshold of tolerance when it comes to blood and the violation of flesh—I have been known to faint myself—I chose to turn away for much of the presentation. As one of the few art historians in the crowd, I reasoned to myself that I understood the work on an intellectual level—that is to say, I felt I knew what the work was even if I had not experienced much of it directly, either in person or through video documentation—and thus felt I did not need to watch it. Like my theory-minded grad student peers, I found Schechner’s presentation to be something of a fiasco for the way it seemed to use these difficult performance works as a tool of emotional manipulation rather than elucidate their meaning on an intellectual and conceptual level.

Reading Jennifer Doyle’s important new book, Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art, I often found myself returning to Schechner’s notorious lecture and I have come to think that there was a lot more going on in that encounter—socially, politically, and affectively—than I, my colleagues, or perhaps even Schechner himself realized. At the crux of many of the works Schechner presented, and arguably of Schechner’s presentation itself (driven as it seemed to be by a desire to provoke and unsettle his audience) is the issue of what Doyle describes as “difficulty” in art. The concept of difficult art is certainly nothing new to art historians. As Doyle suggests, the difficulty of a Picasso painting, a Duchamp readymade, or a Donald Judd box sculpture is an intellectual one. The work may challenge the viewer with its austerity or critical complexity. It may require a certain degree of historical knowledge and conceptual rigor to access. It is not, however, incomprehensible. Indeed, as Doyle suggests, the difficulty of abstraction and conceptualism is not only addressed but also monumentalized within the institutional spaces of fine art. My choice to turn away from Schechner’s screening was born precisely of my art historical sense of intellectual mastery over such conceptual gestures as Duchamp’s and Judd’s. However, the “difficult” art that Doyle is interested in (and the kind of art in Schechner’s video montage) is difficult for a very different reason. It is often defined, either by intention or by prejudice, by its externality to conventions of the museum, the gallery, and art history as a discipline. The artworks addressed in this slim but formidable volume are works that defy clear, rational interpretation, operating instead in the terrain of feelings...

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