- The Art of Confession: The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV by Christopher Grobe
In our culture of constant revelation, confession has become both a ubiquitous and an abstract concept. The attention economy of social media produces an abundant supply of deeply personal confessions, while at the same time the practice of confessing has become so embroidered in the everyday that it no longer seems extraordinary, or even recognizable as confession. It is precisely this essential and ephemeral position that Christopher Grobe’s new book, The Art of Confession: The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV, attributes to the work of key performance artists of the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st century. In his compelling and comprehensive analysis of what he terms “confessionalism,” Grobe explores how confession became a powerful tool for performance artists while also becoming central to ideas of selfhood in the postwar era in the United States. [End Page 180]
Reading confessionalism as a “stylized doing,” Grobe curates a pleasantly surprising archive that combines canonical figures and understudied performances, bringing to both a theoretical freshness (viii). His genealogy begins at the end of the 1950s with the familiar faces of the confessional poets, such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, but rather than focusing simply on the confessional nature of the poems, Grobe examines the concurrent rise in the popularity of poetry readings, both live and recorded, which contributed to the understanding of confessional poetry as autobiographical performance. The second chapter turns to female performance artists of the 1970s with a particularly in-depth reading of Eleanor Antin, an artist whose large oeuvre has garnered far less scholarly attention than her contemporaries. Grobe revisits the relationship between consciousness raising and selfhood in key performances by Antin and Linda Montano and argues that these artists utilize a form of camp sincerity to critique the kind of easy intimacy confession can foster, a performance he describes as “confessional drag” (102). The monologue work of Spalding Gray in the 1980s is the focus of the third chapter, in which Grobe thoughtfully unpacks the relationship between the talk performance and the written texts necessary to produce such seemingly off-the-cuff confessional explorations. Such an approach is a real strength of the book, which foregrounds the unseen and often mundane forms of production texts to read the spaces between text and performance to consider how confessionalism emerges precisely from these spaces. True to this approach, the final chapter focuses on reality television at the end of the 20th century through the lens of MTV’s groundbreaking series, The Real World. While the analysis considers the significant role of confession to the narrative and temporal structure of the series, the close readings again turn our attention to the context surrounding performance and examines the production notes and para-texts of the series, such as The Real World Diaries, to illustrate how the performers deploy confession as a rhetoric of intimacy that does not originate in selfhood, but in the structures of performance itself. Season one cast member Eric began his confessionals with, “So you guys probably want to know what happened this week,” an unnecessary address that the producers read as technical naïveté but that Grobe reframes as Eric’s knowing method of invoking a viewing public to accurately calibrate his narrative for the camera (218). The “Coda” jumps to the present day with an analysis of media artist Natalie Bookchin’s provocative digital work, and closes with a personal reflection on the shifting role of confessionalism in a recent protest on his own campus, Amherst College.
Each chapter is followed by an “Interlude,” a punctuating analysis that creates a historical or contextual bridge between the longer close readings, illustrating the strong web of connections between these texts and artists. This rhythmic structure mirrors Grobe’s authorial voice, which remains a strong presence throughout the text...