Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture: The Image at Play

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture: The Image at Play

Article excerpt

Grappling with the grotesque

Review of:

Frances S. Connelly, The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture: The Image at Play, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, 190 pp., 62 b & w illus., £64.99 hdbk, ISBN 9781107011250

Jenny Anger

Frances S. Connelly's deceptively slight volume, The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture: The Image at Play, is a book teeming with fresh ideas. In this age of specialization, it is increasingly rare for one scholarly study to dare to address a topic as broad as that announced by this one's title, yet Connelly's erudition and openness to the flux required by her theme combine to make a rewarding experience for the reader-as well as to challenge some fundamental underpinnings of the discipline of art history.1 This book sullies traditional borders between periods and aesthetic categories and insists on the ethical dimensions of art and its histories. As such, it exemplifies the grotesque that is its subject. It is a wise book, remaining empathetic, humble, and playful all the while. In short, Connelly's The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture is a prodigious accomplishment, which this review assesses in general before addressing individual chapters.

The book ends with an analysis of the Kantian sublime in contrast with John Ruskin's notion of the 'noble grotesque', which Connelly rechristens the 'profound grotesque'. The neat comparison also illuminates her approach to the material at hand, so I quote at length:

The pleasure in the sublime, as [Immanuel] Kant understood, is in our mastery of it. Ours is the mastering gaze of the wanderer, challenged by the world but transcending it through our intellectual prowess.

There are no such absolutes for the boundary creature that is the grotesque. Ruskin conceptualized the profound grotesque as an exalted but partial vision. The profound grotesque is a work of art 'arising from the confusion of the imagination by the presence of truths which it cannot wholly grasp.'2 Even after its maker wrestles these 'appalling and eventful' truths into imagistic form, its meaning is left for each 'beholder to work out'-no single, unchanging vision, but each one of us making the connections and grappling with the ambiguities and contradictions within the grotesque Spielraum [room to play] in our own way. There is a deep humility to this refusal to claim the fiction of fixed, absolute truths, embracing instead the concrete realities of life as we experience it. The sublime pictures the natural world as wordless and inchoate without a mastering vision imposed upon it; but as we see here, the grotesque leans in close, to listen and observe its breathtaking diversity, and to seek meaning in its particular incarnations. The most noble of grotesques do not seek mastery over the living and dying world; rather, they belong to it, and seek revelation within it and through it. (160)

This 'lean[ing] in close, listen[ing] and observ[ing]', points to a productive paradox for all of us who are interested in the particular address and potential of visual art. Connelly argues that the power of the grotesque resides in its visuality, which is to say its near untranslatability into text. At the same time, this visuality is never a pure, disembodied visuality familiar (at least in theory) especially to modernist scholars. One thinks, for example, of Clement Greenberg's restriction of proper aesthetic appreciation to 'eyesight alone'.3 No, the grotesque is a visual modality that affects the viewer viscerally; it produces an emphatically embodied visuality. In short, the grotesque addresses one through visual means, but one must grapple with it with one's entire self, with physical, emotional, and mental responses. The latter are, in turn, embedded in everyone's deeply rooted sociality, requiring that decisions about the grotesque are profoundly ethical as well. The articulation of this non-textual, embodied, ethical visuality is a central contribution of this book. …

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