Writings about violence in popular culture tend to be structured around a paradox. Most consumers of the latest blockbuster movie or TV show are, on the whole, further from mortal danger than at almost any other time in human history. But these consumers have, because of the ubiquity of images, more opportunities to witness human pain, cruelty and suffering than perhaps any other generation. Typically, this insight only elicited a handful of pearls from the anxious and boring who, throughout the 2000s, took to bashing the latest video game, TV series, or movie.
Now that the dust has settled, there seems to be very little that can shock anyone. Social conservatives, having made peace with the proliferation of obscenity, are content to lament before an audience of like-minded people in the pages of the right-wing press. You can find there the National review Armond White eloquently grumbles about “feminist myths” of privileged victimhood in spencer, the film by Pablo Larraín depicting a bulimic and self-destructive princess. But beyond this small world, who still worries, or even thinks critically, about depictions of self-harm and violence?
Philippa Snow, a brilliant British film, TV and art critic who has made a name for herself writing about popular culture, recently tackled this perennial question. His first book, Which, as you know, means violence: On self-harm as art and entertainment, is a thin volume divided into four sections. Their focus is the difference, or lack thereof, between the buffoonish violence of Johnny Knoxville and his gang of Jackasses and its high-culture counterpart in the work of figures like Marina Abramović, the Serbian performance artist.
As with all of his criticisms, what Snow offers is curiosity and a lack of dogmatism. It is a point of view that allows her to approach the various subjects on which she reflects, motivated only by the question of knowing what makes them interesting. Although this approach produces its own blind spots, the insights generated by Snow are always illuminating.
No harm just violence
In the opening section of the book, Snow lays out his central problem:
I found it increasingly difficult to tell the difference between what Johnny Knoxville et al. did and what, for example, Chris Burden had done in 1971 when he enlisted an unnamed friend to shoot him in the arm as what he called a comment on “a sort of American tradition of getting to shoot on”.
Along with Burden and Knoxville, Snow also reflects on the work of other artists who are, in their own way, obsessed with violence and self-harm. These include Ron Athey, a BDSM practitioner who explored social deviance in his performances (and spent his career agitating the fundamentalist Christian right); Bob Flanagan, an artist who used sadomasochistic practices to explore his chronic struggle with cystic fibrosis, eventually filming his death for his final performance in the documentary Sick (1997); and Harmony Korine, transgressive filmmaker and author of Crack Up to the Race Riotsa book that Snow describes as a “collection of vignettes that pushed the boundaries of good taste.”
Through her measured prose, Snow explains what she finds valuable in all these varied bodies of work. Korine’s personality, for example, was characterized by a comic combination of self-destruction and self-effacement. In an interview on Letterman in 1998, the director, visibly drunk, announced to the host of the show that he planned to shoot a sequel to Titanic installed on a “rowboat”.
“Korine’s sense of humor,” Snow tells us, “was born out of an innate sense of contradiction […] both hard and soft. In an unfinished film, Fight the devil (1999), he recorded himself starting altercations with strangers; he was often left bloodied and beaten in the process. Submitting to the strength of others seems, Snow suggests, to serve as a means of exposing Korine’s narcissism and vulnerability.
Self-destructive violence is not just gratuitous, it does something. This is one of the key ideas of As you know. What Snow proposes to do is to examine the content of this something. In his analysis of Knoxville and the Donkey gang, she writes how the show demonstrates that “a body in immense pain can feel sexless”. Contra the perceived masculinity at the heart of the failed stunts witnessed by the viewer in Donkey, what is perhaps most touching is how even the needless suffering gives these men a glimpse of their mortality. It’s the thread that connects the dumb uselessness of the Knoxville gang to the serious uselessness of performance artists like Abramović.
The violence of big boys
The second chapter of As you know contains a long discussion about Marina Abramović and gender. “Is it possible to earn your own place at the big boy table, as a woman, not by laughing at your degradation, but by embracing all that big boy violence for yourself?” asks the snow. The question here is whether there is something distinct about being a female artist interested in violence that Abramović’s work gives us insight into.
Snow’s most convincing attempt to defend the uniqueness of Abramović’s approach comes from his discussion of the performance piece relationship in space (1977). In this document, the artist and his former collaborator and ex-partner, Ulay, collide several times, naked. Snow argues that the simplicity of the performance reveals gender power imbalances in the couple. Although the two artists throw themselves head-on into each other, it is the female body that comes out the worst. This is exactly the consequence that, according to Snow, Abramovć intended to reveal.
Another illustrative example comes from Abramović’s infamous Rhythm 0. Standing silently in the middle of a room, she invited the public to do what they wanted with her motionless body. The performers also placed wine bottles, glasses, scissors, a loaded gun and other paraphernalia on a nearby table. In one version of the performance, a fight broke out between audience members as a man attempted to manipulate Abramović’s finger into pulling the trigger while the gun was pointed at his head. A group then set out to protect her.
What this illustrates for Snow is that the female artist, unlike her male counterpart, takes the position of a martyr, embracing “possible annihilation as a demiurgic force.” Abramović’s performances are particularly striking because they solicit, unlike those of Knoxville, the violence of others, which the artist, seated in silence, awaits. This, Snow tells us, produces a position of gendered weakness as performance becomes strength.
On the other side of the artistic spectrum, Donkey defined the culture of the early 2000s, which inspired a generation of teenagers to fight in increasingly new and deranged ways. Snow asserts that Fooled forever (2022), which shows its stars as middle-aged men, highlights the sacrifice in their deeds. But the purpose of this self-harm, which, unlike Abramović’s, appears to have no ethical significance, remains unclear.
In “The Marching Band,” one of the Jackass gang’s stunts from their 2022 film, Knoxville leads the dressed-up team of the same name with large instruments in their hands as they circle a small room. Like lemmings, they’re finally walking on a treadmill on its fastest setting. A pile of bodies and instruments are left on the ground. In the last film, we see the consequences of this stunt. Steve-O is sitting in a wheelchair with a neck brace, a grizzled Knoxville looks at him and says, “You still have those million dollar teeth. Steve-O smiles, revealing an impressive set of pearly whites, before removing braces that expose a single front tooth. “Yeah but they’re dropping like flies.” They both burst into a frantic giggle. Captured in this brief exchange is the tenderness of two aging friends as they realize their bodies can no longer tolerate the consequences of their carelessness.
Comparing Donkey with Abramović’s high-culture art, Snow sets aside her shrewd habit in favor of dogmatic and sometimes essentialist views on gender. “When men hurt themselves, it’s usually to create a show of force, and when women do it, it tends either to express resistance to oppression or to physically embody it in a way that angers or to fuck with those who watch them, she writes.
Snow runs the risk of collapsing art and life into each other – women have the freedom to explore gender artistically, while men only do “bad” gender. If we have to deal Donkey like art, as Snow does (correctly), then the two Donkey and Abramović’s performances are not a show of force but objects that “disturb or fuck” the audience. In both cases, the questions that constantly confront the viewer are: “What do I see? Why does this happen?”
As you know is not guided by any attempt to establish a clear position; it is to his advantage. The book is concerned with the question of why anyone would hurt their body in the name of art or entertainment, and why anyone would be interested in this spectacle. At best, Snow observes that the reasons are as complex and varied as the people themselves. However, in other modes, she falls back on tired ideas about the inherent differences between artists and male and female desires. It’s a shame because if there is a lesson to be learned from As you knowit’s that art shows how uncomfortable people fit into boxes.
Ed Luker is a London-based writer and cultural critic. He is currently writing his first novel, a black comedy about a megalomaniac techno brother.
Featured Image: Jackass Forever/IMDB
This article was first published on Jacobin.