Grotesque: Beauty
Disgusting! For some people, body humor is not considered to be in the realm of appropriate or polite behavior. The carnivale and humor of the grotesque in medieval Europe was considered “low,” of the earth, of genitals, bowels, sex, defecation and death. (Isack, pp 19-23) In this unofficial and unapproved behavior and language form, lay the power of shock, of owning and honoring (in a bizarre fashion) the peripheralized. Jo Anna Isaak, Feminism and Contemporary Art: the Revolutionary Power of Women’s Laughter, and Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, shed much light on the reasons why peripheralized populations of the present time may adopt “shocking” or “unofficial” speech forms in their vernacular and art forms.

The carnivale institution preceded the strength of the Christian Church in Europe. This three-month winter festival was used by the masses to exert power over the onerous circumstances of subjugation and poverty. The Law (of Church and State) was suspended and a festival of “misrule,” of no holds barred satire and ridicule was instituted. (Humphrey, p 1) This may have originated as a safety valve for society to let off some steam in a manner less destructive than outright revolution and massacre. (ibid) However, the Church and State gradually suppressed the festivities in both length and frequency, until the three months of festival was no more than a few scattered days here and there. (Issak, pp 19-23) Could this backfire? Could the suppression of the grotesque and the venal actually end in increasing the power of these subversive elements?

The act of suppression by Authority is an acknowledgment of fear; fear of the power of the subversive, fear of losing control, of losing power, of losing authority to those who were/are denied power. Today, carnivale still pervades Western society. It isn’t hard to find expressive forms that utilize this vehicle. A diverse range of peripheralized populations use carnivale in their expressive vocabulary: humor, writing, performance, and art. The use of these verbal and visual languages by such groups mocks and undermines the status quo, the authority of the ruling class. Every attempt to squash subversive expression only ends in acknowledging its strength.

I enjoy participating in an ongoing historical critique of society and humanity, joining others who have participated in carnivale humor before me. I have embarked on a visual journey with a grotesque body humor “toolkit” of fruit, animal, and anatomical references. These references blend the human body with fruits or animal forms and bring up the associative powers of each referenced object. These associations are pitted against each other in a tug of war for possible meaning.  If a form is, at first glance, beautiful in color form and texture, it may lure the viewer up for an initial inspection. Without verbal input, the viewer must make up his or her own mind as to humor or disgust factor, whether or not the form in front of them is vegetable or animal, and whether or not there are “naughty” or impolite activities being depicted. “What is this form? What is going on? Why is this going on?” Are the questions I hope to stimulate in the viewer.

A few questions have come to the fore concerning my own direction. Do I wish to deal more with marginalized nature as an entity as full of sexuality and complexity as humans, or with human psychological balance, as in anima/animus the internal balance of male and female qualities in a persona? How much can I balance these concerns? When will the work suffer from an overload of input, creating a muddy over-referenced situation? How much content can I pile onto a piece and maintain coherence? How focused does work need to be? Or, perhaps, are there several future series of works lurking in all these concerns?

Works Cited:
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Translated by Helene Iswolsky, Rabelais and His World. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 1984.

Isaak, Jo Anna. Feminism and Contemporary Art: the Revolutionary Power of Women’s Laughter. New York: Routledge. 1996.

Online Publications:

Humphrey, Chris. “Carnival and History: Bakhtin and the Dynamics of Medieval Misrule.” University of Sheffield. Last updated 30 August 1998

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