Reading about Ai Weiwei’s beatings at the hands of the Chinese police in the New York Times last weekend, I was reminded of how little risk the so-called "transgressive" entails in the contemporary art world these days. I think there's a connection between the fakeness of transgression and the marginalization of fine art in the wider world.
Over the weekend, I watched, again, one of the most horrifying works of art ever made, La passion de Jeanne d’Arc by Carl Dreyer. To quote the eminent film historian David Thomson, "Long after the film is known and digested, long past the point of its being taken for an obligatory thing, La passion will shock you." Watching Maria Falconetti's portrayal of Joan, surrounded by a coven of damning male ecclesiasts, surrendering to their demands for a confessing then recanting, then slowly burning at the stake while her British captors whip a peasant crowd with maces, I was reduced to a state of existential dread. This, in spite of the fact, that the use of close-ups on the faces of the principals is a triumph of artifice over naturalism.
So contemporary are the faces which Dreyer manufactures that when, say, you wander through Nicole Eisenman's new show at Leo Koenig, you will see La passion all over again in the flatness, distortion and menace of Eisenman's world.
There is a second kind of transgression in La passion, the kind inflicted from within, not just in St. Joan's conviction that she is the daughter of a God who will not save her in this life, but in the mesmerizing acting of Antonin Artaud, as the handsome young monk who prepares Joan for death. The avatar of the theater of cruelty, shuffled by his friends from one asylum to another, is a beacon of detached clarity in La passion. You cannot take your eyes off of Artaud, nor divorce yourself from the details of his "madness.”
Risk demanded Artaud's soul and he paid it off in spades. For the conformist authorities unfailingly snuff out the truly trangressive, the Artauds and the Ais, while throwing their purse of gold at the Hirsts and the Koons.
"Nicole Eisenman," Oct. 30-Dec. 23, 2009, at Leo Koenig, Inc., 545 West 23rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).