Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 18, 2018
Jennifer Doyle Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. 232 pp.; 45 color ills. Paper $23.95 (9780822353133)
Diana Taylor Performance Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 240 pp.; 74 ills. Paperback $24.95 (9780822359975)

Performance art has become a hot topic of research in art history, and it has surged in popularity judging by the number of performance art classes, conferences, and performance studies departments in UK and US universities. This review will consist of appraising two texts that reckon with performance: Diana Taylor’s Performance (2016) and Jennifer Doyle’s Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (2013). Taylor, a performance studies and Spanish professor, focuses strictly on performance art—specifically rethinking aspects of it; the field has been re-formed through new theories. On the other hand, Doyle, an English professor, focuses on “difficulty” and “emotion” in performance art and the elision of emotion in the writing of said art.

Taylor’s latest book, titled Performance, is both an overview of the field and a proffer of a new way of looking and thinking about performance. Taylor is best known in the United States for her important text The Archive and the Repertoire (2003), which aided in shifting performance studies. And, it helped in rethinking archives—especially in embodied senses, which can all be culled from the title. Thus, her new work, Performance, is deceptively simple. But, Taylor’s Performance is incredibly important, and it resurfaces insights in the field  as well as not being another text on white, US performance artists.

Performance was translated from Spanish by Abigail Levine and adapted into English by Taylor herself, who surfaces aspects of the text—as well as the doing of performance viewing: adaptation, collaboration, and, most importantly I think, translation. Taylor: “this book analyzes performance: what it is, but also, more important, what it does, what it allows us to see, to experience, and to theorize, and its complex relation to systematic power” (6). Furthermore, Taylor promotes the goals of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, established by Taylor in 1999, which call for performance art to “break norms”—and, perhaps more important today than ever, be engaged in politics and art (71). Importantly, she also states that though performance art is a progressive art form, it can reinforce governments and institutions against the people and hold up the status quo (71–2). Indeed, performance can be used to support and promote conservative ideals.

Throughout the text, Taylor articulates new terms for performance, such as “preformatic” and “translation(s),” which she theorizes on politico-aesthetic terms. Also, she highlights sections with images of performances by artists such as Carmelita Tropicana, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and others. A quote by Gómez-Peña is instructive in what is effectively queer, which art historian Amelia Jones has long articulated about this artist, but not articulated by Taylor: “for me performance art is a conceptual ‘territory’ with fluctuating weather and borders; a place where contradiction, ambiguity, and paradox are not only tolerated, but also encouraged. The borders of our ‘performance country’ are open to nomads, migrants, hybrids, and outcasts” (3). But, Taylor fails to take up queerness in performance. On the other hand, what we can cull from this, and which is an important point in Taylor’s book, is that performance art is an existential as well as a politico-aesthetic art form that has the power to turn into political action: one can think of the queer work of Vaginal Davis, Christeene, Ron Athey, and others, all of whom are curiously neither shown nor discussed in this text, which, again, is part of her blind spot: queerness.

In Taylor’s text, she argues an important point, which will be a good transition to Doyle’s text. She argues that the spectator of performance (one could say of any art) is not a passive recipient, but rather an active and engaged one. But, Jacques Rancière made this argument in his important essay “The Emancipated Spectator” in the March 2007 issue of Artforum, which became a book of the same title in 2011. Nonetheless, this is an important point that Taylor (re)surfaces: the viewer is active. In this way, Taylor argues against a singular, correct, and absolute reduction of meaning making in art history and performance studies by focusing on a multitude of translations. Also, it refuses the so-called disinterested viewer for an interested one, but more on this in Doyle’s review.

Doyle published her second monograph, Hold It Against Me, several years before Taylor’s book. Doyle states that the text is “an experiment in thinking [and writing] about the difficulty that many of us have with some forms of contemporary art and the centrality of emotion to that kind of difficulty” (4). I assume that Doyle is referring to the “emptying out” of emotion from art historical writing informed by Immanuel Kant’s call for a “disinterested viewer” in making aesthetic judgments. Although Kant’s theory is highly complex, it has been watered down and hijacked by formalists. Doyle argues against this still prevailing idea in dominant art history. Doyle further clarifies her claims: “emotion can make our experience of art harder, but it can also make the experience more interesting. . . . It may also make things more complicated; an artwork might provoke contradictory feelings, and it may provoke in the viewer feelings that are at odds with the affective culture of its context. . . . Emotions themselves are very complicated” (4). Doyle argues that “difficulty” is not the same as “controversial” or “obscene” because these later terms have been deployed in art history in order to discuss specific artworks safely. As an example, “art world darlings” Jeff Koons and Vanessa Beecroft have been termed as controversial and at times obscene in order to canonize them and give the museum and gallery world a sense of dealing with controversial work, which, according to Doyle couldn’t be safer (15): the illusion of radicality. Doyle describes “the process of learning how to write about [difficult] work, work that feels emotionally sincere or real and that produces a dense field of affect around it” through looking at and articulating everything from performance art by Athey, Franko B, and Nao Bustamante to artworks by Carrie Mae Weems and David Wojnarowicz (xi). Doyle goes on to state, “the artists I work with turn to emotion because this is where ideology does its most devastating work” (xi). The artists that Doyle reckons with in her text are engaged in producing artworks that surface difficult emotions, and thereby problematize the idea of a “disinterested viewer.” It is an impossible position to hold.

In the section on Ron Athey, who is a renowned performance artist, she argues, tacitly at times, that he is excluded from the hegemonic art world, which gives weight to her argument—that is, Athey produces interested viewers and therefore his works have no place in an art history. Doyle turns to James Elkins to review art history. Drawing on his work, she argues that serious criticality that is based on facts written by a “disinterested art historian” trumps emotionally based art writing (71–3). Ironically, willingly or dragging and kicking, all artists will eventually be dragged into the art historical system. For example, Athey has done numerous events at the Broad Museum and REDCAT, both in Los Angeles; he has also done performances in many galleries in the United States and Europe. Also, he has many articles about his work in scholarly journals and anthologies, as is the case with other artists Doyle champions. This doesn’t mean that Athey (and others) should not be discussed, but Doyle’s implicit claim that Athey is completely excluded from the art world is simply not the case and perhaps an oversimplification.

Doyle articulates her major theme and idea in her text in chapter three, “Thinking, Feeling” (69–89). This chapter concerns itself with emotion in art history and criticism, and its lack of reckoning within these fields. For example, she examines the performance work of Franko B and Bustamante, given their work is deeply intertwined with difficulty. From here, Doyle outlines the binary seriousness/emotionality. But, her discussion of art history and criticism, as well as her argument that we turn to emotion and difficulty as something new, is weakened by her use of art historian Gavin Butt, who has been arguing for almost two decades that emotionality is crucial in discussions of artworks. Moreover, Doyle draws from literary theorists, given her background, but she could have surfaced the fact that art historians Wilhelm Worringer, Aby Warburg, and other Germans in the early nineteenth century deployed emotion in their discussion of art as an investigative framework.

Doyle always presents that there is one art history, then her intervention. But, it is outdated to argue that there is one art history anymore (or ever has been). The text might have been better served if contextualized within the already growing field of art histories (plural) that are being written and not some art history that has been deconstructed by the likes of Donald Preziosi, Amelia Jones, and many other scholars since the “crisis in art history,” which commenced in force in the 1980s.

Ending on this note about Doyle, perhaps this text can be seen as one that a younger generation may pick up on and continue the work that has restarted and rethought the field of art histories. Here, it must be stated that despite my critiques of the text, it is worth reading and engaging in—if only to extend it in other ways and to give it room to flourish in another arrangement for other art histories in the future. And, for Taylor, we can use her text to extend our understandings of performance, but, remember to include queers. Indeed, both have their blind spots, but they are, without a doubt, texts worth reading and working with—and surpassing for a continued dialogue in art history and performance art.

Robert Summers
In memoriam