In his essay for Commentary, “How Art became Irrelevant,” Michael J. Lewis describes a shift in public perception of art. Previously, art was an integral part of the experience of a member of society.To some, contemporary art is seen as increasingly bizarre and having very little to do with the experience of the everyday person. Lewis describes some of this bizarre art saying that it “offered no coordinates from which society could navigate to find a higher purpose. Rather, it fulfilled the definition of what the late Philip Rieff called a ‘deathwork,’ a work of art that poses ‘an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.”
One of the works described as a deathwork is Ron Athey’s 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life. Athey’s work was taken as an attack on the basic values of the society that had pushed him out. In one of the 4 Scenes, called “The Human Printing Press,” Athey cut a pattern of lines and triangles onto a collaborator’s back, blotting the blood with towels and sending them out over the audience on a pulley. As John Killacky recounts in his essay for American Theater Magazine, the audience responded favorably to the performance, but the media did not. It was at the height of the AIDs epidemic, and the scene was described as buckets of AIDs-infected blood being slopped around the audience. In reality, blood did not drip from the towels, and while Athey was HIV positive, his collaborator was not. But the performance was considered so outrageous that it led to the trials that ended funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, to which Athey belonged.
But Athey was doing much more than merely trying to attack the values of mainstream culture. On her essay on 4 Scenes, “There Are Many Ways to Say Hallelujah,” Catherine Gund writes, “in the 1980s and 1990s, gay men were overdetermined in their role as stand-ins for a network of alarming but abstract signifiers.” Athey’s performance seeks to reclaim his body both from society’s determinations and from its own disease. Gund writes, “Ron’s is an art form that is the opposite of AIDS: it is a precise and controlled performance in the face of a disease that betrays and destroys the body.”
Part of the problem Athey was trying to remedy–and remedies suggest the higher purpose Lewis spoke of–was the exclusion of his own voice and agency by his disease and by society. Allen Ginsberg suggests something similar in his 1956 poem America. In it, he criticizes America for her war-mongering, paranoia, and self-obsession. He ends the poem, “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” It is precisely his own agency as an outsider that, to him, is seen as a kind of resolution to the nation’s problems. Transgressive works like those by Athey or Ginsberg only appear to be deathworks, because society has refused them their perspectives.