James Franco, Bird S**t, and the Grotesque

The grotesque is one of the most obvious forms art may take to pierce the veil of familiarity, to stab us up from the dross of the accustomed, to make us aware of the perilous paradoxically of life.

Robert Penn Warren

So then, how do we approach a performance piece by celebrity artist James Franco called Bird Shit? What kind of malediction is left for a crude, fluffy-minded effort flying under cover of a protected academic category: The Grotesque?

Bird Shit lands at the Museum of Modern Art’s satellite PS1 today, April 7th. A hybrid of theater, dance, performance art, live and recorded music, it is a full-service spectacle that takes cues from Chekov’s The Seagull . The seagull performs as you see here:

James Franco. Bird Shit.
James Franco. Bird Shit.

We do not have the wherewithal to naysay works of art anymore. We have lost the vocabulary for it.
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It has been famously said that whoever controls the language, controls the debate. That is because language is the shaper and conveyor of concepts. On what grounds can any contemporary artwork be called bad? A critic might hazard derivative or bush league. But bad? Debased? Plain lousy?

All cultural sweepings can be rationalized, loop-holed, or embraced by reference to The Grotesque, a conceptual deterrent to rejection. There is no deformation of humane sensibility that cannot be defended in our contemporary labyrinth of intellectualized dissolution. Listen to Robert Doty, onetime museum director and curator at the Whitney Museum. Under his direction in 1969-70, the Whitney staged a controversial survey of graphic, violent images packaged as Human Concern/Personal Torment: the Grotesque in American Art. Doty wrote the catalogue essay. The text is still available, useful as a rationale for giving a raspberry to that mythical demographic, the bourgeoisie:

The grotesque threatens the foundations of existence through the subversion of order and the treacherous reversal of the familiar and hostile. Its value and vitality stem form the aberrations of human relationships and acts, and therefore from foibles, weakness and irresistible attractions.

Donnish reference to the grotesque provides an all-purpose disinfectant for everything tacky or base. We are cowed by theory. Even those expletives we use in casual conversation—so handy and satisfying for dismissing things we hate—have been sanitized away. Stolen. Co-opted. It is impossible to swear at something ugly or banal when the cussed thing itself incorporates and flaunts the charge against it. Below are two Franco paintings, exhibited at Los Angeles’ now-defunct Glu Gallery in 2006.

James Franco. Ape Shit.
James Franco. Ape Shit.
James Franco. Untitled
James Franco. Untitled

What matters here is not Franco himself, not his work or the celebrity dispensation which encourages it. What counts is that a base for its acceptance—and all art cousin to it—has been laid by critical theorists, acolytes of Mikail Bakhtin, and trend-conscious theologians. Paul Tillich, dazzled by too much time in the Hamptons, wrote tumid sonatas to art and architecture. Theologians bored with the creed followed suit, seizing visual art as a foil for hermeneutics. James Luther Adams, professor emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, endorsed the grotesque as a vital subject for theological inquiry:

The grotesque moves us to the boundary of self . . . . It places us on religious ground, moving us to the religious myths that carry insights into the nature of human existence; about its foibles and follies; its goodness and its evil; about its forms of oppression and liberation; estrangement and wholeness.

Roger Hazelton, author of Theological Reflections on Art , considered the grotesque uniquely congenial to theological reflection:

Whatever else grotesque art may intend or achieve, it does succeed by its juxtaposition of recognition and surprise in calling attention to the mysterious quality of our existence. Such art covers a very broad range of styles and subject, from the whimsical to the terrifying . . . . Grotesque art is a particularly arresting instance of that human self-transcendence which operates in all art.

It is fine-sounding in the abstract. In practice, however, it frogmarches over distinctions between good and bad art. It inhibits our willingness to call decay by its rightful name. Religious reflections drawn from the grotesque—the monstrous, harrowing, and absurd—certainly have their place. But they also have limits. By now, we are too cowed by theory to risk marking boundaries between the grotesque and the mindless. It is open borders on all fronts.

Without a doubt, grotesqueries wind their way though the history of Western art. But they inhabit it with purpose. Look, for instance, at Hieronymus van Aken, known to us as Bosch. His exquisitely rendered, unnerving Vision of Tondal drew on a medieval text by a twelfth century monk. Widely translated and circulated through Holland in the 1430s, it describes the visions of a repentant Knight, Tondal, as he visits the torments of hell accompanied by an angel.

Hieronymus Bosch. Vision of Tondal (late 15th C.); Museo Galdiano, Madrid
Hieronymus Bosch. Vision of Tondal (late 15th C.); Museo Galdiano, Madrid

Enigmatic, menacing details accumulate to tell a cautionary tale. However symbol-laden, intelligibility to his contemporaries was key. Without it, Bosch’s altarpieces could not serve their intended devotional purposes.
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Counter images to the demonic—here, a guiding angel—hold the line against the hellhounds.

By contrast, unintelligibility is a Franco hallmark. He achieves no sense of purpose more elevated or articulate than what a middle schooler might scribble on a stall in the boys’ room. Nihilism comes packaged as a frolic. Preliminary publicity puts it this way:

So if you are in for a weird-wacky-fun-etc.-etc. performance, then check outBird Shit . And knowing Franco’s work, I’m sure there will be a few surprises along the way.

• • • •
Conscientious and upright as you are, you likely think it is unsporting to disparage something without having seen it. But no, really, such scruples are needless. Some judgments really can be made in advance. Call it the James Agee Principle. The great film critic was said to have submitted reviews, on occasion, without having suffered the performance. No matter if the gossip is apocryphal; it is a sensible model. If you know the players, the script, the venue—the tenor of the whole clambake—it is no roll of the dice to weigh in on one side or the other.

This MoMA PS1 event marks Franco’s progression from apes to birds. Place that line of ascent against the title of the upcoming performance and ponder the odds of the result. Franco has a thing for droppings. What more do you need? Why squander time waiting for more evidence. And, please, spare yourself $12 at the door.