Transgression and Art

What do you understand by the term ‘Art’? Does it bring to your mind images of debauchery, extreme violence, blood and gore? Or does it remind you of a beautiful painting, a long forgotten sequence from a much-loved movie, or just a nicely written prose? I believe most of you will naturally be inclined towards conjuring up the latter images in your minds.

And what do you understand by Transgression? To transgress means to literally cross all limits, overstep all boundaries.

Clubbing  the two words , underground American filmmaker Nick Zedd coined the term ‘Transgressive Art’ in 1985. If I am to apply the dictionary meaning alone, then I wouldn’t be able to touch upon what the term ‘Transgressive’ means in the context of all art forms.

‘Transgression’ refers to those human inclinations that are not accepted by the society at large because of the degenerative tendencies which come with them.  Thus, transgressive acts are those which will REPULSE the sensibilities of an average individual.

‘Art’ on the other hand is meant to nurture the connoisseur in each one of us. To embrace a beautiful thought, a lingering image, things that soothe our senses. This can at best be a very basic definition of what “Art” could or should mean to the common man. In the greater scheme of things today, Art has taken up an altogether new representative meaning. But, for now I am sticking to the basics.

According to Zedd : If beauty finds its place in Art (mostly cinema), so should revulsion and debauchery.

The interpretation of Art as something revolting raises a very fundamental question – Can Art and Transgression co-exist? If you are exploring realms of what in common parlance is termed as ‘taboo’, due to its disturbingly violent and derogatory nature, then does it really qualify as art?

In cinema, transgression is mostly depicted through Sexual Violence or Perversion or Deviation. Violence alone seldom qualifies as Transgressive cinema.

Transgressive works (other than films) are an unabashed, unapologetic celebration of perversion and debauchery – right from pioneers such as Marquis de Sade (who lives on in the term Sadism), Charles Baudelaire (Decadent movement) in France to Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs (Beat generation writers) in 20th century US. In Pop culture GG Allin and Iggy Pop’s brand of shock rock are instances of celebratory transgression. Some also liken surreal artist Salvadore Dali’s works to the term.

Cinema however, at times, explores the socio-political implications of such tendencies as well. But, mostly, it too, like other body of works, adopts a glorified and stylized mode of portraying unspeakable torture and acts one might do or fantasize about in the privacy of their homes either by consent or otherwise.

Transgressive Cinema is divided into arthouse films and the run of the mill gross out stuff. The latter category is better known for churning out films such as the Saw series, Eli Roth’s Hostel, The August Underground series  or the more recent The Human Centipede and its sequel as well as the remake of The Hills Have Eyes and exploitation films of the 60s and 70s. But, my question pertains to the former category.

There is a host of films by French New Extremity school of filmmakers experimenting with the trend of extreme horror and deviant activities.

François Ozon, Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, Claire Denis are some of the names associated with the label.  Alexandre Aja’s Haute tension, Xavier Gens’ Frontiere(s) and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs are the better known films of the genre.

Quite a few of them are critically acclaimed. Some have been praised not just for their ‘artistic appeal’, but also for their socio-political undertones.

But, most delve in horror with an utter lack of respect for human dignity. And yet, ‘a soul lurks somewhere within’. Someone please tell me where do you get such a feeling while witnessing pain being inflicted for the sole purpose of another’s pleasure.

Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible  had 8 mins (out of a total runtime of 97 minutes), depicting the protagonist Alex (played by Monica Belluci) being brutally sodomised. And it doesn’t end there. The rapist proceeds to beat her up mercilessly. Not only does this painstakingly long  and disturbing sequence dehumanises the protagonist, it also glorifies unpredictable horrors of the modern society.

Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ questions the morality of ‘conditioned revulsion’ over ‘natural inclination’ but never once addresses the dangers of a pathologically violent and perverted individual let loose in the society. Kubrick’s sympathy entirely lies with the protagonist’s (Alex) forced cleansing of inherent decadence. The film objectifies Alex’s victims and justifies the treatment by implying that there’s a sexual deviant and pervert in all of us (as is suggested by the presence of a giant phallic structure at Alex’s second victim’s house).

Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salo raised a pertinent issue: The abuse of power. Even then, it’s heart and soul lay in extreme forms of transgression. It has been called a ‘fearful work of art’. Does gouging out a screaming man’s  eye have an artistic appeal? Forcing completely naked boys and girls to commit coprophagia and taking voyeuristic pleasure out of it sounds artistic?

Transgressive cinema had takers from the early 1970s. European and American filmmakers explored the genre early on. Examples include Deliverance, David Cronenberg’s Body Horror films, The Devils,  to name a few. Zedd’s term brought them under a single umbrella. All these films depended on the repeated formula comprising sexual deviance, forced, mutual or fantastical, the macabre, ultra violence and in some cases abhorrent, revolting bodily transformations (Cronenberg).

The films I have mentioned above are treated as arthouse films not falling within the purview of mainstream cinema. I do not believe the segregation is based on the context or the content. It is rather a ‘treatment-wise’ segregation. This perhaps explains why exploitation movies  and other horror films which solely represent animalistic instincts without pretensions remain outside the periphery of ‘Art’.

Although the ‘mainstream’ films of recent times are not boorish like their 70s counterpart, the central theme of the films are highly transgressive – brutal rape, cannibalism, extreme violence, gross nudity among other things. Whether you want to witness ultra-gory violence is your personal choice. You cannot and must not expect anything else apart from blood, gore and revulsion from them.

Such films do not intend to or pretend to impart a message, or raise an issue  while ‘Arthouse’ transgressive cinema does. But rather than tackling or giving a solution to the issues that are raised, at least partially, most filmmakers tend to indulge in prolonged sequences that outrage the basic mores and sensibilities of the audience. (The 2002 Cannes screening of Noe’s Irreversible had audiences walking out of the theatre out of sheer disgust.)

This leads to the particular film being seen and dissected on the basis of those specific sequences rather than in its entirety.

Pornography entering mainstream cinema with the aid of ‘artistic/creative license’ is a disturbing thought. Now, this brings me to the much talked about Bengali film- Gandu. Not a finger can be raised to question director Q’s artistic flair. Each frame has been beautifully captured in black and white. Subtitles too have been juxtaposed innovatively. But the film begins and ends there.

The content is too lame and it seems the director cannot decide whether he wants to stick to reality or a surreal existence or alternate between the two. The use of expletives becomes pointless and monotonous. Repeated sexual sequences and the protagonist’s warped sexuality borders on transgression. The point is, the emphasis yet again is on a stylized treatment alone. Content, message (if at all intended) takes the backseat and never once come to the fore.

Ironically, there is nothing remotely beautiful about the sex scenes. The same argument applies: outraging basic sensibilities. If that be the case, then why not populate every frame with visual vulgarity. Why keep it reserved for specific sequences.

The film has not been released in India and Q seemingly doesn’t care. In an interview he said that ‘handling sex’ and ‘breaking taboos’ are the agenda of his films.

I find it hard to believe that the animalistic instinct that is dormant within us, an active or passive interest in deviant acts which always yearn for acceptance should get an ally in ‘Artistic Cinema’.

And this is where I come back to my question: Can you ever make depiction of transgressive acts alluring, appealing, artistic and memorable. I don’t think so.

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4 thoughts on “Transgression and Art

  1. Rajeeb

    Quite a long one… felt like I was going thru wikipedia (:D). It became interesting once u started discussing the films (which I think u should focus on more and more). As far as the word ‘art’ is concerned, I think it is pretty subjective. Violence (both sexual and physical) is not the only way to shock people or drive home a point, often a thought can be enough to send shivers down the spine… take Kafka for example. I have watched Salo and I have seen Gandu… and while the first can be termed ‘art house’, the second one is definitely not… because beyond the realms of shocking people, a film is also meant to be entertaining. That is the reason it has been successful ever since the Lumiere brothers’ train entered the station. Gandu hardly had any cinematic value (and this is my personal opinion) and the sex seemed to be mere add-ons to sell it to the international audience as it lacked artistic belief. I think u forgot to mention Bunuel in ur hypothesis and that apart, u have done pretty well. Keep writing and enjoy writing. Don’t let it be too didactic, or else u will soon become weary of writing. Best wishes…

  2. People artistically depicting violence have seldom experienced it , that’s why their endeavour turns out so unrealistic and little praiseworthy.Transgression is a fantasy for them when they are actually confined within the boundaries of their fear and inabilities.For those who do transgress , there’s nothing poetic in it. They live on the edge of world. However it’s not entirely the artists who are to be blamed , in most cases what seems like a flow of free expression is actually a contract signed with a Rich producer who has a very shrewdly defined and calmly planned purpose in showcasing the transgression. The so-called artist is actually an employee.The employee has little idea of his employer’s propaganda and is drugged to believe that he is doing something creative.

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