The Freak-garde

The Freak-garde: Extraordinary Bodies and Revolutionary Art in America

Robin Blyn
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 328
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt5hjjv6
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  • Book Info
    The Freak-garde
    Book Description:

    Since the 1890s, American artists have employed the arts of the freak show to envision radically different ways of being. The result is a rich avant-garde tradition that critiques and challenges capitalism from within.

    The Freak-gardetraces the arts of the freak show from P. T. Barnum to Matthew Barney and demonstrates how a form of mass culture entertainment became the basis for a distinctly American avant-garde tradition. Exploring a wide range of writers, filmmakers, photographers, and artists who have appropriated the arts of the freak show, Robin Blyn exposes the disturbing power of human curiosities and the desires they unleash. Through a series of incisive and often startling readings, Blyn reveals how such figures as Mark Twain, Djuna Barnes, Tod Browning, Lon Chaney, Nathanael West, and Diane Arbus use these desires to propose alternatives to the autonomous and repressed subject of liberal capitalism. Blyn explains how, rather than grounding revolutionary subjectivities in imaginary realms innocent of capitalism, freak-garde works manufacture new subjectivities by exploiting potentials inherent to capitalism.

    Defying conventional wisdom,The Freak-gardeultimately argues that postmodernism is not the death of the avant-garde but the inheritor of a vital and generative legacy. In doing so, the book establishes innovative approaches to American avant-garde practices and embodiment and lays the foundation for a more nuanced understanding of the disruptive potential of art under capitalism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8587-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History, History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION. Unbecoming Subjects: Freak Shows and the American Avant-garde
    (pp. xv-xxxviii)

    A young woman reclines on a large rock (Figure I). Beneath a wealth of frizzy hair that reaches several inches above her head, her face wears an expression of private contemplation, eyebrows inclined toward one another, eyes trained to the right. Her right hand reaches up to brush her right shoulder. With her left hand, she pinches the cloth of the skirts that rest on her left knee. The result is a delicate lifting action that exposes a swath of bare leg just below the knee and above the latticed boots that rise to her ankles. Her bodice pulls tightly...

  5. 1 A CURIOUS EDUCATION: Mark Twain’s Corporate Persons
    (pp. 1-36)

    In the midst of Mark Twain’sThose Extraordinary Twins,David “Pudd’n-head” Wilson makes his debut as a courtroom lawyer and freak show impresario by defending conjoined twins Angelo and Luigi Capello (Figure 4) against charges of assault and battery. Wilson has his work cut out for him; over four hundred witnesses for the prosecution are ready to come forward and attest to the fact that the twins kicked Tom Driscoll. Yet even though the witnesses each assert that they saw the kick, none of them are able to answer Wilson when he asks which twin did the kicking. One after...

  6. 2 BETWEEN SILENCE AND SOUND: The Lon Chaney Sensation
    (pp. 37-76)

    In 1920, in the midst of a national eugenics movement that rendered the extraordinary body a pathological object worthy only of pity and revulsion, Lon Chaney made his big break in Hollywood by playing a legless underground kingpin(The Penalty)(Figure 10).¹ From that point on he remained one of the most consistent box office attractions of the 1920s specifically by playing freaks: an armless man, a blind man, a one-eyed grotesque, men with “dead legs,” paralyzed men, a vampire, and creatures like Quasimodo inThe Hunchback of Notre Dame(1923) and Erik inThe Phantom of the Opera(1925)...

  7. 3 DECADENCE IN THE AGE OF FASCISM: Djuna Barnes’s Freak Dandies
    (pp. 77-112)

    Between 1913 and 1919 Djuna Barnes worked as a reporter in New York City, producing a body of journalism notorious for its wit and sophistication but also frankly elegiac. For all of their sparkling and ironic observations, Barnes’s articles and interviews cast a mournful eye on the impact of liberal capitalism on experience, subjectivity, and art. As a body of work, the New York journalism can thus be seen as an extended homage to the disappearance of what Barnes calls “bohemia,” a zone of immunity from commercialization andembourgeoisment.In her series of articles on Greenwich Village, she offers scathing...

  8. 4 DADA IN HOLLYWOOD: Nathanael West’s Human Machines
    (pp. 113-148)

    By the end of Nathanael West’sA Cool Million(1934) antihero Lemuel Pitkin has become so physically deformed that he can gain employment as a freak show exhibit in the Communist Party’s “Chamber of American Horrors.”¹ Having lost his teeth, his thumb, his right eye, one leg, and his scalp—all on his doomed quest to make his fortune in the land of opportunity—Lemuel Pitkin is a freak of liberal capitalism run amok.A Cool Millionthus suggests that fascism results directly from the dehumanization of liberal capitalism, a conclusion that reflects the position of the Communist Party and...

  9. 5 THE BIOLOGY OF REVOLUTION: Mapping Mutation with Diane Arbus
    (pp. 149-184)

    This is the scene: A wedding banquet in a circus tent, the sounds of laughter, the clatter of silverware, revelry. The guests perform for one another. There is music and dance, comic routines, and daring feats. Then, as if compelled by all of the fellow feeling that wine, food, and celebration can offer, a dwarf alights on the banquet table. He waves his hands in the air and, on behalf of the groom and his entire freak family, he offers the bride the ultimate gift:We’ll make her one of us!Thus commences the ritual of initiation. The hermaphrodite begins...

  10. CODA. Barnum & Bailey & Barney: Freak Show at the Guggenheim
    (pp. 185-202)

    I began thinking about freak shows and the avant-garde some thirty years after Diane Arbus produced her freak photography, at a time when sixties idealism had long transformed into a very different counterculture. From the perspective of the postmodern 1990s, “freaking out” was no longer convincing as the revolutionary act of a liberated subject; rather, it had all the marks of repressive desublimation. No one was outside the system of late capitalism for the simple reason that there was no outside. Complicity, as Linda Hutcheon theorized it, was the ontological condition from which any critique emerged.¹ As I have argued...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 203-244)
  12. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 245-260)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 261-281)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 282-282)