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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

On the Universal in Art, or Another Post about Crying

The concept of universalism has long been out of fashion in the art world. It’s common belief today that the meaning and value carried by an artwork are culturally and temporally based. The criteria by which people evaluate art, the argument goes, are woven so deeply into the tapestry of the viewer’s place and time that they feel fundamental to human experience when in reality they are constructed by society.

All well and good in theory, but I had an experience last weekend that has caused me to start questioning this belief.

Saturday afternoon the kid and I stopped by Gladstone Gallery to see the new Shirin Neshat video, Zarin. The kid is always happy to see art and, believe it or not, at eight months she’s even starting to express a preference for video. Most of the time she’s got an attention span measured in seconds. But put her in front of a large screen of moving light and she’s transfixed. At the Whitney recently she actually sat through the whole 30 minute Robert Smithson film on the making of Spiral Jetty. Given that, I figured we would be good for 15 minutes of Neshat.

When we walked in, the gallery was packed. All the benches were full, so we made our way to the front of the room to sit down on the floor. I took her out of her carrier and set her on the floor next to me. She immediately turned to face the screen and started watching.

Still from Shirin Neshat's film Zarin, 2005We arrived just at the point in the narrative where Zarin, the emotionally disturbed title character, enters a public bath. Everything was fine with us until Zarin’s covering fell away and her washing crossed the line into self-mutilation. (A still from this scene is at right.) All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the kid started wailing. She wouldn’t stop. I had to walk her out of the gallery to calm her down.

I found the point at which she became upset to be curious. It’s exactly the same point at which Edward Winkleman reported that he and others watching the film began sobbing.

Winkleman situates his emotional reaction to this scene in a cultural understanding of the mores that it transgresses:
Now I know just enough about Muslim culture (but not enough about Persian subtlties) to be rather wobbly informed about this, but it's my understanding that total adult nudity is highly inappropriate in the public baths. It certainly is for men, and so this scene was particularly confusing and thereby even more powerful for me.

What the other 15 or so folks watching at the same time I was thought it symbolized, I'll never know, but I do know I was not the only one sobbing at this point in the film. (Sniffles carry.)
My kid couldn’t possibly know this, yet she reacted in the same way at exactly the same point in the film.

This makes me wonder if there isn’t something hard coded into humans, something existing deep in the preconscious portion of our brains, that recognizes when certain, basic assumptions about human behavior are challenged.

When Zarin begins scrubbing her skin raw, Neshat shows a person violating something fundamental to human nature—a will to self-preservation, a preference for pleasure over pain.

Witnessing these assumptions being transgressed, I am starting to think, creates an involuntary response in any viewer. Distributing feelings of shock, horror, pity, and perhaps fear arise unbidden. It’s as if we can’t help but feel these emotions if we are human. It’s instinctual.

My daughter’s reaction to Neshat’s work has to have been made at the level of instinct. She’s too young for it to have been anything else. She responded by vocalizing the distress that the video made her feel. I didn’t cry during the scene, but that doesn’t mean that I too didn’t have a strong emotional response. Perhaps it was my ability to dissociate representation from reality (something she is not yet capable of doing) that allowed me to retain my composure.

Could it be that in this work Neshat goes to a place in every viewer’s biological makeup and flips a switch causing an involuntary emotional response to occur? If that is indeed what happens here, that fact should be enough to open up for discussion again the notion that art can carry a universal meaning.

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