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Grotesque is how we roll along

barneyApparently it’s always been with us, the grotesque. But our attitudes towards the macabre, funny, decorative, exaggerated, erotic, death in your face imagery go up and down depending on the prevailing religious winds and how cold and moralizing they’re blowing. (image is from Matthew Barney‘s Cremaster series. His is the first image that comes up in Google image search for the word “grotesque”…Marilyn Manson is second.)

Here’s the history of grotesque through the ages, per Robert Storr‘s essay in the catalog to “Comic Grotesque,” Pamela Kort‘s great exhibit at the Neue Museum which I’ll tell you about in another post.

(I’m paraphrasing Storr):

In antique times, the funny, oddball stuff on the edge of titillating and disturbing was just another side of life.


In Roman times,the imagery went underground into caverns and grottos which is where we get the word grotesque from.

In the medieval period, it was pushed from the mainstream but popped up in the margins (literally in illuminated manuscripts) and figuratively, as the fierce and weird gargoyles on buildings. (shown is gargoyle from Sainte-Chapelle, Paris)


The Rennaisance re-discovered it with gusto (think Caravaggio, Michelangelo) (shown is Caravaggio‘s “Medusa.”)

The Baroque and Rococco wove it into the very fabric of its being (swoops,swirls, a riot of excess).


Modernism supressed all things grotesque as unhealthy, and some, like Afolf Loos, architect and designer, dismissed it as primitive fetishizing. (image is the Bauhaus in Desau Germany)


The Dadaists and Surrealists brought it back, with a dose of politics and intellectualism. (image is Max Ernst, “Napoleon in the Desert”)

Which brings us just about up to date.

Nowadays, we live in a sea of grotesquerie–from reality tv and funk-faced musical performers to high brow art (or is it?) of Barney, Currin, Yuskavage, Sherman and the goth brigade — Violette, Altmejd, and our local fave, Takeda. There’s comic grotesque in some of pop culture (Mad Magazine, Saturday Night Live, Tim Burton’s movies) but most of it is relentlessly humorless. But we’re in a world I like to call Post OK. And in a Post OK world, with eco-tragedies like the tsunami disaster and with the climate of fear lowering hoizons and dimming the blue skies, what’s to laugh at?

It’s ironic that today’s seemingly open embrace of the grotesque coincides with the rise of religiosity in the world. Red state church going doesn’t rule out red state purchases of Marilyn Manson records or red state reality tv watching.


Perhaps it’s the emasculation of the church in a world driven by pop culture. Preachers nowadays try to look and sound like Oprah. The more they do, the better the congregants congregate. I can’t see how religions can chart a future course unless they merge even more with the culture. Gothic cathedrals may one days be filled with real goths if everybody plays their cards right. (image is t-shirt for Marilyn Manson called “The Golden Age of Grotesque”)

As someone who grew up looking at holy cards of religious martyrs and their flayed anatomies, I am comfortable with grotesque and see it as somehow cleansing. For underneath it all, grotesque is about flesh and blood and the human being alone in the world. It’s the frisson of recognition that there but for…go I. And without the personal recognition and identification, there’s no compassion.

That said, a little dose’ll do ya.