A man stands in a 5-foot circle while his wife throws rocks at him from above. His facial expressions are videotaped. A woman hangs putrid, rotting fish from a clothesline. A student videotapes a goldfish being pulverized in a blender. A man covers his body with white paint, cuts himself, then walks on-stage, bleeding. Is this art?
If the people performing these actions call themselves artists and the venue in which they perform is an art gallery, museum or art school, then yes, it is art. So says Lynn Powers, author of "Killer Art: Art that Has Killed, Maimed and Caused General Destruction Through the Centuries" (Pontalba Press, $29.95).
It's not a book you'd want to give to Sen. Jesse Helms, or your own mother, for that matter. In addition to chronicling the aforementioned art events, "Killer Art" features art by serial killers, includes a section on outrageous films, visits museums of death, contains pictures of a sculpture made from stuffed puppies and describes the art of a man who paints with his anus.
Powers, a former Richmonder who received her master's degree in art history from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1993, says she was inspired to write the book by the outrageous stories art history professors would tell to keep the class awake.
Her original intention was to write about "art that had gone wrong," maiming or killing its makers or viewers. As she began research however, she found more material than she expected. She became interested in performance artists who use their bodies, often in bizarre ways, to express their ideas and creativity. She further expanded the concept to include art that was created by killers Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy Jr. and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, to name a few.
The book has attracted some controversy on the Internet. Powers says there have been postings on newsgroups questioning if "Killer Art" is a "warning sign" if teenagers possess it. On one newsgroup, alt.activism.children,
"Killer Art" has been called "cultural garbage" and even satanic. Powers, who founded the Kid's Film Festival of Virginia and who worked for the Science Museum of Virginia and the Children's Museum, defends the work and says it is not intended for children. She even acknowledges that she is uncomfortable with some of the book's content.
"There are a lot of gross performance pieces and sculptures, she says. "The problem I have the most is with killing animals to put in your art. ... If you are doing a performance piece with yourself or another human being, you are consenting to that art. An animal has no choice."
Powers does not critique the art she is writing about, nor does she question its merits. "I have included these artists because they have claimed that their work is art," she says. However, she does attempt to give the artist's explanation whenever possible.
"All of the artists that are living I tried to get in touch with, particularly because their work is controversial," she says. "... I wanted to get an understanding of the artist's intention."
Many of the artists were cooperative; some were not. "Because the title is sort of sensational, some artists shied away from it," Powers says. Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian's lawyer, faxed her a profane letter after she requested permission to use a photograph of one of his paintings in her book. Sculptor Richard Serra's lawyers threatened to sue if she mentioned that two of Serra's large metal sculptures have collapsed, killing one person and causing another to have his leg amputated. Ron Athey, an HIV-positive performance artist whose act sometimes includes sodomy, and Keith Boadwee, the creator of "butthole paintings," did not want to talk to Powers because they did not want their work to be "sensationalized."
"My guess is that artists such as Keith probably did sensational things like this to get noticed and probably moved on to less sensational things and want to become known by what they consider to be better art," Powers says. "But for someone like Ron Athey, who continues to do sensational performance pieces ... if the artist isn't willing to explain that in some manner ... how can they expect an understanding from the general public?"
Powers says that by talking to some of the artists in her book she has come to appreciate their art. "Their art may be considered extreme, but they actually have interesting philosophies and messages in their work," she says.
"For example, Bob Flanagan [the self-proclaimed 'super-masochist' of the art world] was one of the oldest survivors of cystic fibrosis until he died at age 43 in January 1996. Flanagan took the pain and torture he suffered from his terminal disease and transformed it into performance art. His art brought awareness of the painful disease to a very large audience. I think in today's world it is often hard to reach people. We are so overstimulated that we are very jaded and desensitized. Sometimes artists have to go to extremes to slap us in the face and get us to take a look. Some of this art is not comfortable to look at, but it will definitely affect you.""Killer Art" is currently available through Amazon.com.