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Engaging Grotesque Figurations in the College Classroom
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Jjenna Hupp Andrews
University of Michigan-Flint

Grotesque figurations exist in the ambiguous spaces between familiar and unfamiliar; in these spaces viewers can engage with the different, the repulsive, the strange, and the unknown in ways outside of their normal experience, and such encounters have the potential to challenge viewers’ preconceived assumptions and expectations. I propose that the college classroom can be constructed as a space conducive to critically and creatively engaging with uncomfortable, viscerally repulsive, and potentially offensive visual images, such as representations of grotesque bodies; such figurations can provide unique opportunities to understand socially and politically charged issues such as inequality, prejudices, privilege, injustices, and difference in unique, potentially powerful ways.

The grotesque has the ability to disrupt the status quo, which forces the viewer to choose between contending with the disturbing image and turning away in disinterest or denial. Drew Halfmann and Michael P. Young assert that the grotesque destabilizes "categories of daily experience," which can present a threat to individual and/or social order; the grotesque represents "a world gone terribly wrong, an anti-world" (3-4). Philip Thomson described this power of the grotesque as having a "shock effect" that may "also be used to bewilder and disorient" the reader, or the viewer, which has the potential to jolt him or her "out of accustomed ways of perceiving the world and confront him with a radically different, disturbing perspective" (58). This visual and visceral jolt can become a starting point for students as individuals, in small groups, and as a class, to engage with possible reasons why such an image affected them so strongly and to examine the assumptions embedded in their reactions.

In the classroom, the grotesque figurations can become the catalyst for critical engagement with difficult social topics, such as ethical issues of genetic manipulation in Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures, postcolonialism and racism in the art of Wangechi Mutu and Diane Victor, and sexual violence in Penny Siopis’ prints. One of the reasons grotesque figurations can invite deeper analysis and critical examination is that they do not conform to predetermined sociocultural structures or belief systems. The horror that has been revealed through the representation of the grotesque body can destabilize the perceived benign reality that is often a buffer from the messy ambiguities of the real world. Susan Corey describes this fluidity of the grotesque as "challenging or crossing over conventional boundaries, undermining the established order and exposing oppressive systems, whether economic, racial, religious or gender-based" (229). She goes on to propose that the meanings of the grotesque image exist on the "margins of our meaning systems," which enables the writer or artist "to challenge any final or closed version of truth, to raise questions about what has been lost or omitted from a particular view of reality, and to explore the paradoxical, ambiguous, mixed nature of human life" (229-30). I would go further to assert that it is not only the writer or artist who questions the gaps and inconsistencies in a particular perspective of reality, but also the reader or viewer who is repulsed and challenged by this grotesque image and brings his or her own perceptions of "truth" and view of reality into the conversation. Reaction Theory proposes that the viewer interprets the artwork through the lens of his or her own life experiences and sociocultural background and thus brings one’s own perspectives to bear on the process, even when those perspectives are being challenged. Viewers’ life experiences and sociocultural backgrounds become even more important when the grotesque figuration does not permit the formation of any easy interpretations or answers. When confronted with such uncertainty, the viewer needs to draw upon the foundation of what she or he knows though her or his own experiences, as well as what she or he can gather from the larger context to be able to engage with the disturbing or even horrific ambiguities of the grotesque image.

The teacher serves a vital role in that she or he not only facilitates the discussions but also provides more layers of history and context, enabling students to take their analyses to deeper levels. The teacher is also the one who establishes the classroom as a space where difficult and potentially inflammatory images can be critically engaged. The strong emotive characteristics and the potentially offensive nature of representations of the grotesque body makes the teacher even more vital to the process, though he or she must be conscious of and prepared to address the potential difficulties and raw emotions that may arise in the classroom. In an age where "trigger warnings" have entered academic discourse and the university classroom (See: Jarvie 2013, Shulevitz 2015, AAUP 2004, Hoover 2014, Hardwik 2014), the teacher must be vigilant regarding the reasons for and the choices of grotesque representations that are being presented in class; the objectives must be clear and such images should never be included merely to shock.

In defense of bringing difficult and uncomfortable topics into the college classroom, Jennifer Hardwick makes the case for a delicate balance between student discomfort and comfort, claiming that "world is not a comfortable place, and learning about it cannot, and should not, be safe" (Hardwick). In her article "A Safe Space for Dangerous Ideas: A Dangerous Space for Safe Thinking," she asserts:

Danger and safety are both integral to education, particularly if one ascribes to critical pedagogy, which is, in many respects, about balancing the two elements. On one hand, it invites students and teachers alike to break free from safe thinking: to consider what they have been taught; to rethink the narratives, systems and hierarchies that have shaped their lives; and to make room for new and sometimes uncomfortable perspectives. To do this effectively one must be willing to leave the security of assuredness and embrace the fact that learning can be a difficult and even painful process that shakes your foundations, changes you, and transforms the way you see the world. (Hardwick)

She goes on to balance this assertion with the claim that critical pedagogy is also about "recognizing and challenging the violence that is engendered in the social and political systems that surround us" and advocates for "ongoing self-reflection and communication" in order to cultivate a space where critical dialogue can take place (Hardwick). Hardwick suggests this balance is possible through dynamic interactions between "bravery" and "kindness," where both are described, modeled, and encouraged. She explains brave thinking as the willingness of both teachers and students to step out of one’s comfort zone and take risks; the teacher’s role in encouraging brave thinking is not only modeling risk-taking but also "asking big questions in class, presenting multiple and opposing views, and taking intellectual risk into account while marking" (Hardwick). The kindness element focuses on creating an environment of respectful and critical engagement, where fellow students are not attacked for expressing their thoughts and there is an intentional willingness to entertain conflicting perspectives. The teacher’s role in kindness includes "promoting collaboration, dialogue and community, and making students aware of the pitfalls of seeing fellow scholars as adversaries and critical thinking as an exercise in locating weakness" (Hardwick). In relation to difficult representations of grotesque bodies, it is vital that the teacher models critical thinking and critical engagement, of which Hardwick’s process is one option, while also remaining sensitive to the emotive implications of the visual images being presented.

I want to stress that the larger context, whether it is historical, political, social, and/or cultural, becomes even more important in this critical engagement, in that it provides a basic foundation from which students can engage with the repulsive topic at hand. For example, Diane Victor’s Disasters of Peace series is extremely graphic in its depictions of present day atrocities in post-apartheid South Africa. Her grotesque figurations take the viewer into private spaces where such atrocities take place, away from the public eye; they depict images of physical and sexual violence and social injustices taken from actual events often only briefly mentioned in the media. Victor’s photojournalistic attention to detail, coupled with her very graphic and horrifying subject matter, makes this series extremely hard to engage and could be potentially triggering to some who have been the victims of sexual abuse. Because of the level of violence being depicted through the grotesque figurations, this is a series more suited to an upper level art or humanities course, where the students have some prior experience with art and/or visual media and where the topics are pertinent to the course objectives and outcomes. This series also requires foundational contextual information concerning the history and context in which this series was conceived. Although it is an extremely disturbing series, or perhaps because it is so disturbing, Disasters of Peace can be a powerful window into social and political injustice, racism, privilege, and inequality; in addition, it also provides a profound example from which to explore censorship and how censorship can be intimately linked to public secrets and taboos.

Introducing representations of the grotesque body into art and humanities classrooms not only provides unique opportunities to engage critically and creatively with complex sociocultural and political issues, but it is also becoming more and more essential to do so. Today’s media regularly capitalizes on the extreme and the grotesque with the belief that sensation and spectacle sell products or experiences. Grotesque bodies regularly appear in movies, television/cable series, video games, commercials, Internet memes, and news media. Grotesque bodies proliferate on the Western visual media landscape, and yet when our students enter the art history or humanities classroom, the focus is generally on the classical body, with a few common exceptions such as dead Christ figurations or slain martyr and saint motifs. In the service of understanding the Western canon and its foundational role in our culture, the skills developed to analyze such bodies do not necessarily directly transfer to the contemporary grotesque representations students are regularly exposed in today’s visual world. Paul Duncum and Stephanie Springgay address this issue in their 2007 paper "Extreme Bodies: The Body as Represented and Experienced through Critical and Popular Visual Culture," asserting that the "extreme body" needs to be included in classroom curricula (1153). They argue:

When both critical and popular visual culture are dealing with the extreme body, it is necessary to move well beyond a modernist aesthetics that favors the closed, classical body. An aesthetics commensurate with the extreme body is needed to deal with the broadest possible range of bodily representations and bodily responses. The body is the means by which we produce ourselves, so it becomes crucial that analyses of the visual arts in education include an understanding of extreme bodies. (1154)

Students need both formalized and practical ways to critically assess and analyze not only how they are reacting to the grotesque figuration but also what overt and covert meanings are being conveyed through such images and how those images are being used to potentially manipulate them; such skills are essential to critical visual literacy. These literacy skills are vital in our students’ media-saturated culture.

Utilizing grotesque figurations in art and media can have the added benefit of tapping into many students’ interests, making the motivation to critically engage with such images even more intrinsic; however, there is a caution that needs to be explored. With increased exposure to grotesqueries in visual media of all kinds, depicting both created fictions and actual events, and the increasing levels of "grotesqueness," there comes desensitization to such figurations. Much as Andy Warhol predicted with his "Car Crash" and "Electric Chair" print series, viewers become desensitized to the explicit horrors, meaning that one must "ramp up" or outdo the images that came before in order to achieve a similar level of shock and horror with the following images. One only needs to look to the television crime dramas over the last ten years to see an example of this pushing of limits. NCIS and CSI are two major innovators in the genre and aptly illustrate how depictions of crime scenes and dead bodies have become more graphic and grotesque over the years. For example, when both series began, creative camera angles and lighting were often used to allude to the inner grotesqueries of the autopsy or the evisceration of a body at a crime scene; yet today, it is not uncommon for the camera to take the viewer inside the autopsied body or the hotel room filled with mutilated human bodies. Viewer tolerance for such images has not only increased but such images have also become expected; the (perceived) viewer demands to see more and more explicitly grotesque bodies made grotesque in new and unexpected ways. This push for more explicit and creatively grotesque bodies is also echoed in and taken even further in film, specifically in horror films.

When we take into account the extreme grotesque figurations that our students are bombarded with, some of the artists that I have referred to above can be viewed as relatively tame, or not overly shocking. This does not imply that we, as educators, should seek out even more grotesque figurations just to produce the desired responses in our students; rather it provides an opportunity to examine the concept of a grotesque body from yet another direction: analyzing why a specific grotesque figuration does not elicit horror or repulse in the viewer as one would expect. Conversely, it can present a space to reflect on the alternate responses one is experiencing. A lack of repulsion can be analyzed through the lens of overexposure through mass media, which can result in desensitization to horrific images. The influences and effects of desensitization in relation to Western visual media can be pursued in depth to determine if and how such desensitization transfers to real life experiences. For instance, how is the process of viewing the grotesque body on the television screen different from encountering such a body in the streets? Does the desensitization to grotesque figurations in entertainment and/or news media automatically equal desensitization to such a body in person? How and where do the lines between representation and reality form or are they perpetually in flux?

In a culture in which the horrific and the grotesque are regularly used for entertainment, advertising, and dissemination of news, it becomes even more imperative that such images–their purposes and their influences–are critically interrogated from multiple perspectives and not just passively experienced and sublimated into our everyday experience. The use of a variety of representations of grotesque bodies in art and humanities classrooms can be one way of utilizing the "cool" factor, while also going beyond mere entertainment. The pedagogical objective in the use of such images is to critically analyze the overt and covert roles such representations play in our understanding of the world around us as well as the diversity of individuals that inhabit that world. If one of the goals of the humanities is to facilitate the development of critical thinking skills in our students so that they are able to actively participate in their community as engaged and informed citizens, then such critical visual literacy skills as described above become increasingly important as more and more information is conveyed visually across media platforms and modalities. The introduction of grotesque figurations into the humanities and arts classrooms can be a multilayered and dynamic way to cultivate such important skills in our students.

Works Cited

Corey, Susan. "Religious Dimensions of the Grotesque in Literature." The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections. Ed. James Luther Adams, Wilson Yates and Robert Penn Warren. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997. 227-242. Print.
Duncum, Paul and Stephanie Springgay. "Extreme Bodies: The Body as represented and Experienced through Critical and Popular Visual Culture." Springer International Handbook of Research in Arts Education (2007): 1102-1158. print.
Halfmann, Drew, and Michael P. Young. "War pictures: The grotesque as a mobilizing tactic." Mobilization: An International Quarterly 15.1 (2010): 1-24. Print.
Hardwick, Jennifer. "A Safe Space for Dangerous Ideas; a Dangerous Space for Safe Thinking." 13 August 2014. Hybrid Pedagogy. web. 3 May 2015.
Kellner, Douglas and Jeff Share. "Critical media literacy is not an option." Learning Inquiry 1.1 (2007): 59-69. print.
Thomson, Philip. The Grotesque. London: Methuen and Co., 1979. print.

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