November 10, 2005

Crying For, At Art

Art blogger Todd Gibson recently took his 8-month-old daughter to see a video art piece by Shirin Neshat. The kid sat, transfixed for a while, and then suddenly started wailing. [He took her out immediately, btw, without prompting from any "inside voices" signs.]

But then he discovered that the kid was not alone; turns out many viewers, including at least one other art blogger, reported crying at that same moment in the film.

The scene depicts a nude woman--a prostitute--in a hamam, who switches from washing to mutilating herself, scraping her flesh until she bleeds. It's at once disturbing and transgressive (and not just of Muslim cultural norms that preclude full nudity). Todd writes:

This makes me wonder if there isnÝt 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 natureˇa will to self-preservation, a preference for pleasure over pain.

On the Universal in Art, or Another Post about Crying [from the floor]
Shirin Neshat's show, Zarin, continues at Barbara Gladstone Gallery through Nov. 12, this Saturday [gladstonegallery]

11 Comments

I think this is an interesting point.

I also wonder if there's just some art that maybe even very young babies would be too disturbed by (not saying this is one of those pieces)? I would hate if art caused my kids nightmares. I mean, there's a good reason to have nightmares over art, but maybe cruel to inflict them on a tiny kid...

to each his own, of course.

Wait, a baby cries when it sees self-mutilation and bleeding? This isn't exactly man-bites-dog news, is it?

And it's hardly the same as a sobbing emotional response from a high-falutin' arty type or evidence of the universalist nature of art.

It just sounds gross (to be perfectly bourgeois about it). It's also the primary reason I plan on waiting until my boys are at least three before they see films about prostitutes' "slow disintegration into psychic delirium."

[it'll probably be out on dvd by then... My kid wouldn't stop giving a play-by-play narration of this particular video, so we had to leave before the hamam scene. I have to wonder, if not disagree, with the suggestion that self-preservation instincts and recoil at seeing (vs experiencing) self-destructive behavior is duh-obvious. At 8-mos, I'd still expect a kid to be reacting mostly to light patterns and shapes--including people, I'm sure--not to plot points. I would certainly disagree with both Todd and the other guy he links to that this intinctualness/universality might be somehow related to taboo notions of nudity. -ed.]

Well, it was going to take a coin toss to make the decision: take my kid to see the Neshat piece, or "Chicken Little"? Thanks for the heads-up, Greg!

[I'm sure Neshat will be at Reel Moms next Tuesday, though. -ed.]

I haven't seen this Neshat piece, but saw a show of hers up in Montreal a few years back -- it was pretty compelling and beautiful.

not that this has anything to do with babies, but her films are always worth the look. oh, and it's free to go view it, unlike 'Chicken Little'. :)

Hmmm. The boy (19 months) doesn't watch much tv, (standard disclaimer), but on the occassions that he sees anything too violent on TV (including a hard American football tackle or even goofy slapstick) he becomes agitated and may begin to cry. Draw your own conclusions.

On the other hand, we were eating lunch in a restaurant a few weeks ago with a good view of a park outside. A little girl fell down while walking with her parents and my boy burst out laughing.

Now I can't decide who's worse - moms who force their kids to potty train at 6 months, or dads who make their 8-month olds watch films about self-mutilating hookers.

[lolol it's actually pretty oblique; it's not like she's Courtney Love or anything...but I can see your point -ed.]

Ed: At 8-mos, I'd still expect a kid to be reacting mostly to light patterns and shapes--including people, I'm sure--not to plot points.

As adults looking in, it's hard to imagine all that infants are capable of perceiving (a la James' blooming, buzzing confusion) but to think that an 8 month old's world is simply one of reacting to light patterns rather than plot points is grossly underestimating the child's capabilities at that age.

Yes, an 8-day-old infant might be expected to focus on light patterns and people's faces to the exclusion of 'plot' but by 8 months (and, in fact, much earlier), children can appreciate a surprisingly vast array of facial expressions, emotions, expected outcomes of situations, and even laws of physics. Children are also much more sensitive to general visual cues and musical cues about mood than we expect. Scary music, for example, is disturbing all on its own without any added visual shots of doom. The author doesn't mention if there is any sound accompanying the shot.

It is also said that when young children hear other children (or perhaps movie goers) crying and they begin to cry themselves, it's not out of a particular sense of empathy (lest we think our young children are geniously socially advanced) and but because the children actually feel distressed themselves and can't necessarily place it. In other words, it takes little provocation before a young infant feels there's something to cry about so is it suprising that a skeleton-looking woman in a dark and isolating environment causing self-harm and bleeding is enough to set of the tears?

Though I'm not aware of any specific studies on infants' reactions to seeing self-mutilation and bleeding (! can you imagine the university research ethics board reviewing that proposal), I am not at all suprised by the crying reaction.

I am surprised by the decision to allow the 8-month-old to face the screen during a disturbing film. I'm all for not letting the birth of your child impede your adult appreciation of art and your adult ability to attend screenings as you did pre-kids, but does that mean that you need to force your young child to appreciate the disturbing art with you?

Duly noted on the developmental capabilities of an 8-month-old. It's been a year since I've spent a lot of time around one.

But my wonderment about Todd's kid's reaction and my issue with the comment about disturbing films both arise from what I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of the work we're actually talking about here.

Neshat's films are oblique, quiet, and extremely understated, even as they address dramatic or melodramatic or complex ideas. That a kid would be able to follow along or recognize/react to the representation of a self-destructive act that's presented in a Neshat-ian way strikes me as remarkable. I happen to know Shirin Neshat and have collected and followed her work for almost ten years, so my perception of her work is very different from someone introduced to it by the "self-mutiliting hooker descent into delerium" tagline. It sounds dumb to say it, but her self-mutilating hookers look vastly different from what you'd imagine a Hollywood self-mutilating hooker'd look like.

I'm a little defensive on Todd's behalf because the implication is that it's selfish at best and harmful at worst, and that's wrong and unfair. His whole point in telling his story was to try and understand this notion of "disturbing," because it was unexpected encounter. This wasn't "teach a kid to swear cuz it's funny," or "let's see what happens if he drinks this scotch." The way I read Todd's intentions, the kid had demonstrated a fondness for giant video images, and they found one while strolling through some art galleries. Period.

For me--and I assume for Todd as well--the benefits of letting a kid see and engage the world around her--including art--outweighs the possible downside. If a parent is conscientious--and is a generally decent, aware person himself--then I don't see the problem. And besides, the kid cried, and they left.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment post Greg. But I figure I ought to speak for myself before the child welfare people come after me.

Greg's explanation of the context of our viewing of the piece is pretty accurate. I had heard Neshat had a new video showing at Gladstone. (I hadn't heard in detail what it was about.) The kid likes to watch video. We were in the neighborhood. We stopped in. We sat down, and within two minutes things got disturbing. The kid let me know that she was troubled. So we left. I went back later to see the remainder of the piece without her.

What surprised me about her reaction was her reaction. I would not have taken a three-year-old in to see the video (if I knew what it contained), but I figured that at eight months she was too young to really be able to understand and interact with the work--other than enjoying the light and color. I was proven wrong and reacted immediately.

I learned a lesson--two lessons, actually--from the experience. One about art, the other about parenting.

Oh, yeah, maybe a third lesson too. Not to judge other parents' decisions about what their kids view without fully knowing the situation and without having seen the piece myself.

Well said.

I for one spoke (typed) too quickly based on the incorrection developmental assumptions (Greg's, frankly ) about what an 8-month-old could perceive. Just want to give credit to the little ones where it is due. I, too, am fascinated by the ways infants react to their surroundings. Your example is quite thought-provoking about developmental levels for emotion,empathy, visual perception, etc.

I hope you'll accept my apologies, Todd, for misunderstanding the circumstances and for judging without being in the shoes.

Cheers.

I always used to read piece of writing in news papers but now as I am a user of
internet so from now I am using net for articles, thanks to web.

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