To Have Done with the Judgments on Artaud

To Have Done with the Judgments on Artaud

Alison Croggon at theatre notes has obviously read more criticisms on Artaud than actual writings by Artaud. She parrots the negative critiques that have always been attached to this singularly important theatre theorist. So nothing new in her attempt to marginalize Artaudian theatre by classifying it to the experience of the lunatic asylum, war zone and concentration camp. However, Alison extends this old criticism to new a level by outrageously and unconscionably comparing Artaud to violent terrorist killers Osama bin Laden and Pol Pot. She goes so far as to suggest that Artaud would have celebrated the 9/11 attacks as “the greatest work of art there has ever been!”

The fact that Alison correctly cites the long list of celebrity theatre groundbreakers informed by Artaud’s work makes the following statement of hers doubly absurd.

It is possible to think of the theatrics of torture in Abu Ghraib – the posing for photographs, the obliterating of the human body, the totalising word, the sexual loathing – as the ultimate Artaudian theatre.

George Hunka at Superfluities in support of Alison’s critique of Artuad underlines another old criticism frequently recited and meant to diminish Artaud’s legacy, “the impossibility of the full theatrical realization of the Artaudian vision.” George holds the Peter Brook staging of Marat/Sade of 1964 as the most compelling “incompletion.” He has made this reckless assessment based on the “film version” of a piece of theate and/or the hearsay of other critics.

Artaud’s theory positions mise en scene, movement, gesture, and the actor’s presence in opposition to the dominance of text. No More Masterpieces. British and American theatre is largely script centered, as is most of European theatre, so no wonder George and Alison both seem unaware of the many less celebrated contemporary physical theatre ensembles around world that trace their lineage indirectly and directly from Artaud.

The divide between praxis/theory will always remain a dilemma, but the performance art/dance form Butoh as originated by Tatsumi Hijikata is arguably the truest realization of Artaudian theatre. Artaud’s influence on Hijikata is outlined in this excellent article Ankoku Butoh as Cruel Theatre.

12 thoughts on “To Have Done with the Judgments on Artaud

  1. You make some really good points, Rat-boy. Really badly.

    Some advice if you want to be taken seriously in the blogosphere. First up, don’t respond to a carefully argued thesis with a screaming Artaudian rant.

    Second, you really need to read Alison Croggon’s post more carefully. I don’t agree with her either, but you’re not going to shoot her down by misquoting her, misrepresenting her, misattributing quotations and generally distorting her argument.

    Third, if you had more than a passing knowledge of Theatre Notes, you’d know that Alison doesn’t parrott anyone. I’m willing to bet that she’s read more Artaud than you have, though she might not understand it as you do. (And hey, you still win the Artaudian wack-job prize for running naked around Mexico looking for his grandchildren, ha.)

    Finally, if you engage with Croggon, she’s always up for a stoush. You might learn something. Like clear thinking. And how to win arguments.


    P.S. As for “no more masterpieces”… After that little declaration, Artaud went and wrote one. Can’t be too literal here.

  2. Hi Nick (and AK – thanks – I think – and would love to hear your take)

    I suggest you read the review again. If you do, you will see that I greatly admire Artaud, and have huge respect for his legacy, since it includes many of my favourite theatre artists. I am perfectly aware of the legacy of Artaud, and of its importance. My point was that Artaud’s theatre, as he imagined it, is impossible to realise. I do not think this diminishes Artaud, but then, I value imagination. Why do you think it does?

    The complete Artaud (as published by Gallimard – not all available in English, I think) runs to 15 volumes. So I certainly can’t say I’ve read all of him. But I’ve read a fair bit. This is a purely personal reaction, but I cannot read Artaud without feeling a huge anguish and pity. Perhaps this is a reaction common to those who have had close experience of mental illness, as I have. The reality of it is terrible. I am hostile to psychological diagnoses, and do not intend to dismiss Artaud by saying so, but I think it’s impossible to read his work without understanding that he is mentally ill. He knew that he was. The place of his madness in his work is, however, a very interesting one: he didn’t merely “express” his madness, but spent a lot of his considerable intelligence describing and invoking that reality, which he also saw, among other things, as a means to truth. It is probably not unimportant that he was a child in the madness of the First World War, the first orgy of technological violence in the 20th century, which is to say that his madness could be projected out on a violent world in a meaningful way. It is one of the reasons his work matters to me.

    But tell me: how is it “marginalising” Artaud to say that his theatre of cruelty – with its fiercely destructive moral drive – has similarities to the fierce moral drive of Osama Bin Laden, or even to talk about the theatrics of Abu Ghraib, when Bin Laden and the US exercise of power are the major news stories of the current time (in the West, at least). Surely this places him right in the middle of contemporary concerns? (I notice, btw, that you take the speculation out of what I said – “it is possible to argue that…etc etc”).

    I pay Artaud the compliment of taking him seriously. I think Artaud means – really means – what he says. However, it doesn’t bring out in me the kind of moral judgement that, strangely, it seems to bring out in you. It happens that I think that when he claims that theatre, like the plague, is a revelation of evil, I believe him. For example, in The Theatre and the Plague: “the revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorisation of a depth of latent cruelty by means of which all the perverse possibilities of the mind, whether of an individual or a people, are localised.” I also believe him when he says he wants no boundaries between art and life. Now, you tell me how these things don’t, in one of their incarnations, add up to something like Abu Ghraib.

  3. Hi Alison,

    The ethical and aesthetic vision of an artist is not divisible. And none of your favorite theatre artists have ever compared Artaud to political terrorists or assigned to him a “fiercely destructive moral drive.”

    When Artaud writes Theatre and the Plague he means Catharsis and the Plague. He means theatre as equal and counter to Abu Ghraib, not as co-perpetrator.

    Artaud would reawaken the ritual roots of theatre. For sure scapegoats became bloody became dead as they died for our sins in these rituals of old. It was definitely a Theatre of Cruelty that dispatched these innocent goats to their death. Our culture no longer has such rituals to exorcize the Sin and attendant Plague from our midst. More importantly, the culture does not believe in the metaphysical power of such rituals to accomplish that task. Artaud believed theatre has this metaphysical power of ritual lying latent within it. Others working in theatre believe the same.

    Extremism versus Moderation. That’s the way Bush described the politics of the world in this morning’s speech. Artaud was an extremist in his art form as were Grotowski and Julian Beck. But none of them should be compared to the extremists Bush is signifying. Poetic terrorism was once easily differentiated from political terrorism but in the scared-shitless post 9/11 world they are too easily conflated with one another.

    The current persecution of Steve Kurtz, founding member of Critical Art Ensemble, by the FBI shows how readily an artist-activist-theorist- cultural worker can be relabeled terrorist suspect.

    Yes, Artaud was a madman. I agree with Foucault who saw Artaud’s life as a struggle between creativity and insanity. I also agree with his observation that madness in the Renaissance was an experience that was integrated into the rest of the world, whereas by the nineteenth century it had become known as a moral and mental disease. The prejudice in our century remains that a mad Artaud is also an immoral Artaud.

    You claim he had a “fiercely destructive moral drive.” I see no evidence of this in the biographies although his essay “Van Gogh:The Man Suicided by Society” is probably as much about himself as Van Gogh. If you need to compare Artaud to political extremists then you should also contrast the contemporary suicide bombers to the self-immolation by Buddhist monks in 1960’s Vietnam. Artaud “signaling through the flames” could belong to one but not the other.


  4. Nick, you’re making a number of assumptions about my moral take on this that I find interesting, but which are inaccurate. Your shock at the thought of Artaud being compared to a terrorist, for example. What is a terrorist? It’s a word that is almost meaningless, given that the same acts (randomly killing people in order to manipulate a civilian population through fear) are labelled terrorist in some cases and legitimate warfare in others. An artist like Artaud illuminates the hypocrisies of these false divisions. I wouldn’t apply Bush’s false definitions to an argument about Artaud: Artaud is a better tool for applying to Bush.

    Of course revolutionary artists are, in a crucial and profound sense, activists, and many actually are activists, although artists always fit uncomfortably in political worlds. Artaud was not interested in social revolution (though there are very few modernist artists who did not flirt with the huge ideologies of the time, whether communism, socialism or fascism), but he was still interested in changing the world. And his ideas, from the point of view of a State that wishes to exert absolute control, are as dangerous – maybe more dangerous – as any social activist. And he meant them to be, he wanted them to exert real effects in a real world. What worries me about what you’re saying here about separating “poetic” from “political” activism is that they are not so easily divided (from the Romantics to the Modernists on) and you run the danger of doing what the State wants, ie, of claiming that art is “above” politics and has no relation to or purchase on the “real” world. This is a very complex argument, and I don’t have the space or time to make the proper distinctions here. Art is an enactment, of course, and creates its own alternative and virtual space, which is a different space to that in which those acts which we call terrorist (and those other acts which are not called terrorist) exist. It is a space of possibility. That is what is dangerous about it as far as the State is concerned; it does not want certain possibilities to be articulated. That is also, of course, why the State objects to terrorism. It does not object to people being murdered or tortured or having their homes or families destroyed, although this is what it claims is wrong about terrorism. If it did object to these things, it wouldn’t practice them itself. As far as the State is concerned, terrorism is wrong, as art is wrong, because it suggests other worlds than this one are possible.

    The difference between terrorism and art is that terrorism, unlike art, is almost wholly nihilist. I don’t think even Artaud is nihilist: no artist can be, because he or she practises art, which makes as well as destroys. The best description of terrorism I ever read is in Blaise Cendrars’ amazing short novel, Moravagine, where he describes the anarchists in Russia: it’s terrifying description, because he describes the attraction of the pure act. But again, this is where I come back to Artaud, because the pure act is what he wanted to achieve, and I personally have problems with the whole idea of purity.

    Some of your objections seem to me to come out of fear. Well, I guess there’s good reason for that. My country has passed new Sedition laws that mean that I could go to prison for seven years for things I have already written. Even, perhaps, this post. As far as the State is concerned, Artaud’s ideas and Osama bin Laden’s are equally threatening. Hence the bizarre and otherwise reasonless prosecution of the Critical Art Ensemble. But what if they are equally dangerous, even though one is art and the other is “real”? I think the State is pretty good at identifying threats to its pursuit of absolute power. And make no mistake, that kind of State is what we’re getting, in Britain, the US and here. Believe it or not, here we now have the most repressive laws in the so-called Free World.

    You claim he had a “fiercely destructive moral drive.”

    Maybe best to quote Artaud here, again from Theatre and the Plague: “…perhaps the theatre’s poison, injected into the social body, disintegrates it, as St Augustine says, but at least it does so as a plague, as an avenging scourge, a redeeming epidemic … The theatre like the plague is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure. And the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or extreme purification. Similarly the theatre is a disease because it is the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction…. We can see, to conclude, that from the human point of view, the action of theatre, like that of plague, is beneficial, for, impelling men to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness and hypocrisy of our world…”

  5. Alison,

    I’ll be as simple as possible. I am shocked by your comparison of Artaud to the killers Osama bin Laden and Pol Pot and your suggestion he would have considered the 9/11 attacks a work of art.

    And unless you believe Artaud would have literally released smallpox, anthrax, or some other biological weapon on a population if he could, how does the essay you quote prove a fiercely destructive moral drive? We are both reading the same words. You seem to be deliberately misreading them for the sake of your argument.


  6. I don’t know how you read then, Nick. That quote from Artaud seems pretty clear and unambiguous to me, as indeed does the whole of that essay. Who knows what Artaud may or may not have done? I don’t.

    I am sorry you’re so shocked, but I do not mean to be shocking. It might be better to put your moral outrage aside from a moment and have a good, cool look at what drove Pol Pot (extreme Marxism) and what drives Bin laden (Wahhabite Islam, a Fundamentalist Islamic sect). Neither did what they did without reason: both sought a “purer” world in this world, free of worldly corruption. Both are visionaries of the most destructive kind.

    Artaud is interesting, in my view, precisely because he is so extreme: he articulates a dilemma. Does art have agency, or not? If it does, then what are the implications of what Artaud is saying? What do you do with someone like Artaud (or, indeed, with any great artist with extreme and discomforting ideas)?

    Most people, as I said in my review, cherrypick what is useful: the stuff he wrote about Balinese theatre, for example. And that is perfectly fine and has produced a lot of great theatre. But to return to Artaud: do you think he meant what he said in, say, Theatre and the Plague? Or in the Theatre of Cruelty (eg, that theatre’s “only value is in its excruciating, magical relation to reality and danger”). Or are they simply empty gestures, words and ideas that do not mean in this material world? Do you think that perhaps you emasculate Artaud in attempting to protect him? I think Maurice Saillet’s comment that, for Artaud, theatre “was only a pretext” is revealing. What, then, is it a pretext for?

  7. Alison, I am more dumbfounded than outraged now. Of course Artaud meant what he said in Theatre and the Plague. But you read him the way a State prosecutor would, not as your favorite artists have.

    Susan Sontag explains how many artists (myself included) have read/practiced Artaud.

    “Artaud’s work becomes usable according to our needs, but the work vanishes behind our use of it. When we tire of using Artaud, we can return to his writings.”

  8. If you’re reading Sontag, refer to the bit in her essay Artaud where she talks very eloquently of Artaud’s moral centre. It is Sontag who compares him to Cromwell and Savanarola – Savanarola burned both people and texts, and might be a Catholic Bin laden, and Cromwell killed a lot of people and prosecuted idolatry with fanatic zeal – I’ve seen the churches with the ghosts of murals scraped off the walls by the New Model Army. Like Pol Pot, maybe. Perhaps these seem less offensive to you than contemporary examples, since maybe the past doesn’t seem real to you.

    I happen to think Sontag is very accurate about Artaud, mainly I guess because I agree with her. I am only sorry she got there first, because people will think I am copying her, whereas I thought these things all by myself. *Pout*

    As for the prosecution bit: you are reading into my work a moral stance that I do not hold. Perhaps you are, in fact, projecting your own moralising on to me; certainly, you haven’t answered one single question that I asked, where I have answered all of yours. Where am I “prosecuting” Artaud? I am simply pointing out what you just said above: in the original review, in fact, I said that “making Artaud is, in many ways, unmaking Artaud”.

    Please don’t misrepresent what I say. I will willingly argue any point, but I am not interested in defending arguments that I didn’t make. And as for the implicit division between “artist” and “critic” that you are drawing here: I am an artist first, and argue from the point of view of an artist, debating questions that impinge on my own practice.

  9. Hi Alison,

    I found this intense portrait study of Artaud on the web today by a very interesting artist, Sabine Vess.

    When I look at this artist’s journey through art and life as she documents it, her exploration seems simultaneously akin and completely contradictory to my own.

    She seems to have found a meta-theatrical home now with the street children of Peru.  Even if I would have the “moral rigor” for something like this, I still wouldn’t have the gentle generosity needed to do it, but its an ambition I immensely admire.

    My defense of Artaud is zealous not jealous. I believe Sabrine Vess found in her study of Artaud certain insights into her art and life that she holds as ardently as I do my own, but which are completely divergent. Susan Sontag, a critic and artist we both admire, is another such person. (I do not have her passage on Artaud’s moral rigor that you refer to, so cannot comment on it.) I am sure that many other more famous and more obscure artists than Susan and Sabrine have also passionately studied Artaud and applied lessons learned into their art and life.

    There was obviously a certain “moral rigor” within Sontag’s makeup that commissions her in 1993 to produce Godot in Sarajevo under the daily shelling and sniper fire. The theatre she produces then is both identical and polar opposite to the theatre with street children Sabrine Vess does now in Peru. Susan and Sabrine would probably prefer that we termed their moral rigor as moral conviction. It sounds more normal and rational.

    We can equate the moral rigor of Mahatma Gandhi and Che Guevara and Bin Laden.

    Yes, you can compare the moral rigor of Artaud to Gandhi, but why?

  10. One day, in 1992, I met Artaud, reading his ‘Mexico’. I had never heard of him before. I bought all his books available in German, my mother tongue. I had to draw and paint him. I came across streetchildren. In Amsterdam, in Africa, in Peru. Finally, being able to speek their language, I offered to do theater with them on their lives. Don’t ask me why, I just had and have to do it. Sabine Vess

  11. Artaud didn’t want to destroy civilization, he wanted to destroy theatre. Artaud was an enemy of traditional theatre, he simply deplored the concept of life being regurgitated and using theatre as a conduit to explore morality. Artaud was a spiritualist set on exploring the metaphysical expressions of human suffering, he didn’t want to cause suffering, he wanted both the performers and audience to feel their emotions truly, almost like a nod to stanisvlaski’s method approach but removing the constrictions of language as a form of literal communication. The Theatre of Cruelty in no way presents itself as a method of destruction or destructive tendencies but as a conduit through which all human suffering could be expressed. Artaud would not have congratulated the efforts of 9/11 but expressed a need to release the energy of pain that the event had caused.


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