The Grotesque in Art and Poetry

(Artwork by Chris Mars: The Puppeter)

“I learned it first from my Brother. He didn’t teach me; I watched it. They will pin a word on your chest and use it against you. They will create a word that’s excuse to take your humanity away.” 
– Chris Mars

Coming upon Chris Mars works suddenly jolted me back into the hyper-grotesque worlds that seemed to pervade my youth and young adulthood. The grotesque has always been associated with disjunctions between the vile and the comic, disgust and irony, provoking incongruities and uncertainties arising out of the irreconcilable dimensions of the grotesque in life and art. In describing his long journey into the grotesque artistic forms in which he works Chris Mars began with his brother who at a young age was diagnosed with schizophrenia. As he tells it “my brother Joe was fifteen years old, he was institutionalized for schizophrenia. He saw things, he heard things. Were these monsters? Was he?”. Living in such a culture as ours the world of people that do not fit into this tightly interlocked realm of commerce and the madhouse of capitalism are often labeled with erroneous epithets, closed off from society then become a part of a scientistic system that tends to treat them as objects with disrespect and indifference. This is not in all cases, and as Mars admits in his own descriptions of his bother’s incarceration “Through some thirty years of his treatment, he encountered compassionate souls, both fellows and caregivers. He was also neglected and exploited by individuals and a system more interested in commerce and statistics than his very well-being. Were these exploiters monsters?”

It was out of this confrontation with the realm of asylums, hospitals, madness perceived or real that Mars own work would congeal into the grotesque journey to know and understand takes place. It was a journey to understand the monstrous, the reason why we’ve developed such categories and labels in the first place, and to understand why lies within and below in the hinterlands of such realms that society is so fearful of and tries its best of both demonize and moralize into terms of ‘evil’:

“I have great empathy toward Monsters, or more accurately, Perceived Monsters. To me, Monsters are more like misfits, people who are physically deformed, or rather, uniquely formed (as indeed we all are, each of us); or, people who are mentally on a different plane than the majority. By this definition, might I be speaking even of you? I am sympathetic toward Perceived Monsters, because I have known and loved perceived monsters, and have felt this way myself.”

My reason for involving the forms of grotesque in my own art is that it offers a creative force for conceptualizing the indeterminate that is produced by distortion, and reflecting on the significance of the uncertainty that is thereby produced. As Justin Edwards and Rune Graulund tell us in their work Grotesque this means that the discombobulating juxtapositions and bizarre combinations found in grotesque figures in literature and the other arts open up an indeterminate space of conflicting possibilities, images and figures. A grotesque body that is incomplete or deformed forces us to question what it means to be human: these queries sometimes arise out of the literal combination of human and animal traits or, at other times, through the conceptual questions about what it means to deviate from the norm.1

It is the abnormal, the deformed, the freakish that seem to arouse feelings of disgust and strange revulsions in us that have over time become associated with false moralizing creeds in our cultures and sub-cultures to the point of marking such abnormalities as ‘evil’ which to me needs to be overcome. First off: What is normal, anyway? As Umberto Eco in his two excellent volumes on History of Beauty and On Ugliness notes, most of our notions surrounding normal/abnormal are not due to aesthetic criteria but more often can be attributed to socio-political and cultural norms in any particular era. As Eco recognizes after a few hundred pages on the History of Ugliness we all live with deformities of mind or body in one form or another now, our age itself is monstrous; and, yet, it seems we still castigate the most obvious deformities an lock them away from sight as if we could hide from our own monstrous selves. Eco ends with a parable from Italo Calvino another Italian master whose character in the story notices that the monsters (as he terms them) in a specific asylum are being given the opportunity to vote in a local election, yet because of their inability to do this their caretakers are able by proxy to do this for them. He wants to object to this, but realizes in the end that the caretakers who live so close to these deformed ones of mind or body should in fact be allowed to vote for them since they know like no others the knowing truth of those for whom they care. Eco ends saying that the grotesque opens onto the tragic through the comic and shows by way of compassion the resistance of the caretakers as they endure and help those they serve and who are in their trust.

Yet, there is the other side of the monstrous, the reality of the true monsters in our midst. As Chris Mars tells us:

“There are Real Monsters that walk this earth, cruel, evil people; oppressive, dehumanizing beliefs. I despise Real Monsters, because of their nature and their acts; and because of a public willingness to have this label, “Monster”, shared between those that are ‘different’ and those that are evil. The word Monster in its original application describes a child born with a physical deformity. What does it mean that our society has taken this word now to mean “evil”? Where is that leap between appearances, either physical or emotional, and the specifically dark nature of one’s soul? All of this speaks of a shallowness I seek to conquer. My work is about looking beyond the outer to the inner, and finding with this the true definition of Beauty – which is beyond form.”

 The Grotesque since the early Gothic novels of the macabre and grotesque associated most closely with the work of Poe and his progeny has typically been about the vile and excessive violation of the laws of natural existence. The word ‘grotesque’ is linked to the word ‘grotto’: the English word derives from the Italian pittura grottesca, meaning a work (or painting) found in a grotto and refers to the rooms in ancient buildings in Rome which were excavated to reveal murals in a grotesque style. Indeed, the grotto is, like the labyrinth or the crypt, a disorienting and threatening place that inflames anxiety and fear. It is also a potential place of spatial internment that echoes the state of being confined within the physical limits of grotesque bodies. (Edwards/Grauland, p. 5) For grotesque bodies are , at times, incomplete, lacking in vital parts, as they sometimes have pieces cut out of them: limbs are missing, to be replaced sometimes by phantom limbs, and bodily mutations become dominant traits. (ibid. p. 2)


The Laocoön and His Sons in the Vatican is described by Camille Paglia as showing “the theatrical perversity of late style: heroic male athleticism strained and bursting, strangled by serpents. Beautiful and grotesque conjoin. Late-phase art defiles high classic form with mother nature’s sex and violence . Dionysus, bound down by Apollo, always escapes and returns with a vengeance.”2

This sense of the defamation of the high styles of culture by the raw power and force of the natural forms of sex and violence seems befitting of our era in which war, famine, disease, decay, and the dark systems of capital and communism have joined in a crossover forms to lock our world into a grotesque and tragic-comic realm all to real and full of sex and violence as the natural world, too, begins to reek havoc upon her children. We seem to deny the very things in front of us as if they would all go away, as if we could just look the other way as we do those poor souls with deformed bodies and minds. But the deformed body of the planet will not hide, will not go away, and will not be denied. The old notion of Anima Mundi or the World Soul also seems to be making its way back into our consciousness with such strange meshings as Gaia and Science in of all places as Bruno Latour in his Gifford Lectures. The world soul (ψυχὴ κόσμου, anima mundi) is, according to several systems of thought, an intrinsic connection between all living things on the planet, which relates to our world in much the same way as the soul is connected to the human body. For Latour:

Gaia is not half science and half religion. It offers a much more enigmatic set of features that redistribute agencies in all possible ways (as does this most enigmatic term “anthropocene”). Thus, it is far from clear what it means to “face Gaia”. It might require us to envisage it very differently from the various divinities of the past (including those derived from nature).

As the theme in those lectures would have it there is a reemergence of  ‘natural religion’ which explores what it could mean to live at the epoch of the Anthropocene when what was until now a mere décor for human history is becoming the principal actor. They confront head on the controversial figure of Gaia, that is, the Earth understood not as system but as what has a history, what mobilizes everything in the same geostory. Gaia is not Nature, nor is it a deity. In order to face a secular Gaia, we need to extract ourselves from the amalgam of Religion and Nature. It is a new form of political power that has to be explored through a renewed attempt at political theology composed of those three concepts: demos, theos and nomos. It is only once the multiplicity of people in conflicts for the new geopolitics of the Anthropocene is recognized, that the ‘planetary boundaries’ might be recognized as political delineations and the question of peace addressed. Neither Nature nor Gods bring unity and peace. ‘The people of Gaia’, the Earthbound might be the ‘artisans of peace’.
(see: Bruno Latour – download a text version: pdf )

My own poetry more and more tends toward this grotesque conjoining of the sublime and the ridiculous, the beautiful defiled by the sex and violence of natural order and the artificial orders of the human. If we are to rehumanise our world it will be only by way of incorporating the inhuman element both within our own lives and the life of earth around us. We need to break the molds of the old humanistic worldview and create something new out of the old, not the destruction of the old but its metamorphosis into new worlds where the inhuman becomes our humanity. As Latour suggests we are living in the Anthroposcene era in which humanity is having an effect upon the base survival strategies of not only ourselves but of all organic life, Gaia being the focal point of that: and, the need to demystify her symbolic relations to both the older forms of the Greek Gods as well as the conceptions of Nature as a System or Order of Things guided by strict laws that can be reduced to some mathematical description to be dominated and controlled. This form of order of scientism is of no use, and is actually one of the principle and concerted problems we face in overcoming many of the natural catastrophes ahead. We need new forms, new conceptions or concepts; yet, most of all we need new poems, new images to guide us into this time. Poetry bring all of the worlds together in ways that descriptive science, history, and all other forms of writing cannot do. We need to believe in poetry again.

Chris Mars site:

1. Edwards, Justin; Graulund, Rune (2013-05-29). Grotesque (The New Critical Idiom) (p. 3). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Paglia, Camille (1990-09-10). Sexual Personae (p. 99). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

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