Writing about violence in popular culture tends to be structured around a paradox. Most consumers of the latest blockbuster film or TV show are, on the whole, further away from life-threatening danger than at almost any other point in human history. But, these consumers have, because of the ubiquity of images, more opportunities to witnesses human pain, cruelty, and suffering than perhaps any other generation. Generally, this insight has provoked little more than pearl clutching from the anxious and boring who, throughout the aughties, got off on decrying the latest video game, television series, or film.
Now that the dust has settled, there seems to be very little capable of shocking anyone. The socially conservative, having made peace with the proliferation of obscenity, content themselves with bemoaning to an audience of the like-minded in the pages of the right-wing press. There one can find the National Review’s Armond White grumbling eloquently about the “feminist myths” of privileged victimhood in Spencer, Pablo Larraín’s film depiction of a bulimic and self-destructive princess. But beyond this little world, who still worries, or even thinks critically, about depictions of self-harm and violence?
Philippa Snow, a brilliant British film, TV and art critic, who has made her name writing about popular culture, has most recently turned her attention to this perennial question. Her first book, Which as You Know Means Violence: On Self-Injury as Art and Entertainment, is a slim volume divided into four sections. Their focus is the difference, or lack thereof, between the performed goofball violence of Johnny Knoxville and his gang of Jackasses and its high-culture counterpart in the work of figures like Marina Abramović, the Serbian performance artist.
As with all of her criticism, what Snow offers is curiosity and a lack of dogmatism. This is a standpoint which allows her to engage with the various subjects she reflects on motivated only by the question of what makes them interesting. Though this approach produces its own blind spots, the insights that Snow generates are always enlightening.
No Harm Just Violence
In the book’s opening section, Snow sets out her central problem:
I found it harder and harder to tell the difference between what Johnny Knoxville et al. did and what, for instance, Chris Burden had done in 1971 when he enlisted an anonymous friend to shoot him in the arm as what he called a commentary on “a sort of American tradition of getting shot.”
Along with Burden and Knoxville, Snow also reflects on the work of other artists who are, in their own ways, obsessed with violence and self-harm. These include Ron Athey, a BDSM practitioner who explored social deviance in his performances (and has spent his career riling up the fundamentalist Christian right); Bob Flanagan, an artist who used sadomasochist practices to explore his chronic struggle with cystic fibrosis, eventually filming his death for his last performance in the documentary Sick (1997); and Harmony Korine, a transgressive filmmaker and author of Crack Up at the Race Riots, a book which Snow describes as a “collection of vignettes that pushed the boundaries of good taste.”
Through her measured prose, Snow explains what she finds valuable across all these varied bodies of work. Korine’s personality, for instance, was characterized by a comic combination of self-destruction and self-effacement. In an interview on Letterman in 1998 the director, visibly intoxicated, tells the show’s host that he plans to shoot a sequel to Titanic set on a “rowboat.”
“Korine’s sense of humour,” Snow tells us, “sprang from an innate sense of being contradictory […] both hard and soft.” In an unfinished film, Fight Harm (1999), he recorded himself starting altercations with strangers; he was often left bloody and beaten in the process. Subjecting himself to the strength of others seems, Snow suggests, to serve as a means of exposing Korine’s narcissism and his vulnerability.
Self-destructive violence is not simply gratuitous, it does something. This is one of the key insights of As You Know. What Snow sets out to do is to examine the content of this something. In her analysis of Knoxville and the Jackass gang, she writes how the show demonstrates that “a body in immense pain can feel genderless.” Contra the perceived masculinity at the heart of the failed stunts the viewer witnesses in Jackass, what is perhaps most touching is the way that even pointless suffering provides these men with an insight into their mortality. This is the thread that connects the silly pointlessness of Knoxville’s gang with the serious pointlessness of performance artists like Abramović.
Big Boy Violence
The second chapter of As You Know contains a long discussion of Marina Abramović and gender. “Is it possible to earn one’s own seat at the big boy’s table, as a woman, not by laughing at your degradation, but adopting all that gung-ho, big-boy violence for oneself?” Snow asks. The question here is whether there is something distinct about being a woman artist interested in violence which Abramović’s work gives us an insight into.
Snow’s most convincing attempt to defend the uniqueness of Abramović’s approach comes in her discussion of the performance piece Relation in Space (1977). In it, the artist and her former collaborator and ex-partner, Ulay, repeatedly crash into each other, naked. Snow argues that the simplicity of the performance reveals the gendered imbalances of power between the couple. Though both artists fling themselves with full force at one another, it is the female body that comes off worse. This is exactly the consequence which, according to Snow, Abramovć intended to reveal.
Another illustrative example comes from Abramović’s infamous Rhythm 0. Standing silently in the middle of a room, she invited the audience to do whatever they please to her motionless body. The artists also placed bottles of wine, glasses, scissors, a loaded gun, and other paraphernalia on a nearby table. In one version of the performance, a fight broke out between audience members as a man attempted to manipulate Abramović’s finger into pulling the trigger while the gun was pointed at her head. A group then set themselves the task of protecting her.
What this illustrates for Snow is that the female artist, in contrast to her male counterpart, takes up the position of a martyr, embracing “possible annihilation as a demiurgic force.” Abramović’s performances are particularly startling because they, unlike those of Knoxville, solicit the violence of others, which the artist, sitting in silence, awaits. This, Snow tells us, produces a gendered position of weakness as performance becomes strength.
On the other side of the artistic spectrum, Jackass defined the culture of the early 2000s, which inspired a generation of teenage boys to beat each other up in increasingly novel and deranged ways. Snow argues that Jackass Forever (2022), which shows its stars as middle-aged men, makes clear the sacrifice in their acts. But the purpose of this self-harm, which, unlike Abramović’s does not seem to have any ethical meaning, remains unclear.
In “The Marching Band,” one of the Jackass gang’s stunts from their 2022 film, Knoxville leads the eponymously dressed crew with large instruments in hand as they circle round a small room. Lemming-like, they finally walk onto a treadmill on its fastest setting. A pile-up of bodies and instruments is left across the floor. In the latest movie, we see the aftermath of this stunt. Steve-O sits in a wheelchair with a neck brace on, a greying Knoxville looks at him and says, “You’ve still got those million-dollar teeth.” Steve-O smiles, revealing an impressive set of pearly whites, before pulling down a brace that exposes a single front tooth. “Yeah but they’re dropping like flies.” They both break into an unrestrained cackle. Captured in this brief exchange is the tenderness of two now-aging friends as they realize their bodies can no longer tolerate the consequences of their recklessness.
In comparing Jackass with the high-culture art of Abramović, Snow puts aside her usual judiciousness in favor of dogmatic and sometimes essentialist views about gender. “When men do hurt themselves, it tends to be in order to create a show of strength, and when women do, it tends to be either expressing a resistance to oppression, or embodying it physically in such a way as to unnerve or fuck with those watching them.” she writes.
Snow runs the risk of collapsing art and life into one another — women have the freedom to explore gender artistically, whereas men just do “bad” gender. If we are to treat Jackass as art, as Snow (quite rightly) does, then both Jackass and the performances of Abramović are not a show of strength but objects that “unnerve or fuck with” the audience. In both cases, the questions which force themselves on the viewer over and over again are, “What am I seeing? Why is this happening?”
As You Know is not guided by any attempt to stake out a clear position; this is to its benefit. The book is concerned with the question of why someone would injure their body in the name of art or entertainment, and why would anyone be interested this spectacle. At her best, Snow observes that the reasons for this are as complex and varied as people themselves. However, in other modes she falls back on tired ideas about the inherent differences between male and female artists and desires. This is a shame because if there is one lesson to be drawn from As You Know, it is that art makes clear how uncomfortably people fit into boxes.