Book Review: “Brut: Writings on Art & Artists” — Proceed with Caution, But Proceed

By Vince Czyz

These are not persuasive essays; rather, they are thought-provoking juxtapositions of facts, observations, and speculations — with a teleology.

Brut: Writings on Art & Artists by Harold Jaffe. Anti-Oedipus Press, 144 pages, $12.95.

Harold Jaffe’s Brut: Writings on Art & Artists, a slim volume with a handsome cover, is a kind of call to arms. An insistence on aesthetic resistance. An exhortation to take your righteous rage out in your art or on whoever happens to be nearby (even if that’s you). “Uncontrollable anger is just even if deflected to a surrogate,” writes Jaffe. He extols van Gogh’s self-mutilation as a “sovereign response to an insupportable world” while advocating “art brut,” a phrase he ascribes to Jean Dubuffet and characterizes as art with “no social-induced boundaries.” Given the foregoing, Jaffe’s affinity for Surrealism and Dada — he’s particularly fond of Antonin Artaud and Tristan Tzara — should come as no surprise.

I admit the concept of the “sovereign” act, which Jaffe attributes to Georges Bataille and about which Jaffe says little else, makes me nervous. I can’t help recalling Andre Breton saying, “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” Breton justifies this statement by adding, “Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd with his belly at barrel-level.” And yet Breton himself, considered by many the founder and leader of the Surrealist movement, never took his own advice, suggested that the first statement is hyperbole and the second is the point. I worry, however, that Jaffe feels closer to the idea of running amok, pistol in hand. In “Dada,” for example, a piece that mentions Breton and Tzara, he lists Charles Manson and Ted Kaczynski under the heading of “artistic brilliance.”

Jaffe is a veteran writer with 28 books to his credit, including 14 docufiction collections, four novels, and a pair of essay collections. He won three Pushcart Prizes and landed two National Endowment for the Arts grants. His fiction has been included in Best American Short Stories, and his work has been widely translated (15 languages).

Brut, it seems, falls mostly into the docufiction category, a genre analogous, I assume, to the autobiographical novel: a history interspersed with fictional elements. The pieces are short, ranging from just about the right size to fit in a fortune cookie to seven or so pages (averaging, I’d say, about three). Some seem to lean far more toward fiction, such as “Last Tango in Paris,” an imaginary interview in which Jaffe asks Marlon Brando questions about the 1971 film Brando made with Maria Schneider. Several are autobiographical, including “Black Orpheus,” in which the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice seems to manifest in the author’s life in eerie ways. Most are biographical sketches of public figures (mostly artists): Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Paul Sartre, Alberto Giacometti, Albert Camus, Yukio Mishima, Nina Simone, Herman Melville, Mark Rothko, Clarice Lispector, Black Elk, John Berger, and John Coltrane, to name a few.

The bite-size bios at first seem connected to each other only in a general way — Rothko’s suicide, Pasolini’s murder, Giacometti’s sole reason for painting and sculpting (“he wanted to learn to see”), Mishima’s theatrical suicide, Berger’s espousal of the Palestinian cause (an echo of a more in-depth look at the Palestinian situation in “Suicide Bomber”), Camus’s anarchism — until you consider them in the light of the sovereign act, a concept that isn’t elucidated until the eponymous and final piece in the collection. Suddenly the collection’s invisible backbone shows itself: almost every piece of writing in the collection contains a sovereign act of one sort or another (often suicide). “Human Shield,” just two sentences long, fits right in:

“Impelled by idealism insert your body between war technology and its invested ethnocides.


The pieces are highly readable — you can probably get through the entire collection in two long sittings — and often bring to light obscure facts (assuming they are indeed facts and not fictional conveniences). Several mix in autobiographical experiences, such as “Rothko,” in which Jaffe has an epiphany inspired by wall scrawl in the toilet of a luncheonette.

Author Harold Jaffe — he exhorts artists to acts of greater creativity, freedom, and defiance. Photo: Wiki Commons.

One of the problems for me was that the pieces were often a bit too skeletal. When, for example, Jaffe walks from the West Village to the Guggenheim Museum (“Rothko”), I would have loved a sentence or two describing the city’s streets, maybe a paragraph that encapsulated New York “in the Age of Aquarius” (1971). Similarly, in “Black Orpheus” Jaffe mentions “near accidents, unexpected visitors, waking visions, unprecedented dreams” (in what way I wonder) in the context of Jungian synchronicity, but doesn’t provide any examples.

Another issue for me is the unknown fictive element. In “Pasolini,” for example, it seems that in order to turn Pasolini’s death into a sovereign act, Jaffe draws on a version of the director’s brutal murder that’s been discredited — Pasolini somehow “antagonized” the young male prostitutes he frequented. “Years later,” Jaffe writes, “a theory floated: Pasolini deliberately provoked his sordid murder to demonstrate the dread “meaning” of life, employing himself as shaman. [itals Jaffe’s] I believe that strange story and in truth admire it. I think of other figures who might get themselves murdered to demonstrate a principle.”

Giuseppe Pelosi was convicted of the murder based on a prison confession, which, according to The Guardian, he later retracted, “saying that two brothers and another man had killed Pasolini, calling him a ‘queer’ and ‘dirty communist’ as they beat him to death. They frequented, he said, the Tiburtina branch of the MSI neo-fascist party.” The body was desecrated in ways that imply intense homophobia: his pants were pulled down to his knees, his testicles were crushed, he was run over repeatedly with his own car, and the body was set on fire.

Moreover, I’m not sold on Jaffe’s admiration for the death wish he attributes to Pasolini. Nor do I think, as Jaffe asserts, that van Gogh murdered himself at the age of 37 to make a point. While it’s true he shot himself in the chest, he also accepted medical treatment. Unfortunately, a surgeon couldn’t be found to remove the bullet, and he died some 30 hours later of an infection. His last words were “The sadness will last forever.” It seems less a principle he was dying for than the blackest sort of despair he was suffering from. Nor does his attack on his earlobe strike me a sovereign act. I have a feeling that van Gogh’s penchant for self-harm resulted from a complex of factors that ultimately had very little to do with sending a message. I worry that Jaffe is in danger of romanticizing suicide, especially when artists are involved, and of ignoring the facts — which docufictions are allowed to do — in favor of seeing what he wants to see.

While proceed with caution (or skepticism) might be the best way to read this eclectic collection, I do think it’s worth reading. These are not persuasive essays; rather, they are thought-provoking juxtapositions of facts, observations, and speculations — with a teleology. Jaffe makes interesting connections between lives and across disciplines while illuminating some of the darker corners of art history. More importantly, he urges artists and those who care about art to take social expectations and conventions and weave them into a welcome mat. He exhorts artists to acts of greater creativity, freedom, and defiance. I can imagine a novelist, in the midst of being lectured about what’s trending at publishing houses, punching out his agent while Jaffe smiles with approval.

Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.

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