Dear Grandma: Notes on the “Grotesque” in Modern Art

by Shaina

After I started this blog, my grandma commented on a link I shared from it on Facebook.  Yeah, my grandma is cool and has a Facebook.  As a matter of fact, you should like her page, “Marilyn Bogdanffy” (artist).  She is an artist, which is why I found her comment interesting.  She said,

“Why is your generation so bent on seeing the bad, sad and the ugly in their art? I get the black humor but it worries me.”  

and later commented on a print I posted:

“You’ve had the best of everything–cheer up!”

Her argument, for my case at least, was that kids who have a normal/privileged upbringing don’t have much to be upset about.  And then (and here I’m sort of inferring/extrapolating from her comment to encompass other artists of my generation who come from all walks of life), I think she wanted to know why the grotesque is more prevalent in all modern art.

My immediate reaction, being the contrarian that I am, was to ask, “is the grotesque really more prevalent in modern art?”  Was her question valid at all?  What about some of the artists who came before her–artists she undoubtedly studied during her development as an artist?  An easy example could be Egon Schiele.  What was up with his obsession with all those anorexic bitches?  What about the classic beauty of the curvy, feminine form?  I happen to love his work, but some would probably not enjoy his incorporation of the grotesque with beauty.

Grotesque?  Maybe...

Grotesque? Maybe…

Let’s go back a bit further: what about Hieronymous Bosch?  Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights has to be one of the most astoundingly grotesque/chaotic pieces of its time and even transcends the profanity of a lot of modern art.  Before even considering its meaning and/or message, let’s consider its general aesthetic.  It’s fucking ridiculous (I say that in awe and respect; it is actually my favorite piece of all time).  The triptych starts with this biblical scene of Adam and Eve, and then it goes into this insane depiction of society giving in to temptation and getting a little bit crazy.  It’s sort of like an old school orgy meets Burning Man meets “The Purge.”  Meets the bible.  And then, of course, there is the fiery hellscape after to show what happens when you engage in such activity.  Or at least to show how many people of Bosch’s time thought you would end up having exercised such flimsy egotistic will in life on earth.  Long story short, the piece is grotesque.  But we love it.


It's still sodomy, even if you say it with flowers.

It’s still sodomy, even if you say it with flowers.

And then let’s not forget Goya.  Do I even need to say anything?  I mean…really, Goya.

Saturn eating his son...I mean...if eating your son isn't grotesque...

Saturn eating his son…I mean…if eating your son isn’t grotesque…

So, I do argue that we, as a generation, are not a whole lot darker than the previous generations.  However, I will not simply dismiss the question as a crock of shit, because I do think our approach to art is changing.  And, of course, I don’t think a woman who has been actively observing the art world for over forty years would be making up a noticeable trend.

So, what is up with modern art?  What are we doing differently?  How are we being inspired?  For me, the word of our generation is disillusionment.  We’re done.  Done with ideals, done with synthetic happiness, done with living up to standards created by people situated in a different context, done with classic, done with society, done with bullshit.  That may sound very angsty teen.  I don’t really care how it sounds; it’s valid, and I’ll explain.  It’s an important point, because we aren’t a bunch of depressed, excessively emotional young people obsessing on the ugly.  There’s a method to the change.

Still framing this in response to my grandmother, I will quickly compare our generations to best explain why things are different now, and why, as I claimed earlier, we are done with so many things.  Our grandparents were alive during the Great Depression.  Most of them didn’t have much.  In my grandma’s case, she lost her father at a young age due to a freak accident, and her mother had to raise her as a single mother during lean times.  I’m sure that was  not easy.  In any case, my grandma grew up with a normal life, met my grandfather and married young, as they did back then, and then she started a family and raised four kids.  My grandfather served in the Navy and then worked as an engineer, and they provided a pretty classic middle-class American life for my mom and her siblings.  I’m sure they had times that were tougher and times that were easier, as most families do, but it seems to me that they were a happy, normal family.  As a matter of fact, she raised my mom and my aunt and uncles in the same town my parents raised my siblings and me.

Life was different for me.  I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs with three siblings.  I would categorize my upbringing as privileged.  I got to go on vacations with my family almost every year growing up, my parents were able to send me to an Ivy League school, and I never really experienced any socio-economic struggles.  But as anyone living knows, it doesn’t really matter how rich or poor you are growing up or otherwise; happiness is not really tied to financial ease.  Essentially, although money can help or hurt, it really cannot fuck with the crazy that already exists in our own minds.  The one privilege that I think is truly influential is having a loving family, which I did, and that was great.  That aside, though, I believe that privilege cannot change the emotions we are all able to have, entitled to have, and going to have.

So, here we are.  Some of us are more privileged than some of those from my grandmother’s generation; some of us are less privileged.  But when it comes to emotional inspiration for art, we all have the same feelings.  Life evokes passion, nostalgia, depression, hope…for all of us, because we are all human.  So no one is innately or contextually worse off, emotionally, let’s say.  But we have a different way of addressing those evocative things in our art.  And in society.

Let’s go back to the idea of disillusionment.  There are a lot of standards that society accepted during my grandmother’s lifetime that our generation has decided to eschew.  For example, I’m sure the ideal female figure back then (in magazines and social scenes–not necessarily fine art) was always the thin model type.  That was still the ideal when we were teens.  People still want to be skinny; I’d be full of shit if I said I wasn’t fighting off my craving for a fat bagel smothered in cream cheese right fucking now for the sake of dropping a pound or two.  But these days, people are interested in different body types.  Thanks to the hip hop industry, my ass is more like a deity than a reason to go to the gym right now.  Ten years ago, people would probably consider me fat.  But now I’m just “probably related to Nicki Minaj” or something.  That’s cool with me.  Long story short, our generation has gone ahead and said “fuck you skinny bitches in the motherfucking club.”

The resemblance is pretty uncanny.

The resemblance is pretty uncanny.

We also do things like get married at forty.  We also fight for gay rights.  We also put our interests before our income.  We think about shit.  We take less for granted.  We question things.  As I mentioned earlier, I’m a contrarian.  I aim to be a rebel against bullshit, but a lot of times I end up playing devil’s advocate regardless of the situation.  Sometimes I unconsciously undermine myself.  The point is, nothing goes unquestioned.  We want reasons for the way things are.  We’re not content to be comfortable.

And that’s what’s showing up in our art.  Questions brought on by disillusionment.  Asking if things are right.  Giving everyone a voice.  Observing, playing voyeur, playing reporter.  Perhaps you do not know what the hell I’m talking about.  Because this is still an explanation to my grandma of my art, I will talk about a piece I did.  This piece, which I call “Train Experiences (#ILOVETRAIN),” is a large canvas on which I wrote snippets of stories I’ve experienced on the lovely subways of New York.  It is ugly, to be sure, and that is because I have terrible handwriting.  But it goes with the vibe I get on the subways, because it’s all gritty and pretty crappy on underground trains as it goes.


Anyway, the first part comes from a time I got on the train after work at two in the morning, and there was a girl crying on the bench in the station.  I really prefer to listen to music on the way home, but I felt bad, so I asked her what was wrong.  She was sobbing but managed to eek out, “my boyfriend just told me he was gay.”  I ended up on the same train as her, and she cried the whole way, telling me how she should have known, because he was so conceited and obsessed with anal sex, and all this stuff…and to me, that was pretty funny.

Of course I felt bad for her, because no one wants to find out that their significant other is not sexually interested in them.  But this girl was talking to me without any inkling of who I was.  I could have been anyone.  Did she think, for one moment, that I might be gay?  She wasn’t a homophobe as much as she was naive, but she did say some things that I could’ve taken the wrong way.  But she was a drunk mess, and I didn’t judge her, because she was hurt.  But this was the kind of dark comedy that catches my attention.  The subways are replete with dark humor that borders on the terrible.

The second story in my piece is about a time I was going home after work and saw a woman with a very young boy on the train.  It was very late, and I didn’t know what a kid like that was doing out.  They didn’t look like they had money, but the kid could have been in school.  Why wasn’t he in bed?  And then a man across the train started flirting with the woman.   He was a dubious character and tactless enough to ask where the boy’s father was.  And the woman had said that he was dead.  In front of her son, who turned out to be just eight years old.  And then the man asked what happened.  What happened, for fuck’s sake?  And then the woman said he was stabbed.  And suddenly the boy goes, “he was stabbed in the stomach with a sharp pipe, like a ninja sword!”  That was shocking.  The levels of immaturity.  Of naivety.  Of comfort with a terrible occurrence like that.  How the boy didn’t quite seem to understand the severity of the issue/ how it was normalized to him.  That was a story that exploded dark humor.  It was dark…It was shocking.  But it was sick.

And then the last story was something that occurred to me once.  Nothing happened.  I was just on the E train back from JFK with my then girlfriend and saw this little girl on the train, and she was for some reason like this light thing in all the grime of the city.  It occurred to me that she might be god.  And it was a strange feeling, because I don’t really believe in any god.  But it did occur to me.  So this train piece was basically my desire to portray the sickness and oddness in the city that you get distilled on the train.  That’s it, perhaps.  Every train car a sample of New York’s finest.  Being trapped within ear and eyeshot.  Being a hostage to mouths.  This is my disillusionment…any New Yorker knows about it.  You hear songs about the Big Apple and all this bullshit Frank Sinatra shit, and then suddenly here you are.  And I still love it.  But what’s true is what we show.  I think Hemingway said that your writing will be good if you write the truth, and I think that goes for many things, like art.  And if, then, someone says it’s bad…are they calling us liars?

As for art by other modern artists, I would say the disillusionment is present for many.  Take Lena Dunham.  She’s one of the most influential artists right now, and her voice is honest.  I think it’s fair to say that her writing calls bullshit.  Great example: whereas TV shows of yore aimed to sell romance and hot sex, there’s that episode of Girls when Dunham’s character, Hannah, has sex with her friend’s awkward cousin (brother(?)) in the woods and later tells him, “you came in my thigh crease.”  That’s real.  Take the trend in cooking that chefs are following using lower brow ingredients and even junk food.  They’re calling bullshit on the fancy.  Old money cooking is still alive and well, but chefs like Christina Tosi are all getting at the id of the diner, asking us if we really prefer caviar over Cornflakes.

It’s all getting pretty ugly, by old society’s standards.  We’re promoting reality.  It’s chaotic, for sure.  But we’re over the masochism of white tablecloths and landscapes of rolling hills and excessively flowery literature.  We want the truth, I think.  And sure, we still want to escape it as much as anyone else, but we’re not into fronting.  Fronting, grandma, is acting like something is one way when it’s really not.  Putting up a farce, so to speak.  But we’re happy when we’re happy, like anyone else, and the institution of portraying happiness is still a thing.  Take Narwhal Jones, for example.