Vulnerability, a meme that previously had little traction outside the world of self-help literature and 12 step programs, has gone mainstream. Brene Brown came at it straight on in a Tedx talk back in 2010. That speech went viral immediately and she became the “vulnerability expert” almost overnight.
Brown’s contention is that vulnerability, a dirty word in a culture that worships invincibility, is the key to so much that really matters. According to her research, vulnerability is the “birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Until I encountered Brown’s work, I never used that V Word in a personal way. I treated it like a malaise rather than the source bed of creativity Brown claims it to be. For those of us who fashioned lives that have relied on a fierce defiance and an inviolate defense system, it wasn’t part of the working lexicon. Brown’s work helped me dismantle my resistance and see its importance to me as a human and as an artist.
But it is so personal, this concept, and not easily applied across the broad spectrum. So of course I was very curious when culture critic Thyrza Nichols Goodeve chose to explore how it plays in that larger domain of art. As guest art editor for the Brooklyn Rail, Goodeve queried artists and writers about their views on vulnerability. She asked her colleagues about experiences with art that have “made you fragile, made you question fundamental beliefs about your self, the world, or art in general; moments when the art before you made you question the very discourse you have learned in order to evaluate art in the first place…Are there experiences you have had with art that have broken through moments of cynicism, despair, intellectual exhaustion, especially when the kind of art that provokes this may surprise you?”
As part of this project, Vulnerability and its Vicissitudes, Goodeve interviewed Ernesto Pujol, a performance artist who describes his performance practice as “vulnerability as methodology.” Part of their conversation surfaced some important distinctions:
Goodeve: I love this idea of vulnerability as a methodology, as a kind of work or strategy. But before we go on, what is vulnerability? The etymology of the word is derived from the late Latin vulnerābilis, wounding, vulnerāre, to wound, vulnus, vulner-, wound.
Pujol: There is a difference between being fragile and being vulnerable. Being fragile is being insubstantial, easily damaged, or completely broken, sometimes permanently. Vulnerability consists of a critical self-knowledge, which acts as the solid ground for generous listening toward a compassionate creativity. Vulnerability is part of true intelligence.
That is a brave assertion, that “vulnerability is part of true intelligence.” Goodeve also includes a quote by Gregory Whitehead from Display Wounds, Ruminations of a Vulnerologist that resonated for me as well:
No wound ever speaks for itself. The only thing that you will find emerging spontaneously from a wound is blood. If you’re interested in the deeper significance, then wounds have to be read. They have to be interpreted and deciphered. Vulnerology, or the science of wounds, is the activity of this interpretation.
Several colleagues responded to Goodeve with essays including Jerry Saltz, Ann McCoy and Mark Dery. Saltz and McCoy both wrote in a very direct manner, sharing their deep dive into a personal and vulnerable space: Saltz addresses the “radical vulnerability” he experienced in reading Richard Ellmann‘s account of Oscar Wilde‘s painful ordeal in jail, and McCoy takes us deeper into the disturbing reality of Colony Collapse Disorder among bees. She quotes Rudolph Steiner, “the sage of biodiversity,” who predicted this condition nearly one hundred years ago: “This germinating love that is spread out over the flowers is also contained in the honey they make.”
But not all take the invitation into the vulnerable quite so openheartedly. Dery’s approach is very different. “I abhor the sanctification of vulnerability, especially in the aesthetic realm, and have never, to the best of my knowledge, been made to feel fragile or vulnerable by a work of art,” he wrote.
Chacun à son goût. And perhaps as a sign of how things open when you step away from certainty, I do find a connection with all these points of view. But my favorite passage of all is at the end of Goodeve’s introductory essay where she recapitulates so many of my mixed feelings on this subject:
When it comes down to it, vulnerability is not all that productive a category for consideration of “art” in the grand sense. It’s too personal and context-specific. Too mushy and in a way, brings us back to the irritating side of the “what is art” question. But where it is important is in relation to the “us”—the bodies and the selves we drag around to museums, galleries, art fairs, and artists’ studios. For, as the essays published in this section reveal, it is the vicissitudes of vulnerability that take on importance, the “endless interpretability” of both art as Carter Ratcliff put it and of our experience as human animals living in a time of climate change and storms like Sandy. Perhaps it is here where we link up with the sacred as Avital Ronell suggests, not as piety or even some kind of sappy honesty but as insight driven by our openness to what David Ross calls “the power of the poetic,” what Hoderlin called “poet’s courage” —or what David Wojnarowicz names “the bottom line” in “Postcards from America: X-Rays From Hell”:
“Bottom line, this is my own feeling of urgency and need; bottom line, emotionally, even a tiny charcoal scratching done as a gesture to mark a person’s response to this epidemic means whole worlds to me if it is hung in public; bottom line, each and every gesture carries a reverberation that is meaningful in diversity; bottom line. We have to find our own forms of gesture and communication… bottom line, with enough gestures we can deafen the satellites and lift the curtains surrounding the control room.”
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