Histories of Violence: Writing Tragedy as an Art Form

February 28, 2022   •   By Brad Evans

THIS IS THE 56th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Carol Becker, professor of arts and dean of Faculty at Columbia University School of the Arts.

“WATERLICHT NYC,” by Daan Roosegaarde was commissioned by Carol Becker and the School of the Arts for Columbia University and presented on Columbia’s Manhattanville campus in front of the Lenfest Center for the Arts, October 22–24, 2019. Photo by Joel Jares.

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BRAD EVANS: As an admirer of your work for some considerable time, what I find most compelling about your writing style is how you refuse to conform even to your own stylistic past. It seems you put a great deal of effort into the work in terms of consciously outliving your own stylistic capture. To my estimation at least, this reveals something essential about what we might call the art of writing. Before dealing with the subject matters, however, that have become the focus for your extensive work, I wonder if you could provide some reflections on how you think being a dean of a globally renowned art school has impacted upon your writing style and the demands this role places upon you.

CAROL BECKER: My decades-long role as faculty and dean of two amazing art schools — The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia University School of the Arts — most assuredly has expanded how I think about form, creativity, production, risk, and the trajectory of my work. Mostly it has been my proximity to artists and their processes that has given me some insight into how to keep the work alive and in motion.

Years ago, when I was getting my PhD in English and American Literature, my professors made it clear that there was only one acceptable form for academic writing. Thinking as an intellectual came naturally to me, but this proscriptive way in which we were expected to craft our essays — or should I say not craft our essays — felt counterintuitive. We were being educated to become literary critics, supposedly adept at the analysis of other people’s writing; yet, we were not encouraged to think of ourselves as writers, to take the legibility, originality, and voice of our own texts seriously. This approach to writing was alien to me, in part because I had spent my undergraduate years in the English Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo with a faculty of poets and fiction writers — Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan — and others who had come there from the artist-run Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, to join Charles Olson, the larger-than-life writer of The Maximus Poems, former director of Black Mountain. The department soon became the best in the country. These faculty were joined by novelist John Barth and literary critic Leslie Fiedler. All were interested in ideas but also in writing. They were not concerned with teaching us how to construct a proper research paper; they were concerned with teaching us how to understand literature and how to respond to it creatively. Because they were writers themselves, discussion of the writing process was very important to them. In my PhD program, there was no such discussion. By the time I was ready to write my dissertation, I had developed some new and interesting ideas about Melville and Poe, but I was terrified at the prospect of conforming to the written format in which I was expected to express them. That experience of trying to adopt a writing style that I truly did not admire or understand was very traumatic. In the end, and after much suffering, I did write a good thesis, but as soon as I got my degree, I broke loose from that form of writing entirely.

In Chicago, I then spent five years writing my first book: The Invisible Drama: Women and the Anxiety of Change. It took that long because I had to unlearn the unwanted restrictions I had struggled to conform to in graduate school. I needed to free up my voice and also claim my right to write about topics that I had not spent a lifetime studying, permission to be an educated amateur, which I also learned from artists. After The Invisible Drama, which was written for a more popular audience, I started writing essays and then books of essays intended for artists, feminists, and progressive audiences — but not necessarily for scholars and academics. In these essays, I mixed narrative and philosophy, balancing the proportions of each, but I usually focused more on theory than on narrative, attempting to position art in the conversations about the world’s most pressing concerns. And I often used narrative to ground myself and my reader in these ideas. I did not understand, then, that this type of essay was a “creative essay,” which was becoming fashionable in the literary world at that time.

As I became more immersed in the art world, I began to understand that I was not only an intellectual, I was also a writer, and as a writer I had to think about form and its relationship to content. This realization brought me back to my experiences at SUNY–Buffalo and to the writer/professors who had reinforced my love for literature. It is not surprising that many years and books later, I found myself completely tipping the balance between theory and narrative to write a true memoir, Losing Helen.

For me, the movement between form and ideas really always has had to do with keeping creativity alive. In a sense, as terrifying as it can be, I am most engaged when writing something new, and finding an appropriate voice for it, even when I have no idea if the work will succeed. Once I get too comfortable with any one form of writing, I feel I need to move on. The permission to embrace such challenges really has come from being at art schools. These are environments that encourage experimentation, in fact they insist on a process-oriented way of thinking about production, certain that new ideas come from the making of the work itself. This approach has helped keep writing exciting for me.

I first encountered your work when I was encouraged by Henry Giroux to read your brilliant Surpassing the Spectacle, which was remarkably written prior to the horrifying events of 9/11. The insightful prose in this book would become even more relevant after that fateful day. Working back through your earlier works and projects, notably Zones of Contention and The Subversive Imagination, there is a constant questioning of how we might deal with images of tragedy and the role art can play in developing a more astute critique of the times in which we are living. How would you defend the arts and humanities today, especially in light to the challenges posed by the global pandemic?

That we always feel we have to “defend” the arts tells us a great deal about Western society, or perhaps I should say about US society. The arts, which I assume includes all forms of creative production, are often put on the defensive. US society in particular is very transactional and utilitarian. If something does not have a clear purpose, and that means a quantifiable purpose, it is devalued. Art, except for the market value attributed to some visual objects, is often neither understood nor measurable. And yet we know it is essential to our individual and collective well-being. Many of us have lost contact with what is most useful to our psychic, spiritual evolution and that of society: dreams, emotions, imagination, play, and joy. These attributes were present in us when we were children, but now we must struggle to find them again in our adult selves. All of these can be found in the experience of art.

There is so much depression and anxiety in the United States today, and people wonder why; yet, it seems obvious to me that we are living in an inversion, defending ourselves against what comes most naturally, while trying to conform to expectations that do not suit our human temperaments, as we attempt to prove — to ourselves and to each other — that everything we do is productive and useful. Artists do not try to conform to these expectations. They live the lives they need to live in order to make the work they need to make.

So, I do not want to think about “defending” the arts, but rather I would like to ask, what are we defending the arts from? I think the answer is, from ourselves and not the best part of ourselves. Living as we have had to live in this pandemic has raised some fundamental questions for all of us, such as: What really makes us happy as humans? How can we align these needs with those of other species and with the natural world? Perhaps we will turn to art and artists to help answer these questions. Many artists have been addressing them in their work for a very long time.

A society without art can never become a civilization nor will it be remembered over time. The external and internal lives of past societies continue to exist in their literature, art, architecture, and music. But as much as art records the past, the process of creative imagining is actually about envisioning the future. Without imagination, we are unable to bring new ideas into being. We need artists to help us envision a future world in which we can cohabitate with other species, control our insatiable desire to consume, and live on this planet respectfully, equitably, and peacefully, so that our home on this earth can be sustained. If we are to survive, we need to collectively desire and agree upon the virtue of such a world. Artists can help us do this.

I would like now to turn directly to the question of tragedy and how writing has personally helped you come to terms with its intimate effects. How have you personally dealt with the weight of tragedy in your work? And relating this more specifically to Losing Helen, which to me is such a powerful example of what writing can achieve when confronting such a terrible loss of a parent, what lessons have you learned from this process?

When my mother died, at almost 98 years old, I did not think of it as tragedy but rather as inevitability. There was nothing she or I could have done to stop her death, although I kept thinking that I should try. But if there is tragedy in the loss of someone who has lived so long, it is only because it reminds us that we all are mortal. This is a certainty for which I surely have no solutions. But, as you say, for most people, losing a parent is a source of enormous sadness. The book I wrote is very circumscribed. It takes place during the period right before my mother dies, through her death and the time soon after. There was a great deal of internal and external drama for us both during this period, and I knew I would need to write about it, but I had no idea what form that writing would or should take.

For me, writing always has been about organizing the unorganizable, giving order to what I do not yet understand and can only come to understand through the act of writing. During the time I was conceptualizing Losing Helen, I was trying to integrate the many levels on which I was experiencing loss — from the very practical and contextual to the spiritual. In part, tragedy is about a human experience that is too big, too explosive, and too painful for the psyche to contain on its own, an occurrence so unfathomable that it never should have happened, and yet it did. Think of Oedipus and all that transpired in that life. Who could imagine surviving the truth of such actions? The shame was too great. But this Greek tragedy demonstrates that in experiencing other people’s pain, even in its most extreme form, we experience our own and learn to survive what we think we cannot.

After my father died, 20 years before my mother, I was shattered. But I was an only child, and I felt the loss of my mother even more deeply because when she died, I no longer had any close family. That sadness was incalculable for me. So, at first, I tried to distance myself from the pain of it and set out to write a philosophical treatise about death and dying, a comparative study of different cultural responses to death. But the story, our story (my mother’s and mine), did not want to be told in that kind of book. It wanted to be written in the first person and to be particular to my mother’s death in terms of place and time. It insisted on being a memoir. But having established that, I then worried that the book was too personal, too specific to our own experiences. I clearly had forgotten, although, as I said, I had spent years studying literature, that if you go deep enough in the writing, the story will resonate in others as it has in you, and the audience will claim it as their own. And this is what happened. People put themselves into the particularity of my story and made it their story. I was surprised when some readers told me that the book gave them permission to grieve. Others said that the similarities between my mother’s death and the deaths of their parents reflected their own experiences back to themselves and made those tolerable. Still others wrote to me that having gone through this process with me in the text, they now could imagine surviving such an inevitable loss themselves.

In writing as I did, I mostly feared that revealing too much about my internal life, and spiritual, Buddhist orientations, would diminish me in the eyes of others. But once the book was out, I felt liberated, as if my internal self had finally met my external self in the public sphere, and the meeting was not catastrophic. The act of writing that memoir and the reception to it gave me permission to write in such a personal voice again. And that is what I am doing now — writing another difficult memoir, about a devastating rupture with my father. If my mother’s book is about grieving, this one is about forgiveness.

From what you explain here, this new project begins from an entirely different emotional standpoint. Both of which, it would seem to me, demand a remarkable amount of courage to deal with, especially to expose such intimacy to a wider audience even though we may be writing for ourselves. Can you tell me how you approach such a challenge, and how would this inform the advice you would give to younger writers?

As I work on this new book, I am no longer afraid of being exposed by the facts of the narrative. I only worry that the writing will not be effective, the story not told movingly, the portrayal of my relationship to my father not rendered powerfully. But all of this is useful anxiety that will keep me rewriting the text over and over until it feels done.

As for advice to younger writers, perhaps just this motto from Black Mountain College: “Leap Before You Look.” I love that idea yet have rarely been courageous enough to do so in my own work. But I now understand that if you are going to take a leap to write about trauma or psychic turmoil, you have to let yourself relive that pain while you write, not because you should recreate it all for the reader (in fact, you probably should not), but because this proximity to your own suffering, this immediacy, is the only way the story will come alive for others. Such internal work understandably can generate resistance, but it is the nature of the creative process to unsettle ambivalence and break it apart.

When I hesitate in my writing, because I am in serious doubt about the worthiness of the story I am trying to tell or about my ability to transmit it well, I have to remind myself that this is my story, and if I believe it should be told, then it should be told by me. No one else would necessarily do it better, or would do it at all. So, I need to stay in it, refuse to be undone by doubt, and just keep writing.

In conclusion, I would like to ask you about the restorative potential to art (which you have already alluded to in this discussion and mentioned to me in previous conversations). I would like to deal with this specifically in the times in which we are now living, which as you mentioned has been deeply traumatic for so many. In terms of how we have responded to the pandemic, the science has seemingly dominated the narrative. Yet as you suggest, art has played just an important role in our lives. What has art personally meant to you in these times? And how might it allow us to rethink arts restorative qualities moving forward?

A few weeks ago, I was back at the Art Institute of Chicago where I had spent decades looking at American and European painting. It was a great joy for me to be in the museum and to find again those works I loved, right where I left them — the enormous Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, Hopper’s Nighthawks, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV, 1965, and others. But while roaming the galleries, I came upon a small Fra Angelico painting that I did not know: St. Anthony Abbot — a 15th-century painting of St. Anthony (who was thought to be the father of monasticism). The figure stands, contemplative, against a shimmering background of gold leaf, his head surrounded by a subtle, evaporating aura that appears etched into the gold. He is weighted down by a thick brown cloak that anchors his body in space, as if to keep him from floating away. The small, almost cartoon-like cloud upon which he is perched is the same shade of blue one often sees in the cloaks worn by the Virgin or St. Anne in Renaissance paintings. In the presence of this Fra Angelico, I experienced something I rarely consider: the sublime. This painting — so beautiful, ethereal, and perfect — captured my gaze and would not let go. For the first time in months, I felt elated. I took several photos of the painting and immediately sent them to friends who I knew would revel in the image.

During these past two years, we have been so confined by the pandemic and also so distraught about climate catastrophe and the precariousness of the political world that it has been easy to become constricted, inert, and to feel hopeless. Encounters with art, in all forms, have saved us from such despair. They have allowed us to believe that when the unexpected occurs, it can bring expansiveness. Entertainment fills time and distracts us, which can be useful. But art creates space that can change our state of consciousness, open our hearts and make us want to act: to tell our stories, share our images, and perfect our work, whatever that may be. It reminds us to breathe and also to create.

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Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.