I have come to think of Joel-Peter Witkin as the embodiment of a certain brand of Hipsterism that really bothers me. I guess it’s a sort of celebration of morbidness that strikes me as pretentious, not to mention annoyingly predictable. What Hipster worth his or her Nick Cave CD’s doesn’t love Joel-Peter Witkin? Once you tell me you love Joel-Peter Witkin, you’ve told me everything I need to know about you. (e.g., you love Nosferatu, Freaks, Quay Brothers, Bunuel, zombie movies, etc.) I have tried to discuss this idea with my husband, who is usually adept at nipping such conversations in the bud by exclaiming “Why do you ask me these things!â€? This time, I persisted. I knew he knew what I was talking about, even though he pretended not to.
I posed the question as something like: “Why do Hipsters have to like Joel-Peter Witkin?â€? But he forced me to rephrase it several times, until it became: “Why do Hipsters love things that are either morbid or shocking?â€? Finally, after relentlessly badgering him, he explained it. “Hipsters are supposed to be sort of an outlaw element, so they like anything that smacks of outlaw culture.â€? Well, bingo. I didn’t marry him just for the one thing, you know.
So today, while continuing to ponder the Joel-Peter Witkin thing, I looked at some of his photos online, and sure enough I was annoyed, repelled, somewhat intrigued, but mostly disgusted. I read an interview with Witkin, where he describes his search for a nice male corpse, somewhere in Mexico. He spoke of love and redemption and mortality. Good themes, all of them. Then he spoke of humor: He thought it was funny how in complaining about his photograph of someone putting a penis into an empty eye socket, some outraged letter-writer had mistaken the penis for a potato. Ha ha! Good one, Joel-Peter! Still further down the page, you could click on a nice ad from Witkin, who is seeking a young blind woman with cloudy eyes, as well as a young armless woman to model for him. He offers in return a free print from the photo session.
You know what’s next. My personal message to Mr. Witkin: “Joel-Peter, go fuck yourself!â€? I know he would, if only he were deformed in some way and could photograph it.
Beyond this attack on one perpetrator is a larger issue I found articulated by an editor of Photovision magazine. In the last quarter century, he notes, the world has moved from the “absurd ageâ€? to the “horror age.â€? For all I know, this has been stated already in the New Yorker and everywhere else; but for me it’s kind of a fresh idea. It feels true. After September 11, the tsunami, Katrina, and the freely available videos of people getting their heads chopped off, we are all traumatized, whether we think so or not. We have been exposed to horror non-stop now, and it’s harder every day to shock us. Darfur, child soldiers, child amputees, sobbing earthquake victims, teen sex-slaves, prison torture, reality TV, it never ends.
I’m still capable of being shocked. And I don’t want to be exposed to any more horror than is necessary. I don’t know where the age of horror will lead. I can’t blame it on Joel-Peter Witkin, but I can cite him as a poster boy for the era. And I can turn in my Hipster card if that’s what it takes to renounce him.