The Art of Self Harming

Mary Coble is a dedicated artist whose 2005 performance piece, Note to Self, involved being tattooed with the names of 436 gay, lesbian, bi and transgendered people who died as a result of hate crimes.   The performance took 12 hours.

On the one hand, wow. On the other hand, is this art?

Here is a  parallel, under the category of Too Much Information:

Late at night, I like to pick at my legs. “Like” isn’t the right word. It’s more, I have to pick at my legs. This has been going on long enough that I know it’s a form of OCD because I don’t want to do it but I do it anyway.

It started with a tweezer and a couple of ingrown hairs. I hate shaving my legs but I hate ingrown hairs even more. Soon, you get a little scab and the next night, you need to   pick off the scab. Pretty soon, it’s war. My legs are a battlefield and no one is winning. I stopped for a few  months  but then started again.

I know this is a response to intolerable anxiety. I know I should wear mittens at night, or take up knitting or wear high boots until I get into bed.

Nevertheless, I haven’t managed to stop.

Mary Coble has inspired me to ask the question: IS THIS ART?!? How about if I call this a six month performance piece, with my husband the sole spectator??

I think that having only one spectator makes it super arty!

I already feel kind of important about my work!

What do you think?

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33 Responses to “The Art of Self Harming”

  1. Romeo Says:

    Having a single spectator is, indeed, super duper arty. But I think in order for it to be art there has to be some intent that the action you undergo is deliberate and intended to be art. People who get shot in the ‘hood or during war are unfortunate. When Chris Burden pays someone to shoot him it’s art.

    So now that you intend your leg-picking as an artistic dealy: it is. See if you can get funding from the NEA and cut me in on it.

  2. Sister Wolf Says:

    Romeo – Exactly. Intent is key. It’s an expression of the futility of cycles and growth.

  3. Sheri Says:

    Hmmm. In a conversation with my mother once, who was upset about some controversial art installation or another (Mapplethorp comes to mind, although I’m not sure it was him), I made the argument that it’s art if it causes people to think or feel. For that it requires at least one spectator. If you and your husband are both “on board,” so to speak, then it’s art.

    On the other hand, and especially if your husband is not, in fact, “on board,” this doesn’t sound like a good thing to be doing to yourself. Maybe knitting is a good idea. Or eat popcorn, learn to juggle, paint your toenails, run for office, polish the silver. Or adopt a puppy and put all of your energy into keeping him/her from peeing and pooing on the carpet. Something productive like that.

  4. Sister Wolf Says:

    Sheri – But keeping busy isn’t art. Yet.

  5. annemarie Says:

    I think you should take up knitting. Think of all the beautiful chartreuse stuff you would make. I don’t like the idea of you picking your poor legs, and I’d like you to stop.
    Love,
    Mommy.

  6. Peter L. Winkler Says:

    What is your definition of art? If I were to grant that this is art, then it’s bad art, at least according to Oscar Wilde’s definition.

    Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel

  7. R Says:

    Your analogies to art and using post-moderny-y tools to mock post-modernism are fucking brilliant.

    Sister Wolf I love you and kind of want to be your best friend but you’re def too cool for me. Maybe if I was male and a catty queen type I could keep up but lurkin’ and lol’n is the corner is good enough for me.

  8. skill maybe? Says:

    …but also the skill. Having the technical ability to do something that an ordinary person dosen’t have. Anyone can get a tatoo. It’s the person giving the tatto that’s the artist. An audience of one…badass.

  9. Andra Says:

    Knitting it is then.

    Actually crocheting is more artistic (and faster too).

    Have you seen some of the houses, trees, furniture, etc. mad, er, artistic, people have crocheted? Absolutely works of art, or what passes for art now. You can do it!

    And, awaaaaay you go!

  10. woolandmisc Says:

    :(

    I used to pull out my hair.

    Watching that show Obsessed helped. It was like free cognitive behavioral therapy.

  11. Jaimi Says:

    Ah, dermatillomania. I pick, too, and have my whole life. I haven’t gotten treatment for it because it’s so embarrassing but I’ve finally forgiven myself for it. Reading and talking with other people online who also have dermatillomania helped a lot. And hey, maybe I can get a grant for doing it now, too!

    I don’t know how I feel about this ‘art’ but it’s less tasteless than the hack who pukes up colored liquids to make crappy paintings and gallery installations or whatever the fuck.

  12. Suebob Says:

    Pickers unite. I’m glad Jaimi has forgiven herself, but I hate myself for it. Sporting a bandage on my face right now. Duration of scabbed area: 1 year, 6 months. I hate myself.

  13. Sister Wolf Says:

    Suebob – You need to change your attitude. Look how proud Mary Coble looks? Don’t hate yourself. Maybe you can switch to your legs?

  14. Sister Wolf Says:

    R – Please be my friend and come out of that corner. xo

  15. Sister Wolf Says:

    Peter- Well, this is the problem, isn’t it? How can we define art? What are its properties? Rachel Maddow has starting calling Herman Cain’s candidacy as “Art Project.” Now I can enjoy him more.

  16. Juri Says:

    Wasn’t there a song called “look at that stupid girl?” That’s what comes to my mind from her “art” project and those of god-knows-how-many-zillion-others. I also get some random fatherly urges and want to hug her and say healing words à la “why did you do an idiotic thing like that, luv?” and “get dressed.”

    At least her face is intact, though, I think.

    I know there are people under this earth who have died as a result of this or that wrong-doing. What I don’t understand is why these “artists” see it fit to exploit theses dead people as they wish as props in disguising their personal issues as a universal mission.

    I want to move to the woods and perform to myself. Zero audience. The ultimate artyness of being.

  17. Cricket9 Says:

    Here is the link to one of the crochet art projects for inspiration:
    http://knitting.thomaslaupstad.com/pictures-of-crazy-crocheted-tree-sweater-art-project-by-carol-hummel/

  18. patni Says:

    I am a picker too. Ingrown hairs are one of my great joys in life. I suggest knitting or crochet, because those nice sharp needles would make great digging and picking tools.
    I guess my picking is not art because no one watches. May be I should go to the mall and find a nice man like sister wolf found to help me in my art.

  19. patni Says:

    As long as he too is an artist talented in laundry and dish washing.

  20. Andra Says:

    Cricket: perfect. Many thanks.

    Sis: that’s it excactly. Start with a bush, say and then work up. Check out some of the rooms full of furniture, all with lovely crocheted covers.

    I can see you becoming the world champ of house crocheting.

    And by the way, crochet hooks aren’t sharp!

  21. kate Says:

    i pull my eyebrows out. then my eyebrows start looking like dotted lines, which was way too weird looking to abide by, so i “started over” by just plucking the whole lot. since then i’ve made sure my bangs covered the evidence… but now that i’ve read this post i wonder if i shouldn’t own it (bleh) and just be the eyebrowless wonder! make it a “statement” or “look”. instead of a “disorder”.
    at this point i think art is whatever you can convince people is art.

  22. Cricket9 Says:

    Juri, if the artist performs in the woods and no-one watches, is it still art? Why didn’t we discussed this in class when I was studying art history, I wonder. There must be a PhD on this subject somewhere..

  23. Psych Says:

    “Art is whatever the artist wants it to be” – Duchamp… I think the question is more, is it GOOD art? I personally think it looks shit and is a lame concept. Pitty- type “art”. I think the best art is the kind of art that’s not so obvious. Art that forces you to think and imagine combined with an interesting aesthetic. But each to their own I guess.

  24. HMA Says:

    I do this. Ingrown hairs are always dug out with tweezers. I can’t help it. Scabs begone, too. Yet the reason that I can’t pick with my nails is that I ferociously bite my nails worse than anyone I’ve met. I’m 23 years old, am tremendously embarrassed about my hands, but I feel as though I have to do it. I hate these compulsions of mine :(

    I used to also pull my hair out like Woolandmisc, thankfully only in a tiny spot at the back. It was a compulsion that I guess I haven’t done in many years, so I must have just one day forgotten about it. Weird.

  25. harmreduction Says:

    I almost passed out when I read of your “art installation”. You are fucking brilliant! I have gone to therapists of all sorts, mental health websites…and I have NEVER had anyone encourage me to take such a creative approach to a habit(?), obsession that I have suffered with for years.
    Perhaps with this point of view, I can become more peaceful about the scarred, scabby, mess that I had once thought my legs to be.
    Please, let me know if you have any more insights on your artistic processes.
    BTW, I now have a major girl crush on you now.

  26. carla Says:

    http://www.xojane.com/beauty/compulsive-skin-picking-products

    ignore the article, read the comments.

  27. Alicia Says:

    I do the same thing with my arms. And legs. Have for years. Do you need a second for this performance piece?

  28. tartandtreacly Says:

    She had these names inklessly tattooed on her body as a reference to the brutality of these murders; many of the victims had slurs such as dyke or faggot carved into their bodies.

    In my opinion this is art that is both meaningful and powerful, and deserves more consideration than just passing ridicule.

  29. Marky Says:

    I do think the inkless tattoos on Mary Coble’s body do qualify as art. On a purely aesthetic level, the sheer number of raised pink cuts and the texture are kind of beautiful. Toss in the political statement, and it’s kind of genius, I think.

    Your leg picking: Yes. If you could document it as obsessively as you do it, that would be something that merits an NEA fellowship. I imagine a slide show of the picking, the resultant wounds, the picking tools, all projected on your bare legs; your hands shackled to the wall, two sets of tweezers just out of reach. You could talk to people in the gallery about how much you want the tweezers, how much you want to pick your legs. I also think there should be an industrial clock mounted on the wall above you, and the hands should move ten times faster than they normally do. I find that when I indulge my OCD time flies.

  30. Sister Wolf Says:

    tarandtreacly – Isn’t that from “Blood Script,” her other performance in 2008? I’m ridiculing her “Note to Self” from 2005.

    There is a Jewish woman (can’t recall her name) whose entire back is tattooed with images of the Holocaust, and as a Jew, I feel she is just nuts.

    Alicia – I hope your boyfriend appreciates your work, And yes, we can team up.

    Marky – Picture her wearing tons of gold jewelry. Now what?

  31. shuu Says:

    hee hee! It isn’t OCD, the compulsion to pick at skin is called Dysautonomia. I have it too, you aren’t alone!!

  32. Faty Says:

    i was doing gruelling work for my Arts A levels essay which i chose to be “Self Harm in the Name of Art.” I find what shes done really helpfull, i am personally one of those who self harm too, but reading these comments cracked me up. Kudos for making my day better. People on the internet are so hilarious and cool..:’)

    P.s: personally, i think what shes done can be considered as art, you guys DO want to know about it now dont you?? Fascination while seeing it, her being able to express herself in whatever way she finds helpfull, and at the end of the day, it is her body. she should be allowed to do whatever she wants even if you is starking mad.

  33. Faty Says:

    she is*

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