Monday, June 12, 2023

Katherine Giuffre's "Outrage: The Arts and the Creation of Modernity"

Katherine Giuffre specializes in the sociology of art and culture and studies social networks and communities, as well as Polynesian society. She is the author of Communities and Networks (2013), and Collective Creativity (2012), among other publications. She is Professor Emerita of Sociology at Colorado College.

Giuffre applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Outrage: The Arts and the Creation of Modernity, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Outrage comes near the beginning of Chapter 5, which discusses The Ballets Russes and the infamous riot that occurred in 1913 on the opening night of Le Sacre du printemps, choreographed by the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. This is one of six historical case studies that I examine. An excerpt:
Although critics praised the male dancers’ agility, strength, virtuosity, vigor, and technique, they, like the female dancers who came before them, were also presented as sexualized spectacles. …

An important ingredient of the sexualization of the male dancers was the way in which they embraced androgyny. Expressions of gender were unmistakably queer, in the 21st century sense. Nijinsky’s roles combined both the kind of sensitivity usually thought of as female and the strength and athleticism usually thought of as male. (Burt 1995, 84) Karthas writes: “The Ballets Russes’ androgynous imagery differed in that its bodies did not aim to entirely erase masculinity or femininity, but rather to present a modern vision of its fluidity.” (Karthas 2015, 112)

Nijinsky was presented in ballet after ballet in gender-bending ways. Some were subtly coded to appeal only to those in the know; others were less so. In Le Spectre de la rose, for example, Nijinsky played the title role dressed in a pink body-stocking decorated with rose petals, flouting conventional heterosexual norms. Garafola writes: “Masculine in the power of his leaps, feminine in the curving delicacy of his arms, he emitted a perfume of sexual strangeness; he seemed a living incarnation of the third sex, a Uranian reveling in the liberation of his true self.” (Garafola 1989, 33) As a result, the audience for ballet shifted and became more inclusive of gay men. Not only did it feature gay men in important roles both on stage and behind the scenes, the performances themselves provided opportunities for gay men (and many others who lived outside the social norms) to come together for socializing openly and without fear. (Garafola 1998, 65)

This added to the aura of the decadence. While Paris may have been less repressive than other places in Europe, it was certainly not all together free from homophobic biases. As the Ballets Russes dominated the Paris social season and as Nijinsky’s sexually fluid persona captured the limelight, there were those who pushed back, tapping into negative stereotypes.
This excerpt is a shockingly good slice of what Outrage is all about. In this particular chapter, I tie the violence directed at Le Sacre to two fears pervasive in France on the eve of World War I. Both were tied to larger social shifts that were important to the creation of modernity. The first was a fear of foreign invasion and the second was a widespread societal worry about a loss of “masculinity” following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the changing mores about the very definition of what it is to be a “man.” Although this particular passage doesn’t directly address the xenophobia and rhetoric of invasion, it does discuss the queering of ballet (a cultural form proudly held dear in France) by the Ballet Russes in general and by Nijinsky, an out queer artist, in particular. The homophobic backlash against The Ballets Russes was important for brewing the riot which took place on the opening night of Nijinsky’s new ballet and which, indeed, began even before the curtain rose.

Page 99 begins to get at one of the central arguments in my book: Audiences do not become outraged by works of art that they merely do not find to their taste or that they do not understand or appreciate. Outrage is directed at some cultural productions (literature, art, dance, etc.) precisely because audiences do understand what the work is about – an assault on the central conventions (and underlying ethos) of the society just at the moment when those conventions are at the breaking point. In this chapter, the example of the riot at the opening night of Le Sacre was not about – or not only about – a ballet. It was about changing ideas of masculinity itself.
Learn more about Outrage at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue