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Shock Value

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Dear Reader:

Thankfully, Terry Brennan has solved an age-old dilemma by neatly identifying what it is that begins to make a piece of art, art ("Attention Getters," February 17, 1995). He identifies the "extraordinary" factor, where a piece of art needs to have an exceptional quality to be engaging and to have a chance at success. The NEA will be so pleased.

Unfortunately, once he flags examples of this quality and then applies it as the premise of critique for Dolores Wilber's Two Men Are Dead Continued, it is clear that it's not grounds for determination. Do bare-breasted women, a man donning a wedding dress and performers covered with ladybugs constitute the shocking (extraordinary) acts that Brennan believes they do? No, not as isolated acts in the culture that we live in nor when looked at in the context of the work. Here they produce gut-level reactions and add to a performance that questions ideas of judgment and responsibility.

In critique of Ms. Wilber's other work, Bare-Handed, Brennan appears to claim that the work begins with a disadvantage because it contains no such sensational acts. He then goes on to cite some very moving passages from the performance that evidently do not meet his criteria for being extraordinary, rather they evoke emotions, pity, possibly even fear, but these must be less desirable reactions. To look at Ms. Wilber's works through the criteria imposed on them denies that subtle ideas too can be very powerful. I would argue that some of the strength of these two performances is their connection and their contrast to one another.

Let's hope that Terry Brennan's prescription for pieces of art with a chance of success is not followed by future artists. The results may be theatrical but the work, while striving to be extraordinary, may ignore a whole range of emotions, complex and worthy of exploration.

Susan A. Waterman

Chicago

Terry Brennan replies:

Perhaps I used too much irony in that review. To state it plainly, I thought the shocking acts existed primarily to shock and took the cheap route to evoking a response.

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