Morbid Interest

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.

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6 Responses to Morbid Interest

  1. Suebob says:


    I guess I will have to google him.

  2. I guess I now know whose name not to Google.

  3. Suebob says:

    Too late for me. Ick.

  4. judson says:

    I think it’s sorta unfair to blame the fetish. Joel, I’ve known him for 25 years, was experimenting with this type of imagary for quite a long time before anyone glamed on to him, the fetish, whatever. I to get tired of violent images, but there was a time whem It got me very excited. And I’m not as intrigued by Joel’s images as I used to be, and I’ve told him so. But he is an artist in the most elemental way; eccentric, boring at times but very good at what he does.

  5. Elena says:

    i googled him. most of his images remind me of eraserhead. a lot of the themes come out of the BDSM community. there is plenty stronger imagery out there. pushing the limits of taste or convention is much harder than it used to be. there is not much original content in that respect. what that leaves for art is composition and a certain metonymic slide. i’m not much qualified to critique the first and too lazy to try the second so i guess i’m done.

  6. cautivatrix says:

    Witkin reshuffle de Sade’s libertine tales of lust, murder, madness and mayhem that mirror the savagery of American imperialism.
    Don’t be superficial sister. Witkins wants you to dump your boring ‘husband’ and make love to a dead soldier.

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