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Lesson 5: Transgression

Transgression, literally the act of crossing a boundary. This lesson deals with the practice of boundary crossing and its liberating potential.

The questions in this lesson are based on the essay 'Is Crossing Boundaries Always Liberating? ' written by Dick Zijp. To read the essay, click here.

Transgression is an important aesthetic category across artistic disciplines. There is a strong belief that by crossing boundaries and removing oppressive taboos, art liberates. But does transgressive art always liberate?

In the To Do’s, by Isis Freitas Vale Germano, you will find an exercise to critically look at the context of a taboo-breaking artwork and an exercise in which you explore boundary-breaking in other different art disciplines.
If there is any art form in which the limits of transgression are heavily debated, it is comedy. This is not a coincidence, since transgression is an important ‘ingredient’ of humour: comedians often joke about sensitive topics, such as sex and violence.
In recent years, humour has increasingly become part of the so-called culture wars, referring to the fact that cultural identity (e.g., gender, ethnicity, sexual and national identity) has become the topic of intense political and social dispute.
Dick Zijp

To do A

Critically looking at the context of a taboo-breaking artwork

Search for cultural objects – performances, visual artworks, art installations, comedies, games, films, essays, poems – that could be seen as “taboo-breaking”. Make a list of those you find the most interesting. Then, following the example of Dick Zijp his analysis of the work of Hans Teeuwen in the essay, look at the context the work is part of.
In analysing the relation between the acts of transgression in the work and its context, try to answer this question: Is the boundary this work is breaking a boundary that is in fact oppressing a group that is being marginalised (such as Muslims in the Dutch context)? Or is this a boundary that is bothering a group that in reality already holds a position of power and enjoys a position of privilege?

In other words: is the breaking of this taboo actually liberating and an invitation to social and political change, or is it expressing a conservative desire to leave existing power structures intact?

To do B

Exploring boundary-breaking in other disciplines

In the essay by Dick Zijp, he provides a critical perspective on transgression in comedy. In this exercise you will consider the way transgression works in other disciplines. To practice using the conceptual tools this essay proposes, see how you can use them to analyse and to discuss the way transgression works in the following examples.

Take one of these examples and take the time to look at images, reviews and interviews you can find on them. Write a short review of them.
Thomas Vinterberg, Festen (1995)
Lars von Trier, Dogville (2003)
Gaspar Noé, Climax (2018)
Todd Solondz, Happiness (1998)
Paolo Pasolini: Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975)

Visual Art:

Michel Houellebecq – For example Les Particule Élémentaires (1998)

Milo Rau, Die 120 Tage von Sodom (2017)
Trailer: Thomas Vinterberg, Festen (1995)
Trailer: Lars von Trier, Dogville (2003)
Trailer: Gaspar Noé, Climax (2018)
Trailer: Todd Solondz, Happiness (1998)
Trailer: Paolo Pasolini: Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975)

Incorporate one of the following quotes from the essay in your review:

A transgression is not the same as a back-to-nature movement; it suspends a taboo without suppressing it.

Hence, transgression is not a radical break from limited, human existence. It is not a return to animality. As Bataille puts it: ‘a transgression is not the same as a back-to-nature movement; it suspends a taboo without suppressing it.

Foucault wonders: when exactly is the moment that the crossing of a limit, which we call transgression, transforms into its opposite, the affirmation or reinstalment of the limit?

Lesson 6: Translation