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The Freak-garde

Extraordinary Bodies and Revolutionary Art in America

2013
Author:

Robin Blyn

The Freak-garde

Why and how the freak show inspires some of the most revolutionary experiments in American art in the twentieth century

The Freak-garde traces the arts of the freak show from P. T. Barnum to Matthew Barney, demonstrating how a form of mass culture entertainment became the basis for a distinctly American avant-garde tradition. Robin Blyn establishes innovative approaches to American avant-garde practices and embodiment and lays the foundation for a more nuanced understanding of the disruptive potential of art under capitalism.

Linking the freak show to the avant-garde, Robin Blyn offers a fresh look at authors and artist like Mark Twain, Lon Chaney, Djuna Barnes, Nathanael West, Diane Arbus, and Matthew Barney. This book is a welcome contribution to scholarship on the freak show.

Rachel Adams, Columbia University

Since the 1890s, American artists have employed the arts of the freak show to envision radically different ways of being. The result is a rich avant-garde tradition that critiques and challenges capitalism from within.

The Freak-garde traces the arts of the freak show from P. T. Barnum to Matthew Barney and demonstrates how a form of mass culture entertainment became the basis for a distinctly American avant-garde tradition. Exploring a wide range of writers, filmmakers, photographers, and artists who have appropriated the arts of the freak show, Robin Blyn exposes the disturbing power of human curiosities and the desires they unleash. Through a series of incisive and often startling readings, Blyn reveals how such figures as Mark Twain, Djuna Barnes, Tod Browning, Lon Chaney, Nathanael West, and Diane Arbus use these desires to propose alternatives to the autonomous and repressed subject of liberal capitalism. Blyn explains how, rather than grounding revolutionary subjectivities in imaginary realms innocent of capitalism, freak-garde works manufacture new subjectivities by exploiting potentials inherent to capitalism.

Defying conventional wisdom, The Freak-garde ultimately argues that postmodernism is not the death of the avant-garde but the inheritor of a vital and generative legacy. In doing so, the book establishes innovative approaches to American avant-garde practices and embodiment and lays the foundation for a more nuanced understanding of the disruptive potential of art under capitalism.

The Freak-garde

Robin Blyn is associate professor of English at the University of West Florida.

The Freak-garde

Linking the freak show to the avant-garde, Robin Blyn offers a fresh look at authors and artist like Mark Twain, Lon Chaney, Djuna Barnes, Nathanael West, Diane Arbus, and Matthew Barney. This book is a welcome contribution to scholarship on the freak show.

Rachel Adams, Columbia University

The Freak-garde

Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

Introduction. Unbecoming Subjects: Freak Shows and the American Avant-garde
1. A Curious Education: Mark Twain’s Corporate Persons
2. Between Silence and Sound: The Lon Chaney Sensation
3. Decadence in the Age of Fascism: Djuna Barnes’s Freak Dandies
4. Dada in Hollywood: Nathanael West’s Human Machines
5. The Biology of Revolution: Mapping Mutation with Diane Arbus
Coda. Barnum & Bailey & Barney: Freak Show at the Guggenheim


Notes
Bibliography
Index