By Bret Yates
In July, the Boston Globe published an article about the painter Helen Frankenthaler that contained the following sentence: “Frankenthaler’s effects are more visceral, more buzzy and demanding, than pastoral evocations of space.”
Every time I encounter the word “visceral” in print (which seems to happen more and more often), I have to remind myself what it means, yet rarely does this help me make sense of the sentence surrounding it. Here is the definition of “visceral”: “of, relating to, or located on or among the viscera.” The “viscera” are the bodily organs known colloquially as the “guts.”
Yet the word “visceral” surely appears more frequently in arts coverage (the word’s true home) than in medical textbooks. The adjective typically refers to the metaphorical guts rather than the literal guts—the imaginary ones invoked in phrases like “My gut feeling is …” and “I have a gut instinct that …” and “Go with your gut.”
In the figurative human anatomy, the brain is the center of logic and reason; it takes care of the math and science, but it can sometimes be a little too cold and calculating. The heart is the the seat of our empathy and affection; you might call it a sentimental old fool at times, but its warmth and generosity allow us to remain fond of our flawed love ones and sustain long-term relationships, not to mention help out strangers at a cost to ourselves.
The gut or guts, on the other hand, are neither cerebral nor maudlin; they’re intuitive. They’re like an old-school cop who doesn’t need “proof” to know who the murderer is; he just knows it deep down. They see through pretensions and dishonesty without first having to tease out the exact nature of the lie. They don’t need explanations. They communicate not in language but in sensation.
In contemporary cultural writing, the gut—not the heart or the brain—is the primary receptor of artistic authenticity; the best music, novels, movies, and paintings are products not of sober rationality or childish emotion but of pure instinct. They don’t merely make you think or feel; they shake you from the inside out.
This is my humble request, sure to go unheard, that arts critics stop using the word “visceral.” In the past month alone, the New York Times has deployed it to describe the blockbuster “Dunkirk,” the choreography of an LA-based dance troupe, a memoir of India’s caste system, Oscar Isaac’s stage performance as Hamlet, the zombie classic “Night of the Living Dead,” Beyoncé’s 2016 album “Lemonade,” a novel about a Native American tribe in South Dakota, the work of documentarian Matthew Heineman, and the opera “Carmen.”
Meanwhile, an experimental play based on the work of the avant-garde Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor was taken to task for replacing “visceral immediacy with obscurity,” a grave problem, according to the critic.
It’s not just that the word is overused; more importantly, there is a kind of mysticism in it. When you don’t know what a piece of art is doing or how it’s doing it, you can describe its effect as “visceral,” as if it weren’t meant to parsed in detail. When a piece of art has nothing to say but you still want to praise it, you can exalt it for working within a vocabulary that is primitive rather than intellectual, and therefore purer and more forceful than art that expresses explicable themes. Often, it’s only the critic himself who is non-intellectual, a quality he’s projected back onto the art.
There’s nothing wrong with being dumbfounded by a film or a song or a book—there’s nothing wrong with having felt something but not knowing why. But when this happens, just admit it. When we invoke the “viscerality” of the art that we don’t understand, we do so in order to dress up a failure of interpretation within a term fancy enough to reassure us of our intelligence. We’re all stupid sometimes, but let’s not try to make a virtue of it.