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I think it's time to reread Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics, a 1967 book that attempts to explain why our country periodically just goes completely batshit. Hofstadter, a historian at Columbia University, investigated such 18th and 19th Century phenomena as anti-Masonic scares and nationwide Catholic-bashing in an attempt to contextualize the McCarthy era, which was just ending as the book was written.
It seems that 9/11/01, "our national nervous breakdown," as Hunter Thompson calls it, has brought on another paroxysm of the paranoia and hatred that is the dark side of our democratic, freedom-loving society. I mean, we're supposed to hate the French now? And the Germans, with whom we supposedly buried the bayonet 58 years ago? Just because they challenged the aggressors currently running our little show? I say, to heck with that. These countries--our allies--are absolutely right to question our insane rush to war.
Hey, I'm mad about 9/11, too; it makes me all the madder that the men and women in power, weak but pretending to be strong, are trying desperately to change the subject, and settle some old scores. Rumsfeld is a War Loon--the whole crop of them are: Perle, Wolfowitz, Powell, Rice, Bush. These people scare me to death, much more than the Iraqis, who WERE NOT the instigators of the World Trade Center tragedy.
Cartoon roundup. Homestar Runner is a funny, web-only Flash animation series created by two 20something brothers in Atlanta. It's sort of in the Power Puff Girls mode but the characters and voices are much weirder. Its original fanbase included a lot of Christian kids because it uses clean language, but its popularity is spreading so major media may soon be involved (if they're not already). An essay about the cartoon is here. The episode "Where's the Cheat?"--or as one of the characters says, "Where the Cheat is at?"--is recommended. Also, if Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad were alive today I'm sure they'd be checking out this collection of Dragonball Z animated gifs.
Fiction writer and off-and-on art critic Jim Lewis has an essay on William Eggleston's photography on Slate. The essay's informative but contains some theoretical bugs; there's also a whiff of art world mythmaking hanging over everything that I wish wasn't. I annotated the article with some annoyed comments in boldface here. The following is a sample paragraph (my apologies to Lewis, if he ever reads this, for the pissed off tone; I just reacted and don't feel like doing heavy revision):
In a way, Eggleston did for color photography what the Dutch Masters of genre did for painting in the 16th and 17th centuries: He took it out of the hands of the wealthy institutions that had sponsored it (fashion magazines and advertising agencies in the one case, the church in the other) and turned it into an expression of the everyday. [Oh, come on! As if every American didn't own a color camera in 1976. The problem was that curators thought color was too everyday--a point Lewis makes earlier in the essay. What's with this "wealthy institutions" stuff? This is a strained art historical metaphor.] It is not so far, after all, from the vulgar to the vernacular: Eggleston bridged the gap, and in doing so delivered color back into the hands of art. [Surely Eastman Kodak, if anyone, took color from wealthy institutions and put it into the hands of ordinary people. What Eggleston did, supposedly, was then legitimize that banal enterprise as capital-A art. Except he didn't really--his printing, scale, and attention to detail made it a different level of activity than snapshots dropped off at the drugstore. Also, "bridging the gap between the vulgar and the vernacular" is about as meaningful a pursuit as "bridging the gap between the naked and the nude."]At my last place of employment, an abstract silkscreen print by "William Eggleston" from the early '70s hung in a hallway--a series of vertical stripes a la Morris Louis. I'm pretty sure it was the same William Eggleston--I remember hearing that he did that type of work at one point--but I can't find any info about this phase of the artist's career on google. Can anyone post or send me a link, or other data about this?
A friend suggested I get a studiocam, which gave me the idea to do a series of "every artist his own documentarian" studio action photos. They are currently down while I reevaluate whether they are "good nerdy" or "bad nerdy" vis a vis my image. Below is the piece I was working on in the photos.
Scott Hug's exhibit "K48: Teenage Rebel: The Bedroom Show," which I mentioned in a previous post, was extended until February 16, so I was able to see it. The theme is "a teenager's bedroom," and the artist (who's in his 30s) is living in the room while the show is up. In addition to floor-to-ceiling posters, photos, and artwork, there's a CD player surrounded by piles of discs, two TVs going most of the time, a dilapidated bed, desk with computer, knickknack covered bureau. Some of it's art (by Hug and others), some of it's kitsch collectibles (heavy on the '80s), some of it's documentation of the NY club scene. The show is so visually dense that you just stand there for a long time gawking. I picked up a checklist but immediately gave up even trying to identify work that way. As soon as Hug was free he was a helpful guide. Here's a microscopically partial list of stuff he showed me (or I picked out myself): video of charged moments from teen films (with Molly Ringwald, Tatum O'Neal etc, and lots of shooting and screaming); Teen Steam, an '80s exercise video featuring a young, big-haired Alyssa Milano; photo of boys from Annandale High School (Northern Virginia--go Atoms!) and related portraits by Lucien Samaha; Hug's polaroids of Electroclash stars PFFR, W.I.T., Kid America, and assorted Williamsburg scenesters; collection of Star Trek TNG cards in ring binder; large plastic Imperial Walker; hermetic neo-alchemical drawing by Jesse Bransford; framed psychedelic computer abstraction by Claire Corey; Italian Escape from New York movie poster; BB gun leaning in corner; photo of shirtless kid holding semiautomatic weapon in liquor store; photo of naked kid holding erect cock; clunky hand-painted portrait of Michael Jackson; weirdly-colored plastic Mickey Mouse manufactured in Russia; brand new C3PO action figure; lots of really crude, fucked up-looking collages; collection of plastic horses and Tracy Nakayama nude girl (on bureau); back issues of Hug's magazine K48. Supposedly there was a Rachel Harrison piece in there, but you'd be slow to identify it in an installation that resembled her own kitsch jamborees of yesteryear, multiplied by ten (but much rawer than her rigorously mathematical mind would allow).
A highlight of my visit was watching a video called The Kid's Show--an actual, slickly produced pilot for the USA Network that was one of the more uncompromising things I've seen on commercial video. The content was so dark and strange (albeit sidesplittingly funny) that it was immediately rejected by the network 3 years ago--I'm not sure Comedy Central, or anything short of MOMA, would take it now. Imagine a cross between ZOOM, Bowling for Columbine, and '70s countercultural skit movies and you're in the general neighborhood--what's "censorable" about it is that kids are speaking some very adult lines. Highlights include a segment called "You Can't Film Here," where a Cookie Monster-like hand puppet awakens the slumbering rageoholics in a succession of very scary New York doormen, a montage called "Funny/Not Funny" with turkey decapitations and reverse motion clown vomiting juxtaposed with violent cartoons, and one of my favorite bits, "Beat Kids," where a cute moppet in blond braids does Tom Green-style interviews with men and women coming out of public restrooms. Wagging a microphone in their faces and smiling guilelessly, she asks questions like "Did you have a good time in there?" and "Did everything come out all right?"
I disagree with the New Yorker that Hug's show is mainly, or merely, nostalgic. The old Dan Hicks song "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?" comes to mind, in that most of the stuff in the show, representing the perpetual state of adolescence acted out in Pop Culture America, never actually recedes far enough in our memories to become sentimentalized. And what, besides increasingly marginalized "upper class" arts such as the ballet and symphony, constitutes an "adult" activity in this country, anyway? 30somethings queue up for Episode II: Attack of the Clones and anyone who's worked the temp circuit in NYC has possibly had the misfortune of sitting next to a 50 year old singing along with "Another One Bites the Dust" on his Discman. By building up layer upon layer of layer of pop references, "K48" makes it difficult to draw any kind of line concerning where an artist's irony (adulthood) leaves off and the "real thing" (kid culture) begins (you could do it object by object, of course, but that would take a very long time). Hug intensifies a condition that for most of us is just a constant fact of life.
And I disagree with the various NY Times critics' characterizations of this work as "fluffy" or lacking ideology. A useful addendum to Roberta Smith's piece on the youthquake of fun, handmade art in NY would be a compare-and-contrast on this show and Laura Parnes' recently-closed "Hollywood Inferno" video, which didn't quite fit Smith's thesis. While Hug is dealing with (among other things) how youth culture is marketed and continues to colonize our imaginations to our graves, from Parnes' perspective, we never actually get to be young because the emblems of sex, rebellion, and escape are commodified and sold to us from birth. Either way, resistance to the monoculture is futile, the best you can hope for, as an artist, is to do "your" thing and then say yes or no when the USA Network decides to embrace it.
Fudge Factor, 2002, ink on paper, linen tape, 35 1/2" X 27" (this recent piece of mine--done in MSPaintbrush with a lot of overprinting and collaging--has been flipped and rotated for easier browser viewing--sorry if the file loads a bit slowly).
I was talking to an artist in her 40s about abstract art, and she was saying that the next generation doesn't get it--that abstraction's a historical curiosity at this point, because it's not seen as having content. Or that the content issues discussed from the 1940s to the 1980s with respect to it (existentialism, phenomonology, Freudian psychology, semiotics) mean nothing to younger artists.
Yet earlier I was talking to an artist in his 20s who is interested in rave videos and psychedelia. That's abstraction, isn't it? Presumably most of the isms I just mentioned could be applied to the orgiastic, visionary, opting-out-of-politics-as-usual spirit of the music underground. The part of abstraction that younger artists aren't talking about, and no decent artist of any age should be talking about, is the idea that a work's formal qualities are ends in themselves. That's a historical, Greenberg-era aberration. And as for anyone who thinks art has to have a neatly extractable soundbite message to be meaningful, you need to get a life.
A couple of tidbits in the press caught my eye this week. The first is from New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman: "I've had a chance to travel all across the country since September, and I can say without hesitation there was not a single audience I spoke to where I felt there was a majority in favor of war in Iraq. ...I don't care what the polls say, this is the real mood." (Of course, he goes on to say that the President needs to work harder to sell his "audacious" but wonderful plan to run Iraq as a US colony, but whatever.) Second is Camille Paglia's neo-paganist perspective, from an interview in Salon: "As we speak, I have a terrible sense of foreboding, because last weekend a stunning omen occurred in this country. Anyone who thinks symbolically had to be shocked by the explosion of the Columbia shuttle, disintegrating in the air and strewing its parts and human remains over Texas -- the president's home state!" I'm not sure popular resistance or omens will deter a man bent on Armageddon, though.
In view of this, I'm really sick of the press continuing to use the terms "hawks" and "doves" to describe the positions on Iraq. Doves sounds wimpy and unrealistic post 9/11 and hawks sounds decisive and tough. As far as invading & colonizing Iraq are concerned, the camps should be "the War Party" and "sane people."
My pessimistic prediction that there would be no New York Times review of Laura Parnes' show turned out to be wrong. Holland Cotter wrote about it last Friday. Just to give you the high spots, he contrasts Parnes' dark sensibility with the "fluffy stretch" we're supposedly having in the art world (which I still maintain is a figment in the brain of his Times colleague Roberta Smith), does a brief plot rundown on the piece, mentions the Columbine photo, and concludes by discussing Parnes' use of appropriated dialogue. He's ultimately too professionally courteous to name the source of some of the choicest bad lines. Cotter says it's a "crypto-conservative art critic," but who else but Dave Hickey could spout some of the nonsense recycled in Parnes' video?
In a memorable scene, an oily screenwriter played by Guy Richards Smit tries to pick up a young actress with this bit of pop philosophy:
"There are two types of people in the world. Those who like the Beatles and those who like the Stones. You see, Beatles fans actually care about the lyrics, but Stones fans just want to rock."To which the Generation Z-plus girl responds:
"I have no idea what you are talking about."I actually know a thing or two about Hickey, having endured his lousy eye and glib prose as an artist in Texas. Thinking I was rid of him, I moved to New York just as he was vaulting onto the national stage. He's essentially a quasi-beat fiction writer type that drifted into the art world, befriended artists, but never really "got" art. His attempt to be the go-to guy for "beauty" I wouldn't even call crypto-conservative, it's just conservative, even though his politics are strictly tenured radical.
Hickey's greatest achievement, I suppose, was twisting the theories of continental critics such as Deleuze & Guattari to make his own Critique of Institutional Critique, in the book The Invisible Dragon--that was damned clever! But if he's the new Clement Greenberg, who's his Jackson Pollock? After years of backslapping support for artist/country singer Terry Allen, he jumped on the Robert Mapplethorpe bandwagon, then more recently shifted his attention to West Coast abstractionists Tim Bavington and Yek Wong. He talks about Yek in terms of "sunshine art," which has something to do with LA, and surfaces that hold up to scrutiny in harsh daylight, I think. This is important?
Hickey does have his uses as a reactionary, though. One of my proudest moments as an artist was learning that he described a photocopy collage-painting of mine, in an unpublished interview, as "way too abject for me." He also mocked its "Teletubbies coloration." Now that rocks! I want those words--from the winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant, mind you--carved on my mantlepiece. Or perhaps tattooed on my left nut, to use a "rebellious" Hickey-sounding phrase.