Thursday, December 15, 2005

Parody and Privacy

Over two long years in the mid 80s I wrote and rewrote one article that I submitted, finally, to Arts Magazine (now defunct) in the summer of 1987. This is what gets me into Google Books, and Amazon, listed as a footnote in two books and an article by Thierry de Duve in October. The editor made me a plagiarist by removing quotation marks from one sentence, and in shortening an already short piece for publication rendered a few passages incomprehensible. I've fixed these but the rest is the same: the archness, the moralizing tone. I sweat bullets over every sentence as I wrote it and the result is a perfect example of what I was criticizing. It's almost airless, an argument for something other that itself, but in various ways I've been making the same arguments -concerning modernism and time, and narrative as a medium for communication- ever since. And since it's so easy these days, I'm adding images.


There's one more damned than all. He never gambols,
Nor crawls, nor roars, but, from the rest withdrawn,
Gladly of this whole earth would make a shambles
And swallow up existence with a yawn

The form of wood is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness.

It's usually argued that Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol turned art into philosophy. They are acknowledged for the cerebral nature of their work, which acts in a situational way as criticism. It is difficult for modernists to see them in any other way because it is the only way to see them in an idealist context. The German Expressionists have been incorporated in the same manner; the subjective and sometimes apolitical interests of both art and artists could be seen as secondary to their inherently political position, by critics or by the artists themselves, most explicitly in the case of Dada. Neither Duchamp nor Warhol came to terms with their work in this way, denying any obvious political implication. The fact that critics generally ignore this and put their work in a political context only proves how indigestible their works are to an idealist philosophy. Nor would it matter if it weren't for the fact that much recent work patterns itself on this same structure.

Marcel Duchamp's world was based on the illusion of disinterest. To accept involvement Is to give up the silence one surrounds oneself with in isolation, in Duchamp's case an isolation of fear, a parody of monastic humility.[1] As the collector of pubic hairs he was the ultimate miser, the miser of sex. His work revolved around images of mechanized sexuality. On the one hand eschewing involvement, he desired order almost for its own sake and invented a metaphysic of autoeroticism.[2] This has been ignored by American critics while it has been accepted in Europe, due in part to the sense of intellectual connoisseurship and dilettantism that produced Duchamp. Later heirs to Duchamp's form, if not his ideology, include Joseph Beuys, Mario Merz and the artists who make up the Arte Povera movement, and recently painters such as Anselm Kiefer and Enzo Cucchi. On the whole, however, we have learned from Duchamp what Europe has not, for we have accepted him on his own terms.

There's an interesting line between the early work of Robert Morris and Donald Judd. Judd's work is phenomenologically and intellectually abstract (musical) whereas Morris' is anthropomorphic and theatrical. He denied this at the time but as Carter Ratcliff has pointed out, that goes against the work itself. "The statement was taken at face value only by those with an unquenchable desire to believe in mid-'60s art world rhetoric." (Robert Morris: Prisoner of Modernism, Art in America, October 1979)

This change is a turning point in recent sculpture, not because of a transition to figuration but because of what viewers were asked to see as figurative, and why. Morris' purist shapes were transformed into impenetrable bodies, more social in implication than Judd's, yet deeply anti-social. Judd was interested in communication between object, viewer, and artist. Morris was assuming the failure of that attempt. By transforming objects into metaphorical entities that deny or refuse interpretation, he presented us with an other, a foreign body, and dared us to accept it on its own terms, something that his modernist audience could not accept. It is as if Picasso were given an African mask that he would be unable to use without accepting the mythologies it was made to represent. He would, of course, refuse the gift rather than forfeit his mastery over it, a mastery that arose by stripping the work of its history and context. This understanding is what produces the criticality of Morris' art, its cerebral intelligence. But when Morris takes on Modernism he does not outgrow it or leave It behind him. His work is not based on his intellect, but on his emotional response to it. With the assumption that to understand something foreign, to make it native to your own ways, is to dominate and control it, Morris accepts both sides, unable to choose, cleansing and purifying himself through a violent esthetic of unresolvable contradiction. "With full deliberateness, Morris pushes form, concept, and meaning," as Ratcliff says, "toward an ultimate "all-overness"-absolute equivalence, the entropic dead end." Morris has accepted the sadomasochistic 'Realm of the Carceral' (a series of his drawings bear that title) and the fascistic. This is In a very real sense, the same world as Duchamp. It is also the world of Warhol, Halley, Jeff Koons, and a range of so-called 'Neo-Geo'painters and sculptors from Philip Taaffe (Neo Op) to Richard Prince[3] This new work, like Minimalism, is concerned with the relation of object to viewer. Both have a cool, removed quality, one not of expression but of presentation. Yet while Judd's coolness is ascetic by nature (and without the darker subtext) the new work seems trapped by the attitude it maintains. The energy of these works is one of sexual containment, at the most extreme seeming like an order Hitchcock might create-that of character trapped within a descending spiral of isolation verging on if not becoming psychosis.

Various works seem a hybrid of Minimalism and Pop, grafting the imagery of the latter onto the structure of the former, so that the geometric superstructure of the piece becomes equated with its order or hierarchy, its mythological framework: that which contains the subjective experience of the figure within the painting or the object/idea of the sculpture. The geometry acts as a metaphor or as a map, or sign, not as an Independent formalist architecture. This is as true for David Salle's work as it is for Philip Taaffe's or Peter Halley's, the only difference being that in the abstraction the figure of the painting is the viewer, the map is taken on as his or her own. In "The Crisis In Geometry" (Arts Magazine, Summer, 1984), Halley states:
My own Two Cells with Conduit and Underground Chamber
emphasizes the role of the model within the simulacrum. Baudrillard states that "simulation is characterized by a precursion of the model, of all models around merest fact" The simulacrum is a place where "the real is confused with the model." It is a "total universe of the norm," a "digital space," a "luminous field of the code." In my work space is considered as just such a digitalfield in which are situated 'cells' with simulated stucco texture from which flow 'conduits.
Halley compares his spaces with those of video games, office towers, and microchips, all simulated space, models of "cellular space" and places "in which buildings are 'like columns in a statistical graph." His images act metaphorically, not formally in a modernist sense, and although he thus escapes the idealist materialism of Carl Andre's quote; "A brick is a brick" he needs to replace it with an order even more rigid to reaffirm his idealist intentions.

What is interesting about Halley's art is not its critical function but its subjective viewpoint. The paintings are the product of a perverse asceticism, impotent in the face of a physical reality that it can not accept, the perhaps willing prisoner of a world where meaning has atrophied; and where the leveling that has occurred of all forms to one measure. capital, has mirrored itself in the leveling of all forms to information. The work is an allegory of alienation. Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is an early precedent here as it is to all later artistic use of psychedelic imagery, images of the subconscious, Op-Art patterning or illustrations of drug-induced states. Pynchon uses similar terms, central to the American romance -what it has become- and its relations with the physical world and the psychosis of modern life. These are images of the loss of the self, unable to define its surroundings, to distinguish itself from them, and thus being relegated to passive observation.

In 1982 Jeff Koons first exhibited his New Sheldon Wet-Dry Triple Decker, consisting of a stack of three wet-dry vacuum cleaners of different models, each lit by a row of fluorescent lights, and each in its own Plexiglas case. The piece has been referred to as an implicit or explicit critique of Minimalism, but there is little reason to accept that argument. To say that it is a reference and therefore an answer to the stack pieces of Don Judd is a critical dead end. The observation may be correct but in the long run, it is of little interest. Judd assumes a sense of potency, attempting a successful act of benign communication within the basic form of modernism as defined earlier. Koons, like Duchamp and Warhol, is dealing with desire. While Judd creates order by juxtaposing abstract qualities, avoiding issues of power (for better or worse), Koons creates metaphorical objects of desire. Appropriating Duchamp's mechanized sexuality, the desire therefore is never fulfilled: objects cannot respond. This is how the works act as parody, to parody the type of painting that depicts women as objects of desire, and by taking the forms of advertising that limit art to forms of unsubtle manipulation. What is left is a cycle of attraction and repression. When dealing with an imagined ideal, reality can never be as perfect, and physicality itself withers in the mind, seeming flawed and dirty.

In Koons as in the others there is no attempt to face the physical sexual reality. Relations are sterile, and what is physical manifests itself as the object of an obsession with cleanliness and order. And there is no significant interest in leaving this cycle behind. As Ratcliff says of Morris: "[T]houghts of rehabilitation-or escape- are by internal necessity, unthinkable." As I will explain, this cycle is debased form of narrative.

The basis of Duchamp, Morris, Warhol, and Koons is their inability to adapt successfully to the idealist forms of modernism. Yet they are also unable to progress into the polymorphous narrative forms of postmodernism. In a sense, cinema could be consdered a way out, a visually narrative response. It's the nature of the parodist, however, to be unable to leave behind the object of his or her attacks. Most often, if the admitted order seen as bankrupt, the parodist lives on as an example of that emptiness. The emptiness becomes synonymous with its practitioner. Duchamp played the role of a 19th century man in the age of Freud the only way he could, as parody, and much like Alfred Jarry, he became his own Ubu.

If I want to say that Duchamp had limited interest even a distaste for the esthetics of time, I need to show that his works undermine a consideration of time as a process or form that communicates anything of value. If, as Annette Michelson says: "Working unlike Bunuel and Dali, in the spirit of 'the reconciliation of opposites,' he maintains that characteristic refusal of 'either/or' ..." then I must prove his acts of reconciliation are acts of banality, that the acts of refusal and denial result in this case in an esthetic of nihilism, that in Duchamp's case is produced by conflating, perhaps correctly, the conceits of the Victorian period with those of the modern one, and being unable to posit an alternative.
This seven-minute film consists of an anagrammatic title, followed by ten variant images of rotating spirals intercut with inscriptions. The spirals derive their forms from the vocabulary generated by the Demi-Sphere-Rotatative (Optique de Précision), of 1925, and its preparatory studies. The ten images, rotating about a central axis, present, in their optical impulsion toward and from the spectator, that shuttling oscillating movement which animates Duchamp's work, Iiterally, visually, conceptually, in all its major instances. Alternating with the spirals is a series of texts, alliterative and pun-filled white relief inscriptions, pasted on black cardboard and, like the images, organized in a circular form which rotates in turn, so that one must strain a bit to read them as they proceed in clockwise motion whose staccato quality contrasts with the serene undulation of the drawn spirals. ('Anemic Cinema': Reflections on an Emblematic Work, Artforum, October 1973)
Michelson goes on to describe the relation between the spirals and the "punning intertitles" as sexual as "aggressively sexual intimation[s] of thrust and recession."

The fact that Michelson doesn't offer translations of the texts tells us something of how we should read Duchamp. For it is not the meaning of the words themselves that matters, but the type of language used: cerebral, aware, ironic, perverse.
And language, of course, as Duchamp used it, existed in the context of visual form. I have already referred to effects that parallel those of the spirals of Anemic Cinema: the writings of Baudrillard as they are described in the work of Peter Halley, the idea of the Psychedelic as it appears in Hitchock, and the implications of transcendent psychedelic experience as it appears in the sculptures of Jeff Koons and the paintings of Philip Taaffe, David Salle and others. Given this, it is important to consider what both the spiral and psychedelia imply and how they act on the imagination. To put it simply, they do not act as conveyers of information, but as stimuli. What's fascinating about these forms is their directness. Certain patterns induce very specific emotional responses. Michelson quotes Bruno Bettelheim on the case of an autistic child who lived in a world of his own invention, and who had an intense fascination with an electric fan.
At that time [when the child was older and largely recovered] he told us what he had only guessed up to then, that to him, the very shape of those rotating objects suggested the circle he was helplessly caught in. They represented the vicious cycle of longing and fear, of wanting so much from others and of being mortally afraid to let his longing be known, either to them or to himself. (Bettelheim) finds again the overwhelming illusionist power of circling movement within a deep space, Anemic Cinema is a sort of visual machine made by a man who proclaimed his desire to rid painting of its sensuality and personality. (Michelson)
What Duchamp did was to equate narrative involvement with its most debased and disturbed form, that of mindless, tragic reception of stimuli of pleasure, like the reassurance a disturbed child receives by rocking back and forth. The same relation can be found in the films of Andy Warhol.

It is possible to say that Warhol worked within a modern context; that his simplicity was subtlety and that he was interested in the esthetics of real time cinema; that his films were 'cleansing and rejuvenating' (Jonas Mekas Appendix: The Independent Fllm Awards, Film Culture Reader, P. Adams Sitney, ed.). I do not think this is the case. For Mekas and Stan Brakhage to sit through two complete viewings (in a row) of Warhol's Empire is another example of modernism's ability to take a text out of context and adopt it as its own. For them, the film was about light and time, for Warhol it was also about boredom. The dialogue in his films is between time as form and as the destroyer of form, between time as a medium for art making and its opposite: proof of the vanity of man, of the inevitability of decay. In the same way as it was for Duchamp, time for Warhol is the opposite of art: making all form, in its pretension of permanence, vanity, surface, and ideology. Time stands as witness to entropy, something moderrnism can not and does not recognize.

This Is of course easier to see in Warhol's other work. The multiplication of images, of reality, is one of the most terrifying aspects of photography, specifically to any idealist belief revolving around the idea of an essence or an aura. In the same sense photography is antithetical to any unified truth, antithetical to the Catholicism that produced both Warhol and Duchamp, a Catholicism known as much for the nature of its fallen as for that of its adherents. Ideology reproduces itself even In its opposite.

It is possible to say that Duchamp and Warhol are protonarrative. They do not accept idealist order, nor do they transcend It. The art of high modernism is idealist, monotheistic, and Apollonian. To change this, or to adapt to change, both could have moved toward a more polymorphous form. They chose not to, instead adopting a strange hybrid of idealist structure, an anti-idealism or antitheology (a perversion), and, simultaneously, a warped objectivity toward their chosen form. This is the cerebral mentality that produced Warhol, Duchamp, and Morris, and the esthetic that has produced Halley, Koons, Peter Nagy, Richard Prince, and others. In its purest form, in the work of Koons, it relates itself to an almost fascist purism: that of the absolute denial of the physical world through the physical world, the pureness of de Sade. Of the young artists, only Koons makes his interests explicit His is the most fully rounded because it is the most personal, the most internalized, and that identification with paradox has produced the miraculous. The sensuality of the commodity has transcended itself through itself. That which is most impure has become most pure, that most unclean, most clean. He and his work are one, spiralling deeper and deeper into the privacy of autism.


1. Consider Joseph Buys' statement from the early sixties: "Duchamp's silence is overrated" as a response to the elder artists denial of social involvement that was not miserly.
2. In this and other ways my article parallels Robert Morris' article Quartet published in Art in America.
3. The work of those who use appropriation as a method varies widely. Desire for control vs. desire for memory of/or experience separates the art along gender lines. The men desire a power that once seemed viable, while the women remember a power that they never had. It is a quieter nostalgia from a longer distance.
4. Jill Johnston covers similar ground in a recent article on Robert Wilson. (Family Spectacles, Art in America, Dec. 1986) Although she does not take it quite as far as I have, she nonetheless is aware of the implications. Wilson grew up in a strict world that he has internalized. The obsession in his work with 'wounded' figures and 'great men' (Joseph Stalin, Frederick the Great, the Shah of Iran); his early denial/refusal of the narrative of theater and his interest in autism, is layed out very clearly. All of this relates him closely to Duchamp, Warhol, Morris, and Koons.

For the continuation and extension of this paper, written off and on over the past 25 years, see the link on the right side of this page.

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