Monday, January 21, 2019

Edward Mendelson in 1981, reviewing After the Wake: An Essay on the Contemporary Avant-Garde, by Christopher Butler. 
‘My plan,’ he writes, ‘has been to argue that in the 1950s radically new conventions for the language of art were developed by writers, musicians and painters who wished to break away from modernism.’ This argument faces difficulties at the start, since the avant-garde has been proclaiming its radical newness longer than anyone can remember. The most time-honoured convention of the manifesto-writers is innovation: the formula for newness is handed down unchanged from generation to generation. Butler quotes an artist who wants nothing to do with ‘all the structures, values, feelings, of the whole European tradition. It suits me fine if that’s all down the drain.’ This happens to be Frank [Donald] Judd speaking in the late 1960s, but all that distinguishes it from Futurist manifestos of fifty years before is its tone of lumpen disgruntlement. Allen Ginsberg, quoted in one of Butler’s epigraphs, says: ‘there is nothing to be learned from history any more. We’re in science fiction now.’ This remark, differing only in vocabulary from claims made early in this century for the new machine age, is proof in itself that Ginsberg’s ignorance of history does not exempt him from repeating it. 

Allen Ginsberg, quoted in one of Butler’s epigraphs, says: ‘there is nothing to be learned from history any more. We’re in science fiction now.’ This remark, differing only in vocabulary from claims made early in this century for the new machine age, is proof in itself that Ginsberg’s ignorance of history does not exempt him from repeating it.
A more vivid proof, not mentioned by Butler, may be found in Ginsberg’s recent echoes of the totalitarian apologetics offered by some of the Modernists of the 1920s and 1930s. Ginsberg has placed his spiritual life in the care of a Tibetan guru (one consciously avoided by the Dalai Lama), the autocrat of a spiritual retreat and poetry workshop near Boulder, Colorado. Among the guru’s activities are punching recalcitrant visiting faculty in the face and having them stripped naked by his goon squad. Ginsberg defends the guru’s methods as an “experiment in monarchy”, and insists that he must not be judged by the standards of lesser mortals.[i]
The public, the demimonde, and the curators in 1990. 

There were times when the Mapplethorpe trial in Cincinnati produced testimony worthy of the title attached to the museum exhibit: "The Perfect Moment."
Perfect Moment No. 1: Prosecutor Frank Prouty holds up two photographs, one of a man with a bullwhip in his rectum. He asks the art director who chose these images for the show: "Would you call these sexual acts?"
She answers: "I would call them figure studies."
Perfect Moment No. 2: Prouty questions museum director Dennis Barrie: "This photograph of a man with his finger inserted in his penis, what is the artistic content of that?"
He responds: "It's a striking photograph in terms of light and composition."[ii]

The defense is that art doesn’t really matter, because its only aesthetics. And if that’s the case nothing matters short of crime, actual law-breaking, laws written by others to be applied by others, by the state and not by us. This is the result of a belief in freedom of speech linked more to freedom of property than freedom of debate. In an atomized society of voyeurs with no political responsibility art is reduced to exhibits of masturbation followed by applause, “self-expression”, described without judgment, because judging is moralizing, and that’s left for the law-makers. 

Grace Gluick does better at least than the museum director in a review of the posthumous authorized biography. After referring the “brouhaha” of the obscenity trial, she turns to the book and the author   

Like these would-be censors, Patricia Morrisroe, a magazine journalist, does not engage in an informed discussion of her subject's work… instead she focuses on his progressively degenerate life style. Her book is long on gossipy detail (nearly a quarter of it is devoted to a ghoulishly clinical rundown of Mapplethorpe's final days) but short on real engagement with the work. The photographs were the life and vice versa, she implies, but that's about all she offers in the way of elucidation.
Early in his restless adulthood, she tells us, Mapplethorpe formed a symbiotic bond with Patti Smith, who eventually became a punk-rock star; after that he had a long relationship with Samuel Wagstaff, a wealthy older curator and collector who helped orchestrate Mapplethorpe's career. But his rapacious sexual appetite led him to other, less stable and sometimes downright dangerous liaisons. According to Ms. Morrisroe, he had a penchant for sadomasochistic, coprophiliac encounters with well-muscled black men he picked up in bars. A racist (who also seemed to dislike Jews), he called them "nigger" in love play and exacted from them servitude as photographic models. "His photographs would serve as a diary of his sexual adventures," Ms. Morrisroe writes. He was convinced that he had acquired AIDS from a black man, although he boasted of having had sex with at least a thousand male partners.
"Mapplethorpe's loft had become a port of call for men with every conceivable sexual perversion," Ms. Morrisroe writes, "and they arrived with suitcases, and sometimes doctor's bags, filled with catheters, scalpels, syringes, needles, laxatives, hot water bottles, rope, handcuffs and pills. They dressed up as women, SS troopers and pigs."[iii]
The final paragraphs of Glueck and Ellen Goodman, quoted above on the trial.

My own feeling is that those "bizarre aspects" -- the sadomasochistic images documenting a tribal culture that, like it or not, is part of the real world -- are Mapplethorpe's most original contribution.… Lightweight though he was, even Mapplethorpe deserves a better biography.


I agree with the decision and with those who defended the museum's right to show these photographs. To leave the dark side out of a Mapplethorpe show would be like leaving the tortured black paintings out of a retrospective of Goya's work. It wouldn't be legitimate to pick and choose the sunny side of the work -- the Calla lilies and celebrities -- and show it as the whole….
But even in the moment of victory, there is still a warning here. This trial, and the funding woes of the NEA, are not just the fault of Jesse Helms on the rampage. They are the fault as well of an art community whose members prefer to live in a rarefied climate, talking to each other, subject only to "peer review" and scornful of those who translate the word "art" into "smut."
In many cities, there is still the knock of the policeman at the door. Having failed to make its case in public, the art community ends up making it in court. In the history of art, this is not a perfect moment.

Discussions of Mapplethorpe still largely miss the point. If the work is good, it’s because he’s described everything that’s damaged in our relation to homosexuality. One of his childhood neighbors remembers Mapplethorpe telling him  “There's this clock in Hell that chimes every hour, You will never get out . . . you will never get out . . . you will never get out." [iv]  His work is tragic or it’s nothing. The cold beauty is defensive armoring, the dream of a shell as hard as steel, inured to pain. To take his work seriously is to admit that all obscenity trials are absurd. He saw himself as obscene, and seeing no choice but to accept it dove in head first. The question is whether he described his sense of his own obscenity, his self-hatred, his need for self-annihilation well enough that an audience claiming at least to be without his fears and the desires that come from them, can feel their pull. 

“My wife is a saint. She’s a much better person than I am. Honestly. She’s, like, Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it’s just not fair if she doesn’t make it, she’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.”[v]

Mel Gibson is a good filmmaker.  His conflicts, intelligence and technical skill make him one.  Art is a craft. It’s a lie; it’s seduction. If you’re not tempted to go with it, it doesn’t work. Double Indemnity doesn’t work if you’ve never wanted to kill. 

Nietzsche or Baudelaire: Is there a pernicious form of art? Is there a sick philosophy?  Philosophy faces the bigger question: to see Nietzsche’ as a tragic figure, a moralist anti-moralist, an archetypical Christian apostate, caught in the false dichotomy of rationalism and irrationalism, to read him in context and for subtext, renders his philosophy into  mere literature.  

The arts are Burkean. Artists are revolutionary only by trying to make sense of a present that others haven’t had the courage or honesty to face. You can’t describe anything in detail without having intimate knowledge of it, and intimate knowledge is attachment, and describing your perceptions of the world is more compelling than declaiming your fantasies. Milton as Blake says, was "of the Devil's party without knowing it." 

Craft, again, is common form; the most radical craftsmen always see themselves as traditionalists, even if they see their relation to craft as to reinventing it. But the grand dialecticians of Modernism always wanted to pretend the dialectic ends with them. The reification of contradiction as ‘immanent critique’, by the bureaucrats of the Frankfurt School was as decadent in its origins as the formalism of the Vienna Circle. The art celebrated in its name as radical is in fact always the most honestly reactionary, the most ‘pernicious’, because the most attached to the present, the world that made it. 

The problem for programmatic liberalism as for radicalism is that both are fantasies sprung out of individualist imagination; both deny the fact of what Arendt called human “plurality”.  The truths of liberalism and radicalism are singular because they’re generalizations; the truths of art are plural because specific. Brecht’s decadence is  far less problematic than Walter Benjamin’s for the same reason Borges’ decadence is more problematic than Billy Wilder’s. But Modernism takes what  it can use. Self-hatred is as appropriate a topic in discussing Borges and Philip Roth as Mapplethorpe, Fassbinder, Celine, Mishima, or Houellebecq. “Céline is my Proust!”[vi] as Roth said. But the only people to refer openly to Roth’s self-hatred use it to attack his work.  And he’s defended from the charge with the same loyalty as defenders of Borges, for reasons that have nothing to do with the work itself, but only with the role they’re made to play, even though Borges deals in generalizations, and Roth in specifics. 

Two Quotes, from Kant and de Maistre.

Thus we observe here as elsewhere in human affairs, in which almost everything is paradoxical, a surprising and unexpected course of events: a large degree of civic freedom appears to be of advantage to the intellectual freedom of the people, yet at the same time it establishes insurmountable barriers. A lesser degree of civic freedom, however, creates room to let that free spirit expand to the limits of its capacity.[vii]

Everything that constrains a man strengthens him[viii]

The converse of the innate conservatism of the arts is that the arts describe society at its most complex, and this complexity is a threat to idealism of any form. Moments of stress, when societies are opening up or closing down produce a flowering of culture, pushing against assumptions or demands. So Kant and de Maistre could be describing Athens and the Renaissance or fin de Siècle Vienna or Weimer, or the founding of the United States.

The word “innovate”—to make new—used to have chiefly negative connotations: it signified excessive novelty, without purpose or end. Edmund Burke called the French Revolution a “revolt of innovation”; Federalists declared themselves to be “enemies to innovation.” George Washington, on his deathbed, was said to have uttered these words: “Beware of innovation in politics.” Noah Webster warned in his dictionary, in 1828, “It is often dangerous to innovate on the customs of a nation.”[ix]

It’s safe to assume  that American liberal critics of the jargon of business school and Madison Ave  will make no reference to its history, or use today in the language of  the alt-leftand Occupy,or Ranciere’s “Disruptive Dissensus”[x]. The same critics of will lump Edmund Burke with Sarah Palin.[xi]And none of them will have much to say about art, except those things that confirm their own idealisms, or that they twist to shape it.

[i]  Edward Mendelson. “Post-Modern Vanguard”, London Review of Books,  September 3 1981
[ii]   Ellen Goodman,  “A Warning From The Mapplethorpe Trial”, Washington Post, October 9, 1990
[iii]  Grace Glueck, “Fallen Angel”, New York Times, June 25 1995,
[iv]  Kunio Francis Tanabe, “The Darkroom Of The Soul”, Washington Post, May 28, 1995
[v]  Jeannette Walls with Ashley Pearson, “Mel Gibson says his wife may be going to hell” TodayAug. 5, 2010
[vi]  Norman Manea, “Nearby and Together: Norman Manea on His Friend Philip Roth”, LA Review of Books, June 23rd2018
[vii]Kant, What is Enlightenment,  trans: Mary C Smith,
[viii]Quoted in John Morley, Critical Miscellanies (Vol. 2 of 3) Essay 4: Joseph de Maistre
Macmillan And Co., Limited
New York: the Macmillan Company 1905,  p. 312
[ix]Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong”, The New Yorker,  June 24th2014
[x]Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, Steven Corcoran (ed., tr.), Continuum, 2010, 
[xi]Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Oxford University Press , 2011

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