Friday, October 3, 2008

Visions of Excess

I doubt, in fact, that it is possible to give a serious definition of art unless we examine the question in terms of one constant—namely the transformation of art into merchandise.  In our time this process has accelerated to the point at which artistic and commercial values are superimposed.  And if we are concerned with the phenomenon of reification then art will be a particular instance of that phenomenon—a form of tautology. -Marcel Broodthaers

Nick Paparone’s recent installation, Bacchanal-Tootsie Roll Whip, soon coming to a close at Vox Populi, reopens a wound in that body which still, through graphic habitus, bears the name modernity. The wound was inflicted long ago.  But like a cut administered by the most precise of samurais, the living corpse remains standing until a gentle breeze separates head from body.  My Belgian master—Marcel Broodthaers—was the gentle breeze, the most uncanny of messengers that announced the art works’ decapitation—the end of its illustrious exception from market forces.  This one constant, this stellar axiom, remains our condition of artistic labour.

Despite the fetid air that today cloaks such announcements, bellowed chiefly from the stuffy corridors of academe, we should not shy away from committing this axiom to memory, digesting it, as Marcel digested Mallarm√©’s poems.  

As Paparone shows indelicately, with pomp, fist pound, and bombast, its grip on our artistic present tightens all the more that it is dismissed as the concern of theoretical curmudgeons who frown fustily on aesthetic delights.

Of course Paparone's Bacchanal does not follow the path of my dear Marcel.  Such a grand spectacle of our hopelessness is not to the latter’s taste.  The spectacle is hopeless not because it exposes us to our miserable condition, to our incessant infantalization.  Rather it is hopeless because the feelings it rouses in us are the very affects that keep us subjected.  We remain enthralled to the very thing that menaces us. 

Being forced now and then to bath in one’s own vomit, to consume one’s own abscesses, has its virtues.  But if we are to slurp up our own phantasmagoric mess, we must not cloak its taste with sweetener, disguise it with candy coating. There is no more cynical a gesture than reinforcing the confusion that leads us to think we are eating chocolate while all along we are swallowing shit.

But before the thread is lost let me return to the wound swollen with puss, for like all infections they fester with neglect. So it is a great thing indeed that Paparone has exposed the wound to Philly’s fresh air, restaging the empty ritual of the art market, its continual and desperate attempt to resuscitate the fallen idol, ART, by injecting a little 'life,' i.e., capital, into its veins, comically rendered through the serial sacrifice of a little Mountain Dew before an altar erected to Brancusi’s The Kiss. 

But the sacrifice could not be more delusional, the scene more pathetic, the maenads less feminine, reduced as they are to cruel and pitiless embodiments of the most adolescent of male gazes.  Faceless and exhausted, they pour libation after libation, drained of joy, unable to summon the god.  As lifeless as a gangbang.  There is no Dionysian revelry in this bacchanal, in this simulation of the orgiastic, that seeks through its wasteful and senseless consumption, this ultra mundane bloodletting, to breathe life back into art, into the modernist monument. 

So hopeless is the attempt at revitalization that all we devotees of the market can offer it are gift’s in the form of small framed abstractions that give back to the idol, works composed of its own excretions (the pictures resemble shit or chocolate smears). Blood and shit to soda and chocolate: an abject transubstantiation.  A sardonic parody of high art’s fetishization, of its deification and destruction at the hands of the market’s unrelenting law.  This is all too cleverly conveyed by the equivalence of sign established between Brancusi’s The Kiss, updated in gold, and Pennsylvania’s own, Hershey’s Kiss, establishing at the center of the altar the symbolic relation between gold and shit, the high (the Museum) and the low (the Market Place), as if signed by John Miller himself.  The lovers’ embrace sullied by the Hershey turds they excrete, surrounded by images that reflect back to the idol its own filth.  Reification indeed dear Marcel.  The strategy no doubt is to rouse the corpse with its own deadly evacuations.

And indeed such a vision of excess is worth pursuit.  One would hardly be astonished if one found a well worn copy of the selected writings of that grandiloquent terrorist of the concept, George Bataille, upon Paparone’s bedside table, so innocently and naively does he move through a whole litany of Bataille’s favorite tropes: the grand equation that links high and low culture, porn and art, the sacred and the profane, the ecstatic and the abominable, shit and gold, sex and death, expulsion and consumption through the restriction and unrestriction, build up and release, of this cosmic economy. 

But to write large the spectacle of the art market’s reification hardly disturbs the spectacle.  Too little does it transgress its law, too little does it thirst for its annihilation. 

What it does do, however, is trample on the nostalgia, drifting toxically through our present, for that utopian spring that once gushed naturally from the pores of the artist-militant.  I agree.  Nostalgic fits for adolescence must be crushed.  Good riddance. 

But if in fact we are left only with the cynical pleasure of enunciating the obsolescence of the utopian dream, I want none of this dilemma.  Nostalgia or cynicism is a false choice, fit for a night on the town and its promise of good fun, but not the artist’s vocation.  This is not la promesse de Bonheur.  We have simply leapt from the horn of nostalgia to be impaled upon that of cynicism.  

We artists must dissolve this dilemma upon which Bacchanal—Tootsie Roll Whip divides.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Smelling Salts

Who's to say that I can't talk about medicine (art???) if I'm not a doctor (an artist???),  if I talk about it like a dog (god???)?

-Gilles Deleuze and Ludwig Fischer

Let this be my preface to the reader—a reader drunk not on the blows of critical wit but on the slow and dreary pummeling that passes today for critical acumen.  Punch drunk and dim is what we’ve become, engulfed as it were in a northern fog that has drifted in unawares.  For who, pray I ask, even after a cursory glance at that demented beast we call criticism, has not been struck dumb, left puzzled, by the shear asininity of the spectacle?

“Asinine” you say.  “Is that not a tad hyperbolic?”  But I say to you, lipstick on a beast is still a filthy beast. Let us agree to call a beast a beast and refuse all word mincing or tongue chomping.  The time has come for a roast.  There is more than a little dissatisfaction with the gruel that’s been served up.  

We are in the presence of a major symptom.  An obscure disaster.  And we artists should be worried by the absence of our corrosive colleagues, our daemonic partners and the battleground that they engender.  Yes, the clamour of critique has fallen silent.  Yet, this silence, which blows eardrums in our city, has not gone unnoticed. 

The time is nigh then to plunge my boot into the bog, to sharpen my knives and to commit myself to the patient labour of critical incision.  The time has come.  The boil must be lanced.

I, Ludwig Fischer, am no gangrenous fob, and I care little for the wretched accoutrements of taste or the platitudes of the market. We can no longer settle for the critic as purveyor of urbane opinion.  What artist who stakes a claim with their work can invest in such a rubber stamp?  Please don’t misunderstand. This is not a finger wagging, nor a grotesque lamentation of the glory days in which the critic reigned supreme.  Such fictions hardly amuse.  Rather it is a call to combat. 

True critique succeeds only when it enriches with each blow, illuminates as it razes to the ground. A critic must have just a little thirst for annihilation.  Yes, just enough to keep him and his patrons honest.  Critique is not for the brittle backed and succeeds only when it buckles spines and explodes kneecaps. 

“A theatre of cruelty,” you say.  “You are offering us one long unreadable bit of pain.  A thumbscrew.  And the tone.  So cynical, so scathing.  You bastard, you low-down filthy bastard."

I cannot promise readability.  Nor the critical euthanasia that solemnly bears the name today of sound judgment.  However, I must insist.  The tone is neither scathing nor cynical.  I take the vocation too, too seriously for that.

And if you require a confession, I am indeed a bastard.  But I come from a long line of bastards.  Too long to rehearse the now hackneyed self-pity that is the bastard’s stock and trade.  We have grown weary of that.  As my father use to say, “Rather the spittle that clung to the great Wissenschaftler’s lip than the sewer water that spills from the lips of the talking heads.”  I have learned from my lineage.  To be truly against, one must first be for. 

"For what?"  My allegiances shall become clear.  For the moment let the following affirmation suffice.  If the avant-garde is nothing but a carcass—a commonplace uttered by those in the know—let there be no shame in those of us who find more vitality in specters than the pallid hew of the living.  There is certainly more integrity in open fidelity to an embalmed corpse than the embrace of a living present that takes pleasure in spreading napalm over the living.  We’ve become too tolerant of such cruelties. 

Yes, we have become too dull, too accommodating, saps for fellow feeling, masters of consensus.  In short, our nostrils have become too accustomed to the funk.  If indeed the diagnosis is correct.  If we are reeling from the blows, drifting punch drunk, nauseous from our own ill-humour, then what we need today is a little smelling salt. 

Let us then unscrew the cap and take one long, deep breath.