[19 February 2007]
I insist on the fact that there is generally no growth but only a luxurious squandering of energy in every form!
According to her introduction to this book, writer Gretchen Rubin was twice foiled in her attempt to deal with what she terms the “unnamed taboo” of profane waste. The first time was as a student at Yale when she bombed with it as a property law research paper topic; the second was an unsuccessful novel that took the idea as its subject. She feels she finally connected with the essay in this collaboration with photographer Dana Hoey, though others, including me, may think she struck out.
The problems begin with identifying profane waste, i.e., waste that’s so gratuitous it’s self-validating, as a supposedly heretofore unnamed taboo. But in fact it’s a central theme of French Surrealist anthropologist-pornographer Georges Bataille, whose landmark mid-20th-century book The Accursed Share directly deals with it as the necessary escape valve of all human productivity, including modern-day capitalist accumulation. It’s perhaps overly optimistic to expect that Bataille be on the syllabus at Yale Law School, but he’s certainly well known among the faculty of the art and art history departments at Columbia University where Hoey teaches. On a more prosaic level is the phenomenon of modern consumerism, whose Latin root consumere means “to waste.” So-called therapeutic shopping is nothing if not heedless and even defiant waste (two adjectives Rubin uses to describe varieties of profane waste) in pursuit of self-satisfaction.
There’s also the questionable interpretation of material the book does use. Rubin acknowledges Thorstein Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption, first articulated half a century before Bataille in Theory of the Leisure Class, a book that’s been continuously in print since it first appeared in 1899. But she dismisses it as not accounting for “the dangerous thrill such action [i.e., profane waste] can evoke.” This is at least debatable if not patently untrue. For Veblen, conspicuous consumption, and more importantly the gratuitous waste it entails, is the will-to-power of the freebooting warrior class also known as the haute-bourgeoisie, for whom the thrill of victory over material things, the complete sovereignty over accumulation, is expressed in expenditure that is nothing if not profane in light of the deep social problems that plagued America in the Gilded Age when the polemic was originally written.
A second example is the 1953 piece by Robert Rauschenberg where he completely erases a drawing by legendary Abstract Expressionist master Willem de Kooning, then king of the New York art world. This destruction of a valuable artwork is a prime example of profane waste according to Rubin. Yet as a memento of the enfant terrible Rauschenberg once was, striking an Oedipal blow against his aesthetic father-figure, “Erased de Kooning Drawing” is a famous piece of postwar American art in its own right and would no doubt fetch millions were it ever to come onto the market.
Rubin further asserts that Hoey’s photographs are necessary complements to her essay and reveal the “explosiveness of profane waste as words alone could not.” Unfortunately, they aren’t and they don’t. They either anemically illustrate the concept or are just plain obtuse. An example of the former is “Wine Spiller,” an image of a woman seated on the ground next to a tipped-over screw-top jug of red wine that’s seeping out onto cobblestones; of the latter is “Monster Birthday,” a photo of a baby in the passenger seat of a yellow four-wheeler pickup truck parked in the woods.
Like the evocation of Rauschenberg in Rubin’s text, several of Hoey’s photographs are inspired by what are theoretically famous moments of profane waste taken from art history. They generally fail to satisfy by virtue of their lack of self-awareness beyond the obvious allusion. “Young Painter” shows current hot artist and recent Columbia grad Dana Schutz lying in repose in a paint-spattered suit. The photo evokes a similar image from the 1980s of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who reportedly wore Armani as he churned out neoexpressionist canvasses by the yard before overdosing at the age of 28. But what is the point of this particular rendition? Is it a statement about art as a form of profane waste? (As Andy Warhol once advised wannabe collectors, if you really want to impress people just hang $200,000 in cash on the wall.) Is it a post-feminist refutation of the Guerilla Girls, who once sardonically noted the “advantage” women artists have of not painting in Italian suits? Is it a meditation on gains forgone by kicking back instead of standing in front of an easel producing work that at Schutz’s prices could easily accommodate a new $1000 get up for every day of the week?
Another photograph plays on Marcel Duchamp’s idea of using a Rembrandt as an ironing board. In this case, Rubin is shown ironing a digital inkjet print of one of Hoey’s pictures. The image engages, albeit unintentionally, the distinction between what Walter Benjamin, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” terms the “aura” of the original artwork and its dissolution in the endless sequence of mass-produced copies of which photographic prints are exemplars. It’s a case further attenuated by digital imagery, which is in essence endlessly reproducible and thus exchangeable regardless of how fetishized by artificial means such as archival paper and limited edition. Not only is Hoey’s digital photograph not a Rembrandt, it’s not even an “original” in the same sense as an oil painting, and it’s therefore not subject to irretrievable loss at the hands of Duchampian anti-art impulses.
For Benjamin, the significance of art in the age of mechanical reproduction is that it ceases to have value as a device of ritual display (itself a residue of art’s origins as sacred object) and instead becomes a matter of politics. It’s here that Profane Waste reveals its most serious shortcoming. What is the point of a self-indulgent celebration of waste, profane or otherwise, in this age of inconvenient truth, a time in which ecological sustainability is the single-most pressing issue facing the planet? After reading Profane Waste, I’d like to offer my own definition of the concept: the effort spent thinking and writing about a blithe and trivial book.