What We Write About When We Write About Art

The relatively recently revised On Edge: Performance Art at the End of the Twentieth Century by C. Carr offers the reader a curious kind of text. Carr, a columnist and arts writer for The Village Voice from 1984 until 2003, collects over 60 columns, articles, fragments into an elegy for the lost Village avant-garde. For there are no two ways about it: despite the additions and updates of this ‘revised edition’, the second part of the title could fairly be re-arranged to read “The End of Performance Art in the Twentieth Century”. The lost Village Voice mourns the lost Village.

In ways both bad and good, Carr writes about art like a journalist. She has, in fact, been likened to a war correspondent—and we see plenty of that self-fashioning, in essays like “Nightclubbing: The Tompkins Square Riot”:

I just stood there because I was the press and I was wearing my credentials and I hadn’t done anything and this was my neighborhood and this was the phone I use to call my friend over there who doesn’t have a buzzer and…“Run! Run!” screamed a tall young black man, taking me by the arm. “We gotta get outta here!” And I felt a billy club across my shoulder blades, the cop pushing me. Cop pumping adrenaline. Cop yelling, “Move! Move! Move!”

What value On Edge has to offer comes through these punched-out descriptions—through the sheer accumulation of recorded events that would otherwise, as ephemeral performance, be lost to us. Carr writes in her introduction that, even when less sure about journalism, “I had no doubts at all about who and what I wanted to cover: artists who worked in that precarious area just a little off terra firma…[People] called it ‘performance art’ because that category is still relatively uncodified.” What follows is Carr’s manifesto: “These were the artists I wanted to track. As they entered new territory, I would follow, trying to draw the map.”

On Edge exhibits a composite image of a younger, rougher New York: we know it existed, but it still has the power to shock and charm, like a photo of a beloved aunt as a teenager with cropped and blue hair. At the same time, there is plenty irritating about the mournful refrain—familiar since Homer—that the golden days are over, for good, everything is rather cheap now, you just missed it. (I would like, for once, to be told that things were boring until I arrived somewhere.) The only slogan quite as dull as Everything Old was Better is its equal and opposite counterpart: No, Everything New is Better.

One of the book’s last essays, “The Bohemian Diaspora”, sums up the more specific and thoughtful of Carr’s complaints:

Certainly I’ve found it harder to track the art margins lately. The climate for things experimental, for things adversarial, has not only worsened; the damage to those ‘autonomous zones’ seems irreparable. That historic institution once called ‘bohemia’ has been so heavily exploited that it’s had to become invisible. For the first time in 150 years, bohemia can’t be pinpointed on a map. The dematerialization of the artist’s milieu has had a devastating impact on the entire culture—more intangible, and therefore more insidious, than the problems posed by shrinking corporate and government funding, the march of the real estate developers, and the debilitating war over free expression.

Dissent cannot happen in a vacuum. Nor can social or aesthetic movements grow in one. Community is the fabric that sustains experiment, stimulating that leap into the void and maybe even cushioning a fall.

There is plenty to be said about Carr’s central thesis, but On Edge doesn’t quite do it. And what of the liberations of decentralizing? What about international centers vis a vis this unapologetically Amero-centric view? And how does drastically improved communication technology affect the bohemian diaspora? (A recent New York publication called the internet the ‘ultimate virtual city.’) Carr’s “Wired” section is weakest in the book.

Nor, to be frank, is her prose consistently bearable: what feels lucid, youthful and direct in opening essays grows increasingly telegraphic—in a bad way. After about 50 pages, one suspects that there will be no further new ideas, just more and more evidence. In one essay, artists wear flaming bread loaves on their heads and recruit “five doctors…to draw blood for the collective painting, but they’d arrived when the police had, and they’d fled. There’d be no painting.” In another essay many pages later, a “self-described ‘hetero-masochist, in extremis’” wins notoriety for nailing his penis to a board. And so on.

Yet these stories document events, moments and moods that, in the end, the reader isn’t sorry to stop and wonder about. The ‘art’ is intercut with tawdry but transgressive dance clubs: a little cheap, certainly; more than repetitive; adolescent and hardly thought through; etc., etc. But the thing nonetheless has life to it: a powerful reaction against something, and moving in its fury. Feminists and queer activists are among Carr’s most prolific performers.

Astutely, she notes that “…carnival is the subtext to each new bohemia, which has to consort with the ‘low’ almost on principle.” The idea is hardly theoretically developed (again, that can be said of On Edge in its entirety), and yet is central. If we read On Edge at all, this is why—because we believe in and accept a relationship between the artistic avant-garde and bohemian nightlife: between high culture and alternative culture—if you’ll pardon such problematic terms and distinctions.

This vital tension and interdependence is absolutely there, and even relevant in some arguably novel way in the time period Carr examines. But On Edge leaves us with only anecdotes, if a few brilliant ones. Chris Burden dispassionately describes the action in his 1971 piece Shoot: “At 7:45 P.M., I was shot in the left arm by a friend…”

The four essays truly worth reading are in the first section of Carr’s book, “In Extremis”, which by no accident deals with the most serious art. Like Burden’s, this work comes from 1970s body art and actionism and long predates the flightier antics that dominate the remaining 300 pages. “A Great Wall”, about Marina Abramovic and former-lover Ulay’s journey towards each other from opposite ends of China’s Great Wall, might alone be worth the price of the book.

The artists had titled the piece “The Lovers”. But in the eight years between the initial conceit and its finally approved execution—on crumbling remains of Wall—much went wrong. For one, the two stopped seeing each other romantically and embarked on this, their final collaboration, seemingly out of stubbornness. When they came face to face after an exhausting 90 days, they embraced, but:

[Later] Over the telephone, each complained a bit about the other’s first reaction. Marina had started to cry, which Ulay thought inappropriate. Ulay’s first words were something about her shoes, which Marina thought inappropriate. Marina couldn’t wait to leave China. Ulay said he could have walked on forever.

…From Shenmu the artists went right to Beijing to hold a press conference. The Chinese media has never published anything at all, however, on the journeys made by Ulay and Marina across the wall. The artists returned, separately, to Amsterdam.

Many of the ideas recurring throughout On Edge are introduced in this essay: a lighter touch and humor mingle with tales of great physical and moral courage. Marina Abramovich is one of the real heroes of our time; it is as if her presence infects Carr’s work with depth. Gender, sexuality, the possibility/impossibility of human connection; artistic ego and the search for truth; transgression and awe at culture’s monuments; fear; money.

Yet at the same time this essay, by its range, intelligence and internationalism, threatens to expand the scope of Carr’s book to the point of explosion, or at the very least erases some of the passion from her localism. Scandinavian and Serbian former lovers meet on the Great Wall of China before returning to Amsterdam, as chronicled by (chosen not born) New Yorker. The Village’s gentrification seems a lesser tragedy than most. For the record, a scene almost identical to what Carr describes is currently flourishing in the frontiers of Brooklyn. Bohemia has ever been diaspora.

Takashi Murakami, Tan Tan Bo (2001)

Sarah Thorton’s Seven Days in the Art World, tackles the problematics of contemporary art from a very different angle. Thornton, who has an academic background, has produced a pseudo-ethnography of the art world—or, more truthfully, despite the author’s assertions, of the art market. (Thorton writes in the introduction, “It’s important to bear in mind that the art world is much broader than the art market…It’s a ‘symbolic economy’ where people swap thoughts and where cultural worth is debated rather than determined by brute wealth.” However, much of her book will manifest the reverse.)

For all that Seven Days is, on the surface, the more ambitious text, with its pedigree and research methodology (“hundreds of hours of ‘participant observation’ and over 250 in-depth interviews”), it pales in comparison with and even retroactively heightens the charms of On Edge. Its bid for substance feels rather letter than spirit of the law.

Author: Sarah Thornton
Book: Seven Days in the Art World
US publication date: 2008-11
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780393067224
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/t/thornton-sevendays.jpg
Length: 256
Price: $24.95

Thornton’s two significant and engaging central theses look obvious in retrospect (what we might call the Malcolm Gladwell school of rhetoric), but are, as she demonstrates, generally swept under the carpet and worth thinking about a great deal more. The first point is that Art—the creation and evaluation of its cultural worth—is a business as well as an ideology. “My research suggests,” Thornton writes, “that great works do not just arise; they are made—not just by artists and their assistants but also by the dealers, curators, critics, and collectors who ‘support’ the work…that collective belief is neither as simple nor as mysterious as one might imagine.”

Alongside this more timeless truth, Thornton makes the claim that something has profoundly changed in recent years. Contemporary art has become so central, so profitable—this book was written before the great market crashes and the new Great Depression of 2008—that it has gone through some kind of phase transition. Art is important today because it is so expensive:

In a digital world of cloneable cultural goods, unique art objects are compared to real estate. They are positioned as solid assets that won’t melt into air…And their visible promise of resale has engendered the relatively new idea that contemporary art is a good investment and brought ‘greater liquidity’ to the market.

And yet, in order for Art to retain its capital letter, it seems that knowledge of its capitalistic function has to be repressed large-scale:

Even the most businesslike dealers will tell you that making money should be a byproduct of art, not an artist’s main goal. Art needs motives that are more profound than profit if it is to maintain its difference from—and position above—other cultural forms.

So far, so good. A few snippets from Thornton’s introduction, and then nearly the entirety of her chapter on the artist Takashi Murakami (“The Studio Visit”), are sharp and lucid and legitimately seek to expose and discuss the implied assumptions behind contemporary art. Chapter Six focuses on Murakami (whose recent retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, complete with inset Louis Vuitton store, didn’t fail to inspire controversy), not incidentally the only visual artist to make Time magazine’s 2008 list of “100 Most Influential People”.

Murakami uses teams of apprentices and mechanical reproduction to make his works; alongside this he designs for high-end fashion and runs KaiKai Kiki LLC, marketing himself overseas and producing low-end commercial products. By out-Warholing Warhol, by exposing art as a business and his name as a brand, the Japanese artist has created a body of work that is its own philosophy. The tension between object and concept in a Murakami hums with a savviness that outdoes even Damien Hirst (and others who capture Thornton’s imagination and the awe of the major auction houses).

‘Takashi’s practice makes Warhol’s look like a lemonade stand or a school play,’ declared [one] young art historian. ‘Warhol dabbled in businesses more like a bohemian than a tycoon…’ Unlike Warhol’s other artistic heirs, who pull the popular into the realm of art, Murakami flips it and reenters popular culture. ‘If I wanted to be accepted more readily by the academic establishment, I could argue that Takashi is working within the system only to subvert it. But this idea of subversive complicity is growing stale…What makes Takashi’s art great—and also potentially scary—is his honest and completely canny relationship to commercial culture industries.’

The rest of Seven Days, alas, is neither so interesting nor to the point. Like Carr, the characters in Thornton’s world accept Art as God, but are bewildered when asked to talk about. Unlike Carr, Thornton doesn’t join in; although there is something unpleasantly smug about her involved uninvolvement, for all the efficacy and reasonableness of her self-described ‘cat on the prowl’ approach.

The two books overlap beautifully in “The Crit”, a section on art school: we unexpectedly re-encounter Carr’s 1970s badboy Chris Burden. Now a respected and respectable professor at UCLA for over 26 years, he resigns in protest after student plays a grim game of Russian roulette during a crit session—in parody of or homage to Burden’s own Shoot. (The student, thankfully, survived.) Burden tells Thornton:

‘The kid should have been expelled on the spot. The student violated about five rules in the university code of conduct. But the dean of student affairs was confused and did nothing. She thought it was all theater.

‘The name ‘performance art’ is misnomer,’ Burden told me. ‘It is the opposite of theater. In Europe they call it ‘action art.’ When a performance artist says that he or she is doing something, the predominant feeling is that he or she is actually going to do it.’

However, with these few notable exceptions (mainly when the likes of Burden and Murakami are allowed to speak for themselves), Seven Days pushes us away from, rather than illuminates, its subject. If Carr made us like her deadbeats, Thornton fills us with facile disdain. At Christie’s, an older female collector quips, “An auctioneer is like a plastic surgeon. You want to go to someone you can trust.” Thornton dutifully literalizes the simile: “Sitting a couple of seats away, I notice a young, long-haired blonde writing in her catalogue with an old arthritic hand. Upon closer inspection, I realize she is withered but immaculately unwrinkled; her scalp is dotted with hair implants; her body is draped with distracting jewelry and animal pelts.”

At the Venice Biennale, she describes a row of deals and collectors “lying on chase longues smoking cigars” with “tanned bellies bursting out of white bathrobes” at Cipriani’s. “It was as if those in the prime aisle seats of the Christie’s salesroom had been collectively beamed over to Europe and lost their clothes in the process. Apparently, during the Biennale this gang of art world players refers to the Cipriani poolside as ‘the office.’”

We have moved from not very bright adolescent squatters to the not very bright but very bored aging rich. The largest part of Seven Days reads as educated gossip about the misbehaving upper classes—not entirely unlike the nanny tell-alls so popular in the recent press. Thornton’s project is obviously smarter, but the chatty style and obvious fascination with the vulgarity of money and power infects the development of even her smarter ideas.

A millennial terror struck me suddenly in the section on the Venice Biennale. Not far from the frolicking ‘art world players’ but miles away in spirit stands the Palazzo Ducale. It is “one of the most visited tourist sites in Venice. Inside it, and remarkably off the beaten track for the Biennale crowd, were works by Venetian artists such as Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese and the sinister Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch.” It is never as evident that Thornton’s subject has long ceased to be art, as we’ve historically understood it.

I mean no knee-jerk reactionary judgment against either reveling Biennale goers or tourists (both activities quite frankly appeal). However, here again is a central, perhaps the central aporia faced by contemporary art—and both Carr and Thornton brush but back away from it. What is it that we think art is supposed to do just now? How does that relate to what art has done in the past? And how do we judge it?

Art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto in the essay “The End of Art”, hits in a few paragraphs the questions that both of these books miss, and I will end with his words:

Now if we look at the art of our recent past in [Hegelian] terms, grandiose as they are, what we see is something that depends more and more on theory for its existence as art…But there is another feature exhibited by these late productions which is that the objects approach zero as their theory approaches infinity, so that virtually all there is at the end is theory, art having finally become vaporized in a dazzle of pure thought about itself.

…Of course there will go on being art-making. But art-makers, living in what I like to call the post-historical period of art, will bring into existence works which lack the historical importance or meaning we have for a very long time come to expect…

As Marx might say, you can be abstractionist in the morning, a photorealist in the afternoon, a minimal minimalist in the evening. Or you can cut out paper dolls or do what you damned please. The age of pluralism us upon us.

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