Antinomian Chic

Danny Karlin

  • Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists edited by Brian Wallis
    New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York/MIT Press, 431 pp, £13.50, January 1988, ISBN 0 262 23128 X
  • Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker
    Picador, 227 pp, £10.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 330 30192 6
  • The Western Lands by William Burroughs
    Picador, 258 pp, £10.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 330 29805 4

Kathy Acker, wild and woolly avatar of William Burroughs, is also one of the Blasted Allegorists, contemporary American artists whose self-important and talent-free doodles about Life, the Universe and Everything are hyped by Brian Wallis in his Introduction, a piece of writing conceivably worse than the pieces it introduces:

For the writers in this book, these critical forms, such as interviews, monologues, jokes, dream narratives and parables, oppose the imposed narrative structure, the unquestioned hierarchy of characters, and the easy closure of much conventional – or even modernist – literature. In place of traditional expository writing or even experimental texts, the works collected here posit a wholly different approach to textual production which challenges accepted sites, structures, and meanings of discourse. In place of aesthetic innovation, these writers employ appropriation and reinscription of existing voices, styles and genres; in place of the coherence of the conventional text, they favour a form which is fragmentary, inconclusive, digressive, and interpenetrated with other texts; in place of the omnipotent author, they acknowledge a collectivity of voices and active participation of the reader; in place of the new or the original, they accept an understanding of language and stories as ‘already written’ and shaped by social and political conditions.

Being derivative sounds better when you call it ‘appropriation and reinscription of existing voices, styles and genres’, doesn’t it? If only the re-invented wheel worked better: but this is Tristram Shandy (‘fragmentary, inconclusive, digressive’ etc) without the jokes, or the point. The ‘collectivity of voices’ here is that of a Manhattan cocktail party or private view; the real ‘textual production’ is that of the glossy, expensive physical format of the book itself (‘made possible through a generous grant from the Henry Luce Fund for Scholarship in American Art’); the real ‘site’ is that provided by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and the MIT Press, organs of the established order whose ‘discourse’ subsumes and defines that of the ‘artists’ it patronises. Mr Wallis’s own Introduction is part of this process: it can never have occurred to him that the very fact of providing an official Introduction, let alone one which so unequivocally and authoritatively tells the reader what to think, is a denial of the book’s purported ‘subversive potential’. None of this is acknowledged: we have self-scrutiny without self-knowledge, gesture instead of action, challenge devoid of risk. All these people (‘the writers in this book’, ‘the works collected here’) have been made safe; let us hope for the sake of their souls that some of them winced when they read the formal, dogmatic, curatorial language with which Mr Wallis has embalmed their rebellions.

Not that these rebellions amount to much. They manifest themselves as the high seriousness of trivia (John Baldessari’s alphabetical list of the contents of his files of movie stills); as Native American bluster and vanity; as halfbaked intellectualism; above all, as the intoning of feminist and other contemporary cultural pieties. (Yvonne Rainer: ‘At this historical moment we still need to search out and be reminded of suppressed histories and struggles: housewives, prostitutes, women of color, lesbians, Third World people, the aging, working women’). Then there’s Dan Graham’s description of the Manhattan nightclub ‘Cerebrum’:

The atmosphere, which once seemed bland, slowly begins to change. Each person is starting to relate to his or her partner and to the guides. Now another guide enters and, propping herself, kneels by me with a small bowl. She removes a white lotion (baby cream?) and then starts to massage (I see, the medium is the massage) my hand. At first I am unresilient, but then begin to ply her hand with the lotion. Couples begin putting the stuff on hands, arms and faces to feel and touch. We are inside our skins, not merely looking out at an illusion of ourselves. As more props are brought in and are related to, we relate to our own bodies and to those of our neighbours. There is no need to relate or project to the others our experiences. Nothing is happening on stage and we are not being used by the performers; we ourselves are on stage. We are our own entertainment tonight (if ‘stoned’, ‘living’ our fantasies) as we are here.

  One of the attractive girls on the platform across from me walks onto my platform. ‘Join me with the others,’ she says. We lie beneath an opened parachute given to ‘us’ earlier, feeling the cool air of its movement. I feel part of a warm humanity. ‘Why have you been sitting alone all evening?’ the girl asks. There is no ‘distance’ here. The free-floating mood changes as all couples return to their platforms. A fog appears from beneath the platform and fills the air. Then the fog disappears and into the clear space the guides bring strawberries soaked in wine. I am ‘together’. Alive, calm as the music stops.

I haven’t made this up: the baby cream, the venerable McLuhan joke, the relating to our own bodies, the attractive girl (it wouldn’t do to be solicited by an ugly one), the opened parachute, the warm humanity, even the strawberries ... The only thing missing is the name of the credit card used to pay for it. ‘Cerebrum’ should really have been the title of the volume: brain-death. Manhattan style.

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