A Voyage Around Art Criticism (1996)

artdesigncafé - art

| Published 29 September 2011
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[1] I once removed what I considered to be digressive material from an article by Alan Sondheim to a series of footnotes that ultimately were longer than the article to which they were appended—it seems only fair to do the same with my own digressions. Kathy Acker’s recent novel Pussy, King of the Pirates, offers me an excuse to revisit the work of that remarkable writer. She has written several books and brought several earlier works out in new editions since my last article on her work, and the additional material has changed my ideas somewhat about what she is doing in her writing. One factor is that the work is extremely repetitive, with the same themes coming back to the surface over and over again in each text and among all the texts (particularly a family scenario of abandonment, abuse, suicide, and this yacht that keeps bobbing up into the picture). There is not actually any narration or dialogue: the texts consist of outbursts from a complex narrative voice in several, variously gendered personae, shifting from breathless descriptions of destructive daily life within the family to passages of brisk and not particularly erotic pornography to hortatory philosophical statements that derive from thinkers like Luce Irigaray (whose influence I emphasized in my earlier articles on Acker), Georges Bataille, William Burroughs, Antonin Artaud (whose name is used several times for characters in the books), Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Genet, and so forth. Curiously, Acker’s splintered narrative style has been praised by current proponents of hypertext media (like Arthur and Mary Louise Kroker) as cyber-writing, when in fact the models for her work are almost without exception writers from the near or distant past, and the frequent illustrations in her work by her own hand and others as well as the often striking cover art for her books are without exception based on retro styles derived from German dada and expressionism (particularly Georg Grosz) and comic books. When she reads from her work (and excerpts of her readings of Pussy, King of the Pirates can be heard on the very interesting collaborative CD based on the novel and performed by Acker and the English political-punk band, the Mekons), her voice is both matter of fact and securely placed culturally and geographically in New York City and environs. She does not indulge in the ’80s performance art strategies of Karen Finley (trance-like recitative) or Eric Bogosian (theatrical impersonation of characters). She reads the text in her own voice, flatly and with little intonation, recalling authors reading in bookstores or university auditoriums rather than performance artists in galleries or virtual authors in cyberspace. She writes books, and though the books are really exploring (as she says at a crucial point in Pussy) the discovery of the visual, her influences, her style, and her medium are all archaically literary. That literacy, in spite of the often unlettered quality of the voices in the text, is one of her substantial conributions to "postmodern" art and writing. With her obsessive and limited stock of narrative material, her insistence on originary literary texts (such as her ostensive thefts from Dickens, Cervantes, William Gibson, and Robert Louis Stevenson [whose pirate book is the supposed source of Pussy, though Acker’s book bears less resemblance to the original than does Muppet Treasure Island]), and the obsolete visual and textual style of work (even when thrust into contemporary media like a punk-rock CD, an underground film [Bette Gordon’s ?] or a multi-media "opera" [Empire of the Sensless ?]) is personal and direct, even though fragmented and inconclusive. Acker is ultimately a writer, an artist of an old-fashioned sort, rather than a MUDDer, MOOer, hypertexter, or cyberpunk. Her "authorized" World Wide Web page has more the quality of a book jacket than a video game.

[2] Fortunately for me, contemporary art was at that time undergoing a process of theoretical introspection that was basically literary in character, and the importance of literary critical discussions (much of my education was in literary criticism) for the visual arts gave me a foothold in the dialogue of the day in the visual arts. Fortunately for me, I became disillusioned with the literary character of much of the discussion at about the same time the art world as a whole did, and moved on to other forms of inquiry better suited to the visual material that is, after all, the object of study in the visual arts.

[3] Pardon the reference to the Olympics; I wasn’t there and didn’t watch on TV. It just feels so satisfying to use an Olympic-related term without prior approval from the Committee.

[4] My favorite quote from the very quotable Ad Reinhardt is that "art is not the spiritual side of business," and it is equally true that art is not the illustrative side of philosophy.

[5] Steiner’s comment on Danto also reminds me of another chiding commentary, spoken by the editors of Serpent’s Tail Press, who publish a very good series of crime novels under the banner "Mask Noir;" Serpent’s Tail’s editors proclaim that their mission in publishing crime novels about working class and out-class people is to refute the amazing comment by well-known crime writer P.D. James that crime novels must be about the middle class, because "only the middle class is capable of moral judgment."!

[6] Does anyone think it simply accurate or somehow more culturally incisive that the head of the "department of unemployment" on the Public Radio Program “Car Talk” (known for its list of parodic department heads and technicians) is "Art Majors"?

[7] I read this book while riding the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan to Stony Brook, to meet my brother at an Astrophysics conference (his conference, not mine), while on leave from the Army. As I sat on the wooden bench, next to the wood-framed window on the old rail car (the cars at that time on the LIRR were more like the trains in Doctor Zhivago than the sleek, graffiti-resistant cars of today), which was standing still because the tracks had washed away on the rail bed ahead of us (we ultimately reached Stony Brook by bus). In that context, Lenny Bruce’s autobiography produced a Brechtian alienation that changed my perception of both where I sat and where I stood.

[8] This experience was excellent training for art criticism, better than graduate school to the extent that it involved interviewing skills, typing skills, keeping your audience in mind, and constant confrontation with absurdity. I’ve told these stories so many times they seem more like oral tradition than autobiography, but perhaps they are relevant here, or at least digressively relevant.

After arriving at Baltimore’s Fort Holabird as a PFC in 1969, I spent several weeks on temporary duty while waiting for Counterintelligence classes to begin. We would stand in formation in the cold morning air, which stank of the primary sources of nearby Colgate Creek: Colgate Palmolive, the Shaeffer brewery, and General Anodine and Foundry—on good days the creek looked like a cesspool, on bad days like a tarpit). We would be picked out of line like migrant workers, to perform duties like pretending to be taxi drivers in hostile countries (actually we were pretending to be taxi drivers who were pretending to be taxi drivers but were actually agents working for U.S. military intelligence—an oxymoron if ever there was one).

We would cruise around Baltimore until the officer (we usually taxied around officers who were in Interrogation classes, for some reason) we were assigned to flagged us down and repeated their bona fides (look it up in your LeCarré), and then we would take them out to an old gun emplacement that was built to protect the Chesapeake Bay from Nazi invasion, where other volunteers (often PFCs who had finished Interrogation classes) would interrogate the officers who were taking Interrogation classes (to give them first-hand experience of the procedure: the PFCs had a great time stripping the officers naked, tying them up, and threatening them).

Sometimes we would ferry the officers out to Fort Mead, which was substituting for the rural area of this hypothetical foreign country (all this was before "Mission Impossible," but just as hokey), where the officer was supposed to instruct us in where to drive to meet his contact while avoiding the hostile military or police. Of course, if we managed to get the officers picked up by the hostile forces, we could spend the rest of the day parked in an empty field, doing nothing, so we would talk the officers into getting out of the taxi when we saw a car coming that we recognized from previous trips to Fort Mead as the pastel Plymouth with Pennsylvania license plates that the hostile forces always used.

One night after dumping a Lieutenant and a couple of Captains in this manner, I picked the wrong spot to park and was nearly flattened by a tank that suddenly reared up out of a gully and slammed down onto the road right in front of me.

After getting into a class, we would line up every morning in fatigues, each PFC with his own Samsonite briefcase at present arms, and then march off to class across the Colgate Creek bridge. In class, we studied the techniques of picking locks (though with little hands-on practice), the variety of night-vision devices, the means to sabotage a car without blowing it up (some of which we Southern boys in the class already knew), how to type on old manual typewriters, and how to interview the neighbors of people applying for security clearances.

Most of the classes were occupied by this latter course of study, since Counterintelligence Agents stationed in the U.S. would generally be interviewing neighbors or taking down the names of war protesters, a skill they didn’t see the need to teach in school. The questioning technique was rigorously limited to devices to extract information without influencing the subject, a style of questioning invaluable for interviewing artists in later life. If you veered away from the predetermined path, tha actors portraying the target’s neighbors would make merciless fun of you. These were ultimately to be the most hair-raising encounters of my entire military career.

These interviews and the field exercises in surveillance (much more fun) were the subject of a book on World War II era Fort Holabird’s role in training the famous OSS, You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger. Fortunately for general readers, though perhaps not for serious spy aficianados, the Counterintelligence course described in You’re Stepping is just as funny and hapless as my own experience in the course would prove to be.

Just to give the flavor of the experience: real surveillance isn’t one guy following another guy. We would always be in groups of three, following a single "rabbit." All of us, of course (this was the military, after all) [would] be dressed identically, in "civilian" attire: identical white shirts, black ties, black pants, army haircuts, and spitshined shoes. (Reportedly, the same logic of civilian dress was followed in Saigon, where the outfits immediately marked the wearers as Intelligence officers and, therefore, marked men. The response was to put them back in uniform, but instead of wearing the normal collar insignia of U.S. on one side and the Intelligence "sub rosa" emblem on the other, they would wear a brass U.S. on both lapels— which of course immediately identified them as Intelligence agents.) If the rabbit went into a restaurant, all but one of the surveillance team was supposed to go in and order something. So three or four of the rabbits would get together and agree to meet in a 10-seat diner. Six or eight of the surveilors would go in and order something, while three or four would mill around outside. All 12-16 of them in white shirts, black ties, black pants, military haircuts, and spit-shined shoes.

Earlier classes at Fort Holabird had caused the students to be banned from downtown department stores, because they had been using the elevators, starting keystone-kops elevator chases. The keystone influence remained, however: one day, three of us were following someone through the streets of Baltimore, and the rabbit turned a corner quickly. The three of us spilled around the corner in sequence, careening into one another as we abruptly stopped at the top of a steeply descending street, empty save for an old man in coveralls sweeping the streets. He looked over at us, bunched stupidly at the corner, and slowly raised his arm to point in the direction our quarry had gone.

Auto surveillance was just as sophisticated. One rabbit car, with a driver and no passengers, was to be followed by three surveillance cars, each with a driver and three passengers (there were not enough vehicles for each student to drive a separate car): each car a pastel Plymouth with Pennsylvania license plates. On one occasion, three of the rabbits drove to an out-of-season, nearly deserted fishing camp on the Bay; nine identical cars followed them in, and 39 young men in military haircuts, white shirts, black ties, black pants, and spitshined shoes milled around in front of the bait shack for half an hour, trying to look inconspicuous. Naturally, all of this experience has been invaluable for getting in and out of galleries before the owner or executive director notices that a critic is in the place, and bends your ear with an hour’s marketing speech for the artist of the day.