Kathy Acker: A tribute (1997)

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art | 14 October 2011
This text was written in 1997.

Kathy Acker: A tribute

Kathy Acker died November 29, 1997, having for some time engaged in a public struggle with breast cancer. Acker was a provocative performance artist and one of the most prominent experimental writers of the 1980s and 90s. Acker’s writing combined three major strains: literary influences including especially Burroughs and Genet; a plagiaristic technique through which she mined both literature and popular culture; and a very personal voice, in which she very directly explored sexuality and a family narrative that is at the same time an iconic American life-world and a very individual, highly charged experience. Although her family was wealthy, Acker’s father abandoned her mother before Kathy was born, and her mother ultimately committed suicide. At the age of 18, her family’s financial support was withdrawn and Acker worked as a "live sex show" performer. A brooding mother, an absent father, and the ambience of the sex worker were themes often repeated in her novels. A recent novel, My Mother: A Demonology dealt with her family history most directly, and the result was some of Acker’s most powerful writing. Her idiosyncratic yet universal themes are recapitulated in her simultaneously exotic and everyday narratives, encompassing the living and the dead, the exotic and the familiar, and the violent and the tender.

Kathy Acker never allowed her work to settle into a conventional form or even a predictable style. She understood that transgression, in spite of its social and emotional power, is temporary— that driving off the road only created a new road, to misquote a line from Great Expectations. Though the core narrative of Acker’s work changed little from one project to the next, she never stood still. From her early self-published books to her breakthrough novel (Blood and Guts in High School) to the books based (very loosely) on works by Dickens, Cervantes, and Robert Louis Stevenson to her film script for Bette Gordon’s Variety, at least one opera, and a CD in collaboration with the English political/punk band Mekons (based on Pussy, King of the Pirates, her version of Treasure Island), Acker continually challenged literary expectations and social constraints. She was also a creative and challenging art critic and essayist, and a collection of her essays, Bodies of Work, was published.

One of Kathy Acker’s most scandalous techniques was her manipulation of pornography, a body of material that put her at odds with the Dworkin / MacKinnon anti-porn wing of the feminist movement. Her attitude toward pornography reflected her conviction that sex was a central, undeniable element of everyday life. The twin hallmarks of her style, plagiarism and pornography, resulted in a famous lawsuit brought by Harold Robbins against Acker’s English publisher.

Kathy Acker’s last novel, Eurydice in the Underworld, was published in England in 1997. A 1987 interview with Acker for Art Papers, conducted by Jay Murphy, was in a volume of interviews I edited for the State University of New York Press, Interventions and Provocations: Conversations on Art, Culture, and Resistance. My own articles on Acker’s work, published by SubStance and Art Papers, were the first art features I published, so I have a personal debt to Acker and her work.