April 28, 2005

Long Live Satan!


It is one of those bitter ironies that God is not foremost on the minds of extremist Fundamentalists. Their obsession is with fear and discipline, a fixation with what libertarians used to call “unnatural coercion” that would clearly make them much better suited to Devil worship. Theocracy is no stranger to American politics. From the start the three major players were old school British Rule, Enlightenment types like Thomas Jefferson, and, of course, one of the biggest and most old world power brokers of them all, the Christian Church. The battle over the role of the church in the new nation has always been ugly. Jefferson was by no means in the majority, extremely disliked, embattled, and under constant fire from the messianic fervor of zealous theocrats. In many ways it was a minor miracle that the country got off to such a good start. For over a century afterwards the theocrats were basically held in check. Only through figures like William Jennings Bryan, thoroughly derided by H.L. Menkin as a snake oil salesman and demagogue, did Fundamentalism develop the political infrastructure that has finally flourished under the Bushevik administration. If the Neocon mission is to instill good Christian values the world over, they sure have a strange way of going about it. It would hardly seem as though they have any interest at all in reviving a peace loving, just God. The very opposite would seem much closer to the truth. Judging by the Neocon policies thus far, what the Rushdoony-ites do in the basement of the Council for National Policy building in Alexandria, Virginia in the middle of the night must be rather sinister. It would seem their immediate and pressing priority is hardly with peace and love, but rather with fear mongering. There is no evidence to conclude that Fundamentalists miss God in any way, and all the evidence indicates it is the negative example they really miss. Not surprisingly, the nation is struck dumb and spellbound: the Neocon bid to bring Satan back to life makes for an incredibly frightening spectacle.

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April 26, 2005

The Devil is Dead

Devil is Dead.jpg

If we are to believe Mike Kelley who has said, “Dead things are art”, it is not God who is dead, but the devil. At least network television agrees. To judge by sensationalist offerings like Revelations, or the upcoming Locusts, entertainers in the wake of The Passion of Christ are clearly betting lurid depictions of Christ’s suffering / Evil is what’s going to sell ads. Kelley was, of course, not talking about Satan. The artist was specifically talking about folk art. But the idea that art only really takes interest in other forms of expression after they are dead provides a good counterpoint to the repeated criticism by the big picture cultural commentators that contemporary art makes itself irrelevant by failing to keep up with technological innovations. Kelley’s point is that culture is unusable until it is relegated to obsolescence. As long as it is “alive” it is still acquiring meaning. Only after it is “dead”, that is, only after it is cliché, can the artist milk it of its meaning in order to effectively comment on culture-at-large. In truth, television’s interest in religious action adventure as a genre could just as easily be construed as a harbinger of God’s death as of Satan’s. But God’s death has already received more than its share of press. By most accounts the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche already made the dire announcement over a century ago. The Devil’s death, on the other hand, has received considerably less media attention. In part, the reason for the lack of attention to Lucifer's death has to do with the fact that such a notion is highly counter-intuitive. Anyone with even the faintest pulse-beat would no doubt argue that there is more than enough evidence to conclude that the Devil is in fact alive and well, happily terrorizing the world to his heart’s content. Satan, however, was, if nothing else, intended as a negative symbolic example. In order to avoid the fate of the evildoers, Christian’s were urged to shun the Devil’s example. Without the Devil as our negative example one could easily expect that all of us the world over might instantly go insane and do whatever evil first comes into our minds. If the world seems lawless, then, does it not follow that it is not because the Devil is alive, but because he is no longer providing the negative example, hence, dead?

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April 18, 2005



Eliphante, in Cornville, Arizona, is Michael and Leda Kahn’s home. It’s also an amazing piece of art – or, as the Kahns put it, an “art form”. The highly idiosyncratic compound, which sits on three acres along a river bank includes five separate major structures: Eliphante, itself, the Kahn’s living quarters; Pipe Dream, a gallery; Kiva, a meditation space; a wading pond; sculpture garden; and a bath house – all kludged together over many years from found objects, adobe, wood, fero-cement, and stones. The crude biomorphic shapes, baked under the sun, and bent by wind, rain, and gravity are Surreal. Max Ernst’s description of the Sedona landscape as the closest to “inner vision” originally inspired the move. And every detail of Eliphante is so faithful to that original inspiration, it is impossible to describe it without resorting to the most out-of-this-world comparisons between it and the knotted, snaggle-toothed trees and shaggy bushes that surround it. The stained glass windows of Eliphante and Pipe Dream, Frankensteined together from car windows and colored glass, especially play on the semi-anthropoid hunched and bent shapes that haunt the local landscape. It is, without a doubt, the kind of monument that is only possible as a labor of love and obsession, willfully and happily unaware of the kinds of market forces that otherwise rule the world. There is probably no better example of what has come to be called "outsider" art. By extreme contrast, on the other hand, there is something vaguely uncomfortable about the likes of consummate, informed insiders David Bowie and Brian Eno’s use of “outsider” art as a sales pitch, even for an album, The Outsider, that went practically unnoticed – especially so because these guys were once superfreaks. In all fairness, the interview is almost ten years old. Who knows how often their respective raps have changed since? Nevertheless, the interview could easily be an episode in Daniel Clowes’ spoof of art school, Art School Confidential (Bowie’s friendship with the artist Tony Oursler only adds a certain authenticity to his art prattle). The three way conversation really underscores some of the major awkwardness about the way art and pop culture address such phenomena as meaningfulness in art. Bowie and Eno’s rehearsed gushing praise of insane art and Henry Darger (a copy of Raw Vision, a magazine on outsider art, was brought along as a handy prop) is unabashedly comical. Neither Bowie nor Eno are foolish enough to fully claim for themselves the particular psychic mind frame necessary to the true outsider. These are the most savvy sophisticates. They know full well they can only ape at being fools and marvel at the exotic possibility of a world other than their own. Their predictable advocacy of the importance of a sense of “childlikeness in the studio”, and a “sense of play” necessary for creativity which starts the interview off is only a taste of what is to follow. The most revealing parts of the interview, actually, have more to do with the dynamics of Bowie and Eno’s relationship than anything else. The language is so incredibly Art School Confidential it is hard not to laugh. The most improbable boasts are made, especially by Bowie, who seems constantly to want to get the upper hand. Bowie’s work is “intuitive” while Eno’s is “concept” driven. According to Bowie, Eno “always knew why” he was “deconstructing things”, while he “just enjoyed cutting everything up.” “What Brian is very good at is taking things from the popular and putting them into a fine-art area”, Bowie informs us, whereas the self-aggrandizing pop icon instead tends to “nick from the fine arts and demean them down to street culture”. Where they “pass each other”, Bowie neatly explains, is the “pivotal point” where they work "best". The two debate whether their art is “linear” or “unstructured”, discuss the pitfalls of being “Apollonian” as apposed to favoring “chaos” and “fragmentation”. And, like most art school artists, they repeatedly voice their grave concern over being confused for “fine artists”. “If we were proper fine artists,” Eno says, quite desperate to make his point, “we would be terribly concerned about which school we belonged to. The advantage the popular arts have is that they are not ideologically proud.” These self-tortured duels for some supposedly “correct” position would be stultifying if they weren’t so funny. But, alas, there is something sad and empty about this discourse. Conspicuously absent from all their rhetoric on the piety of outsiderness is any real sense of the experience derived from an art form like Eliphante.

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April 12, 2005

Semeotext(e) Tees


Over the last quarter century or so the legendary Semeotext(e) might have published some of the most in-your-face powerful thinking and fiction ever. Their writers –– Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, Felix Guatari, etc. –– sure had a boatload to say about the pros and cons of technological advances (Sol Yurick’s Metatron –– “Behold, Metatron, the recording angel” –– was, even in that company, a stand out). But, all that prescience and more aside, semiotext(e) only just now finally launched a web site. Better late than never –– with the intellectual underground the call to action apparently still logically precedes the taking of action. To commemorate the event, semiotext has a new T-shirt. What else is a web site good for, if not swag? The slate gray and olive drab shirts with pink text by the late Kathy Acker augurs a new dawn of literary militant chic. On the front it reads: "The Sand in Algeria is Pink". And on the back: "Life in this America Stinks".

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April 04, 2005

Depraved Gotham Art

Damien Hirst.jpg

One of the major features which made the pre-911 flagship of the Law and Order franchise so outstanding for so many years was its ruthless satire of the NYC upper crust. Since 911, L and O, along with all the rest of the retrograde network product has undergone an ugly public identity crisis, putting the bulk of its efforts into helping us deal with our new moral uncertainty and taking on its new role as our great protector. During the show’s heyday, however, there was nothing to match its Fitzgeraldian zeal – in novels like The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald could not stress enough the inequities between the ‘Haves’ and 'Have Nots’, the inordinate decadence of the few compared to the total animal destitution of the many. Since then there has been little in the way of such social satire from any cultural sector – Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm is a rare exception poking fun at the even more insulated West Coast elite. So it comes out of left field to have the whiles of the stinkin’ rich skewered in, of all place, Artforum, the mainstream art industry rag that would bare more comparison to Saturday Night Live than L and O. What makes any conscientious utterance from the likes of Artforum so extraordinary is that, like SNL, the magazine started really strong, but has for the last thirty years or so survived largely on the currency of special guests. The innovation responsible for the uncharacteristic bout of actual art criticism is the website’s “diary” page. First off the writers are clearly licensed to dish the sauce (possibley a signal of no more business as usual from the new editor Tim Griffin?). And, these aren’t the regular crew of house trained tongue waggers. Styles vary. Jewish American Princess philosopher Rhonda Lieberman makes quick work of her prey without getting any blood on her vintage Gucci purse, while Linda Yablonsky, at the other extreme, does not hesitate to fully vent her spleen. Lieberman was assigned to the open house collector events that coincided with the Armory Show. Where once there would have been nothing more than sycophantic reverence for the decadence of NYC art aristocracy from a magazine like Artforum, Lieberman is merciless. The key to her success is that she lets her subject speak for itself. Literally. No one in earshot is safe. Her most powerful insights come from quotes. Lieberman quotes a young artist in the throes of an hysterical meltdown: “It used to be a system of patronage… It used to be about the artist. Now it's about them [the collectors, the buyers]… There's no connection between them and the art. It's projection on their part. They're projecting that there's some kind of linkage between the work and them.” Or, she notes an anonymous jealous jab at the East Nineties townhouse of a collector: “I'd put a moat around it! I'd never let people know I lived that well.” At yet another open house we are privy to the restless dissatisfaction of a number of collectors who complain about how “everything has gone to pot lately” and the ever more greedy attitude of dealers: “It used to be about building a collection… Now he just wants the highest price… To which another collector answers: “It disturbs the order of the universe… I've been going younger—but prices for younger artists are going up, too.” In another diary, Yoblanski unabashedly tees off on Damien Hirst’s show of photo realist paintings (Hirst doing Jeff Koons doing Rosenquist) of, among other things, a monkey being injected in the eye. Yoblanski does not rely on any one else to tell us what she thinks of Hirst’s fascination with “soul-killing violence” and “living death”. Samuel Keller, director of Art Basel, is, however, described as looking at one of the pill pictures and murmuring, “I don't know, I don't know.” In an amazing display of bucking the status quo, she goes on to candidly conclude: “At these prices, it's difficult to understand how paintings that are not going to get any better with time can continue to acquire value. Though truth be elusive, let's just say that that is exactly Hirst's point: to empty art of meaning. In a market where money is so disposable, how can art transcend mere currency to become more than just a brand? If this is indeed Hirst's message, then he has issued a galling challenge to every other living artist. It will be interesting to see who takes it up.” There is, of course, no reason to believe that Artforum is turning a new leaf, but there is definitely a refreshing candor in these diary entries. What is so amazing is that these otherwise hardened critics, generally inured to the excessive self-indulgence on their beat, are these days showing signs of being overwhelmed by its current state of pointless Fitzgerldian depravity.

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