He: I’ve heard you speak of decoration before, but I must tell you, I’m never sure what you mean.
I: Decorative works are either too easy on the senses or on the mind. When a descriptive quality becomes a central source of meaning in a work it becomes decorative, and that’s true even of an intellectual gesture that would not normally function as decoration. For example when un-eventfulness is the point of a work, then uneventful becomes decorative. I think that the only chance for decorative work is transcendence by means of great virtuosity, but that’s rare.
I’m trying to think of a recent decorative work that has managed to transform itself. I can’t think of any. Klimt? I must think more about him. How about his great landscapes?
He: Do you consider your own work, “Unbroken Poetry”—with the big painted hummingbird, the pink, the lace and the chiffon—decorative?
I: That’s a really good question. I’m interested in artworks that include decorative elements. The function of these elements in my work is to undermine themselves and leave a barren territory exposed; they generate mental states that are full of meaning and meaningless at the same time. In the right context, isolated decorative elements are a mind bomb, and once they go off emptiness is revealed and the longing for the meaning that was at first apparent replaces the decoration.
He: Do you think that this intellectual process happens for the majority of the viewers?
I: Maybe for some, but I think most audiences come to decoration and kitsch in a different way. They’re more familiar and more comfortable with kitsch used without self-consciousness, or as a wink of pleasure or condescension; audiences don’t trust an artwork where either one of these two positions is not apparent. When the viewer has to decide—without help—whether the artist is aware or naïve, he’s put on the spot and it’s exactly in this fuzzy area that an artwork is most subversive. Work that’s shocking is not subversive for very long because it can be held in the mind as a source of pleasure or disdain.
He: So you’re comfortable with disliking works that are decorative but you don’t mind decorative elements if they move past themselves. Is that right?
I: I dislike decorative art but I embrace its problematic boundary with serious art; what’s produced in this gray area can be more charged than conventionally serious work. It’s easy to say “I am serious, look at me!” with a cube of corten steel, but it is much harder to say it with a pile of petals. To me they’re just different types of kitsch. One is art-kitsch, the other is traditional kitsch, but the petals make the execution of the work more interesting, more difficult.
He: Could it be that the pile of petals is not as good as the corten steel cube at conveying meaning? There are wrong vehicles for meaning and you could be using them.
I: I agree that an odd package risks being just wrong, but in life, meaning often appears in strange packages. I think that a pile of petals may convey meaning in a way that's closer to human experience, with its contradictions and uncertainties. A cube of corten steel, or Wolfgang Laib’s ethereal rectangles of yellow pollen, invoke truths that lack human problematics, and therefore can’t be redemptive.
As we come to Bean Hollow the whole coastal valley is slowing down. Seagulls approach the windows of our truck and Thomas, lacking common sense, throws the left-over biscuits to the birds. Hundreds of hungry beaks, eyes and claws demand their share and engulf our truck in a sudden darkness. The cloud of feathers clears after a few minutes and Thomas and I are laughing. His truck is covered in shit.
He: That was funny, but now look at the hood.
I: If I didn’t close my window a few of them will still be here. They’re aggressive. It was like a scene from The Birds
He: They were hungry but they won’t die of starvation. They would find food anywhere. Do you know that seagulls will eat
even the eyeballs of live seal pups? It was dumb, I’d never have offered them the biscuits.
I: A blind seal on the snow is difficult to forget.
He: That brings me back to your work, especially the sculptures. I think I come to them from a different place than most people, who see body parts and body severing in your pieces. To me, the body part seems to stand for the whole body and even the myths and history that might surround the person, so that it’s like a distillation in the widest possible sense of who they are—just the opposite of severing, of taking away from a whole. I never miss the rest of the body. I feel it all as present and not just by implication.
I: I see those pieces in the same way as you.
He: Do you consider yourself a figurative painter, then?
I: I’m interested in an emotional register that needs and denies figuration. My paintings aren’t at home in either place but they exist in both places.
He: When I see your art I often think of the Psalms. The Psalms are a book of praise and lament, so in reading or reciting them we experience both. In your work, too, I move back and forth between what the art conveys and what the art is.
I: The quality that I would like to see in my work is what I find in Melville or Celan. Their words approach me full of reference. As they pass me, they show patches, repairs and great austerity, and once their reach becomes apparent, the economy of their words seems impossible.
He: Is economy important to you?
I: Yes, but anyone can make a small package tidy. It’s the big package that brings about problems. It’s only interesting to speak of economy when there’s a great deal at stake.
We arrive in Capitola at five-thirty. We make a left on Prospect Avenue and park in front of a nicely painted green bungalow. I am not looking forward to this dinner but it is important to Thomas that we go. He hasn’t seen Cliff in two years and they are very good friends.
We climb three steps up to the porch and ring the doorbell. To the left of the door a little fountain made from a glazed Japanese pot bubbles and trickles for good luck. An older man wearing a felt hat opens the door, hugs Thomas and shakes my hand while looking at me through the top of his reading glasses. Clifford Therien belongs to a class of persons that exist mostly in academia: a warrior with gentle hands. He has been a professor-at-large at the University of C. for a few decades. The gray hair that escapes his hat signals a rebel. A rebel, as his eyes then modify, that has been tempered by introspection and Haiku poetry. I dislike him right away. If I were a better judge of character, I would have known that Cliff is a sincere man, and not the poser that I thought he was.
We walk into a small but warm living room. The walls are covered with Japanese textiles and a few scrolls with birds and calligraphy. The furniture is very plain and there is not much of it. Cliff motions us to the kitchen where the other guests are gathered. Most of them are visiting Santa Cruz for the “Fifth Conference on Theory, Gender and Identity in the Arts.”
Only one of the guests is wearing black, but most of them have that expression of boredom that is so unmistakably artsy. I meet first the famous Andrea Goldberg, a thin and intense woman that smokes incessantly and keeps shifting her weight between one leg and the other. As a Frankfurt School scholar she feels the need to attack anyone who dares to make authoritarian claims. Even in this tiny kitchen she manages to find opportunities to quote Adorno and Marcuse a few times.
I move towards the cheese and crackers and I meet the well-known curator Toni Jackson and her protégé artist, Fred Williams. They are busy with the mango dip. She is casually cold and Fred looks me up and down. I see Thomas and Cliff in the dining room and I use the excuse to escape a chilling interrogation.
Thomas introduces me to an old friend of his, Lara Schellman, who has just translated the work of the Russian poet Olga Bergholts. She is also a poet and a writer for the
New Yorker. We talk about Russian literature and the problems of translation. She shows at once to be the most interesting person at this gathering. I am enjoying our conversation when the doorbell rings. A few minutes later a large man appears in the kitchen and greets everybody with a nod.
It is accurate to say that Peter Bird is just wearing a belly and cowboy boots. The rest of his outfit is superfluous. As a young man he had been a poet and a dandy but now the peculiarities of his character have merged into a kind of annoying dissatisfaction with everyone but himself. These personality shortcomings have not stopped him from becoming one of the country’s foremost art critics.
Cliff invites the group to sit down and after some confusion everyone finds a chair. Our host is sitting at one end of the table and Peter is at the other. On one side of the table is what we can call the post-colonialist group, represented by Andrea, Toni and Fred, and on our side of the table, Thomas, Lara and myself, represents some sort of humanistic backwaters.
Fred compliments Cliff on the food after every single dish and Peter talks loudly about the great merits of a recent Van Dyck show he saw. But other than that people don't talk much during dinner. This changes very quickly when Cliff brings over a bottle of port. It becomes obvious in a few minutes that some of them have disliked each other for a long time.
Peter, with a toothpick in his mouth, launches his attack at everyone, but looks specifically at Lara.
P: Every art gesture, on the surface, is kitsch.
Toni looks at Peter and shakes her head.
T: The question of kitsch depends on politics and preference.
I am trying to eat my apple tart-tatin and stay away from the conversation.
L: And then there’s intellectual kitsch.
Peter, feeling that an insult has been launched at him, questions the poet.
P: What’s intellectual kitsch, if you don’t mind, resident poet?
L: Your refined blend of emotional detachment and hype. It alienates anyone that’s not in your inner circle or that you haven’t invited in. We need a society of individuals who are in touch with their humanity. Art can help in the construction of an authentic, truth-embracing self, but people like you undermine it.
Peter looks very annoyed and he is shaking his head.
P: You’re attacking me because of what I said in my book Truth in Neon Lights. But it’s obvious that you didn’t understand the argument.
L: Your idea of beauty is prettiness and your idea of original is novelty. Face it Peter, novelty is now a traditional value. It is the canon, and it powerfully affects what’s celebrated and even what’s visible.
He: What is it?
Says Thomas, who has been quietly looking at his food.
L: It’s hard to pin down but its fragrance is unmistakable. It smells of relativism, novelty, and transientness. Art theory and art history can add subtlety and perspective to the work of an artist; they have certainly been important to me. But we’re, unfortunately, in a decadent period in these fields, so it has become harder to find a scholar or museum professional that’s clear and honest, and therefore, can be trusted.
Toni, visibly insulted, responds in a firm tone of voice.
T: You’re being petty.
L: No. I think that what I’m saying is accurate for the intellectual bourgeoise. Perhaps, sincerity has become secondary to other attributes, like connections and ambition. What’s at stake for many academics and curators in coveted positions isn’t as much money as it is power. And this comes, in great part, from the admiration of peers.
This, of course, does not go well with Andrea, who feels personally attacked.
A: I don’t know what you’re talking about. Academia is the last stronghold of fairness and intellectual freedom in our society.
L: Come on Andrea, most academics have serious doubts about the value of your contribution to society. And you compensate by playing science.
A: I don’t believe that. I certainly don’t see my work that way.
L: I do. But believe me, playing science doesn’t work because, frequently, curators and academics have hidden agendas that preclude objectivity. And objectivity is the basis of good science.
A: You should give academics some credit for trying to address the exclusions and prejudices of the past.
Toni nods in agreement when she hears the word "credit.”
L: It should be suspicious that so many people are trying to create political reform through the art platform. It would be much harder, and much more commendable, if all the reformers writing from air-conditioned rooms took to the streets and tried to make a real change every day. This is particularly problematic in the western Marxists that have traded practical activity for the more esoteric theoretical and philosophical activism. The migration of Marxism into the universities and the museums has undercut the unity of theory and practice so central to the outlook of Marx himself.
A direct insult to the Frankfurt School scholar who has had enough of this gathering. She gets up from the table in a rage covered with a smirk, grabs her cigarettes and says goodnight. No one gets up. Not even Cliff. Fred is feeling bad and Peter tells him to stop whining.
Thomas, trying to restore peace at the table, speaks with a very soft and calm voice.
He: Art can not be made by consensus.
L: Behind most calls against the voice of authority is an entity that wants its own master narrative. It may be repackaged and camouflaged but it’s there, usually hidden behind subjectivity. The essence of those who criticize art from the left and the right is the same: they want things their way and that way is always in opposition to the individually human.
P: Don’t you want things your way?
Says Peter smiling.
L: I don’t want people to follow my beliefs or my politics. I do expect that people will pursue art and life with courage and honesty. In being, there is no contradiction between the one and the many. An environment that insists that everything exists by consensus leads artists to feel that the only worthwhile pursuit is the understanding of that consensus—how it comes about, who decides, and how we can become part of it.
Our host, Cliff, who has not said a word, moves in with a fork.
C: In the controlling art paradigm of the last few decades, art only has value as a vehicle of social change and as a sign to be decoded within a culture. Audiences, then, have no use for art with which they share no cultural identification. Therefore, claims of transcendence and universality are strongly disfavored.
T: But if art provides a group-affirming experience it will allow more inclusive and more vigorous participation from audiences at the universities and the museums.
Says Toni triumphantly. But Lara shakes her head and continues on her mission to make this dinner honest but unbearable.
L: The majority of the people aren’t, and will not become, interested in art, no matter how it is re-contextualized, which is okay. People have many interests and not everyone looks for art as a moral, aesthetic or political panacea.
C: Toni, in my experience, when the public wants to see art, they usually look for the very kind that the elite is trying to eradicate. How do you resolve this contradiction?
Toni is holding Fred by the arm. She is very upset. Then she speaks in a cold tone.
T: People’s desires are the product of the inherited tastes of the white ruling classes.
Lara looks at Toni in the eyes and speaks in a sarcastic voice.
L: That must be why most museums and most art history departments want to tell people what they want and why they want it.
T: Should we go back to the old days? Should we be exhibiting portraits of white men in oils?
L: Only artists know what the art of our time should be. Curators, art historians and administrators with agendas should stay away from influencing and biasing the present and the future of art. The practice of picking and choosing programs and artists that fit some non-artist idea of what our time represents is a decadent product of a society addicted to prestige but steeped in mediocrity. We should be focusing our attention in understanding the different ways in which quality can arise. Fighting complacency. We should also spend more time providing better reasons for people to engage the arts and better access for those who want to do it. We should be bringing people to the standards instead of lowering the standards to wherever people may be.
Cliff decides to interject. But instead of contributing a diplomatic comment, he fans the flames.
C: The most dangerous outcome of relativism is the debilitation of our ability to distinguish value. It is a drain through which all of the possibilities of art eventually will vanish.
I am trying to think about my own ideas and what Thomas and I have been talking about. But I feel the need to say something about value.
I: The understanding of electricity and magnetism is better today than at the time of Maxwell, and by extension physics is better today than in the nineteenth century. But you couldn’t say the same thing about art. The only thing you could say is that it’s different.
He: But undoubtedly, each great contribution opens possibilities. Manet facilitated the rise of modern art and artists build upon his discoveries and use his breakthroughs, as he used those of Velazquez.
Says Thomas, used to eight hours of interview.
I: Techniques, solutions, and morals can be absorbed by new generations of artists, but it’s a lateral movement. The intrinsic qualities that make a great work great have no historical trajectory. Each great contribution in science, on the other hand, is engulfed or replaced by a better or more encompassing one. This movement is vertical—there is a hierarchy to scientific theories.
P: You’re totally wrong on that!
But Thomas and I must go. We apologize for stopping the conversation and explain that we must get to the lighthouse before nine. We thank Cliff for his hospitality and the dinner. We say goodbye to the rest of the group but they do not hear us. They are screaming at each other.
When we get back to our truck, I remind Thomas to never invite me to an art gathering again. He smiles and we get on the road.
Return to part 8
Continue to part 10