So this is it; the last entry of Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide. It’s appropriate that I’m writing it on a plane from New York to Milwaukee – that’s where I wrote my first one and most of the ones in-between.
I boarded bent on finishing before landing in Milwaukee as a kind of ceremonial gesture, but I came down with a bit of writer’s block. More like writer’s diarrhea, really; I couldn’t seem to reduce the last 26 entries into a succinct bite-sized wafer of truth fit to reflect what I’ve gleaned.
Fidgety, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small piece of foil-covered hard candy and struggled over whether or not I should eat it.
I actually started unwrapping it, almost placing it on my tongue before rewrapping it and carefully putting it back in my pocket. The guy next to me must have thought I had a disorder. As I sat with the candy in my lapel pocket, I dwelled on this strange apprehension. Why did eating it feel so, well, unholy?
The candy in question was taken from a Felix Gonzalez Torres art piece, “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)”, from the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had taken a class on a field trip a few days prior. With my class in tow, I picked a couple pieces off the top of the pile, eliciting a hushed gasp from some onlookers. The security guard stood by stoically knowing very well the nature of the situation. Only after establishing that he was cool with the move did the rest of the visitors take their turn grabbing souvenirs. Did anyone get the wonderful metaphor? Did the sacredness of the context turn Torres’s point into an object to be fetishized?
I explained the nature of the work to my students, how the dwindling supply of candy represented the fragility of existence and, specifically the disease that tragically took Torres’s partner’s life. They seemed moved, if still content to have a bit of insider material.
Only a week earlier I had gone to the Lutheran church in Cedarburg. I attended in spite of the fact that I’m not religious. My wife and her family have belonged to the church for years, and the pastor is surprisingly ecumenical. That day, when it came time to take communion, I hesitated. Somehow, watching from the back pews, faking my way through the Lord’s Prayer and mouthing hymns I didn’t know, seemed ok, but consuming a wafer and some wine that represented, or, depending on your level of devotion, actually WAS the body and blood of Christ, pushed it. But, still, I headed toward the altar.
His body tasted surprisingly bland; his blood vintage Franzia, and, though I didn’t feel the prescribed transubstantiation, I did feel something more profound than indigestion.
This unexpected twinge reminded me of a piece by James Gleick that was in the “New York Time Magazine” a few years ago about the auction value of the Magna Carta. He describes a passage from Philip K. Dick’s novel, “The Man in the High Tower”, where two similar cigarette lighters are placed side-by-side, one owned by FDR and the other of no significance. One with ‘historicity’, the other without.
The narrator muses:
“Can you feel it? … You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”
Or is there?
Though he doesn’t invoke it specifically, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” seems to hover palpably over Gleick’s analysis. Are there plasmic presences? Are there auras? No and yes. As Benjamin noted in the essay we all choked down in art school, auras are born from artifacts that derive power from ritual. And rituals require gangs of believers to endure. And most of us, wherever we locate ourselves geographically or metaphysically, happen to believe in something strongly enough to wring a little plasma from it.
So, Religion? Culture? Not so different from 38,000 feet above the earth. Both are terms ascribed to all those things we can’t know for sure. And if you’re familiar with Descartes, Montesquieu, Wittgenstein, Barthes, Derrida or even CNN, there’s a LOT of things we don’t and indeed can’t know.
So what I’ve taken from 18 months of immersion in Wisconsin’s more parochial precincts is that one person’s “Light of Christ” might simply be another’s frisson of energy evoked by a Richard Tuttle wire piece or a Donald Judd “Specific Object”. Aren’t we all looking for a little transcendence, never mind where we get it or what we decide to call it?
There’s a lot of religion in a Tuttle and a lot of culture in a Lutheran pancake social.
It’s funny when you can feel the antagonism about your remarks as soon as you utter them. Now is one of those moments. My friends are generally from the tribe that would side with the transcendence brought on by a great work of art, rather than a passage from the “Book of Job”. Most of my acquaintances would probably claim that I’m making a false and probably dangerous distinction – the religious right influences politics, right? Indeed. They infringe on the civil rights of individuals because of a bunch of ghost stories in a book written millennia ago? Sure. They can’t compromise because their truth is not based in reason, but in the supernatural, right? Sometimes.
But then again, I felt something like sacrilege eating a piece of candy that was only ever meant to be a metaphor. And it occurred inside the hallowed temple walls of an institution that kind of chooses to keep those metaphors hidden, and in turn, keeps their congregations beguiled and charmed, perpetuating the aura of the object. That institution has priests who anoint objects with quasi-spiritual value. They have groups that help to canonize object makers. Not as metaphor-makers but as spirits. They have rituals, liturgies and taboos. They have saints and they have sinners. They all contribute to creating cultural relics that are sold at auction for prices that dwarf that of the most sought after religious relics on earth.
So if it walks like a duck…
Felix Gonzales Torres might be my favorite artist in the world. And God or god or Donald Judd rest his soul, I don’t think Mr. Torres ever wished for me to be spellbound by the aura of his art, only moved by the poetic truth it could impart by being an achingly wonderful metaphor for the sadness and confusion we all share in a world that overwhelms us.
So right now I will eat Felix Gonzalez Torres’s candy as a metaphorical gesture recognizing the power of art over the supernatural and all that mystical plasma that charms us into thinking we have an answer of a higher power.
28 episodes of The Cultural Divide reduced to one wafer of truth.
February 20, 2012 · Print This Article
My late-night Bushwick experiences over the past seven years have merged into a single composite memory: I get dropped off by a gypsy cab on a dark street named after a Dutch aristocrat, search for a DIY gallery-opening in the basement of a basement of an abandoned warehouse that I heard about from a friend who heard about it from an art handler at his LES gallery, and afterwards I head to Kings County Bar and continue to drink Yuenglings until early in the morning and then walk back to Greenpoint along Morgan Avenue avoiding shadowy drunk strangers and feral dogs.
Given this surreal recollection, it felt very strange to go to an opening last Friday night in Bushwick at Luhring Augustine Gallery, held in a large, manicured, out-in-the-open building. The blue-chip Chelsea mainstay recently joined the East Brooklyn slummer party by opening a spacious franchise at 25 Knickerbocker Ave.
The venerable gallery hit the party scene running by hosting a blow-out opening reception of Charles Atlas video projections that was almost like watching Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” minus Clint Mansell’s score. As I milled about on the sidewalk I saw the the well-heeled segment of the art world having a midlife crisis. This was its Fiat convertible and the cool young mistress with forearm tattoos riding shotgun.
Bellwether or Outlier, one couldn’t help wonder. My friend and I considered the dissonance between the gallery clients’ Citarellas on the Upper East and the Dominican bodegas dotting the streets around us.
“Does this move mean that Chelsea is the new 57th Street; the Lower East is the new Chelsea; Bushwick is the new Lower-East and Ridgewood is the new Bushwick?“
“What would the New Ridgewood be?”
“A pile of bedbug infested mattresses behind a KFC in Hollis, Queens.”
“Maybe a sinking trash barge in Long Island Sound. Extra exclusive because the whole abject scene would be time sensitive; if you got there too late you’d be both out-of-the-know AND dead.”
“Funny because it’s not that far off.”
I didn’t end up at Kings County until 3 AM that night because I had to fly back to Wisconsin early the next morning to attend an art opening of a family friend at the Cultural Center back in Wisconsin. My mother-in-law was helping out with the decorations for the Medieval-themed art exhibition, complete with barrels of mead, monks, minstrels, and, despite my warnings that they were New World animals, oversized turkey legs.
Unlike most galleries in Bushwick, merely finding the Cedarburg Cultural Center isn’t edifying; It’s intentionally easy to locate and its target audience is anyone who can fit through its well-decorated doors with close-toed shoes. It has a large sign out front and amply distributed posters at every diner, curio and fudge shop letting everyone who passes through town, young and old, square and hip alike, know when a spectacular cultural event will take place.
That evening I headed from my in-laws house to the Cultural Center – not a three-minute walk even if I was obstructed by rogue dogs and drunken streetwalkers. When I arrived I chatted up several of the volunteers who were still prepping for the opening, rolling antiqued, walnut stained wine barrels and draping tables in scorched burlap to give the Sheetrocked and acoustic ceilinged interior the patina they must have imagined glazed the Middle Ages. It all seemed a bit like a stage production or scene from a Monty Python movie; even so, it was such an earnest and unpretentious spectacle that Guy Debord himself might have granted them amnesty.
Drinking from flagons and picking turkey from my teeth, I had to wonder whether such a charade, especially one which professed to be art, was without pretense. If pretense is false display, this exhibition was both pretentious and spectacular by Guy Debord’s own standards about represented reality. High crimes in some high-cultural precincts.
Throwing back the last of my grog and adjusting my coffee filter hat, I wondered whether it was more pretentious to prove how resistant one is to the spectacular by entering a race to the obscurest of bottoms, or to have an art exhibition in 2012 based on a theme lifted from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, especially when art has suffered through a 150 years of modernist purification and 75 of Frankfurt School warnings about the implications of received culture.
When the antiqued barrels were finally emptied of their spiced wine and the turkey legs were gone, me, a jester and a monk headed out for a nightcap. Looking down Main Street our choices were illuminated in the night: “C. Weisler’s” “R.J. Thirsty’s” and T.J. Ryan’s.” Their signs radiated like supernovae, practically beseeching our company. No secret doors, no back alleys. I imagined how weird our motley cast of bouzingots would have looked shuffling down a desolate Bushwick street searching unmarked doors for the one opening to a secret demi-paradise of artfully crafted drinks and conversations.
With all this on my mind I dropped a joke. “How many hip intellectuals does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
A collective head shrug.
“It’s an obscure number you’ve probably never heard of!”
A collective ‘huh?’
Dave the monk ended the radio silence, “Did you hear about the artist who starved to death?….He didn’t have enough MONET to buy food.”
So obvious, I thought. So obvious, indeed.
A monk, a jester and an artist walk into a bar…
February 6, 2012 · Print This Article
Back in Brooklyn last week I met a couple artist friends at the Boulevard Tavern. Several beers into an informal and boozy summit to transform the mechanisms of cultural production, I made a comment about how faintly the art world registers in small town America. They agreed that this was generally true, but held that certain properties such as Jeff Koons were universally appreciated.
“Jeff Koons’ balloon dog guest-starred in “Night at the Museum” and he was married to an Italian stateswoman!”
“So what,” I barked. “If you set up an autograph table at a shopping center in Peoria and had Jeff Koons sitting there next to a B-list actor like, say, Harvey Keitel, a line would form in front of Harvey that would lead around the block and they’d think Koonsy was his assistant.”
Buddy #1 disagreed that Harvey Keitel was B-list, and I granted that he was a poor choice as an example. Buddy #2 wondered if and why anyone would line up at a shopping center for crappy celebrity autographs, and I granted that the scenario was a poor choice to reflect recognition. We were splitting hairs at that point, quibbling over semantics about what is “small town” America and what are the measures of “universality.” But even after accounting for the language slippages and fallibilities, we remained in disagreement over Jeff Koons’ esteem outside the cultural beltway.
In Wisconsin a few days later I decided to conduct a test of my hypothesis by posing the question to actual small townspeople. The test was completely unscientific; I chose my subjects from a single department of a Target store at 2PM based mostly on who seemed least likely to run away from me.
I asked a woman with a chain of Valentine’s Day lights in her hands, “Have you heard of either the artist Jeff Koons or the actor Joe Mantegna?”
“I can’t place his face but I’ve heard of Joe Mantegna. No idea who Jeff Koons is…should I have..is this a Target promotion?”
My first thought after she answered the question was that in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the average person wouldn’t be nearly so happy to interact with an inquisitive stranger or to concede ignorance.
I repeated the inquiry with seven other shoppers, one man and six women. Five yeas for Mantegna and none for Koons. Though I have some reason to believe that at least two of the subjects were confusing the star of “Airheads” and “Searching for Bobby Fisher” with a famous football player, Mantegna clearly took the round.
I left Target with some padded envelopes, a sense of triumph, and still, a tinge of dejection that the father in Joan of Arcadia was infinitely more recognizable than the most prominent living visual artist in the solar system.
Those padded envelopes were for a residency application that I was trying to get out before 5PM. When I got home, I signed my letter, wrote out the addresses on the front with a sharpie, sealed the envelope shut and walked to my father-in-law’s office to steal some stamps. He caught me rummaging through his desk drawers and, after a semi-good natured joke about my freeloading ways, handed me a book of stamps, and I headed to the post box. It was only after I fished the book of stamps from my pocket that I realized that they were Ronald Reagan commemorative stamps staring at me like it was 1983. I came so close to adhering them to the front of the envelope, but in the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to send them to what were most likely progressive liberals with personal vendettas against the Gipper.
I saved the letter for the next day, when I could buy some bells or forevers. On the way back I thought, “how self-conscious have I become that I would choose even my postage stamps with guile?” Then I immediately started resenting the art world for being shallow enough to justify my fears, knowing that a rejection due to the implications of a postage stamp was not far-fetched.
So, the question I’m proposing for the next shop-talk drinking session is whether eight Midwestern Target shoppers, ignorant to the genius of Jeff Koons, would ever think to politicize a postmark? And whether and to what degree I am paranoid.