Saturday, January 22, 2011
I came across this dialogue between the artist Robert Smithson and the critic Allan Kaprow in a book of collected writings by Smithson. This conversation took place nearly a half century ago, yet seems like it could have occurred last week at any one of the contemporary art venues that also serve as symposium spaces around New York. It's rare to find a facet of contemporary art practice summed up so succinctly that it remains prescient after all these years.
What is a Museum?
A dialogue between Allan Kaprow and Robert Smithson, 1967
Smithson: I think you touched on an interesting area. It seems that all art is in some way a questioning of what value is, and it seems that there is great need for people to attribute value, to find a significant value. But this leads to many categories of value or no value. I think this shows all sorts of disorders and fractures and irrationalities. But I don’t really care about setting them right or making things in some ideal fashion. I think it's all there_independent of any kind of good or bad. The categories of "good art" and "bad art" belong to a commodity value system.
Kaprow: As I said before, you face a social pressure which is hard to reconcile with your ideas. At present, galleries and museums are still the primary agency or "market: for what artists do. As the universities and federal education programs finance culture by building even more museums, you see the developing picture of contemporary patronage. Therefore, your involvement with "exhibition people", however well meant they are, is bound to defeat whatever position you take regarding the non-value of your activity. If you say it's neither good nor bad, the dealers and curators who appropriate it, who support you personally, will say or imply the opposite by whatever they do with it.
Smithson: Contemporary patronage is getting more public and less private. Good and bad are moral values. What we need are aesthetic values.
Kaprow: How can your position then be anything but ironic, forcing upon you at least a skepticism. How can you become anything except a kind of sly philosopher - a man with a smile of amusement on your face, whose every act is italicized?... the minute you start operating within a cultural context, whether it's the context of a group of artists and critics or whether it's the physical context of the museum or gallery, you automatically associate this uncertain identity with something certain. Someone assigns to it a new categorical name, usually a variant of some old one, and thus he continues his lineage of family system which makes it all credible. The standard fare of novelty is to be justified by history. Your position is thus ironic..
Smithson: I would say that it has a contradictory view of things. It’s basically a pointless position. But I think to take some kind of point right away stops any kind of possibility. I think the more points the better, you know, just an endless amount of points of view.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
I'm not a huge horror film aficionado, in fact, being a primarily visual thinker with an overly developed graphic imagination, I realized from a fairly early age that by and large the horror genre was not for me. This had nothing to do with any native squeamishness, on the contrary, I looked upon those bright fountains of crimson viscera spouting recklessly and chaotically as somatic equivalents to the choleric outbursts of tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes, and like those larger phenomena, the violence perpetrated on the body filled me with a mixture of awe, curiosity, excitement and dread at both the repugnance and the beauty of wounded flesh. The problem for me was never the watching, it was everything afterwards, once the lights were turned off and I fell in to an endless loop of reflective anguish, an echo chamber of carnage that I had no ability to turn off or mitigate. For the most part, I've outgrown these dreaded nocturnal episodes, though the sight of blood and guts (what Burroughs refers to as "flesh juice") still fascinates and repulses in equal measure (I still think the lyric "there's a body oozing blood" in the song "Mac the Knife" is one of the greatest things ever written).
Not long ago I read something interesting about how horror movies, made by and large for a teenage audience, serve as expressions of barely controllable, sometimes physically uncomfortable libidinal urges. The simultaneous sense of arousal and guilt that accompanies teenage attempts at lovemaking gives birth to a new dimension of anxiety that the Horror genre seems particularly adept at exploiting. Blood, after all is a kind of ejaculate, and death the ultimate climax (not to mention the blood that accompanies the loss of virginity in women). The hapless teenage couple cut down in the midst of a secret moment of coital bliss has become so familiar a trope that, like a piece of flan without its burnt underside, no horror movie would seem truly complete without it. The frantic woman running through a dark and thorny patch of wood is another cliché that seems indispensable and oddly satisfying. Sex and violence have always been linked in an assaultive embrace, one that the horror genre has adroitly evolved in to a succinct formula of stylized blood letting. The killer, almost always a male, is both romantic suitor, parental figure, jilted lover and avenging angel, by turns pursuing, seducing, trapping and ultimately punishing concupiscent teenagers for their bodily indiscretions.
The fact that the horror genre has so successfully codified these anxieties speaks volumes about our need to sublimate our fears even at the risk of creating new ones.
I recently watched the Scorsese film "Shutter Island" (which strictly speaking isn't a horror movie, its more of a suspense thriller, though it shares some connective tissue), and was struck by the realization that the way these films are constructed is as perverse as the subject matter. Most horror films aren't so much a streaming narrative as a quilt work of 5 to 10 minute episodes. These segments build up to a final moment of catharsis, but they can also be viewed individually as short films. Following a classic three part story structure, each segment has its own dramatic arc that builds towards its own moment of release. The beginning introduces the setting, the middle braces us for impact, and the end provides the prerequisite drama, some event that acts as both climax and coda, releasing our anxiety with a violent jolt. We are given a few moments to recover before the whole cycle begins again, and again and again.
Shutter Island is a perfect example of this, the entire movie is a series of short episodes. Each is succinct in its own way and can be isolated and viewed individually with little diminishment of enjoyment. The setting for the film is a mental institution located on an ominous island. As the story unravels, the setting is opened up for us like a puzzle, links and segments are presented, chambers are explored, each new setting becomes the fulcrum point for another point of action, another little story within the larger whole. In this sequential way the movie works it's way closer and closer to the end, ratcheting up the suspense with each successive place marker. There is a rhythm to Shutter Island as there is to most horror movies that is unmistakable. Its relentless yet utterly predictable, stimulation through repetition. These movies don't just confront physical desire metaphorically, they structurally embody the sex act as a series of brief, scary but ultimately exciting encounters.