William Meyers. Riverdale, Bronx: May 4, 1998 (NYPL).
Advertising Graphics from the Collection of Documents of Everyday Culture
April 11 to July 5, 2015. Opening: Friday, April 10, 2015, 7:00 p.m.
Globes, fire extinguishers, drills, cooker hoods, fur coats, roast chickens, rugs, television sets, circles, stripes, lines and colours: The Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge presents a cosmos of pictures of day-to-day life with over 450 graphic advertisements from its collection of documents of everyday culture. Day in and day out, the motifs and forms of a trivial world of consumption and media appear in two-dimensional printed matter. When they land in the recycling bin, their pictures and signs disappear.
New Year’s Eve, 1980. Hasse Persson.
Let me play you “Arleen,” by General Echo, a seven-inch 45 on the Techniques label, produced by Winston Riley, a number one hit in Jamaica in the autumn of 1979. “Arleen” is in the Stalag 17 riddim, a slow, heavy, insinuating track that is nearly all bass—the drums do little more than bracket and punctuate, and the original’s brass-section color has been entirely omitted in this version. I’m not really sure what Echo is saying. It sounds like “Arleen wants to dream with a dream.” A dream within a dream. Whether or not those are his actual words, it is the immediate sense. The riddim is at once liquid and halting, as if it were moving through a dark room filled with hanging draperies, incense and ganja smoke, sluggish and nearly impenetrable air—the bass walks and hurtles. Echo’s delivery is mostly talkover, with just a bit of sing-song at the end of the verse. It is suggestive, seductive, hypnotic, light-footed, veiling questionable designs under a scrim of innocence, or else addled, talking shit in a daze as a result of an injury: “My gal Arleen, she love whipped cream/Every time I check her she cook sardine….”
General Echo, whose real name was Errol Robinson, was prominent in the rise of “slackness,” the sexually explicit reggae style that began to eclipse the Rastafarian “cultural” style in the late 1970s; his songs include “Bathroom Sex” and “I Love to Set Young Crutches on Fire” (“crotches,” that is), as well as “Drunken Master” and “International Year of the Child.” He had his first hit in 1977, put out three albums and a substantial number of singles—an indeterminate number because of the chaos and profusion of Jamaican releases, then as now. Along with two other members of his sound system, he was shot dead on the street by Kingston police in 1980; no one seems to know why.
I bought the record at the time it was on the Jamaican charts, from some punk store in downtown Manhattan. I first heard it at Isaiah’s, a dance club that materialized every Thursday night in a fourth-floor loft on Broadway between Bleecker and Bond. This was a few years before the enormous wave of Jamaican immigration to the United States, which was mainly a phenomenon of the later Eighties and a result of the kind of violence that killed General Echo. Nevertheless the club regulars were more than half Jamaican transplants, nearly all of them men. The walls were lined with impassive types wearing three-piece suits in shades of cream and tan, and broad-brimmed, high-crowned felt hats that looked at once Navaho and Hasidic, with their locks gathered up inside. They danced as if they didn’t want to dance but couldn’t entirely contain themselves—the merest suggestion of movement: a shoulder here, a hip there.
It was hard not to feel judged by this lineup; I kept ratcheting down the enthusiasm level of my dancing. But they didn’t even see me. Whatever else might have been going on in their lives they were, in immemorial fashion, bachelors at a dance, and this gave the club a taste of the grange hall. Sometimes I went there with a girlfriend, sometimes with a group of people. We smoked weed and drank Red Stripe and sometimes inhaled poppers, which would lend you huge brief bursts of euphoric energy and then foreclose, leaving you in a puddle. I hardly ever made it to the 4 AM closing because the next day I had to work, and four hours’ sleep made me feel sick. As a result I missed all the incidents involving guns, which invariably occurred at the end of the night. The club would have to shut down, for weeks or months at a time—it was anyway unclear what went on in the loft the other six nights and seven days; maybe people lived there. Eventually the owners installed a metal detector, the first one I ever encountered, little suspecting they would one day be ubiquitous.
We went there for the bass, and the trance state resulting from hours of dancing to riddim that stretched forever, the groove a fabric of stacked beats fractally splitting into halves of halves of halves of halves, a tree that spread its branches through the body, setting the governor beat in the torso and shaking its tributaries outward and down through shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, feet so that you couldn’t stop except when you collapsed. Most often I went there with E., who danced like a whip, and who could keep on well past my exhaustion limit, and because I needed her I did so, too. Dancing was our chief mode of communication, an intimacy like two people sleeping together in different dreams, our bodies carrying on a conversation while our minds were in eidetic twilight. Neither of us really trusted language with each other, so we found this medium of exchange that trumped it, precluding silence and misunderstanding. She had a small body whose axis was set on powerful hips with an engine’s torque, while above the waist she was all moues and flutters, a belle minus a carnet de bal, so that the sum of her was exactly like the music: the massive horsepower of the bass below and the delicate broken crystal guitar and plaintive childlike melodica above.
We lived in that place called youth where everything is terribly, punishingly final day by day, and at the same time tentative and approximate and subject to preemptive revision. We broke up and got back together, again and again, we lived together or we lived at opposite ends of the island, then she moved west and didn’t come back, and I went out there but elected not to stay. Then her body betrayed her. She became allergic first to television, then to television when it was turned off, then to inactive televisions downstairs or next door, then to recently manufactured objects, then to so many various and apparently random stimuli she became her own book of Leviticus. Then her muscles gave way and she couldn’t dance, then couldn’t walk, then couldn’t speak, and in the end became just a head attached by a string to a useless doll’s body before she stopped being able to swallow and soon after to breathe.
BRIAN DILLON Reading your essay ‘Critical Reflections’, in your recent book Art Power, I was reminded of two texts about criticism from the late 19th century. In his essay ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’ (1864) Matthew Arnold writes that the critic’s job is ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’. Twenty-seven years later, in ‘The Critic as Artist’, Oscar Wilde reverses Arnold’s dictum: criticism is rather supposed to ‘see the object as in itself it really is not’. Has this distinction – between criticism as science and criticism as art – gone away, or is it still with us?
BORIS GROYS Both quotations have something to do with description, with the ability of an art critic to describe the art object in a certain way: in one case, to describe it correctly; in the other, to describe it in an interesting way or in a way that is more interesting than the correct description would be. But it seems to me – and it was on my mind when I wrote that text – that description is part of what is expected from criticism, but it’s not the most urgent thing that readers expect. What they expect is a value judgment, from somebody who has more taste than others, rather than a greater ability to describe.
And that’s precisely what seems to me to be in peril at the moment. When I came from the USSR to the West at the beginning of the 1980s, almost immediately I started to write about art for the German newspapers, and I very quickly understood that people reacted only to the fact that I had written a text, that this text was published in the newspaper, had a certain length, was illustrated or not, and was or was not run on the front page of the feuilleton section. They absolutely didn’t react to what I wrote, be it description or evaluation, and they absolutely couldn’t distinguish between positive and negative evaluation. So if they saw, for example, a long text with illustrations on the first page, and it was a negative review, everybody perceived it as a positive review. I understood immediately that the code of contemporary criticism is not plus or minus; I would say it’s a digital code: zero or one, mentioned or not mentioned. And that presupposes a completely different strategy, and a different politics.
BD What, then, are the politics of mentioning or not mentioning an artist?
BG You can escape politics as a theoretician, or as an art historian, but not as a critic. This politics excludes absolutely the possibility of being representative of the public, in whatever sense you understand that. Instead, it presupposes a certain obligation toward artists, curators and so on. You mention people that you like, and you don’t mention the people you don’t like. And you mention people because you like them, and that’s the only reason for mentioning them. If you mention them, it makes no sense to criticize them, because it’s obvious that whatever you say is an advertisement for them. If you don’t like them, you just don’t mention them; if you like them, you just approve them. So the system excludes the phenomenon of negative appreciation: something that has a very long tradition. I don’t have a feeling that negative art criticism is something people do very much now. So today’s criticism mostly does not function as a critique. Today artists want to be critical – but art criticism is almost always affirmative. It is affirmative, for example, by siding itself with art that wants to be critical.
BD It seems as though, on the one hand, criticism has lost its commitment to advancing an argument or ideology, and on the other, that critics are no longer eager to appear paradoxical: that is, to contradict themselves, even to appear hypocritical.
BG You can be hypocritical only if you say something you don’t believe in. The question is whether criticism today is a statement about one’s beliefs at all. Cultural production is based on memory: we have known that since Plato. And today, I’d say, we have lost our memories, and memory has been replaced by Google. Instead of memorizing, we are Googling. And that’s precisely what the art critic is doing. The critic creates a search engine for the reader; fundamentally, he just says, ‘Look at this!’ Whatever is said beyond this is perceived merely as an explanation or legitimization of this advice to look. People are not so interested in why they should look at it; they’re interested in the question of whether they should look at it at all. They’re also not interested in the critic’s opinion, but in whether they should have an opinion themselves about this phenomenon. I’m often asked by colleagues: ‘Should I look at this exhibition or should I skip it?’ There is a certain honesty in this: maybe there’s no reason to look at it…
BD The question ‘Should I look at it?’ suggests that, rather than enjoying or being fulfilled or improved or educated by the art object, one takes something useful from it: ideas or images that can be put to use elsewhere.
BG That’s too charitable an explanation. The question is: would you get lost in a conversation if you didn’t know the phenomenon in question? There are works and exhibitions and books that may well be awful – maybe not – but you have to have an opinion about them because, if you don’t, you are perceived as being uninformed and out of touch with whatever definition of contemporaneity you are faced with. Of course, there are a lot of things that don’t have this urgency: if I say I’m too busy to look at them, I’m forgiven for that. But with some images, some exhibitions, some books, you are not forgiven for being too busy to look into them. If I’m asked should I look at it or not, I always ponder the question seriously: would I be forgiven for not looking at this?
BD You write that the critic of the late 18th and early 19th centuries affected to makes value judgements on the basis of knowledge. He also wrote from outside the art world and deliberately distanced himself from artists. The Modernist or avant-garde critic, on the other hand, claims to speak for the art work, or for the artist. You suggest, however, that the critic is subsequently rejected by artists, whose work may very well speak for itself. How did this happen?
BG The critic has a fear and a desire, like everybody in this cultural system: he is afraid of appearing to be uninformed, not up-to-date. So he has to mention Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, he has to have an opinion about Jacques Rancière, he has to know that, in contrast to yesterday, it’s not a good idea to mention Jacques Derrida but it’s a good idea to mention Gilles Deleuze and so on. So he has to be informed and to show explicitly that he is informed: that’s one source of his habit of mentioning. He mentions these people not because he’s interested in them, but because he shows that he belongs to a certain level of discourse. Then, after he establishes himself, he asks himself why and what he wants to advertise to the public.
I don’t believe in neutrality. There’s no objectivity in art. Art is not a system, not a world: it’s an area of struggle and conflict, of competition, animosity and suspicion. That’s why I’m always irritated by any systemic approach to art: as though art production is like shoe production. You have to decide what you want to advertise, what your ideological position is, what you want to make known. Of course, you’re no longer interested in criticizing anything; you’re interested in forwarding what you think is interesting for you, what should be regarded as interesting for culture in which you are living, what you’re ready to support. If you make a bad judgement, and support something that fails in a non-interesting way – because it may fail interestingly – then it was a bad choice. It’s about taking risks.
Button for the Swiss band Kleenex designed by Peter Fischli (!!)
Reading this much of a critic’s work will also alert you to his tics. Lane has only one that annoys me: He will cross the street, walk around the block, catch a cross-town bus and wait in line for an hour to make a dopey pun, and unfortunately we are forced to go with him. For the pun-averse this can sometimes feel like engaging in one of those seemingly straightforward conversations that turns out to be the wind-up for an evangelical pitch or an obscene phone call; you wonder if Lane has enticed you through a whole paragraph on “Braveheart” solely so he can hit you with a groaner like “Fast, Pussycat! Kilt! Kilt!”
Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults . . . A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.
But the historian goes to the Archive to be at home as well as to be alone … Alone in the Archive, in the counting house of dreams, the historian opens the bundles … The Archive is this kind of place, that is to do with longing and appropriation. It is to do with wanting things that are put together, collected, collated, named in lists and indices; a place where a whole world, a social order, may be imagined by the recurrence of a name in a register, through a scrap of paper, or some other little piece of flotsam.
Carolyn Steedman, 2002
Jane Greer with a Bicycle card blouse and tousled hair on the cover of Life, 1947
It does seem like there’s a remove from the magazines here and what you’re used to seeing as a representation of the movement. Do you feel like that’s common in pornography—that it exists at a remove from the culture?
Certainly it’s all inspired by the culture. But our sexuality is formed at an early age—four, five, six years old—and the guys who were looking at these magazines were guys from, say, the World War II generation. The things that were going to be triggers for them were no longer current by the late sixties. What you see are magazines made by other guys from that generation, sharing in a fantasy about the current time that doesn’t actually reflect the current time. It’s just like how we saw hippies in movies back in, say, the seventies—they didn’t look like hippies, they looked like Hollywood fantasies, idealized hippies, because they were concocted by fifty-year-old men dreaming, taking the Marilyn Monroe aesthetic and dressing it up in a fringe vest. By the time you’re actually expressing your sexuality, it’s already out of date. I can remember a man saying his sexuality came from lying on the floor watching TV westerns when he was a little boy, seeing women kidnapped and tied up and tied to the railroad tracks. By the time he grew up, it was the 1980s. Nothing like that was on television anymore. And yet this was still what aroused him. For pornography to hit his sweet spot, it had to be antiquated.
You cornered the market, especially in fetish pornography. And you’re one of the only female editors who’s famous for doing this.
There were always a lot of other women working in the business, and I knew all these women, but most of them didn’t have my enthusiasm for the subject matter, my curiosity for exploring human psychology and sexuality. A lot of them didn’t like men the way I did. I found that working at the magazines made me like men more. The more I communicated with them, the more letters I read, the more I understood the male mind and the male approach to sexuality—it made them more likeable. I saw how romantic men were. I saw that sex, for most men, was really a supreme expression of love, that they didn’t disconnect it as most people believed. Certainly most of the other women I knew in the business thought that all these men were just out for the sex and they didn’t care. Men were always falling in love with these women in the magazines, sending them gifts, projecting idealized personalities onto them. I came to see that men and women approach these things differently—women are much more pragmatic about sex and love than men are. Men are probably the more romantic of the two, and certainly more likely to be deeply wounded if a relationship ends. I would hear from men who had confessed to their wives some unusual sexual interest, who had been rejected and had never tried to date a woman again, had never dared to speak to a woman about what they were interested in. Most men approach women with a kind of combination of fear and awe.
We tend to read a novel first for plot and character and the narrative’s relation to reality, what post-Saussurean critics call its “aboutness,” and only secondarily, if at all, for pattern. This is a little like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit argument. You know how you can draw a little circular figure with an elongation here and a dot there. If you squint your eyes one way, you can see it’s a rabbit with long ears. But if you squint another way, it becomes a duck with a protruding beak. With poems and novels, you can read for pattern or you can read for aboutness, depending on how you squint your eyes.
It happens to be the case, though, that we rarely read novels for patterns. One reason for this is that the novel’s very aboutness gets in the way. It is the easiest and most natural thing in the world to read a novel for plot and character. In fact, in most cases you have to read for plot and character in order to situate yourself, as an observer, in the world of the novel. The shift of focus, the new squint, if you will, from plot to pattern only happens on rereading. A good reader, as Nabokov wrote in his essay “How to Read, How to Write,” is a rereader.
When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and the artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have one in regard to the eye in a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy the details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave toward the book as we do toward a painting.
When Nabokov makes a distinction between “what the book is about” and our “artistic appreciation” of the book, he is separating our reading of the subject, story and characters — the book’s aboutness — from our appreciation of the book’s so-called artistic qualities, the details we would notice if we looked at a novel the way we look at a painting.
Nabokov assumes that we all look at paintings for more than the resemblance they bear to old dead people in funny clothes, for more than romantic seascapes and sunsets. He assumes that we see, for example, Whistler’s mother as something other than an elderly lady in a plain black dress and that we know, perhaps, that the painting of Whistler’s mother was originally titled “Arrangement in Grey and Black” and that when Whistler talked about painting he would say, as he did in a letter to his friend Fantin-Latour:
…it seems to me that color ought to be, as it were, embroidered on the canvas, that is to say, the same color ought to appear in the picture continually here and there, in the same way that a thread appears in an embroidery, and so should all the others, more or less according to their importance; in this way the whole will form a harmony.
Whistler is talking about patterns, patterns of color that exist over and above and through the subject of the picture, its aboutness. And when Nabokov talks about “artistic appreciation,” he is talking about appreciating the patterns of the novel in the same way, the repetition of certain verbal events or structures in a novel like the colors in a painting. This is precisely the way we appreciate poetry, where it is, as I have said, much easier to see that sounds and words are like oil paints or, for that matter, like notes in a piece of music…
What they did was put a theory to the things painters like Whistler and, soon after, the French Impressionists, and Surrealist poets like Breton, Eluard and Ponge — all the way back to Mallarme (Nabokov sneaks Mallarme quotations into his novels) — had been doing ten, twenty, thirty or more years before. They simply recognized that aboutness and pattern were two aspects of the things we call art and language, and that you could, in fact, have pattern without aboutness.
Since it seem impossible to have aboutness without pattern, a corollary of this is that aboutness is somehow secondary, a poor cousin, on the aesthetic scale of things, to pattern. Nabokov again:
There are…two varieties of imagination in the reader’s case… First, there is the comparatively lowly kind which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature… A situation in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or to someone we know or knew. Or, again, a reader treasures a book mainly because it evokes a country, a landscape, a mode of living which he nostalgically recalls as part of his own past. Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.
This is what the post-Sausurrean critics, recently so popular in Europe and on American university campuses, are saying. Aboutness is old-fashioned, authoritarian, and patriarchal. Signs — read, pattern, poetry — are playful, subversive, and female. How a thinker can jump from a purely logical incongruence — the fact that, apparently, you can have pattern without aboutness but not vice versa — to these strings of value-loaded predicates is marvelous indeed and evidence that the instinct for narrative and romance has not died behind the ivy-covered walls of academe.
Another corollary of splitting the categories of pattern and aboutness is that there is a sense in which pattern itself creates meaning. Or to put it another way, the novel is about its own form. Or every book is about another book, or books. And every work of art is a message on a string of messages which begins nowhere and ends nowhere, to no one and from no one, and about nothing except the field of pseudo-meaning created by previous and future messages. It is all a game of mirrors and echoes. A little dance of images, words, and patterns. The of the Hindus, or all is vanity, all is dust, sure enough.
Keats wrote, “A man’s life is an allegory.” Nothing else. Or conversely, Korzybski says, “The map (read, the allegory, the pattern, the words) is not the territory.” Which is to say, as Jacques Lacan does, that all utterances are symptomatic and that the real is impossible.