Friday, July 24, 2015

Erotic Criticism: Making It Explicit in Six Theses and Five Objects

"In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." -- Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

"In ancient Greek philosophy, in the texts of the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, aithesis refers to lived, felt experience, knowledge as it is obtained through the senses, in contrast to eidos, knowledge derived from reason and intellection, from which we get the word idea." -- Clive Cazeaux, "Introduction," The Continental Aesthetics Reader

1. In a few recent posts, I've been trying to apply, to concretize, my heretofore abstract idea that art and sex, aesthetics and erotics, run off the same circuit of desire in human consciousness. Art is sex, I contend, and sex is art. (The latter part of that sentence, the idea of sex as an art, was common knowledge in Ovid's day, but the phrase 'art is sex' remains jarring; maybe the fact that hardcore puritans have always hated both should have clued us in.) When we enter a gallery or art museum, we are alert to anything that attracts us. In a very real sense, we are 'cruising' the art, scanning the walls and vitrines for potentially pleasurable or even transformative experiences, just as a man or woman in a nightclub or bar might be cruising for a good lay.
Warren Cup. Roman. 1st cent. AD. British Museum. (The image shows opposite sides of the cup.) This ornamental drinking cup, apparently excavated near Jerusalem in the early 20th century, depicts two scenes of male-male anal intercourse: on one side a youth rides a bearded man, and on the other a youth penetrates a young boy. This is the finest surviving example of Roman erotic silver and one of the great masterpieces of Western pornography. The Warren Cup effectively demonstrates that pornography is art and always has been.

2. We homo sapiens sapiens (the species so nice we named ourselves twice) seem genetically engineered to be creatures driven by desires in search of objects. The desire is prior to what seems to provoke it. Objectless desire, a desire that precedes and exceeds all objects, could be the fundamental fact of human consciousness. Psychoanalysts might counter that the desire isn't objectless at all; it's provoked by the loss of a first object, the mother's breast, for which all other objects are substitutes (or substi-tits, as it were). Regardless, by the time agency arrives, long before maturity, our desires are experienced as floating free of any single object and constantly in search of a more  promising one. There is at least a little Don Juan in all of us.

Bronzino, Allegory with Venus and /Cupid, ca.1545. National Gallery, London. The enigmatic allegorical meanings in this densely packed painting are overshadowed by its outrageous eroticism: Mother Venus slips her son Cupid the tongue while he pinches her erect nipple in the V between two of his fingers. Meanwhile, Cupid's green quiver is positioned to resemble an enormous dildo aimed directly up his ass. Bronzino's jewel-like coloring adds to the erotic intensity and simultaneously chills it, deflecting the viewer's ocular desire. Unlike the worlds of most erotic works, this one excludes us. It is too perfect to be polluted by our lesser presence.

3. The desire to experience an art object seems / feels / is essentially identical to sexual desire. Both are desires to experience beautiful things, to feel the intense pleasures they alone can bring. And both posit a phantasmatic parallel economy where pleasure is the coin of the realm and beauty is more valuable than gold. "How much is this worth in cold, hard cash?" is an even more vulgar question in the bedroom than in the art museum.

Hedy Lamarr in ecstasy in Ecstasy (1933). This scene is one of the first and finest depictions of female orgasm on film
4. Likewise, when we permit ourselves to look so intensely at and think so deeply about a work of art that we 'lose ourselves' inside the work, that release from the mundane buzz of our daily lives is directly analogous to the moment of sexual climax, when the mind empties and the world retreats and we experience those few seconds of perfectly ecstatic inner silence that are probably as close as we will ever come to floating in pure Being.

Pablo Picasso, Reclining Nude With Necklace, 1968. Tate Modern. This very impressive work from the artist's still-underrated final period depicts the female body as volcano, gusher, geyser, a veritable Yellowstone National Park of boundary-bursting sexuality. This is Picasso '68" Sous les paves, la a la plage, la femme.
5. Just as the experience of art can be understood sexually, so can its creation. When I stood in front of the large, late Picasso nude in the collection of the Tate Britain (above), I profoundly appreciated the extent to which art is not sublimation but excess. The Freudian doctrine of sublimation implies in its hydraulic metaphors a libidinal 'scarcity economy' that misrepresents the dike-topping (pun absolutely intended), geyser-gushing, bottomland-flooding excess of sexuality--as biology, emotion and idea--in the human animal. As in Picasso's late nude, even the borders of the body are transgressed by the signs of sexuality. In the most literal, biological sense, we squirt and secrete, dribble and drool, spit and swallow all manner of bodily fluids during sexual intercourse. Products of our body quite literally become parts of the other's, and vice-versa. And as emotion and idea, as feeling and fantasy, sexuality does not flow within a Corps of Engineers-maintained channel carefully designed to prevent flooding--and to divert the flow into the reserve channel of sublimation when necessary. No, sexuality is the flood that drowns all channels. This wild excess, this "will in overplus," as Shakespeare called it, can be imagined as a product in a post-scarcity universe (call it Pornotopia) where there is more than enough of everything needful. In the minds of artists, this excess flows into the forms of art; it is the raw, impulsive fuel behind novels and paintings and operas and plays. Art, therefore, is not sublimation's anal / Apollonian channeling; it is sexuality's ecstatic Dionysian overflow.
Paul Cadmus, Jerry, 1931. Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art. Cadmus's masterfully original and remarkably intimate portrait of his lover, artist Jared French, was virtually unknown until the Toledo Museum acquired it in 2009. By the end of this decade, it will probably take its deserved place among the masterpieces of American gay art. My favorite detail is the outrageous anal sex reference encoded in the copy of Ulysses at lower right. The sitter marks his place in this then-banned and scandalous book by inserting his phallic finger into a crack in the book's bottom. Cadmus thus both conceals and reveals the then-unspeakable (male-male anal intercourse) by hiding it in plain sight, purloined letterishly, inside a copy of the then-unpublishable Ulysses.

6. Created erotically, art can also be experienced erotically. The point is to experience art with our minds and our bodies. To think about the artwork, yes, to intellectualize it as much as we can,* but also to pay attention to how the work makes us feel, how it affects our bodies. Is my heart beating faster? Am I afraid? Did I just catch my breath? Am I widening or narrowing my eyes? To what part of the painting / sculpture / etc. is my sight repeatedly drawn? Am I attracted? Repelled? Does the image turn me on? Is my dick hard / pussy wet? These questions, especially the outrageous last one, should be considered as valid as inquiries into the possible motives for a Cezanne color choice or Picasso's decision to distort a face in a specific way. In the discourse of art, the reactions of the penis and the pussy are as valid as those of the eye and the brain.

* In opposition to the anti-intellectualism that is rampant today, it is necessary to be actively pro-intellectual. Personally, I'm so philo-intellectual it hurts. Even reading Foucault makes me hard.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Clinic and the Brothel: A Thought on Two Constructions of Sexuality under Modernity

If Foucault and his followers are at least partly right--as they probably, partly, are--and we partially create through our discourse the very sexualities that we purport to 'represent' or 'investigate,' then the sexuality that we have constructed for ourselves under modernity can be seen to exhibit a curious and obvious bifurcation. Sexuality as constructed by intellectuals, scholars and scientists differs drastically from that created by modern artists. The intellectual discourse of sexuality, descending through Freud from the pioneering 19th-century sexologists (old Crafty Ebbing and Have-a-look Ellis) to Kinsey and the comedy team of Masters and Johnson, et al. (to say nothing of the longtime owner of Courbet's l'Origine du Monde (and who because of that fact, as we shall presently see, should have known better), Jacques Lacan), has yet to successfully fight free of its clinical origins. Indeed, the way intellectuals (especially scientists) have talked and written about sex for the past century is almost a parody of medical discourse: a robotically hyperrational, Vulcanly calm, Spockianly emotionless scientific language. (Of course I'm overstating; hyperbole is my pianoforte.) The intellectual discourse, in short, has yet to leave the hospital where it was born. By contrast, the artistic discourse of modern sexuality, from Courbet's pathbreaking pussy painting to Deborah de Robertis's 2014 performance piece in front of it at the Musee d'Orsay, has long been a discourse of the brothel. I'm thinking not only of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec's literal (and literary) brothel scenes, but also of Matisse's sinuous odalisques and Philip Pearlstein's enamel-cool nudes. The sexuality of modern art is matter-of-factly and rudely embodied; it meets our gaze like Manet's Olympia and dominates us as powerfully as Picasso's mademoiselles from Avignon (the Barcelona brothel, not the French papal city, although that anticlerical ambiguity is surely intentional). It is a sexuality unconstricted and pornotopic. In Nietzschean terms (often the best terms for anything), the sexuality of modern art is a Dionysian display that bursts the bounds of the Apollonian critical discourses that attempt to 'explain' it. This perhaps explains the embarrassment and hesitation, the distaste, the rhetorical distancing, that characterize most intellectual engagements with erotic or pornographic artworks: because the sweaty art of the brothel is a threat to the deodorized discourse of the clinic, the critic must condom her language in a sheath of poststructuralist jargon before approaching the dangerous object. The result: articles about Picasso's 'deployment of the signification of the phallus' and Manet's 'deflection of the male gaze'--articles that rehearse critical commonplaces without ever coming within viewing distance of the paintings' true powers. To discuss modern art, we need a discourse less clinical and more pornotopic. We need to (temporarily) put down our Freud or Lacan or Zizek or whomever and let Picasso teach us how to read Picasso, let Degas instruct us in the language of Degas, let Deborah de Robertis show us the origin of the world.

Addendum, 2/26/16: I note that the ridiculous gang of  Victorian spinsters who run YouTube have now removed the above video, charging it with a series of crimes of which it is not guilty and failing to mention that they removed it because it showed a part of the female anatomy they would prefer to pretend doesn't exist. Plus ca change, even in our highly dubious techno-u-dys-topia.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Picasso's Kahnweiler: Reflections on a Portrait

Pablo Picasso, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, 1910. Art Institute of Chicago

“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” -- Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

It was Gombrich, I believe, who analogized Cubist space to the space-time of memory. An object remembered or imagined comes to consciousness as a field of vague impressions, like a detail from a Cubist painting: a drinking glass is a rectangle with a circle on top, a bottle is an oval with a neck, a tree is a column topped with a flabby balloon; a hated lover’s face is a pair of staring eyes, a set of tearing teeth, the machined edge of a jaw, a flat plane of bloody red like a mirror of her loved-hated murderous mind. In a way that language--locked in sequential motion, flowing with the fall of phonemes--can never begin to approximate, impressions rise simultaneously to the mind, like a drowned painting, flotsam from time's shipwreck, floating back to the surface. The knobbed valley of a spine I love to run my fingers down arrives alongside the eyes that slowly close when you rise to my kiss and all is encircled in the curve of your legs embracing my hips as we ride into bliss. Picasso and Braque were the scribes of the mind, and ours is the consciousness they described.

When someone remarked to Picasso that Gertrude Stein looked nothing like his portrait of her, the painter replied simply, “She will.”

When I attempted (with rather spectacular unsuccess) to draw from Picasso’s 1910 portrait of his dealer Daniel Henry Kahnweiler in a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago (while other visitors wandered past my back making inane comments: “Some a this stuff is like Night Gallery paintings.” “Like what?” “Night Gallery stuff.”), I began to appreciate that Cubism is painting’s period of polymorphous perversity. Like a young child whose sexuality has not yet been tortured into penis or pussy, whose entire body is an erogenous zone, and for whom there is no unerotic touch, a great Cubist painting is charged with meaning over every inch of its surface. There is no negative space in the Kahnweiler portrait, no neutral patches nor pleasingly traditional backgrounds on which the viewer might rest his eye. The whole body of the canvas is touched with energetic life. Even at the extreme edges--dead space on most portraits--the painted surface is broken into the tesserae of brushstrokes and pulled forward into the gray-brown cloud of the picture plane. (Brown and gray like a cigar and its smoke, the very palette reeks of Paris past and tempts us always into sentimental digression. But enough of that.) As we pass into the image proper (a motion that Picasso‘s assault on the propriety of the image strives to render impossible; we cannot move to where we are always already located), the painted meanings multiply into a sometimes highly enigmatic Finnegans Wake of visual puns. The curves of Kahnweiler’s thin moustache, below the inverted bottleneck of his clearly penile nose (drooping below testicular eyes), rhyme with the watch chain near the painting’s center, which might also be seen as a displacement of the moustache (and/or vice versa). And because both curves also suggest female breasts as well as buttocks, we can push the psychoanalytic analogy a bit further and state that the painting’s polymorphousness--its all-over-ness, as well as its representation of the simultaneity of perception--solicits from the viewer a polymorphously perverse gaze that sees every passage of the painting passing into something else, something often, but not always, explicitly sexual. We have already witnessed that gaze transforming the sitter’s staid, suited self into a transsexual contortionist; and now we might notice the watch or ornament that dangles like a lone Hitlerian testicle from the right chain/tit/asscheek. How many things can we imagine this thing might be? No answer is necessary, for the question itself cuts deeply into the meaning of the painting. (“Computers are useless,” Picasso once remarked. “They can only give you answers.”) Near the top of the painting, the fashionable waves of Kahnweiler’s hair are echoed on the form at upper left, an almost indecipherable tribal mask that resembles a gaslight in a wall bracket. And these curves also occur elsewhere in Picasso’s oeuvre as the talon-like fingers and/or pubic hairs of female nudes. (Fuck this ‘and/or’ bullshit. Cubism is always ‘and.’) We have mentioned the nose, and it is only one of the phalluses sprouting up in the painting’s field: the mentioned mask, the bottle at lower right, the oblique white plane on the right of the sitter’s face, the form hovering in air to the right of Kahnweiler’s head (which looks like an undistorted, blatantly obvious erect penis pointing rocket-like into the sky)…Phallus, phallus everywhere, it seems, except where it naturally belongs, at the bottom of the painting, where the sitter’s easily readable clasped hands anxiously conceal and protect the organ Picasso has put so multiply into question. Taking this angle of view upon the painting, we have no difficulty interpreting the whole as a psychological portrait of male sexual anxiety: the prudish sitter projects his phallic anxieties into the world around him, generating the omniphallic environs of Picasso's painting. We should not allow the work’s totalizing eroticism, however, to blind us to an equally important aspect that exists in extreme tension with erotic totality: this is a portrait of a radically fractured self, a human being ripped apart, shattered, smashed, and reconstructed by the mastering will of a titanic artistic Other. Seekers of the tragic in Cubism need look no further than the area above and to the left of Kahnweiler’s hands, where his body is invaded by the whiteness that in this phase of Picasso’s work signifies incommunicable nothingness, meaninglessness, pure abstraction. The bottle beside this area appears to exist much more definitely than the sitter. He is being eaten away by infinite space, dissolving into the snowy whiteness that James Joyce also notably associated, in these same years, with all-encompassing death. (I refer, of course to the ending of Joyce's story "The Dead.") After this knowledge, we note that even the ‘solider’ parts of Kahnweiler are under invasion by otherness. The head, for instance, is positioned in parallel with the aforementioned tribal mask, deconstructed to near-nothingness at upper left. And if we take a horizontal cross-section through the painting at the level of his shoulders, we see an image that remarkably resembles the view from an artist’s studio over the cubistically overlapping rooftops of Paris. This is personality as cityscape. Picasso’s Kahnweiler is a Zelig built from the bits and pieces of whatever environment happens to be passing through him.* It is a portrait of the self as a landscape of others.

*And in Picasso's studio, one suspects, that environment would be exceptionally phallic, so the work's eroticism might be ultimately understood as another aspect of its portrayal of fragmentation. (Pardon me for offering this potentially major, synthesizing insight in a funky footnote.)**

**And pardon me again for getting my DFW*** off. Call it an homage.

***David Foster Wallace****(1962-2008), American writer whose life and work were tragically truncated by suicidal depression. Elaborate, extended, ramifying, digressive footnotes and endnotes were a hallmark of his style. Wallace was a 1980s literary theoryhead, so it's entirely possible that, aside from the obvious Nabokovian influence, Wallace's style was decisively licensed by a single, rather amazing footnote (on the subject of footnotes) in the Adorno chapter of rockstar lit theorist Fredric Jameson's early work, Marxism and Form. Jameson writes (in a footnote no less, a clever example of formal criticism as imitative form and/or vice-versa): "The footnote in this context may indeed be thought of as a small but autonomous form, with its own inner laws and conventions and its own determinate relationship to the larger form which governs it--something on the order of the moral of a fable or the various types of digressions which flourished within the nineteenth-century novel. In the present instance, the footnote as a lyrical form allows Adorno a momentary release from the inexorable logic of the material under study in the main text, permitting him to shift to other dimensions, to the infrastructure as well as to the wider horizons of historical speculation. The very limits of the footnote (it must be short, it must be complete) allow the release of intellectual energies, in that they serve as a check on the speculative tendency that might otherwise run wild, on what we will later describe as the proliferation of "theories of history." The footnote as such, therefore, designates a moment in which systematic philosophizing and the empirical study of concrete phenomena are both false in themselves; in which living thought, squeezed out from between them, pursues its fitful existence in the small print at the bottom of the page."*****

****Do you have any idea of the intricate hand-eye coordination involved in boldfacing only those single letters in those words? No, you probably have better things to geek out on...

*****Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971). p. 9.****** Despite Jameson's (only partly deserved) reputation for forbiddingly dense prose and near-unintelligiblility, his early works are quite lucid and interesting. I recommend Marxism and Form and The Prison House of Language.

******I've been reading this book off and on, a chapter or so at a time, for about a year now. I find Fredric Jameson, like the eponymous Irish whiskey*******, best taken in smallish doses.

*******Jameson Irish Whiskey********, best medicine for the Dublin flu.

********Will they send me a free case for plugging them here? (I'm keeping all ten fingers crossed.)*********

*********And perhaps I should add that Ben and Jerry's makes a fine ice cream and that Rolls Royces are excellent automobiles. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Sexual Surrealism of Meret Oppenheim and Man Ray

Meret Oppenheim, Objet (Le dejeuner en fourrure)
Gustave Courbet, l'Origine du Monde
Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985), was a German-Swiss Surrealist artist and model, best known for her Objet (Le dejeuner en fourrure), a fur-covered teacup, saucer and spoon that is Western art’s most purely cunnilingual image since Courbet’s The Origin of the World (l'Origine du Monde). She was a more pointedly powerful surreal objectifier than the equally important but much better known (because compulsively self-promoting) Salvador Dali.

My Nursemixed media sculpture by Meret Oppenheim, 1936. (Permanent Collection, Moderna Museet, Stockholm.)

From the side, it looks like a Thanksgiving turkey on a metal serving tray. Its upturned legs are covered with those curlicue-topped paper stockings, like tiny chef’s hats, often used to adorn the drumsticks of sumptuously prepared poultry. When we move closer, however, and look down through protective glass at Oppenheim’s object in its museum vitrine--our downward gaze symbolizing the backward glance into deepest childhood--we see this strange bird (old, old Britslang for female) transformed into something that solicits a very different and more urgent desire to stuff. A pair of white leather women’s shoes, upturned and bound together with twine, are positioned in the middle of a metal tray. The spike heels are both concealed and emphasized, like stockinged legs, by the white sheaths that blunt their threatening tips into soft spirals of papery fantasy. Every element of the piece is a commonly fetishized object (your shoes, mon amour, that I sniff for your scent and rub against my cheeks and squeeze my cock between and fuck hard like your cunt your mouth your ass; your heels that I caress and kiss and suck like twin clitorises grown to cocks; the leather cooler and smoother than your skin but as exciting, in its way, as my fingers sinking into the flesh of your ass; the worn brown soles the shape and color of those turds you squeeze onto my forehead, warm and falling like my semen on your face; the twine that binds me to the bedposts, tied so tightly, mon amour, I wear the red marks like bracelets for days), and these individual objects come together, sum automatically like integers in an equation, to produce an outsized icon of the female genitalia. The tray is the labia majora; the central curving leather sides, invitingly open vaginal lips; the vertical seam, the entrance to the vagina’s unobservable depths; and the (w)hole is sewn together, sutured like the pseudo-hymen of a phony whorehouse virgin, by lengths of light brown twine that fray into tiny, almost invisible fibers of lovely blonde pubic hair. But beware those upturned spikes: Do not fall for their papery disguise; for they are aimed always at your Oedipal eyes. And the spikes are also trophies of the genital they adorn, a Castor-Pollux pair of castrated phalloi guarding the entrance to Cybele’s cave. And the entire ensemble, this desired and devouring vulva, this toothless dentata, this thing that destroys the ones who love it, is also exactly what a small child sees when staring up the skirt of a dominant female: past fantastically foreshortened white stockinged legs, a massively magnified pudendum: Mother: first object: creator and destroyer: the only deity we can know or need: Brahma-Shiva to whom memory plays Vishnu and preserves. And also--but not finally, for Oppenheim’s object is a bottomless bottom--the silvered tray that reflects at its edges the shadowy contours of the viewer’s head represents an antique oval mirror, a quaint and most monstrously distorting glass in which each face sees itself reflected as the impossible object of its deepest desire.

Veiled Eroticphotograph by Man Ray, 1933. (Private Collection, Paris.)
In Man Ray’s great photograph, the nineteen year-old Meret Oppenheim, her hair cut boyishly short, stands nude behind the large wheel of an antique printing press. Her right hand, its arm mostly lost in shadow, curls like a masturbator’s around the thick iron circumference of the wheel. The strange gesture of her left arm--raised, bent at elbow and wrist, and covered in black printer’s ink that flattens it, producing the illusion that it is pressed against the picture plane like a face flattened against window glass--exists somewhere between the stylized gestures of kabuki and the emotive overacting of grand opera. Her face, by contrast, is subdued, thoughtful, her gaze lowered to the axle of the wheel. Around her neck is a tight metal ring, thin as the cut of a guillotine's blade, that belongs more to the world of machinery than jewelry, more press than person. The already thin line between woman and machine, along with other, more time-honored barriers, is definitively blurred farther down her slender body. Below her navel, the wooden handle of the press wheel juts out into the viewer’s space like an erect, uncircumcised penis. Below and behind it, Oppenheim’s alluringly luxuriant pubic bush doubles as a shadowy scrotal sac.

The handle-penis attracts our attention so powerfully that we might fail to notice the other two phalluses more directly attached to Oppenheim’s body. Her left arm is elaborately phallicized: held erect, stiffly frozen, transformed by ink (bloody liquid of poison pen(i)s) into a magical organ of fertility that reproduces its image upon everything it touches, everything it presses. (For this image also teases us into thoughts on the erotics of printing, and more generally, on the eroticization of mechanical things and the mechanization of eros. We are not far from the world of J. G. Ballard’s Crash.) The arm’s esoteric gesture, a fleshy triangle with the back of the palm pressed against the forehead, will remain forever uninterpretable, its meaning as lost as the memories of earliest childhood, the time before language. It has become the sign of an enigma. In sharp contrast, Oppenheim’s obscured right arm is easily interpreted as a flaccid phallus. It hangs limply from the shoulder, proposing no mystery, provoking no interest. It is a phallus asleep, dream-breeding the techno-scientific monster of metal and wood that rises from below. (Maybe Mary Shelley's unsacred monster is also not far away from Man Ray's image.) With this robotic handle-penis--its double identity soliciting a doubled desire to touch--we pass from the enigmatic to the impossible. It is a phantom out of Freud, the phantasmatic maternal penis imagined by the child-hero of Sigmund’s grim tale. (Psychoanalysis is the best commentary on Surrealism because Surrealism is the greatest of all commentaries on Psychoanalysis; mutual misunderstanding ideally adds complexity and nuance to their mutual misreadings.) The Freudian boy’s first fleeting glimpse of mutter’s pussy, that Oppenheim Nurse with its heels broken off, induces a castration anxiety so intense that the word ‘anxiety’ seems far too weak; call it ‘castration certainty.’ The child seeks metonymic compensation for the missing maternal penis by investing nearby objects--legs, stockings, feet, shoes--with libidinal power, and the fetishist is born. (And anyone who is not a fetishist is not an interesting person.) Man Ray’s surrealist collision of a woman’s beautifully boyish body and a femininely curved press wheel thus comes to climax with an image of the ultimate unseeable: Mommy’s hard cock, begging to be sucked like a nipple (that first lost object) until it fills your mouth with warm white milk. It is an image of the impossible object of every desire that lies in the caverns under childhood.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Good America

There's a quote I like--an artistic motto of sorts--by the great Scottish writer and artist Alasdair Gray (who attributes it to the Canadian writer Dennis Lee): "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation."

We all know the bad America. If we're unlucky, it's right outside our windows; with a little more luck, we can see it 24/7 on CNN. It's the place of hatred, violence, militarism, murder, lynching, bigotry, genocide, slavery, racism, unthinking dogmatism, proud know-nothingism, narrow- and closed-mindedness, fraudulent piety, hypocritical puritanism, fist-pumping jingoism, shrieking paranoia, howling  xenophobia, murderous economic cruelty, ignorance unlimited and stupidity beyond imagination. We've all been there. We have seen its moronic face.

This Fourth of July, I'm telling that America to go fuck itself with its hydrogen bombs. I'm focusing, this fireworks day, on the good America. And I'm doing it the American way, in the improvisational spirit of the Beat writers and the late, great Ornette Coleman (long may his soundwaves wave). I'm slipping my CD of Ornette's classic record Free Jazz into my player and cranking the baby while I compose a long paragraph of people, works, things and images from the good America. Let's roll:

There's Ornette Coleman, first of all, freest jazzman that ever was; and Albert Ayler flying through Afrofuturist space with his strangulated saxophone cry; and my mind flies back to the Mandan and the Cree and the Lakota and the Shawnee and the Pawnee, the Nez Perce, the Huron, the Delaware, the Seminole, the Cheyenne and all the other peoples my ancestors tried to annihilate and failed, for as Faulkner would've said, they abide; and Morton of Merrymount, the great anti-puritan, merrily mounting around his Maypole--in history, not just in Hawthorne; Thomas Jefferson, scribe of freedom and master of slaves, slave-owner and slave-lover, the foundational intellectual who embodied all the contradictions of what Henry James called "the complex fate" of being an American; and I think now of John Quincy Adams and his defense of the Amistad freedom fighters; and those other freedom fighters Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, Frederick Douglass and John Brown (whose rhetoric of purging the sin of slavery with blood was echoed by Abraham Lincoln at the start of his second term and whose truth marched on in a song choired forth at Barack Obama's second inaugural); I think of the Underground Railroad and the North Star to freedom; of the birth of jazz on the streets and in the glorious whorehouses of New Orleans; of Emma Goldman speaking truth not to power but to the ordinary men and women for whom truth was a refreshing change; of Herman Melville in western Massachusetts looking at the arc of a distant hill and imagining the great curved back of a breaching whale; I think of Thoreau in his cabin not far enough from Concord; of Emerson nearby composing essays to unsettle the multitude; of Emily Dickinson in the same state at the same time placing her poems in a drawer like a bomb set to detonate after her death; of Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll and the forgotten tradition of American religious free thought; of separations of church and state, government and womb, pulpit and penis; of course of Walt Whitman pouring the manstuff all over his camerados; of Oscar Wilde lecturing on aesthetics to a full house in a Colorado mining town; of Georgia O'Keefe and D. H. Lawrence both doing time in Taos and Lawrence writing a little book that taught Americans to take their serious literature seriously; of other exiles, of Mann and Adorno and Schoenberg and all the others who found refuge from Nazi horrors in the capital city of kitsch (a memory shadowed, as it always must be, by the memory of the refugee ship St. Louis sent back to Europe and death); I think of Faulkner writing Absalom, Absalom! at white heat, flying hand scrawling words almost illegibly upon the page; of Thomas Wolfe in New York dreaming one long novel of everything and sitting down to impossibly write it and writing that motherfucker literally to his death. And I think of Hemingway finding the words for Michigan in a Paris cafĂ©; of Henry Miller arriving later and poorer and in a darker time and bumming himself into immortality; of Man Ray and Lee Miller surrealising photography; of Robert Johnson tuning his guitar down at the crossroads; of Hart Crane the Ohio boy hearing the bells ring down the canyons of old Mexico; of Kenneth Anger's Fireworks and a roman candle for the Fourth; Maya Deren's dreamvisions and the shimmering flashing audacity of Stan Brakhage; of Louis Armstrong blowing music as perpetual reinvention; of Bird and Trane and Miles doing it all over again; of Sarah Vaughan of Sarah Vaughan of Sarah Vaughan; of Jackson Pollock in a small barn on Long Island throwing arcs of paint that will curve into the next century; of Chuck Berry duckwalking and Little Richard getting all awop-boppa-lubop, awop-bam-boom; of Marilyn Monroe photographed reading Molly Bloom's monologue (is there an America better than that?); of Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and of George Whitman honorary Beat and natural anarchist in his Parisian labyrinth of books (the world's a dimmer place without you, George, you crazy old bastard); of James Baldwin's fierce gaze on the cover of a vintage paperback and the fiercer prose inside; of Gore Vidal's essays and Norman Mailer's endless provocations; of both Morrisons (Jim and Toni); of Jim meeting Ray Manzarek on the beach and telling him to drop acid (Ray's dead now too, but that's not the end, beautiful friend); of Monterey Pop and Woodstock, two great films and two utopian moments even Altamont couldn't erase; of all the films of Robert Altman and especially McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Short Cuts, The Player, Vincent and Theo, Nashville, California Split, Brewster McCloud, and the brilliant, underappreciated Secret Honor; of the drag queens rioting at Stonewall and ripping open the whole country's closet door; of Mario Savio throwing his body onto the gears of the machine; of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, Norman O. Brown and Harold Bloom and all the others thinking wisely otherwise; of all the many marvelous Bob Dylans Bob has been; of the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now; of the comics of Spiegelman, Bechdel and Crumb and Terry Zwigoff's perfect movie about the R.-Man; of Woody Allen's great run from Annie Hall through Husbands and Wives; of Lenny and Carlin and Pryor and Robin; of Thomas fucking Pynchon for fuck's sake a-and let's not forget that Tyrone Slothrop; of William H. Gass's stereophonic sentences and Philip Roth's beautiful outrages; of Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, B. B., John Lee, the Dead's American Beauty, Nirvana's Nevermind and Don Henley's The End of the Innocence; of the Kronos Quartet's Black Angels and all of David Lynch's films (even Dune); of Kurt Cobain singing "Lake of Fire" and of Bruce Springsteen's first boxed set; of William Vollmann's Seven Dreams and Annie Proulx's Wyoming and the D.C. of Edward P. Jones; of Wallace Shawn meeting Andre Gregory for dinner with Louis Malle; of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions and the best of the writers therein and of the amazing fact that is Samuel Delany; of John Ashbery narrating Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain!; of MOMA and the Met and all the palaces of art scattered across the country (let's be truly democratic like London and eliminate admission charges and set the artworks free to blow everyone's mind); of the beautiful woman who met me in front of a Matisse in a Manhattan gallery 15 years ago and took me back to her apartment and fucked me until I was sore and never asked my name nor volunteered her own and who bought me breakfast the next morning at Windows on the World (it was 11 months before the atrocity) and I will never forget her; of that place along I-90 west of the Missouri River in South Dakota where the trees disappear and the land flattens out and you experience the bizarre horizontal vertigo of the High Plains; and of the fact that we are still here, still kicking, still Americans in the good America, working as though these are the early days of a better nation and remembering also the words of Vladimir Tatlin about Russian artists before the Revolution: "We created the art before we had the society." Yeah, that's the way to blow it. Build the future out of balsa wood. Hammer it together. I'm thinking today of every American who works and thinks beyond the badness of the day.

That's the America I'm fireworking this Fourth of July. It's a radically democratic place, open to everyone with a will to make it true. I'll see you there...

Friday, July 3, 2015

Applied Sexual Semiotics and the Deconstruction of Traditional Gender Roles by the Strategic Deployment of Technological Ambisexuality; or, Jimi Plays Monterey

A generation or so ago, when the Texas flood of critical theory reached its academic high water mark, a book was published under the subtitle Deconstruction in America. It dealt, unsurprisingly, with the so-called 'Yale critics' (a phrase that, definite-articled, served as the book's title): De Man, Hartman, Miller, et al.--the usual New Haven faculty meeting circa 1979. But the true face of deconstruction in America is not to be found in a Yale faculty guide, and the true sound of deconstruction is not to be heard from a small group of oracular literary critics few people read and even fewer understand. Authentic deconstruction in America is James Marshall Hendrix taking the stage at Woodstock and playing a "Star-Spangled Banner" that becomes, as if by natural growth, a feedback-drenched, dive-bombing, sirening, squealing screaming, napalm strike of a song, a pure noise anthem for a nation that was bombing Southeast Asia far beyond the hell of Dante's dreams. Hendrix leaped into Joni Mitchell's garden, that peaceful Eden of 20th-century American pastoral, and forced the hippies to listen as he showed them what American power sounded like to those on its receiving end. Neither William Gaddis nor even William Burroughs ever produced a more dramatic and gut-punching deconstruction of America's sacred song. Jimi was our Great Deconstructor, and we don't even need the Woodstock movie to prove this, for Hendrix was already theatrically subverting the hegemonic discourses of American society two years earlier when he fucked and rode and set aflame his electric guitar at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival.

Last night I began watching the Criterion Collection 3-disc boxed set of D. A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop, an important work of American art and a beautiful time capsule of a cultural moment so positive and open and mellow, so fucking utopian and pregnant with possibility, that when you watch it in the dark world of 2015 it almost makes you cry. I had only seen the movie once before, about two decades ago--and cut up for commercials on a basic cable channel--and much of it had blurred in my memory, so I was genuinely shocked, surprised and delighted to be reminded of the full scope of Jimi Hendrix's stage-exiting performance. Everyone remembers Jimi on his knees setting fire to his Stratocaster, but I had forgotten that Hendrix begins this portion of the performance by walking back to his amplification system, a towering Marshall stack, turning his back on the audience, and proceeding to fuck his guitar against the amp. Hendrix stands tall and plays the phallocratic patriarch, forcing his screaming guitar into a submissive, traditionally feminine role as he humps it against the stack as though it's a woman backed up to a wall. The high art overtones of this guitar-as-woman rhetoric (recall the curvy 'female' guitars in paintings by Picasso and Braque, and also the not entirely irrelevant fact that the word 'guitar' is feminine in French, la guitare) should not distract us from the more germane bluesman's tradition of giving guitars female names (e.g., the late great B. B. King's 'Lucille'), which is certainly the more obvious object of Hendrix's spontaneous sexual satire. This might have been enough of a prank for any other performer, but Jimi is driven to take us further. So he immediately blurs the gender roles he has just constructed by placing the guitar flat on the stage and kneeling to ride it like a rodeo bull. The guitar is now as masculine as can be, and Hendrix for a few seconds becomes a cowboy, waving one arm as he rides the Strat in anachronistic imitation of the mechanical bull-riding bar patrons in Urban Cowboy. (The mechanical / technological form of the bull-guitar foregrounds that old theoretical chestnut, the constructed nature of reified gender roles; 'masculine' and 'feminine,' 'male' and 'female,' are historical concepts as obviously constructed as the stringy, wiry, bolty, wooden assemblage that is the Fender electric guitar.)  And then something truly amazing happens. As Hendrix 'rides' the guitar, his motions become suddenly feminine; he becomes a woman riding a man's cock in female superior position. The cowboy goes cowgirl. Then he takes hold of the Strat's phallic whammy bar and wanks it like a penis, creating a complex semiotic ambiguity in which his action can be read as a male Jimi jacking off and a female Jimi wanking her lover and a transsexual / ambi-gendered Jimi caressing his/her constructed cock and probably a host of other perverse possibilities even I can't imagine. Like Walt Whitman and America, Jimi is large, he contains multitudes. And like Emily Dickinson (as Camille Paglia teaches us to read her), he can play the sexual sadist when he so desires. For the play now turns dark as our freakflag-waving ringmaster ushers us inside his personal theater of cruelty. (Hold on to your hat, Antonin Artaud.) Hendrix produces a can of lighter fluid and, holding it near his crotch, squirts it on the guitar in a gesture that reads more as urination than ejaculation. Jimi may be coming too, giving the guitar a porny bodyshot, but primarily he's pissing on it, insulting it, inscribing it within the order of abjection. (Who needs Julia Kristeva when we have Monterey Pop?) His guitar is a worthless piece of shit, and Jimi is the Judge with the Power to judge us all likewise. Judge Jimi will put us in our places--and make sure we stay there. He is the reifier-in-chief. His transformation back to phallocrat is (temporarily) complete. And then, like every knowledgeable deconstructor, he shows us how the text subverts itself. When he tosses a match and sets fire to his guitar, he pushes the hard fascism of pissing phallocracy to its farthest edge of destructive nihilism. The guitar bursting into flame is like Berlin under bombardment, an image of the ugly, death-drenched void that's the only issue of absolute power. Jimi, though, is not done yet; he won't leave us staring despairingly into these hopeless flames consuming the source of sonic joy. Now he kneels again, leaves the symbolism of fascist power behind, and fans / beckons the flames like a pagan priestess, a Zoroastrian priest, a vestal virgin worshipping the sacred fire. Come to Jimi, baby, his gesture reads. Show me the magic. But apparently no intelligible message is received from the flames, for Hendrix's final act is a Pete Townshend-like smashing of the guitar (an action that also efficiently extinguishes the very minor lighter fluid fire). Midcentury Fenders were workingman's guitars, built to take a beating, so Jimi must repeatedly slam the Strat against the stage before the body breaks in two and separates from the neck. This can be read as both rage at an oracle unreceived and a decidedly unsubtle mockery of The Who's increasingly stage-y and ridiculous displays of adolescent rage. In direct contrast to The Who, Hendrix's last act on the Monterey stage is not the histrionically pissed-off fuck you posing of a Pete Townshend stomping out of the lights or throwing the pieces of his guitar weapon-like into the crowd. No, Jimi tosses the broken guitar pieces toward the audience in a gesture of gift-giving, Here it is, he seems to say. It's not a demon or a god or a machine gun or anything else but a few pounds of wood and wire fashioned into a instrument and then beaten back to parts again. That's all. And he himself is not a fascist or a priestess or a man or a woman or a phallocrat or a vaginasoph or anything else but just Jimi, just James Marshall Hendrix from Seattle by way of London and points intergalactically Beyond. End of performance. And oh, by the way, these closing minutes of sociopolitical theater ask the audience more profoundly than Roger Daltrey ever did, Who the fuck are you?

Hendrix's performance effectively turns the spotlight around and shines it on the audience, illuminating the socially-approved roles we play and the dark motives underneath. Was the message received? Not by everyone, probably only by a few... but that's not the point. The gift was given. That's the important thing. And the gift still gives.