In many of his writings and interviews, Jimmie Durham, an artist of the most profound seriousness, uses one word more than any other, one that best sums up his attitude toward the world and himself. The word is “silly.” He uses “crazy” and “stupid” a lot too, and more than occasionally other related words like “ridiculous” and “nonsense.” Many of us use these expressions fairly regularly, even if not as often as Durham. But except for when we’re talking to children, we use “silly” much more rarely, which makes the artist’s attachment to the word so striking.
What does Durham mean by “silly”? He uses it in its broadest sense when, in an interview with the Belgian art historian and curator Dirk Snauwaert, he explains the political valence of his art. “I can be part of the discourse by completely disagreeing with it, but I can do it intelligently instead of just making an interruption. I can make this audience itself strange to itself and I can try and expand an audience and make it not so silly.” This sounds a bit condescending: Durham seems to be suggesting that the audience for art, the good old bourgeois public, is, as ever, in the wrong, and though the scare tactics of the good old avant-gardes—so many ways of Offending the Audience, to use the title of the almost self-parodically paradigmatic 1966 theater piece by Peter Handke—may have become obsolete, a gadfly artist can still provoke an audience in ways that are subtle and pointed, and therefore likely to goad it into some state of enlightenment.
This way of thinking isn’t entirely foreign to Durham, an artist who should be better known than he is in his native country of the United States, but it’s not the whole story. He doesn’t necessarily think of himself as a high priest, some Zen master whacking his disciples upside the head. He can be silly too, and silly precisely in wanting to be active as such. When asked on another occasion about his hectic exhibition schedule, Durham replied, “Since 1994, I’ve tried to do everything that people asked me to do, and that has got me extremely busy, often doing quite silly things that cost me money and a lot of time. But I like it all. I like being very busy and I like doing things.” Here, silliness signifies self-contradiction: the artist acts in ways contrary to his own interest, but from which he derives pleasure; it’s like smoking, only less harmful. That might be a personal defect, or more broadly a déformation professionelle, but there are nigh-universal forms of silliness also. Sometimes this is caused by the natural limitations conditioned by the human sense of time, as when a material such as stone—a constant in Durham’s art—comes to be seen as eternal. “It has become the foundation of architecture, of the cathedrals and buildings, with the idea that it is unchanging,” he remarks. “Of course it is NOT unchanging. Our silly lives are so short that we don’t notice that the stone dies away also. So in Europe, and therefore in cities in general, we have a large heavy falsity built around stone.”
The self-contradictions that make us silly do not necessarily arise from our actions, or the lack of connection between actions and beliefs. Our beliefs themselves, our ways of explaining ourselves to ourselves, can be silly, in part because our words are inadequate, our concepts childish: “I think basically the same as I used to think when I was a child,” Durham told the English critic Mark Gisbourne. “If you make something right, or with some sort of integrity, in a way I can’t quite explain, potentially it can be alive, it can have some sort of power. I do not like to use the word power, it is such a silly word, but such as to be some sort of active power.” The artist doesn’t disavow his dependence on the notion of power, or that it is the basis for something like an aesthetic credo. In fact, he insists on it, even while remarking its silliness and, implicitly, that of the barely credible animism that he (like nearly every artist I know) secretly or not so secretly espouses: that a life resides in things, and art is a way of discovering or giving birth to it. The kind of rationality an artist offers does not dissolve this belief; rather, it is the “negative capability” that allows him to observe dispassionately his own self-contradictions without being too quick to try to resolve them. It’s what allows an artist (or anyone else) to be silly without necessarily having to cure himself of his silliness.