News and Features
Are sanctions ethical--or an ill-used weapon of mass destruction?
Noah Isenberg reviews Communazis, by Alexander Stephan.
Chris Kraus reviews Cool for You, by Eileen Myles.
All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth.
Florida's electoral mishegoss lends itself to the exploration of an issue that receives no attention in the media and yet underlies virtually everything its members do. I speak to you, dear reader, of the Meaning of Truth.
Ever since Fox's John Ellis began the mistaken media stampede for his cousin George W. Bush's victory on election night, reporters, producers and executives have spun themselves silly trying to describe a situation that is ultimately an epistemological bottomless pit. There is no single "truth" about who won Florida. From the point of view of "institutional truth," we began without clear rules or precedents for measuring the vote, whether they include dimple-counting, partially punched chads or butterfly ballots. I am convinced Gore carried the will of the people, but I'm guessing that Lady Katherine Harris Macbeth would rather contract rabies than accept my admittedly subjective interpretation. From the perspective of "brute truth," however, the difference between the Bush/Gore numbers turns out to be so small that it will never exceed the count's margin of error. What we are seeing, therefore, is not a process of objective measurement but a contest of raw power. The Democrats use the courts and the law. The Republicans rely on rent-a-mobs, partisan hacks and power-hungry allies in the state legislature and Congress. Guess which side is bound to win?
Our media coverage admits none of this, because it is committed to a fairy-tale version of truth and objectivity that separates "fact" and "opinion" but cannot fathom anything in between. When Tim Russert declared on November 26 that George Bush "has now been declared the official winner of the Florida election...and therefore he is the 43rd President of the United States," he was making a statement that could not have been true when he made it. (Even Bush understood that he was only playing a President-elect on TV.) But the feared and celebrated Russert knew that his words were bound by only the narrowest definition of "truth." He could always take it back later.
The attachment to the idea of attainable objective "truth" on the part of American journalism is partially responsible for its frequent brainlessness. As NYU's Jay Rosen points out, "objectivity as a theory of how to arrive at the truth is bankrupt intellectually.... Everything we've learned about the pursuit of truth tells us that in one way or another the knower is incorporated into the known." (Remember Heisenberg? Remember Einstein?) The famous 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey shed considerable light on this problem, with Lippmann arguing for a "spectator" theory of reality and Dewey arguing for a more consensual one, arrived at through discourse and debate.
The notion of a verifiable objective truth received what many intellectuals considered its final coffin nail in the form of Richard Rorty's classic 1979 work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. While the word true may have absolute correlations in reality, Rorty later argued, "its conditions of application will always be relative." What was "true" in ancient Athens--that slavery and pederasty were positive goods--is hardly "true" to us today. As Rorty explains it, we call our beliefs "true" for the purposes of self-justification and little more. The point is not accuracy but pragmatism. Moreover, Ludwig Wittgenstein has taught us that the gulf between what "is" and the language we use to describe it is so large as to be unbridgeable. "Truth" may be out there, but there is no answer to a redescription, Rorty observes, "save a re-re-redescription." Truth is what works.
Now, it's possible to contest Rorty on any number of counts. I personally find him overly generous to the extreme relativism of antifoundationalists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. (The antifoundationalist perspective can be simplistically summarized by the famous Surrealist painting of a pipe by René Magritte beneath the words, Ce n'est pas une pipe.) But the argument itself cannot be avoided. Truth, as Lippmann never understood but Dewey did, is a lot more complicated than a baseball box score or a Johnny Apple New York Times news analysis. What is needed to evaluate whether a report is ultimately credible is not an endless parade of "facts" that may or may not be true but a subjective marshaling of evidence. Yet because the entire media establishment treats these questions as just so much mental masturbation, the standard definition of "fact" often turns out to be any given statement that cannot be easily disproved at the moment it is made. Hence, we frequently see journalistic accounts of the mood of an entire country or even a whole continent based on little more than the taxi ride from the airport.
A second byproduct of American journalism's childish belief in attainable objective truth, Rosen notes, is the alienation it causes between journalists and intellectuals. In Europe the public profits from a two-way transmission belt between the world of ideas and that of reported "fact." But here such exchanges are nearly impossible because, as Rosen puts it, "intellectuals familiar with the currents in twentieth-century thought just can't deal with some of the things that come out of journalists' mouths." Such people, he notes, believe it "useless to try to talk with journalists" owing to their "naïve empiricism." Still, the academy is also at fault, owing to its recent retreat into a Derrida/Foucault-inspired debate that admits almost no reality at all outside the text and does not even pretend to speak intelligibly to the nonspecialist.
In any case, George W. Bush may be our next President. But it won't be because he outpolled Al Gore in Florida in any remotely objective sense. It will merely be because he might have, and we decided to call it "true."
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Congratulations to Ralph Nader on George W. Bush's decision to appoint Andrew Card, formerly the auto industry's top antienvironmental lobbyist, to be his Chief of Staff. Just a few more appointments like this one, I suppose, and the revolution can begin in earnest.
You've got to understand what Sam Shepard meant to us.
There are those who know Shepard as a movie star and those who discovered him, earlier on, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child; but for those of us who first watched his plays in tiny studio theaters above a bar or in converted churches when there was still a counterculture, he was our playwright.
Shepard's plays were like no others--fresh, hip, antiheroic, free from the tired old psychology of Tennessee Williams and the Actors Studio. By no means political, they nevertheless made us aware of the myths that shaped our behavior as Americans. And if you knew where playwriting had been, with all those precious attempts to repoeticize the drama, and knew what was happening with psychedelics--people beginning to listen to those half-heard perceptions passing through their heads--you knew he had created an inevitably right form of drama.
He also meant a lot to people in the Bay Area, where, in the waning days of the counterculture, he settled for the better part of a decade. That was about the same amount of time Eugene O'Neill lived here, and like O'Neill, Shepard wrote many of his best plays here. He's been quoted as saying his years as playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where he premiered Angel City, Buried Child, Fool for Love and True West, were "the most productive time of my theater life."
But then, having given by his presence a certain validation to regional theater in the forever insecure "world class" city of San Francisco, he pulled up stakes and went to work as an actor in Hollywood movies. This at about the same time he was criticizing the hell out of the corruption of the creative process in La-La Land, in True West. And not only did he abandon our ever so artistically pure Bay Area for Hollywood, but he ended up making a long line of godawful movies, like Dash and Lilly, Purgatory and Baby Boom, pictures you wouldn't have thought a man of his literary sophistication and discrimination would touch.
In the past decade, Shepard seems to have returned to theater, though these have largely been years of successful revivals and very mixed and often not very warm responses to his recent work. The result is a lingering fear that Shepard, once the Wunderkind of American drama, has treated his tremendous gift far too carelessly.
Which brings us to The Late Henry Moss, the first premiere of a Shepard play by the Magic Theatre in seventeen years (at Theatre on the Square in San Francisco). The very best playwright of his generation was able to interest Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in the play--two of the very best actors in America, actors who time and time again have shown seriousness in their choice of material. That heightened expectations of the old exhilaration: a return of the real Sam Shepard, the poet, sure-footed, bringing you face to face with perceptions only half-acknowledged. And not only might Shepard be back at the top of his form, but this was an older and, one hoped, more deeply seeing Shepard, writing about the ultimate subject, death.
Shepard had left the Bay Area saying he was "no longer young," and now here we were so much further along. (Seventeen years; is it possible?) The golden boy is 57 and has lost both his mother and the father who was the source of so much of the anger and unhappiness in his plays. As he says at the end of Cruising Paradise, his 1996 collection of tales containing versions of both those deaths, "Everything was in place."
In The Late Henry Moss, the father's death is a mystery. One son, Ray (Sean Penn), seeks the truth about it and about his father and the family's past. The other, Earl (Nick Nolte), his opposite, seeks to hide the truth from himself and others. But from a cab driver (Woody Harrelson) and a concerned neighbor, Esteban (the delightful Cheech Marin), and in flashbacks, we discover that the father (James Gammon) went on a drunken fishing trip with a mysterious Native American woman (a very strong Sheila Tousey). Psychically tougher and more powerfully vital than any man in the play, she constantly throws it in the old man's face that he is dead in life. Ultimately she helps him really die. As she does, we discover Earl's part in that evening and his earlier act of betrayal when the family broke apart.
As the brothers, Nolte and Penn do what they do. Nolte drags on a cigarette, the tip just emerging from his fist, knocks down a shot, passes a hand through his hair and plays ravaged, weighed-down inner suffering with great naturalness. Equally real for the most part, Penn is intense, like a cat about to spring, and is ace, as you might expect, with Shepard's insolent threats and threatening silences. Both know to goose the energy with dynamic gestures, but both can also be a little small at times, as if they're expecting a camera to magnify the drama of facial nuances.
Unlike Woody Harrelson, who turns in a hugely inventive performance as the cab driver, finding fifty different ways to physicalize essentially the same action, what Nolte and Penn do ultimately begins to seem like more of the same. But here I think the problem is the writing, and with great disappointment I report that Shepard hasn't returned to his former powers with this play. He simply hasn't given Penn and Nolte sufficient material to work with. There's not a whole lot to the characters, and their relationship lacks the continuously rich evolution of True West. I suspect this underwriting is part of what makes the ending seem inflated and overwrought. The fact that what is revealed about the family's past isn't all that compelling doesn't help.
There are of course many joyously perverse, off-the-wall Shepard lines like "Every death has to be reported these days--unless you kill someone" and (to bumbling funeral attendants) "That's my father you just dropped." His typically audacious choices as writer and director are also very much in evidence, as when he leaves a giant, unsettling, unfurnished empty space in the set, stage right, or when Sheila Tousey picks Marin up and swings him back and forth like a doll, or when Harrelson leaps on top of a refrigerator, a meat cleaver in hand for protection.
Where most directors move actors about the stage to articulate relationships and tell the story of the play and create an overall mood with lights and textures, it's as though Shepard does all that and, with the help of designers Andy Stacklin (set), Anne Militello (lights) and Christine Dougherty (costumes), also creates pictures on stage that have the strange beauty of Edward Hopper's--only with a palette more like Wayne Thiebaud's. Shepard also moves into a more overt and equally beautiful surrealism, as when Tousey's head and arms appear otherwise disembodied over the edge of a bathtub.
In fact, Shepard seems to be trying to move into new territory. If Buried Child was Shepard's Ibsen play (and Ibsen parody) and Fool for Love his Strindberg, The Late Henry Moss may be a kind of Long Day's Journey Into Night, an attempt at closure with his father and his death.
The way he manages that attempt shows Shepard still of a countercultural bent, embracing the counterculture's characteristic antidote, inclusion of the Other. The setting is no longer a desert wasteland but the Southwest, the Latin/Native American West, New Mexico, where Shepard first moved when he left the Bay Area, and where a brooding primitivism makes you feel you've crossed into a foreign country.
After years of delineating the underside of macho, in Henry Moss Shepard brings onto his stage a Native woman, sensuous, with a mythic dimension and definitely Other. She brings with her clear vision, reverence for the dead, ritual, dance and a nonstereotypical way of being female. And it is she who--not maternally, but with great hardness--brings Henry to his death and closure to his suffering and macho failings.
Ultimately, however, this closure doesn't bring about a sense of reconciliation. The account of Shepard's father's funeral in Cruising Paradise is tender, full of pity and acceptance, and in it Shepard captures a very real sense of the grief that sneaks up unexpectedly (even when you harbor great anger toward the deceased). He chokes up reading the Bible over his father's grave and can't go on.
Henry Moss is a different work, and there's no reason Shepard should re-create the same emotional landscape, but given the subject matter there's a surprising lack of those feelings. Esteban is upset by Henry's death; Ray stands mutely by the corpse for a moment. In the final analysis, though, Shepard is extremely hard on his characters, father and sons. You might say, unforgiving. The failings and betrayals are a barrier he can't seem to get past. And in the end, the play never deals with the grief and pity that must be dealt with if reconciliation is to come from an encounter with the dead.
STILL LOSING RUSSIA
"As a result of the Yeltsin era, all the fundamental sectors of our state, economic, cultural and moral life have been destroyed or looted," lamented Alexander Solzhenitsyn earlier this year--quoted, with no doubt a great sense of historical irony, by Stephen F. Cohen in his latest book, Failed Crusade. Some of former "Sovieticus" columnist and frequent Nation contributor Cohen's reportage will be familiar to readers of the magazine, reprising pieces that appeared here and elsewhere, with new chapters bringing the perspectives up to the minute. He traces the history of the impulse to remake Russia in the US image and its resurgence in mainstream thinking by 1992, the first post-Soviet year and last gasp of the Bush Administration. Cohen then proceeds to chronicle how both Russia specialists and the press badly mischaracterized events, to the point of malpractice. In "Transition or Tragedy?" for instance, the most widely reprinted of his articles in the 1990s, Cohen warned that a national tragedy was unfolding about which Westerners would be told little but instead be assured that the transition to a free market "has progressed remarkably." No wonder, he writes, "few readers of the American press were prepared for Russia's economic collapse and financial scandals of the late 1990s." After a catalogue of how the picture has been distorted, the ensuing portions of the book present Cohen's analysis of developments from 1992 to 2000, arranged chronologically, and then his recommendations in working toward a new Russia policy.
In his bracingly corrective view, Cohen concludes that "the missionary crusade of the 1990s was not only the worst American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam; its consequences have contributed to new and unprecedented dangers." Among the necessary remedies: much new thinking in US circles, an openness to Russian-derived solutions and extension of substantial financial aid. His warning is dire, but so is the situation: "For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized country has already been perilously destabilized, but still there is no sufficient American understanding."
O Marvel, that one can give to another what one does not possess. O Miracle of our empty hands.
--George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest
The integrity of book publishing in the past half-century often relied on the outsized personalities at the helms of the independent houses. The very diminutiveness of their operations helped empower these small businessmen and -women to place the imagination first and shape their companies around literature, social issues and ideas. The "profit incentive" among them had more to do with survival and pleasure than money-making. When they survived and--more rarely--made money, it was with a sense of surprise, even embarrassment, which endeared them to their authors, since it was clearly not what they were in business for. They were talent magnets, because the publishing life is colorful and the work meaningful. Perhaps most important, the best among them sought out and encouraged the humanity and intelligence in those around them--writers, editors, salespeople. That humanism is a rare quality but a necessary one for publishers.
One thinks of George Braziller, publisher of Australian novelist Janet Frame and Matisse's cutouts, and hundreds of other important books; Barney Rosset, formerly of Grove, successful defendant of free speech in court cases involving Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer, publisher and friend of Samuel Beckett and Kenzaburo Oe; Stanley Moss, poet and owner of the Sheep Meadow Press, where he publishes Stanley Kunitz, Yehuda Amichai, David Ignatow and many others; Marion Boyars, the eponymous British publisher (who died this year) of Julian Green, Ivan Illich, Ken Kesey and other lights; Glenn Thompson of Writers and Readers, publisher of the "For Beginners" series, which recasts the most difficult subjects into documentary comic books; Florence Howe of the Feminist Press, with its signature anthologies and reprints of womanist classics like The Yellow Wallpaper; and André Schiffrin of Pantheon, and now the New Press, publisher of Studs Terkel, Matt Groening and Art Spiegelman's Maus; to name just a few--soldiers from the publishing wars, and innovators all.
There was James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions, where Delmore Schwartz, Ezra Pound and H.D., not to mention extraordinary translations by Louise Varèse and others of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, found shelter; Nicolás Kanellos of Arté Publico in the Southwest, publisher of a whole generation of Latino authors whose voices might otherwise not have been heard; John Martin of Black Sparrow, who managed a stationery store when he came across Charles Bukowski in the early 1960s and decided he would publish him, since Bukowski "didn't hide behind metaphor" and he could print the books on the store's offset press; of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher, at City Lights, of Ginsberg's Howl and other masterpieces.
On the shelves we find works from Curbstone, the Permanent Press, Coffee House, Copper Canyon, Graywolf, Walker, Soho, Steerforth, my own Seven Stories, Verso, Overlook, Arcade, Seal, Sun and Moon; there are probably dozens of worthy, committed houses you could name. And even this would be a sampling; the entire list would be not endless, but surprisingly long, suggesting that these smaller houses are a kind of grassroots force, without which America might have suffocated in the dust of the long march of the fifty-five years since the end of the Second World War.
Lives spent in book publishing don't tend to turn out men and women of perfect virtue. Years fighting on the battlefield between art and commerce make for wily, poker-faced, hard-boiled characters. If those I name above are to me worthy heroes nonetheless, it may be because, almost like dancers whose every performance is life and death, they are people for whom each book is utterly important, for whom words are paramount, who are creations, as much as creators, of their lives as publishers--and who became better human beings for having spent their adult lives reading and fighting for shelf space for the books they published. In the end, they are seekers following a light. "We're fools," Thompson says, "or we wouldn't be doing what we do." But what human being battling for something isn't part fool?
Then there is the other side of the book publishing business, the corporate sector, mostly based in midtown Manhattan, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of the vast number of books--over 120,000 titles--published each year in the United States. And it is here that the pace of change is like a runaway train, not only with merger upon merger but with a not-so-gradual shift from editorial (with complementary sales-centered) philosophies to financial-growth and marketing-centered ones. At times in recent decades the struggle between the editorial-minded and the fiscal-minded has seemed like trench warfare.
In the period just past, the battle reached, one hopes, its bloodiest point. One after another, following an accelerating consolidation of publishing houses into fewer than a handful of conglomerate entities, wonderful imprints closed or were blended into the corporate edifice in ways that left their unique character forever lost (Dial, Schocken, Atheneum, the Free Press, Owl, Morrow...). Hundreds of independent bookstores across the country failed as well (in Manhattan alone, this included Endicott, Books & Co., Spring Street Books, Verso Bookstore, Eighth Street Books, Paperback Booksmith's, Brentano's). Repackaged actors-turned-authors (who rarely wrote their own books) were emblematic of the historical moment, with first printings of their "works" sometimes approaching a million copies, while those of Nobel Prize-winners or future Nobel Prize-winners could be published nearly invisibly. Esteemed and gifted editors (Elisabeth Sifton, David Stanford, Tom Engelhardt, Allen Peacock, Mark Chimsky, Mary Cunnane, to name just a few) were pushed out by the "new thinking" or simply walked away in disgust.
The air in the corridors of corporate publishing houses developed a pall, slightly stagnant, that was not just people's fear of losing their jobs but also a fear of new ideas and new kinds of voices. And while the editors named above would find work as writers, contributing editors and freelancers, and while a good number of great independent bookstores survived (Three Lives, Shakespeare & Co., Coliseum, St. Mark's, among the Manhattan establishments) and new ones were born (Labyrinth), the axis of power in book publishing nonetheless shifted toward devotees of a pure business model that has never been shown to apply to books, causing a new and now fundamental instability that has not been good for readers or writers.
And what will be the effect in years to come of Bertelsmann's ownership of Random House and Doubleday? Or of the just-announced acquisition of Harcourt Brace by Reed Elsevier? Are Holt, Farrar, Straus & Giroux and St. Martin's marginally better off for being among the eighty or so companies owned by Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, a massive publishing conglomerate, rather than by an entertainment or information empire? Perhaps. But to think that Norton, the smaller Grove/Atlantic and the up-and-coming, larger, Perseus Group may be the only remaining American independent houses with critical mass is disturbing. Is the American future to be that we are in effect recolonized, an increasingly important market for culture but less and less creators of culture?
In the middle of this stew, one of our worthy heroes has brought us a book that demands we acknowledge what has happened: reduced to crude basics, that a world built upon respect for the written word has been replaced by one dominated by a bottom-line sensibility (which may be an oxymoron, but I prefer it to the even less descriptive bottom-line "reality"). André Schiffrin asks, Has the torch that is our literature and our collective intellectual output been taken out of our hands?
That the publishing profession is under siege has of course been the stuff of panels and lunches and some newspaper reporting; but not, ironically, of books. So the appearance of the pioneering independent publisher Schiffrin's The Business of Books is newsworthy and important, to be followed close on its heels by a similarly titled work (Book Business) due out in January by Random House editor Jason Epstein (still working, and still working there), a volume expanded from an initial essay last April in The New York Review of Books and a more recent follow-up in those same pages.
America can be an extremely hostile environment for serious cultural endeavor. There seems an overriding confusion and ignorance regarding the tremendous significance of our First Amendment freedoms, the necessity of literature to national life (except perhaps as entertainment) and why we should care in the first place. Fame and fortune we understand, but literature? The funny thing is, hostile environment or not, it has also been a splendidly rich environment for culture producers in all the arts, especially in literature. Is that now changing?
One result of our cultural myopia--it borders on blindness--is that instead of operating with an implicit national consensus about the importance of literature, say, or even the role of investigative reporting in protecting our civic rights, the independent press community often stands as the sole advocate of those causes. As the pervasiveness of corporate culture grows daily, being a good publisher, in either an independent or a conglomerate setting, means learning how to survive while at the same time resisting, even defying, standard business-model values.
The apparent naïveté of the corporate sector when faced with our First Amendment responsibilities has been striking. Large publishing houses have sometimes been quick to call on their corporate prerogative, saying, in effect, We're just a business. They can try it, but we should not let them get away with it so glibly. Remember how lightly HarperCollins let go of former Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten's book because, up the corporate ladder, Rupert Murdoch wanted to protect his satellite TV deal with China; or when Penguin/Putnam declined to publish Carol Felsenthal's S.I. Newhouse biography; or how St. Martin's turned against its author (the imprint's editor resigned in the controversy) when it canceled its biography of George W.
The last two titles were picked up by independent houses, Seven Stories and Soft Skull. But the actual cancellation of publishable, contracted manuscripts for reasons of corporate comfort suggests that executives often fail to acknowledge any responsibilities to the Word beyond packaging it and selling it for profit.
Smart people are doing good and important work within corporate structures--this too must be said. But the challenges facing those individuals are imposing when they work for parent companies that may be primarily concerned with other types of businesses, be it music (Bertelsmann), television and movies (TimeWarner and Viacom) or textbooks and professional publishing (Pearson and Reed Elsevier), and may be beholden to shareholder concerns over and above other considerations. Independent publishers represent as little as 5 percent of overall book sales in this country, but we are responsible for a disproportionately large share of our country's cultural life, First Amendment responsibilities and writers' hopes.
What the writer's role is in society, and what constitutes good writing, are two underlying questions that hang in the balance. Today, the notions of writer as voice of conscience, writer as critic, writer as visionary are understood to be part of the covenant between author and reader. But it is not hard to imagine a future in which the balance is tipped differently, and writers are routinely seen more as prettifiers and apologists for the status quo. A trend in that direction is implicit in the whole idea of the celebrity author, as books depend more on television tie-ins or exposure to sell them.
Well into Schiffrin's eloquent and anguished account of the book biz, you'll read about a recent meeting of the Freedom to Read Committee of the American Association of Publishers. Addressing the group were a number of top attorneys in the publishing field. Juries are starting to be less sympathetic to publishers than they once were, the attorneys advised: Judgments against publishers are on the rise, and it needs to be made more apparent that publishers are defenders of the First Amendment. About forty book-publishing executives were present, representing, according to Schiffrin, most of the major New York houses. When the attorneys asked, "Can we assure jurors in the future that if an important book comes along you will publish it?" Schiffrin writes, "Not a hand was raised. No one seemed aware of the irony that the publishing industry's own anti-censorship committee was itself part of the new market censorship."
It is just such obeisance to market values, Schiffrin suggests convincingly, that has led corporate owners to strip down publishing imprints on the grounds that they weren't profitable enough, only to replace them with bland and bloodless versions that are no more able to generate the desired profits than were their predecessors. In the late 1990s, HarperCollins folded Basic Books, its serious nonfiction imprint, into its trade division, although Basic had never lost money. Later, HarperCollins made news headlines when it canceled more than a hundred contracts in an attempt to stem the flow of red ink. Apparently, Basic had not been the big problem! Likewise, Simon & Schuster eviscerated its serious nonfiction imprint, the Free Press, keeping its name alive but skewing it toward finance-related titles. Today, S&S is rumored to be on the block. The Free Press may not have been its biggest problem either, though it was the one that management chose to fix.
Most movingly, Schiffrin describes--for the first time, I believe, and in intricate detail--some of what went on at his own former imprint, Pantheon, when its overseers at Random House decided it was too left-leaning, too independent, oh and yes, not profitable enough. In the end Schiffrin and his staff had to choose between overseeing what they saw as the house's destruction or leaving, which practically all of them did. Was Pantheon a cash cow after Schiffrin and his colleagues were gotten rid of? Hardly. It became and still is a shell of its former self, doing some good books, some less good, but beyond that just another name in the galaxy of names under what is now a German-owned multimedia conglomerate.
Writing about the purchase of Random House (America's premier book-publishing venture) by Bertelsmann two years ago, Schiffrin reminds us how, just one year earlier, Random had written off $80 million in unearned advances, which he interprets as proof that "the policy of risking more and more money on [large advances for] books had been an enormous failure." And how, when the New York Times reported Random's profit margin of 0.1 percent, the figure was so low that many thought it a typographical error. And further, that soon after the takeover, Bertelsmann "issued a press release saying they expected Random House to make a 15% profit in the next few years. That [would have] meant a change in profit from $1 million to $150 million (on their annual sales of a billion or so)." Schiffrin sees that as a laughably implausible goal. (Historically, return in book publishing runs around 5 percent.)
What is the alternative? I believe the best among us expect to lose money on at least some of the books we publish. This allows other sets of values to cohabit with more commercial ones, as would be true also at magazines like The Nation and Harper's. At Seven Stories, for example, we look to have profit on one-third of the list to cover losses on the other two-thirds. If, at the large corporate houses, the expectation is for virtually every title to turn a profit, then their "bottom-line sensibility" is indeed a threat to any literary aspirations they may have, since I believe that literature simply requires a longer look.
Missing from the merger fever of recent years has been the sense of a publishing mission to go with the obvious corporate one (it's cheaper to buy a backlist than to build one). One notable exception to this may be the Perseus Group, which appears to have a purposeful plan in place to buy serious nonfiction imprints in order to restore them to the project of publishing serious nonfiction. Fancy that.
Jason Epstein suggests that it may well come to pass that the newest wave of corporate owners will lose interest in book publishing just as previous ones did, once they learn that it "is not a conventional business...[but] more closely resembles... an amateur sport in which the primary goal is the activity itself, not its financial outcome." (Lest the reader come away with the impression that Epstein is just a snob, he also says this: "Guerrilla armies live amid the people who sustain them and for whom they fight. So do book publishers.")
Both Schiffrin and Epstein seem to believe that the publishing behemoths that have emerged are fundamentally unsound creations. Schiffrin takes it a step further in suggesting that structural instability has enormous social implications: "We cannot speak of open competition or a free market in American publishing today. We are faced with a classic situation of oligopoly, approaching monopoly." Others, like Soho publisher Juris Jurjevics, believe that Bertelsmann has built "a juggernaut" whose very size will sustain it. Whether or not the financial-return-led model is workable, I'm troubled by what appears to happen to authentic voices in the corporate environment, be they authors or editors or managers: Too often they seem to lose their way as it becomes clear that their employers don't necessarily place a high value on what they have to offer.
Schiffrin's indictment is impassioned and filled with righteous, if quiet, indignation. He has gone to the trouble of studying the catalogues of the major houses for the past forty years, finding that in the sixties and seventies there was still an unspoken understanding that books deemed important were to be published regardless of their commercial prospects. Publishers recognized, in other words, that theirs was a balancing act with cultural and political, not just financial, imperatives. Did such a Golden Age really exist? Yes, certainly, although many would point out that it was also characterized by an asphyxiating elitism--that it created little space for African-American titles, say, or Latino or overtly gay and lesbian works.
Here's how financial pressures can distort the publishing process at the large houses: Minimum projected sales thresholds frequently prevent editors from signing up the "little" books that would include many of the most important books ever published. At some of the larger paperback imprints, that threshold number is 20,000 copies; few serious new works will generate that level of sales. So a misbegotten rule holds sway: Serious works need not apply. But the less serious books that are acquired in their place don't necessarily meet the 20,000-copy quota with numbing regularity either. Dumbing down can work, but it tends to be a very short-term approach; in the long term it actually destroys the two most valuable assets of any publishing house, the intellectual curiosity and commitment of the people working there and the good will of writers and readers for whom you're producing books.
Not just across the country but around the world, colorful personalities at the established corporate houses have left or been replaced by management professionals better equipped to head divisions within huge entertainment conglomerates. In Europe they call this "centralization." Last year at this time, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I met with a legendary German head of a wonderful publishing house. "I'll be here until January," he said. And indeed, his house is now an imprint of a larger corporate entity, still with his name on it, in unintended mockery.
Far from feeding on crumbs that fall from the tables of the larger houses, we at the independent houses find ourselves approaching the whole process of publishing differently from the way they do. University presses do as well, though often they operate with a specific institutional mandate to publish regional titles or to focus on specific academic areas. And publishers of conscience such as Beacon, South End and Common Courage represent in some ways the most impressive alternative model when it comes to nonfiction.
The decision-making process at independent houses involves the author and the book more closely; the promotion curve is usually a much longer one than at the larger houses; and books tend to grow and change more during their development time, as a manuscript is read by several people, the author is introduced into our community and a conversation ensues. And there are often more people in decision-making positions, creating a genuine community of voices in-house, generating and putting into effect fresh ideas. Perhaps most important, authors influence us and can be influenced by us, as would be true in any relationship.
In the corporate publishing sector, with the big houses now so much bigger than ever, editors are expected to produce three or four times the sales volume and number of new titles as in the past. It is not unusual for a book to have four editors at a large house, not all of whom may have actually read the book, as people leave or are reshuffled. The differences between the corporate houses and the independent publishing community have never been this stark.
Two recent exceptions to that rule are Metropolitan Books (at Holt) and Riverhead (at Penguin), where an independent-press model is nested inside a corporate parent. In each case the imprint's first-generation leadership, Michael Naumann (who left to become Germany's Minister of Culture) at Metropolitan and Susan Petersen at Riverhead, passed on the reins to editorial-minded successors, Sara Bershtel at Metropolitan and Julie Grau and Cindy Spiegel at Riverhead. The number of titles the editors take on is far smaller than elsewhere, a most promising sign (since volume of "product" is probably our greatest nemesis in the fight for quality publishing), and editors seem to stay put.
Oprah's Book Club has been hugely positive in this environment, too--and not just because she sells hundreds of thousands of copies of any title selected. Winfrey is a smart reader with a profound respect for literature. She understands that books exist to challenge and teach, provoke and disturb, and consistently chooses works that live up to that.
Companies such as Schiffrin's publisher, Verso, and its compatriots are able to be far more competitive now than in the past. In the eight years since founding the New Press, Schiffrin has created a list at his not-for-profit house that ranges from bestsellers to publishing for teachers in the schools; his house is recognized throughout Europe as an important US repository for culture and one that has been a pioneer in bringing minorities into publishing.
Publishing important books well requires enormous energy and commitment and a long attention span; large corporations, with their bulky overheads and profit pressures, deliver those commodities only through special exertions. So, increasingly, books of great import are falling to the independent houses to do. We're helped by the Internet, by excellent independent distribution, by the large companies' common failure to read around, and by the serious interest of book-review editors, reviewers, college professors and the bookselling community (both independent and chain stores), who recognize the significance of what we do.
The electronic book may change publishing forever, though, and soon, with e-books that are not just convenient but beautiful to look at and enjoyable to read. A few months ago, I met a novelist whose last book had been brought out by a good independent house, but her new novel is being released by a British e-publisher, Online Originals, which she tells me reviews hundreds of manuscripts for every one it accepts, and which really edits their books, too. Perhaps this time she simply couldn't find the right traditional publishing house; but the time may come when the choice to go with an online publisher instead of a traditional one mirrors what is now the writer's decision to go with an independent rather than a corporate house.
But here again, knowledgeable insiders disagree, with a good number already likening e-books to 8-track tapes--a momentary blip that may not be sustained. I find it hard to imagine a future in which electronic transmission isn't a fundamental and transformative factor in how we read, and hence how we publish. This sort of repositioning has not occurred in many lifetimes, perhaps not since Gutenberg, as Epstein suggested in his New York Review articles.
Will the nature of storytelling itself change? And if so, will it be technology that will have made whatever transformation occurs possible? Some, including the novelist Stephen King, are entering the new areas in a spirit of wonderment and openness, motivated by curiosity as much as anything, not to find quick answers but just to travel along the road wherever it leads. (Success and failure--he's had a lot of both--seem secondary to the main project of being at the forefront of change; King calls his efforts "goofin'.") As ever, the technocrats and financiers will follow people of imagination, not vice versa.
Will the new technologies also provide opportunities to undo some retrograde publishing tendencies? Can we imagine a future in which copyright law is as concerned with rights of speech as it is of ownership of speech? Or where authorship is about the freedom and responsibility to write as much as it is about the privilege to write?
On the retail side, the stock of the brick-and-mortar giants Barnes and Noble and Borders has wilted over the past few years, and the rate at which Barnes and Noble opens new stores has slowed from 1997 levels. This means that growth now has to come from actual robust sales, in a retail environment where Internet retailers like Amazon.com are appealing to many book buyers--the independent-bookseller version, BookSense, will soon open and stands to appeal to many more. The stubbornness of the book trade to resist standard business practices must be maddening to the largest corporate owners. A mood of mutual antagonism can sometimes surface among the retailers, distributors and wholesalers, and publishers--each trying to find its elusive profit at the expense of the others. At the same time, the retail sector overall may be learning new respect for more traditional bookselling approaches. Recently, both the major chains and Internet retailers eliminated their heavy discounting policies. This is a positive development, since it levels the playing field for small independent booksellers and may encourage publishers to maintain somewhat lower pricing on their titles to begin with.
Schiffrin's book and Epstein's pronouncements share a certain tone of voice, patrician and authoritative. But there are no authorities right now. And these two, if asked, might be among the first to confess, in Socratic fashion, their ignorance in the face of what is happening. Is the sorry state of affairs they describe already behind us? It may be. Certainly, the future for publishing has never been so filled with possibilities and opportunities as now.
I once bumped into George Braziller near Union Square in Manhattan. He asked me, excitedly, if I had read that morning's paper. There was some good writing in it that had gotten him started at around 8 am. Six hours later he was still going on about it, and able to get me going. I went back and reread the piece he mentioned, and he was right, there was something marvelous there. George was being a publisher--seeing, perhaps before anyone else, that someone is thinking, feeling, saying something important. And then he looked to find a way to make sure others found out about it. Shareholder value notwithstanding. Electronic whatzit notwithstanding, too.
At the other extreme, my friend Glenn Thompson spoke to me not long ago about fearing for his "publishing soul" in the current climate. Without bespectacled outlaws like Schiffrin, Braziller and Thompson, there is the real risk that the publishing process will operate only too smoothly. As Schiffrin writes, "If the domain of ideas is surrendered to those who want to make the most money, then the debate that is so essential for a functioning democracy will not take place."
I believe it was with this danger in mind that Schiffrin wrote The Business of Books--with some bitterness, out of deep concern, with robust faith in his own restorative powers and that of the kinds of books he knows best, and a need to tell what he knows. The book is smart, thoughtful and well presented. News told truthfully and with loving care always brings some hope.
On the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, the so-called forgotten war was finally remembered. With the Associated Press's Pulitzer Prize-winning "revelation" a year ago that hundreds of civilians were massacred under a concrete bridge outside the village of Nogun-ri, and the recent "uncovering" of the execution of dozens of leftists by the South Korean Army before the battle of Taejon, the horrors of the Korean War are beginning to come to light.
To the survivors and witnesses of these tragedies, however, the truth of their experiences was never in question. Their remembrances were repressed in a variety of ways--by government authorities, who denied these events ever happened; by society at large, which wanted to forget the past and move on; by family members and friends, who did not want to hear about such painful things; or even by themselves, who held these memories inside for almost fifty years. As a result, many have never spoken of what they witnessed during the three-year conflict, in which more than a million Koreans and tens of thousands of US troops died. The Korean War continues--in the lives of survivors and in reality; no peace treaty was ever signed, only an armistice agreement in 1953. Hence the enormity of headlines this past June when leaders from the two Koreas held a summit meeting for the first time since the Korean War.
In her memoir, Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan, Elizabeth Kim tells of another forgotten legacy of the war. The daughter of a Korean mother and an American GI, Kim's curly hair and hazel eyes branded her as an outcast in Korean society, a honhyol--"a despicable name that meant nonperson, mixed race, animal." In a culture where patriarchal bloodlines form the basis of the most important structure in society--the family--mixed-race children were (and still are, in many cases) not tolerated. Kim writes, "National pride is deeply ingrained, and in Korea the intense love for the country's heritage and traditions has its darker side of hatred for anything that taints the purity of that heritage."
Kim begins her moving yet vague memoir with the horrific "honor killing" of her beloved Omma (mother) by her own grandfather and uncle, an act she claims to have witnessed as a young child while hiding in a basket. Omma had brought great shame to her family, many of whom were village elders, by producing a honhyol. She also had the audacity to refuse the generous offer of another family to allow her child to work in their home as a servant--a higher status than that of a half-breed. In her relatives' eyes, the family's honor could only be saved by Omma's death.
A sympathetic aunt leaves Kim, somewhere between the age of 4 and 6 at the time (or maybe even younger), at a Christian orphanage without any components of her identity: "In a Korean's view, it would be better to be dead than to be the embodiment of shame such as I was: a honhyol, a female, nameless, without a birth date." Behind the bars of a crib, she is sustained by memories of her mother's love. "Omma told me that somewhere in the world it would be possible for me to become a person. She explained her Buddhist belief that life was made up of ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, and all of them were stepping-stones to ultimate peace."
Kim relays her litany of sorrow in spare, poetic prose and never succumbs to self-pity or sentimentality. Her hellish existence as a nonperson continues in the squalid orphanage and even after her adoption by a white fundamentalist pastor and his dutiful wife from central California. Like many Korean adoptees of the time, Kim found herself in a community without any other Asians or people of color. Instead of being stigmatized by her Caucasian features, as she was in Korea, she was tormented because of her Asian ones in the rural desert community where she grew up. Her ultra-Christian parents reared her according to the edict of assimilation, never allowing Kim to speak of Korea or her birth mother. Instead, they openly disparaged the only person who showed her love: "My parents told me she was something very bad and sinful called a prostitute. She didn't love me, they said; it didn't matter to her whether I lived or died."
Kim carries the stigma of the honhyol well into her adult life, as her sorrows multiply. A loveless arranged marriage to a deacon in her parents' church follows her traumatic childhood, as do years of physical and psychological abuse. Mercifully, joy does make an appearance in this wrenching memoir, in the form of her daughter, Leigh. Kim finds the strength to spirit away the newborn from her schizophrenic husband before her daughter witnesses the abuse her mother has endured for years.
In the book's most affecting sections, the author describes her brief yet loving relationship with Omma, in which the two outcasts create a private world of their own in a shack just outside their village (a portion of this was excerpted in the first issue of Oprah Winfrey's magazine, O). Decades later, the next generation of mother and daughter also live in poverty on the outskirts of a small town and find happiness through stories and fantasy. "Whether in Korea or in America, the make-believe tapestry made life bearable."
But if fantasy was responsible for Kim's happiness, was it for her despair, as well? Just as the sources for the AP's story have come under question--in particular, one US soldier who originally admitted to getting the order to shoot civilians was not even in the vicinity of Nogun-ri at the time--Kim's story has come under scrutiny as well.
In September the Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper based in Seoul, published a letter to the editor titled "'Memoir' defames Korean culture." The author, Brian Myers, a Korean studies scholar in the United States, sharply criticized Ten Thousand Sorrows as "wildly inaccurate" in its descriptions of "Korean life, language and custom." He went on to write that Kim's "account of the Confucian 'honor killing' is so improbable, that the only question for me is whether she herself believes what she has written." Some in Korean studies have pointed out that it would have been more common in Korean culture at the time for a mother to have committed suicide than to have been murdered by members of her own family.
Answering such criticisms, Kim's publisher recently issued a carefully worded press release stating that "there are not sufficient studies for Ms. Kim and Doubleday to have stated as an established fact that there is a tradition of honor killings in Korea." Doubleday subsequently promised to delete the offending term in future paperback editions of Ten Thousand Sorrows. Kim, a longtime journalist, admitted to Associated Press reporter Hillel Italie that she was "careless" both in using the term "honor killing" (which is found primarily in Muslim cultures) and in stating in an admittedly "bad bit of writing" that Korea was divided by the Korean War, when in fact it was split years earlier, in 1945, after the country's liberation from Japan.
Considering Kim's background (she was most recently an editor at the Marin Independent Journal), her "bad bits of writing" are inexcusable and regrettable. In short, she should have known better. But as she has stated, her book "is not intended to be representative of Korean adoption or anything else. It's just my life." Kim's critics are quick to dismiss her account because of errors and inconsistencies; they point to her six-figure advance as motivation for sensationalizing the truth. But as any seasoned reader of memoirs knows, the genre tends toward self-reflection rather than historicity or definitiveness in describing a specific culture or experience.
Kim's critics forget, too, that the basis of any memoir is memory, which is by its very nature slippery, fragmented and often unreliable. What Kim is most guilty of in Ten Thousand Sorrows is not misrepresentation but neglecting to describe adequately the state and processes of her own memory. As a result, the book feels unfinished, like a work in progress, especially in the last sections, where it devolves into shards of self-help homilies. The book would have benefited greatly from a discussion of how the author's early-childhood recollections coalesced in her brain over time and why she chose to believe the version of what happened to her that she devoted to print. The book's unsatisfying ending suggests that perhaps the author hadn't quite achieved the distance necessary to deal with such questions when she wrote the book.
In his letter to the Korea Herald, Myers questioned whether Kim believes what she has written, implying that the author might be guilty of willful misrepresentation. The same charge has been leveled at the civilians and US servicemen who witnessed what happened at Nogun-ri. Is the inherent haziness of memory (especially that of the Korean War, half a century ago) enough reason to deny the actuality of events? If one thinks so--even in the afterglow of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il's first summit meeting--the wounds of the last battle of the cold war will never heal.
John Lennon once characterized his wife, Yoko Ono, as the world's "most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does." What she was famous for, of course, was him. The art for which she was unknown could not conceivably have made her famous--although even the most famous of artists would be obscure relative to the aura of celebrity surrounding the Beatle of Beatles and his bride. Yoko Ono had been an avant-garde artist in New York and Tokyo in the early 1960s, and part of an avant-garde art world itself very little known outside its own small membership. The most robust of her works were subtle and quiet to the point of near-unnoticeability. One of her performances consisted, for example, of lighting a match and allowing it to burn away. One of her works, which she achieved in collaboration with the movement known as Fluxus, consisted of a small round mirror which came in an envelope on which YOKO ono/self portrait was printed. It belonged in Fluxus I--a box of works by various Fluxus artists, assembled by the leader and presiding spirit of the movement, George Maciunas. But the contents of Fluxus I were themselves of the same modest order as Self Portrait. We are not talking about anything on the scale, say, of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. We are speaking of things one would not see as art unless one shared the values and ideologies of Fluxus.
Fluxus, in that phase of its history, was much concerned with overcoming the gap between art and life, which was in part inspired by John Cage's decision to widen the range of sounds available for purposes of musical composition. Cage's famous 4'33'' consisted of all the noises that occurred through an interval in which a performer, sitting at the piano, dropped his or her hands for precisely that length of time. A typical Fluxus composition was arrived at by selecting a time--3:15, say--from the railway timetable and considering all the sounds in the railway station for three minutes and fifteen seconds as the piece. As early as 1913, Marcel Duchamp made works of art out of the most aesthetically undistinguished vernacular objects, like snow shovels and grooming combs, and he was in particular eager to remove all reference to the artist's eye or hand from the work of art. "The intention," he told Pierre Cabanne in 1968, "consisted above all in forgetting the hand." So a cheap, mass-produced object like a pocket mirror could be elevated to the rank of artwork and be given a title. How little effort it takes to make a self-portrait! In The Republic Socrates made the brilliant point that if what we wanted from art was an image of visual reality, what was the objection to holding a mirror up to whatever we wished to reproduce? "[You] will speedily produce the sun and all the things in the sky, and the earth and yourself and the other animals and implements and plants." And all this without benefit of manual skill!
Fluxus made little impact on the larger art world of those years. I encountered it for the first time in 1984, at an exhibition held at the Whitney Museum of New York in which the art made in New York in the period between 1957 and 1964 was displayed. It was a show mainly of Pop Art and Happenings; and there were some display cases of Fluxus art, many of them objects of dismaying simplicity relative to what one expected of works of art in the early 1960s, exemplified by large heroic canvases with churned pigment and ample brush sweeps. Maciunas spoke of Fluxus as "the fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gag, children's games and Duchamp"; and the display cases contained what looked like items from the joke shop, the children's counter in the dime store, handbills and the like. Ono's relationship to Fluxus is a matter of delicate art-historical analysis, but if she fit in anywhere, it would have been in the world Maciunas created around himself, where the artists and their audience consisted of more or less the same people. It was a fragile underworld, easy not to know about. Ono's work from that era has the weight of winks and whispers.
So, it was as a largely unknown artist that Lennon first encountered her, at the Indica Gallery in London, in 1966. The point of intersection was a work titled YES Painting, which consists of a very tiny inscription of the single word Yes, written in india ink on primed canvas, hung horizontally just beneath the gallery's ceiling. The viewer was required to mount a stepladder, painted white, and to look at the painting through a magnifying lens, suspended from the frame. It was part of the work, as it was of much of Yoko Ono's art, then and afterward, that it required the participation of the viewer in order to be brought fully into being. Much of it, for example, had the form of instructions to the viewer, who helped realize the work by following the instructions, if only in imagination. The ladder/painting was a kind of tacit instruction, saying, in effect, like something in Alice in Wonderland, "Climb me." Somehow I love the fact that John Lennon was there at all, given what I imagine must have been the noisy public world of the Beatles, full of electric guitars and screaming young girls. Lennon climbed the ladder and read the word, which made a great impression on him. "So it was positive," he later said. "It's a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn't say no or fuck you; it says YES." There was only the simple affirmative rather than the "negative... smash-the-piano-with-a-hammer, break-the-sculpture boring, negative crap. That 'YES' made me stay." It would be difficult to think of a work of art at once that minimal and that transformative.
"YES" is the name of a wonderful exhibition at the Japan Society, much of it given over to the works for which, other than to scholars of the avant-garde, Yoko Ono is almost entirely unknown. I refer to the work from the early sixties, a blend of Fluxus, Cage, Duchamp and Zen, but with a poetry uniquely Ono's own. The most innovative of the early works are the Instructions for Paintings, which tell the viewer what to do in order for the work to exist. These have the form of brief poems. Here, for example, is the instruction for a work called Smoke Painting:
Light canvas or any finished painting
with a cigarette at any time for any
length of time.
See the smoke movement.
The painting ends when the whole
canvas or painting is gone.
Here is another, called Painting in Three Stanzas:
Let a vine grow.
Water every day.
The first stanza--till the vine spreads.
The second stanza--till the vine withers.
The third stanza--till the wall vanishes.
Now these are instructions for the execution of a work, not the work itself. They exist for the purpose of being followed, like orders. In formal fact, the instructions are very attractive, written out in gracious Japanese calligraphy by, as it happens, Yoko Ono's first husband, Ichiyanagi Toshi, an avant-garde composer. It is true that the conception was hers, but by means of whose handwriting the conception should be inscribed is entirely external. Nothing could be closer to Duchamp's idea of removing the artist's hand from the processes of art. Duchamp was interested in an entirely cerebral art--the object was merely a means. And so these attractive sheets of spidery writing are merely means: The work is the thought they convey. "Let people copy or photograph your paintings," Ono wrote in 1964. "Destroy the originals." So the above instructions, in numbers equal to the press run of The Nation plus however many pass-alongs or photocopies may be made of this review, are as much or as little of "the work" as what you would see on the walls of the gallery. The question is not how prettily they are presented or even in what language they are written. The question is how they are received and what the reader of them does to make them true: The instructions must be followed for the work really to exist.
So how are we to comply? Well, we could trudge out to the hardware store, buy a shovel, pick up a vine somewhere, dig a hole, plant the vine, water it daily--and wait for the wall against which the vine spreads to vanish. Or we can imagine all this. The work exists in the mind of the artist and then in the mind of the viewer: The instructions mediate between the two. At the Indica Gallery, Ono exhibited Painting to Hammer a Nail. A small panel hung high on the wall, with a hammer hanging from its lower left corner. Beneath it was a chair, with--I believe--a small container of nails. If you wanted to comply with the implicit instructions, you took a nail, mounted the somewhat rickety chair, grasped the hammer and drove the nail in. At the opening, Ono recalls, "A person came and asked if it was alright to hammer a nail in the painting. I said it was alright if he pays 5 shillings. Instead of paying the 5 shillings, he asked if it was alright to hammer an imaginary nail in. That was John Lennon. I thought, so I met a guy who plays the same game I played." Lennon said, "And that's when we really met. That's when we locked eyes and she got it and I got it and, as they say in all the interviews we do, the rest is history."
Jasper Johns once issued a set of instructions that became famous: "Take an object./Do something to it./Do something else to it." Ono's version would be "Imagine an object./Imagine doing something to it./Imagine doing something else to it." Ono's enthusiasts like to say how far ahead of her time she was, based on some entirely superficial parallels between her Instructions for Paintings and certain works of Conceptual Art, which also consisted of words hung on the wall. Thus in 1967 Joseph Kosuth composed a work that reproduced the definition of the word "Idea" as it appears in a dictionary. The title of the work is Art as Idea as Idea. The work of art is the idea of idea (Spinoza--profoundly--defined the mind as idea ideae). For reasons entirely different from Ono's, Kosuth was bent on transforming art into thought.
Art historians are always eager to establish priority, usually by finding resemblances that have little to do with one another. In truth, Ono was precisely of her own time. It was a time when the very idea of art was under re-examination by artists. Works of art can never have been more grossly material--heavy, oily, fat--than under the auspices of Abstract Expressionism. But the aesthetic experiments of Cage, of Fluxus and of Yoko Ono were not, in my view, addressed to the overthrow of Abstract Expressionism. They were rather applications of a set of ideas about boundaries--between artworks and ordinary things, between music and noise, between dance and mere bodily movement, between score and performance, between action and imagining action, between artist and audience. If the impulse came from anywhere, it came from Zen. Cage was an adept of Zen, which he transmitted through his seminars in experimental composition at The New School. Dr. Suzuki, who taught his course in Zen at Columbia, was a cult figure for the art world of the fifties. Yoko Ono had absorbed Zen thought and practice in Japan. The aim of Zen instructions was to induce enlightenment in the mind of the auditor, to transform his or her vision of world and self. The aim of Ono's instructions was similarly to induce enlightenment in the mind of the viewer--but it would be enlightenment about the being of art as the reimagination of the imagined. In her fine catalogue essay, Alexandra Munroe, director of the Japan Society Gallery, writes, "Asian art and thought were the preferred paradigm for much of the American avant-garde." Abstract Expressionism and the New York avant-garde exemplified by Cage, Fluxus and Ono belong to disjointed histories that happened to intersect in Manhattan at the same moment.
At the time of their marriage, Ono said that she and John Lennon would make many performances together, and the fact that Lennon set foot in the Indica Gallery in the first place and engaged with Yoko Ono in that atmosphere implies that he found something in art that was lacking in the world of popular music, for all his great success. It is characteristic that for him, art meant performance--not painting on the side, which was to become an outlet for his fellow Beatle Paul McCartney (there is an exhibition of McCartney's paintings making the rounds today). What Ono offered Lennon was a more fulfilling way of making art, and inevitably she was blamed for the dissolution of the band. What Lennon offered Ono was a way of using her art to change minds not just in terms of the nature of art and reality but in terms of war and peace. In 1968 Yoko Ono declared that "the art circle from which I came is very dead, so I am very thrilled to be in communication with worldwide people." One of Yoko Ono's most inspired pieces was her White Chess Set of 1966 (a version of which, Play It By Trust, can be seen in the Japan Society lobby). Instead of two opposing sides, one black and one white, she painted everything--the board and the pieces--white. Since one cannot tell which pieces belong on which side, the game quickly falls apart. "The players lose track of their pieces as the game progresses; Ideally this leads to a shared understanding of their mutual concerns and a new relationship based on empathy rather than opposition. Peace is then attained on a small scale." But with Lennon, she and he could attempt to achieve peace on the largest scale--could use art to transform minds. In 1969, for example, they enacted their Bed-in for Peace. The tremendous widening of the concept of art earlier in the decade made it possible for being in bed together to be a work of art. The press was invited into their hotel bedrooms, gathered around the marital bed, to discuss a new philosophy in which, as in White Chess Set, love and togetherness replaced conflict and competition. In the same year the couple caused billboards to be erected in many languages in many cities, as a kind of Christmas greeting from John and Yoko. The message was WAR IS OVER! (in large letters), with, just beneath (in smaller letters), IF YOU WANT IT. There was no definite article: The sign was not declaring the end of the Vietnam War as such but the end of war as a human condition. All you have to do, as their anthem proclaimed, was GIVE PEACE A CHANCE. Get in bed; make love, not war.
There is a somewhat darker side to Ono's work than I have so far implied. In a curious way, her masterpiece is Cut Piece, a performance enacted by her on several occasions, including at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965. Ono sits impassively on the stage, like a beautiful resigned martyr, while the audience is invited to come and cut away a piece of her clothing. One by one, they mount the stage, as we see in a video at the Japan Society, and cut off part of what she is wearing. One of the cutters is a man, who cuts the shoulder straps on her undergarment. The artist raises her hands to protect her breasts, but does nothing to stop the action. Ideally the cutting continues until she is stripped bare. I find it a very violent piece, reminding me somehow of Stanley Milgram's experiment in psychology, in which people are encouraged to administer what they believe are electrical shocks to the subject (who pretends to be in agony). The audience has certainly overcome, a bit too gleefully, the gap between art and life--it is after all a flesh-and-blood woman they are stripping piecemeal with shears. It reveals something scary about us that we are prepared to participate in a work like that.
Another film, Fly, shows a housefly exploring the naked body of a young woman who lies immobile as the fly moves in and out of the crevices of her body, or moves its forelegs, surmounting one of her nipples. The soundtrack is uncanny, and we do not know if it is the voice of the fly, the suppressed voice of the woman or the weeping voice of an outside witness to what feels like--what is--a sexual violation. It is like the voiced agony of a woman with her tongue cut out. The sounds are like no others I have heard. Yoko Ono is a highly trained musician who gave her first concert at 4 and who sang opera and lieder when she was young. But she is also a disciple of Cage and an avant-garde singer who uses verbal sobs, damped screams, deflected pleas, to convey the feeling of bodily invasion.
Yoko Ono is really one of the most original artists of the last half-century. Her fame made her almost impossible to see. When she made the art for which her husband admired and loved her, it required a very developed avant-garde sensibility to see it as anything but ephemeral. The exhibition at the Japan Society makes it possible for those with patience and imagination to constitute her achievement in their minds, where it really belongs. It is an art as rewarding as it is demanding.
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