Readers of this magazine do not need reminders of the costs of the cold war. The mountains of corpses, the damaged lives, divided families and displaced refugees, the secret police forces and death squads, and the resources wasted on ghastly weapons of unfathomable evil are not only markers of a recent past but still-active landmines buried a few inches beneath the surface of our contemporary lives.
What may be harder to remember is the ways the global struggle with the Soviet Union enabled social and cultural achievements that made the United States a decidedly more decent society. From Harry Truman's integration of the armed forces to the Brown decision and the 1963 March on Washington, the initial phase of the civil rights movement capitalized on the moral embarrassment of segregation for a nation trying to win the hearts and minds of Third World peoples. Likewise, the rapid postwar expansion of state universities, the infusion of government monies into public schools after Sputnik and the creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities in 1965 were all episodes in an ideological cold war meant to demonstrate the cultural superiority of the "free world" to the Soviet bloc. It was a strange era that offered both Martin Luther King Jr. and his persecutor J. Edgar Hoover their big chance to bring the United States closer to their ideals.
Two monuments to the cold war stand catty-corner to one another on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue: On one side, the brutalist Hoover FBI building; on the other, the restored neo-Romanesque post office that houses the NEA and NEH and bears the name of Nancy Hanks, the liberal Republican chair of the NEA during its glory days in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Care to guess which building will be renamed first?
Michael Brenson's new study of the NEA, Visionaries and Outcasts, emphasizes the cold war origins of the agency in an effort to place the "arts wars" of the past dozen years in historical perspective. Looking beyond the 1995 budget cuts that devastated the endowment, and the earlier battles in 1989-90 over NEA-supported exhibitions by photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, Brenson tracks the unfolding of a tension between "ideology and idealism" inherent in the NEA founders' understanding of the agency's role in American culture. Arts advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sought federal support for the arts to promote international awareness of the cultural vitality of a society dedicated to free expression and civil liberties. At the same time, cultural policy-makers like August Heckscher and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.--heirs to the upper-middle-class lampoon of middle-class "conformism" that stretched from Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920) to William H. Whyte's The Organization Man (1956)--saw in federal arts funding a way to create an American "civilization" equal to Western Europe's, which would inspire their fellow citizens with something more ennobling than the stuff of television and Levittown. Much like Clement Greenberg, the towering figure in postwar art criticism, Camelot culture warriors mounted a two-front campaign against the state-dominated art of the Soviet bloc and the kitsch of a newly affluent society.
Amazing as it now seems, the man (and he was imagined as a man) who was to do such heroic work for the nation was the artist. Kennedy's wooing of celebrity artists and writers--epitomized by his choice of Robert Frost to deliver a poem (he recited "The Gift Outright") at his 1961 inaugural and his subsequent invitation to Pablo Casals to perform at the White House--was not only an attempt to surround himself with glamorous and influential opinion-makers but, according to Brenson, a determined effort to establish the artist-prophet as a symbol of defiant individualism in an other-directed age. Whether it was Frost the aging Yankee reciting from memory at the inaugural or the Abstract Expressionist painters wrenching meaning from existential meaninglessness, the image of modern artists as "visionaries and outcasts" served liberals' war of ideas against Communist adversaries abroad and the benighted middle classes at home. As Kennedy put it in his 1963 speech at the dedication of the Frost Memorial library at Amherst College--the occasion for his most extended comments on the arts--a great artist was the "last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state."
Visionaries and Outcasts sketches the history of liberalism's dream of the visual artist as national hero from the early 1960s to the present. Brenson was originally commissioned to write an internal study of the NEA's visual arts program, but the former New York Times art critic chose to revise and publish his work independently after the dismantling of that program by the Gingrich Congress in 1995. The book he has produced is more than an institutional study of one office in a federal agency, however. Brenson rightly considers the program that gave some 4,000 fellowships to individual artists between 1965 and 1995 as the heart and soul of the Endowment. Although early chapters suffer from the bureaucratic language common to government reports, the book concludes by raising thoughtful and provocative questions about the tragic history of the NEA. As he revised his study, Brenson expanded his vision to include the rise and fall of this heroic image of the modern artist as prophet and redeemer of late-twentieth-century US culture. "The NEA became a lens onto larger issues of the changing identity of the American artist and the enduring problem of...the visual artist in a country that...is still only comfortable with the artist as a maker of high-priced commodities controlled by galleries and museums."
In the story Brenson tells, modern artists were useful to this country's political elites only so long as the cold war was raging. Once that war was won, and the political culture had shifted markedly to the right, the lonely artist was no longer a bearer of universal values but a threat to them. The ideological rationale for the endowment collapsed along with the Berlin wall, and cautious NEA administrators invested their idealism in established art institutions. Better to fund museums than to risk spending money on unruly individuals who might turn out--like Serrano or Mapplethorpe--to be "controversial." Despite the defensive maneuvers of arts administrators and their allies, a vengeful Congress cut the NEA's budget by 40 percent in 1995 and eliminated all grants to individual artists (except writers). The endowment has since limped along into the twenty-first century, but more as an occasion for petition drives and liberal fundraising than as a vital force for artistic creativity. In reality, the NEA of 1965 is dead, and with it the official myth of the artist as critic and savior of American national culture.
During the three decades when it mattered, the NEA's visual arts program gave small grants, no strings attached, to many of this country's major artists, often offering them assistance early in their careers before private money was forthcoming. The mechanism for doling out funds was peer panels composed of artists, curators, scholars and critics, who operated without political oversight from federal officials. In fact, Kennedy liberals organized the peer-panel system precisely because it insulated art-funding decisions from state interference and therefore drew another contrast with the state cultural agencies in place in the Soviet-bloc countries. Artistic freedom, in the view of Camelot arts advisers, required the support of professional panels that would judge art strictly according to nonideological, aesthetic standards. At a time when a Greenbergian theory of aesthetic autonomy reigned supreme in New York-based art circles, the freedom of the NEA's peer panels from politicians' control seemed to most liberals a necessary complement to a Modernist logic that divorced "pure" painting and sculpture from political ideology, representation and traditional subject matter of any kind.
The NEA's panels instantly became objects of criticism from true "outsiders," who interpreted talk of an autonomous aesthetic as a bid for power by art-establishment cronies. Brenson ignores the early history of such attacks, which originally came from the political left, and instead repeats the now-familiar story of the persecution of the NEA by the Christian right and its allies in Congress after 1989. The story is a bit more complicated than that, however. In the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the authority of the peer panels and the autonomous aesthetic theory they defended came under attack from other quarters: from advocates of more politically charged, social-realist and feminist art; from African-American and Latino artists who saw little of their work or their traditions acknowledged, let alone supported, by the NEA in its early years; and from folk artists and enthusiasts of regionalist cultural traditions who disputed the place of New York Modernists at the pinnacle of the NEA's cultural hierarchy. Although the Endowment quickly made concessions to its critics on the left, the peer-panel process remained largely unchanged from its original incarnation until 1995, in the aftermath of the Republican sweep in the previous fall's elections, when the conservative polemic against the tyranny of a "cultural elite" hostile to the values of "normal Americans" finally succeeded in killing off the visual arts fellowships.
Brenson devotes almost half his book to an admiring account of the panels' operations, quoting extensively from artists who served as referees or benefited from the program's largesse. He condemns the system's rightist critics as ignorant and presents the panels in the most glowing terms imaginable as models of aesthetic judgment, openness and generosity. "The peer panel system embodied the idealism and nobility of the NEA," he tells us. Those who applied unsuccessfully during these years may have had another view of the matter, but no one can deny that the award of such a grant at an early stage of an artist's career meant far more than the money involved. Installation artist Ann Hamilton recalls that "winning" her fellowship in 1993 "gave me a very important sense of support from my peers, which is and was very important in maintaining the trust and faith necessary to make new work, to change, to make a leap of imagination toward what can't easily be knowable or containable in language." This was the NEA's visual arts program at its best--"a gift," as Brenson calls it, "in the fullest sense of something given especially to one particular person, with a special knowledge of who that person is and what that person needs, by someone or something that cares--in this case a government agency, on the advice of peers."
What went wrong, then? Given its distinguished history, why was the visual arts program so vulnerable in 1995? Visionaries and Outcasts is not altogether helpful in answering that question, though it offers a rudimentary road map for a fuller account in the future. Brenson rounds up the usual suspects--Jesse Helms, fundamentalists, New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer--and, in a more intriguing move, notes how the ground shifted beneath the panel system in the 1980s as the art market and American artists themselves transformed the cultural meaning of the visual arts. The go-go art market of the Reagan era created a private reward system that made the NEA irrelevant to many young artists on the make, while conservatives inside and outside the endowment began assigning to museums the universalistic values that 1960s liberals once invested in the image of the heroic artist. Meanwhile, radical artists gave up the Modernist ideal of the individual prophet-artist standing apart from his or her culture. The adoption by many political artists of the term "community arts movement" to describe their project was an important sign of a new sensibility among artists who came of age in the 1980s and rejected the endowment's original assumptions even as they accepted its subsidies. Brenson himself adopts some of their critique in the closing pages of his book, acknowledging that the NEA "put artists on pedestals" and "ended up sustaining their marginalization" by perpetuating an image that many Americans found "arrogant and disdainful."
Brenson's second thoughts seem not to have influenced the rest of this book, which hardly registers the effect of such searching self-criticism. That is unfortunate, because his valuable questioning of the Modernist myth that originally inspired the NEA, and his closing call for an art of "connectedness"--to other citizens and to the natural world--should be the starting points for any serious reconsideration of the embattled agency's history. Especially when it comes to the arts, liberal and leftist culture-workers are too quick to attribute their current troubles to the malevolence of strangers (what will the so-called People for the American Way do when Jesse Helms dies?); too loath to acknowledge that they have achieved positions of power, wealth and influence in American society; and too devoted to their flattering self-image as, alternately, daring rebels or beleaguered victims. Such poses may absolve cultural administrators of any feeling of responsibility for their institutions' plight, but they will prove useless when it comes time to sort through the wreckage of the NEA and other liberal cultural programs in search of lessons for the future.
At one crucial moment in his book, Brenson inadvertently hints at a more critical history of the endowment that might better explain its terrible predicament. He compares the panel system to "the United States jury system" in its rock-bottom faith in humans' "need to learn, [their] belief in justice, and [their] commitment to the common good." Maybe those were the impulses that motivated the panelists as they watched hundreds of slides flash before their eyes; but in retrospect it's exactly the extent to which the NEA selection process was not like a jury that stands out as its chief political liability. Juries, after all, are not composed solely of lawyers, criminologists, psychologists and forensic experts. Nor are embezzlers, assassins and car thieves invited exclusively to judge their peers. When those people serve on juries, they do so as citizens, not in their capacity as professionals. Whatever their limitations, juries embody the civic ideal that ordinary voters--informed by the law and the testimony of relevant specialists--possess the wisdom to govern themselves and administer justice fairly. Never did the NEA's founders display a comparable faith in the ability of nonexperts to contribute to the common culture. Indeed, one reason they married a formalist aesthetic to bureaucratic proceduralism in the first place was to secure a space for creativity separate from the presumed ignorance and tastelessness of the general public.
Such a system "worked" well enough in the NEA's early years, when a New York-based art elite had an astonishing confidence about which artists deserved support. As the East Coast NEA panel met in 1966, it was easy for a few insiders to chat informally and select names. "Generally there was a consensus" about which artists deserved grants, sculptor George Segal told Brenson. "There was not too much of a discussion because it was assumed that all of us knew them." The founding director of the visual arts program, former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler, was openly contemptuous of a request at a West Coast meeting that the panelists examine slides of work by the artists under consideration. As panelist and fellow museum curator Walter Hopps recalled, "The boxes were pushed into the room. Henry stood up and went over and thumped each box with his hand and said, OK, now we've seen the applications and we've seen all this." The boxes of slides were removed, unopened; the applications sat in a pile unread. "We just talked about who we wanted.... It was all over in a morning."
A small art world with a strong consensus on a Greenbergian narrative of Modernist progress could afford to behave this way, especially when it enjoyed support from a liberal majority in Congress. But even when the peer-panel process was cleaned up and made more professional, the complaints poured in that the selection system was unresponsive to the very public this public agency was meant to serve and indifferent to the growing heterogeneity of art practices that transformed visual culture in the United States after the 1960s. What at first seemed like a means of protecting the independence of cutting-edge "visionaries and outcasts" from bureaucratic interference stood condemned by the late 1970s and early 1980s as an institutionalized patronage network that favored specific aesthetic commitments and excluded the vast majority of Americans as incapable of informed artistic judgment.
Coming to terms with the political shortcomings of the peer-panel system requires that we take a more skeptical view of the idea that artists (and their liberal allies) were "outcasts" in the first place, back in 1965. Despite his trenchant critique of the heroic-individualist model of the artist during the cold war, Brenson himself slips into romantic and avant-gardist rhetoric that is long overdue for critical scrutiny. To what extent can one really speak of the modern artists the NEA supported in the 1960s and 1970s as an avant-garde? Wasn't the original mission of the NEA proof that by mid-century the avant-garde ideal had merged perfectly with the cult of expertise that so captivated elite liberals, with their dream of benevolent rule from above by "the best and the brightest"? The class and ideological biases of the cultural institutions that liberals created in that period seem to have escaped no one except liberals themselves.
A quarter-century after the collapse of the New Deal arts programs, with their organic connection to 1930s labor insurgency, the case for federal arts funding returned in a very different political guise. The NEA's original base was in the (Nelson) Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party and the (John) Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party, two upper-middle-class constituencies that prided themselves on their distance from a seemingly "stodgy" labor movement and a parvenu middle class mired in the "ticky-tacky" vulgarity of the suburbs. It should come as no surprise that Nancy Hanks--once Nelson Rockefeller's personal secretary and then the NEA's chairwoman during the Nixon and Ford administrations--presided over dramatically escalating budgets for the endowment. Republicans still needed to appease the Rockefeller wing of their own party. And it should be no surprise, either, that a new right within the Republican Party succeeded in large part by pursuing a very different brand of cultural politics.
Capitalizing on popular unhappiness with the arrogance of the "New Class" at the helm of the NEA and other official cultural institutions, the Goldwater-Reagan right was able to oust the Rockefeller liberals from its own party and mount a masterful crusade against "cultural elites" in the universities, foundations, mainline Protestant churches, museums and the two endowments. Elite liberalism has not fared well in postliberal America, as conservatives have channeled popular disaffections into a pseudo-populism on cultural matters that they would never tolerate in economic affairs or foreign policy. The result has been an increasing isolation of artists, writers and intellectuals in universities and a delegitimation of the very idea of a common cultural life shared by citizens of different backgrounds.
With its original claims to aesthetic autonomy and professional expertise discredited by years of pounding from the left and the right, the endowment lacks a persuasive language to justify alternatives to the privatization of arts patronage. Its very name, the National Endowment for the Arts, speaks to an era of liberal consensus--on the nation, on the nature and desirability of national cultural standards, on what does and does not constitute art--that has disappeared. With the nation and the arts in dispute, all that remains is the program's pathetic "endowment," mere chump change in the global village overseen by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Charles Saatchi and the trustees of the Guggenheim Museum chain store.
In an era of market fundamentalism, the panel system that once promised artists protection from political and bureaucratic interference during the cold war deserves careful reconsideration. It is conceivable that panels might again function as "free spaces," this time offering artists a refuge from the commercial imperatives that are ruining publishing, museums and public broadcasting. But to make the case for such spaces today requires a radically different mindset from the sentimental avant-gardism and antidemocratic prejudice still current in elite art circles. It also demands a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the historical complicity of the endowment's defenders in the political logic that threatens our public schools, museums and libraries, as well as our artists.
Starting from ground zero, with the NEA in ruins, advocates of public funding for the arts need a language that recognizes the difference between the authority of collective judgments rooted in shared standards and the exercise of market power, and which assumes, furthermore, that every person has access to varieties of aesthetic experience that may contribute to the formulation of such standards. Opening panels to nonspecialists need not be a Trojan Horse for "Archie Bunkerism" or "authoritarian populism," those bugaboos of elite left-liberalism. Nor is it an affront to the credentials of artists and scholars who benefit from public subsidy (like this reviewer) to insist that they discuss their work with lay audiences in exchange for such support. These are tiny steps, of course, but the suspicion and hostility even such modest suggestions provoke in some quarters are a sign of the bleak cultural pessimism that now poisons all discussion of the civic role of the arts in the United States.
Every few months, I receive a forwarded e-mail message that recounts a reputed NPR story by Nina Totenberg about an upcoming Supreme Court ruling on funding for the NEA, warns that the Court's conservatives are about to kill off the endowment once and for all, and then asks for my name on its long list of petitioners. The petition is a classic Internet hoax, but even if it weren't, the time for forwarding such messages is long gone. The NEA was gutted several years ago, and the rebuilding of public support for publicly funded art is going to take a lot more than e-mail petitions. There are hard, unsettling questions that the people who sign such petitions need to ask about the responsibility they and their institutions bear for the ascendancy of our conservative order and about the blindness that comes with the heady self-image of artists and intellectuals as visionaries, outcasts and perpetual victims. Michael Brenson's book is a valuable starting point for a conversation, barely audible at the moment, that might finally address those questions. Until then, ignore the petition on your computer screen. That delete button is there for a reason.
The almost exact coincidence in time between the destruction of the Buddha figures by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's renewed jihad against the Brooklyn Museum vividly underscores the problems that authorities seem to have in dealing with images. It hardly matters whether it is the most sophisticated city in the world or one of the world's most backward countries--authorities form Panels on Decency or mount Exhibitions of Degenerate Art or ship avant-garde painters off to rot in gulags or divert funds badly needed for the relief of famine to pound, with advanced weaponry, effigies into rubble. And let us not forget Plato's scheme for ridding the Just Society of mimetic art generally. As these examples suggest, iconoclasm cannot always be explained with reference to religious orthodoxy. William Randolph Hearst and Congressman George Dondero of Michigan did what they could on grounds of patriotism to cleanse America of any images that smacked of Modernism. "Art which does not beautify our country in plain simple terms that everyone can understand breeds dissatisfaction," Dondero proclaimed. "It is therefore opposed to our government and those who create and promote it are our enemies." Why should our taxes support imagery of which our officials disapprove? (The answer, of course, is that they were not elected to tell us what we could see--they were elected to secure our basic freedom to make up our own minds on matters of expression, artistic and otherwise.)
Renee Cox's suddenly famous photograph, which shows a naked woman at a dinner party, has been stigmatized by Mayor Giuliani as indecent and anti-Catholic. It is in fact neither. The title, as everyone in the world now knows, is Yo Mama's Last Supper, but Yo Mama has been one of the ways in which Cox has referred to herself since the time when, enrolled in the Whitney Independent Study Program, she did a number of large nude photographs of herself pregnant and, later, with her son. The title in effect means "The Last Supper According to Renee Cox," and the art-historical reference is to the Last Supper according to Leonardo da Vinci. There are a great many pictures of Christ's last meal with his disciples, all of them by the nature of the case interpretations, since literal pictorial records are out of the question. Cox's interpretation enjoys the protections of the First Amendment, but one loses a great opportunity in thinking of her work--or anyone's work, for that matter--merely in terms of the artist's right to make it or the museum's right to display it. Cox is a serious artist, with serious things to say in her chosen medium. The First Amendment exists to protect the freedom of discourse, rightly perceived as central to the intellectual welfare of a free society. Art belongs to that discourse, and our taxes support museums in order to give citizens access to it. Mayors should be first in line to secure these rights and benefits rather than voice hooligan pronouncements against art for the evening news.
Yet the history of images is also the history of forbidding the making of images. This interdiction is wholesale at Exodus 20:4, where Jehovah prohibits any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or is in the water under the earth. There is an implied thesis in pictorial psychology in this commandment, which probably goes to the heart of the matter: People have a hard time not believing that there is an internal connection between pictures and their subjects. If you can place a picture of an antelope on your cave wall, you have made an antelope present in the cave. If you have a picture of a saint before you, the saint herself is right there, mystically present in her icon. So if you pray before the icon, your prayers are immediately heard by her whose image it is. It was this intimacy with holy beings that made icons so greatly cherished in early Christianity, and that accordingly made them so vexed a political nuisance in the Byzantine Empire, which was torn asunder for more than a century by controversy over what we might think of as pictorial metaphysics. The arguments pro and con had an intricacy and deviousness that help give the term "byzantine" its familiar meaning. But when the Iconoclasts were in power, it also meant an actual destruction of icons so thorough that very few of what must have been an almost countless number of them have survived.
Drawing is said to have been invented by a Corinthian girl, Dibutades, who traced the outline of her lover's shadow on the wall so that she would keep a trace of him with her when he left. Images in their nature have outlines, which is why Byzantine theorists regarded every likeness of God as false: God has no outlines, and so to picture God is to represent God as finite. The Byzantine practice of worshiping God through worshiping an icon of God is idolatry, which is the worship of finite things. And it was the intent of Exodus to forestall idol worship. The problem this presented to the established religion was that the church in fact exercised monopolistic control over images, and prohibition accordingly had deep economic consequences, given the appetite that was a defining trait of Byzantine culture. Supporters of icons had a clever answer. Toleration of images is one of the grounds on which Christianity distinguishes itself from Judaism and indeed Islam. The whole message of Christianity rests on the proposition that God decided to save humanity from sin by self-incarnation in human form. But human beings in our nature are finite. Since God is Jesus, in worshiping Jesus one is worshiping an infinite being in finite form. Indeed, we have Jesus' own testimony for the acceptability of images, since he himself conferred his image upon Saint Veronica, who offered him her veil to wipe his brow with as he struggled up the road to the cross: When she received it back, there was the image of Christ's face, like a photographic impression. This was considered a miracle, and Veronica's veil is one of the most important relics in the Church's large inventory.
The identity of the persons of the Trinity is the most abstruse and contested teaching of the early Church, but once the decision is made to take on human form, the question of gender immediately arises, and this brings us to the Brooklyn case. Humans are sexually bimorphic, so the question cannot be avoided. Could God have chosen to be incarnate in a female body? To say that God could not have is inconsistent with God's power. My sense is that a male body would have recommended itself at that moment in history, in order to make sure that Jesus would have a respect and authority not ordinarily accorded females. But does this rule out that Jesus could be represented as female? That might have been difficult for worshipers to deal with during certain stages of iconography, though it should hardly be an insuperable problem, once we appreciate that pictures may be regarded as symbols rather than mere likenesses. Not even the first Christians had difficulties in accepting that Christ could be represented as a fish! The Greek word for fish, Ichthys, acted as an acronym for "Jesus Christ God's Son Savior." One of the great theologians went so far as to play on the idea that through the sacrament of baptism, water is the medium in which we live, so that Christians, like Jesus, are fishlike in nature.
The masculine identity of Jesus is explicit in representations of the Christ child in Western art, over and over again shown with a penis, often pointed to in pictures, sometimes by the Christ child himself. The great art historian Leo Steinberg has made this the theme of a major contribution, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. Any ambiguity on the matter raises difficulties of interpretation. When, for example, pilgrims carried lead badges showing Christ bearded and crucified but wearing a robe, these were found puzzling in Northern Europe, where only women wore such garments. Here is the reasoning that resolved the issue: On the evidence of dress, the figure had to be female. (Evidently clothing trumps beards, since there are bearded women.) A myth evolved that the bearded woman was Saint Wilgefortis, which derives from virgo fortis--Strong Virgin. Wilgefortis, a beautiful virgin, wanted to devote her life to Christ but was betrothed to the King of Sicily. She prayed that she be made ugly, and God answered by causing a beard to grow on her face. The King of Sicily, disgusted, canceled the wedding. Her father was so angry that he had his bearded daughter crucified. Thus grew up the cult of Saint Wilgefortis, and her worshipers, praying before the figure of a bearded woman, were unbeknownst to themselves really praying to Christ.
An image of a crucified person wearing a dress could be, taken literally, Saint Wilgefortis, or symbolically it could be Jesus. The central figure in Yo Mama's Last Supper, since nude, is hardly ambiguous in point of gender. But it is ambiguous as to whether it is literal or symbolic representation. So let's begin to examine the work as art critics:
It is an exceptionally large photograph, in color, consisting of five panels, each 31 inches square. The female figure occupies the entire central panel. She is standing, arms outspread, palms upturned, behind a table, set with some bowls of fruit and a wineglass. Because of the title and certain formal similarities to Leonardo's painting, one has to say that she occupies the place of Christ. I think that it is incidental to the meaning of the picture that Cox photographed herself as Jesus, since I don't think she is suggesting that she is Jesus, or that it is a self-portrait of Renee Cox as Jesus. Rather, she is working along lines associated with Cindy Sherman, who photographs herself but not as herself, with the difference that Sherman has never, so far as I know, shown her own nakedness. Renee Cox has used herself as model for Jesus, symbolically represented as a woman. This is interpretive conjecture: It is impossible to know from the picture alone whether Cox is saying that Jesus was in fact a woman or merely that he is being represented as a woman. The differences are immense, one being about theological, the other about representational, fact. Obviously the two can be connected. No one thinks that Jesus was actually a lamb, but he is often enough depicted as a lamb, and this is thought to be a symbolic way of presenting some deep truth about Jesus. One speaks about being washed in the blood of the lamb, but as Muriel Spark observes in a novel, blood is too sticky to wash with, so the image is poetic license.
In the "Sensation" show (at the same museum and which also drew the Mayor's ire), the British artist Sam Taylor-Wood showed a Last Supper with a woman, nude from the waist up, as Jesus. She titled the work Wrecked. Taylor-Wood's picture is somewhat baroque and even Carravagesque, and in it Jesus looks haunted. Cox's picture is rather classical, with the disciples distributed in two groups of three on either side, and Jesus appears (I would say) magisterial. S/he is holding what I imagine is a shroud over his/her arms and passing behind the body, so as not to conceal her femininity. Taylor-Wood's picture raised no hackles at the time, but this may be explained through hackle-fatigue--unless the fact that Jesus is black in Cox's image is the suppressed premise in the recent complaint.
Since Christ has been shown as a lamb in many wonderful paintings--and continues to be represented by a fish in various gift items and ornaments for automobiles, there is iconographic room for him to be shown in many different ways. Showing God as male is, as I say, a historical contingency. It could be a metaphor, through which one conveys Christ's absolute authority, males traditionally having that in patriarchal societies. But there is a more central consideration. Let us remember that the whole message of Christianity is that God took on a human form in order to redeem us through his suffering. There is a magnificent piece of criticism by Roger Fry of a Madonna and Child by Mantegna. "The wizened face, the creased and crumpled flesh of a new born babe...all the penalty, the humiliation, almost the squalor attendant upon being 'made flesh' are marked." In view of the profound suffering both women and blacks have undergone through history, it would be entirely suitable that Christ be represented as either of these, or both. It is true that in Cox's picture, Christ looks exalted and self-certain. It is a picture of someone defiant and prepared to face down her oppressors. But it is, on whatever symbolic level, after all a picture of God. Taylor-Wood's picture is of Jesus as human. But the important truth is that Jesus is supposed to have been both, and the issue of what gender the human is to be in a given representation is a matter of delicate interpretational negotiation.
These are the considerations on which I want to deny that the picture is either indecent or anti-Catholic. The Mayor blurted out these epithets when he was shown a photograph of Yo Mama's Last Supper in the Daily News. Giuliani can always be counted on to make entertaining noises in the presence of art. He might have said the same thing had an artist scanned a picture of a fish into Leonardo's painting. I appreciate the fact that the Mayor has more pressing things to deal with than pondering the mysteries of Christ's body or the language of religious symbols, but if the so-called Decency Panel he has formed presses forward, I think he owes it to art and to his religion to ask that pictures that offend him be explained to him. I would be astonished if the panel he has appointed is interested in doing that on his behalf. If I were summoned as a witness, I would be eager to point out the complexities of interpretation involved with the art that comes before it, and that the panelists should consider the art the way it is considered by a critic, from the perspective of what view is being visually advanced. Seen that way, it becomes a matter of finding plausible critical hypotheses and then seeing whether they could not be true--giving the art the benefit of the doubt. I cannot imagine the panel having to meet very often, once its meetings turned on such matters of interpretation. The issue finally becomes of a piece with conflicts in society at large, where we have learned to tolerate views whether we like them or not.
There is, to be sure, a distinction between protecting a right and supporting an art museum with our taxes. There are those who see free expression as a right but not necessarily a public right to art museums as institutions. That question reduces to one of why we should have art museums, paid for by our taxes. My view is that it would not be art if it did not advance views, whether the views are mine or agree with mine or not. So, you can't have art museums without the question of freedom of expression arising. (Whether there should be museums at all is another question entirely, though fortunately it is not the mayoral panel's charge to answer it!)
So let's imagine that after all the explanations, an image really is anti-Catholic and indecent. Should our tax dollars support such art--or further, since any view can be expressed in art, are there other views we would not want expressed in our art museums? I say that if it can be expressed outside of art, there is room for it in the museum if expressed as art. Let us take a very controversial view--that abortion is murder. That is part of the discourse on abortion, and it is certainly at the heart of the "prolife" movement. A painting that shows an abortion clinic with the title Massacre of the Innocents has a right to be shown if the belief it expresses has a right to be voiced--as it of course has. It is offensive to prochoice advocates, but hanging it in an art museum harms them less than having to face people shouting their position in front of clinics. A painting showing antiabortion protesters jeering in a very ugly way could be painted by someone like Leon Golub, and it would be offensive to them in just the same way.
All this takes us a long way from Renee Cox's photograph, and it shows how irrelevant to the deep issues of expressive freedom a panel on decency really is. These days, "indecency" is a fairly marginal infraction, since questions of fittingness and suitability are almost impossible to arbitrate. If anything is unsuitable, I would suppose it is officials talking recklessly about art when they are representatives of a city in which interest in art is profound and serious talk about art is as expressive of the city's soul as talk about baseball. A city of great museums and universities, a beacon of high culture to the world at large, deserves decency in discourse about art on the Mayor's part. I would not insist on a panel to keep the Mayor in line.
Jean Clair, director
of the Musée Picasso in Paris and widely respected both as
scholar and art critic, has for some years been out of sympathy with
contemporary art. When he and I shared a platform in the Netherlands
a year ago, he spoke of a new aesthetic marked, in his view, by
repulsion, abjection, horror and disgust. I have been brooding on
this ever since, and particularly on disgust as an aesthetic
category. For disgust, in Jean Clair's view, is a common trait, a
family resemblance of the art produced today not only in America and
Western Europe but even in the countries of Central Europe recently
thrown open to Western modernity. We do not have in English the
convenient antonymy between goût (taste) and
dégoût (disgust) that licenses his neat
aphoristic representation of what has happened in art over the past
some decades: From taste...we have passed on to disgust. But
inasmuch as taste was the pivotal concept when aesthetics was first
systematized in the eighteenth century, it would be a conceptual
revolution if it had been replaced by disgust. I have never, I think,
heard "disgusting!" used as an idiom of aesthetic approbation, but it
would perhaps be enough if art were in general admired when commonly
acknowledged to be disgusting. It is certainly the case that beauty
has become a ground for critical suspicion, when its production was
widely regarded as the point and purpose of art until well into the
Though "disgusting" has a fairly broad
use as an all-around pejorative, it also refers to a specific
feeling, noticed by Darwin in his masterpiece, The Expression of
the Emotions in Man and Animals, as excited by anything unusual
in the appearance, odor or nature of our food. It has little to do
with literal taste. Most of us find the idea of eating cockroaches
disgusting, but for just that reason few really know how cockroaches
taste. The yogurt that sports a mantle of green fuzz--to cite an
example recently mentioned in a New Yorker story--may be
delicious and even salubrious if eaten, but it elicits shrieks of
disgust when seen. A smear of soup in a man's beard looks disgusting,
though there is of course nothing disgusting in the soup itself, to
use one of Darwin's examples. There is nothing disgusting in the
sight of a baby with food all over its face, though, depending on
circumstances, we may find it disgusting that a grown man's face
should be smeared with marinara sauce.
Like beauty, disgust
is in the mind of the beholder, but it is one of the mechanisms of
acculturation, and there is remarkably little variation in our
schedules of what disgusts. So disgust is an objective component in
the forms of life that people actually live. The baby is very quickly
taught to wipe its face lest others find it disgusting, and we hardly
can forbear reaching across the table to remove a spot of chocolate
from someone's face--not for their sake but for our own. What he
speaks of as "core disgust" has become a field of investigation for
Jon Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. He and his
associates set out to determine the kinds or domains of experience in
which Americans experience disgust. Foods, body products and sex, not
unexpectedly, got high scores when people were queried on their most
disgusting experiences. Subjects also registered disgust in
situations in which the normal exterior envelope of the body is
breached or altered. I was philosophically illuminated to learn that
of fifty authenticated feral children, none evinced disgust at all.
But I am also instructed by the fact that my cultural counterparts
are disgusted by what disgusts me, more or less.
overall consensus encourages me to speculate that most of us would
unhesitatingly find the characteristic work of the artist Paul
McCarthy, largely live and video performance, disgusting. There may
be--there doubtless is--more to McCarthy's art than this, but
whatever further it is or does depends, it seems to me, on the fact
that it elicits disgust. It may, for example, debunk a false idealism
McCarthy regards as rampant in Hollywood films, advertising and
folklore, as one commentator writes. But it achieves this just so far
as it is disgusting. It may relentlessly and rigorously probe the
airbrushed innocence of family entertainment to reveal its seamy
psychic underpinnings, to cite another critic. So it may show what
really underlies it all, the way the worm-riddled backside of certain
Gothic sculptures whose front sides were of attractive men and women
were intended to underscore our common mortality. But that does not
erase the fact that maggots count as disgusting. So possibly McCarthy
is a kind of moralist, and his works are meant to awaken us to awful
truths and their disgustingness as a means to edificatory ends. That
still leaves intact the revulsion their contemplation evokes. Disgust
is not something that can easily be disguised. Beautiful art, Kant
wrote, can represent as "beautiful things which may be in nature ugly
or displeasing." But the disgusting is the only "kind of ugliness
which cannot be represented in accordance with its nature without
destroying all aesthetic satisfaction."
"Nothing is so much
set against the beautiful as disgust," Kant wrote in an earlier
essay. So it is all the more striking that McCarthy's commentators
attempt to find his work beautiful after all. I wanted to think about
the question of beauty in your work, an interviewer murmured, to move
from the manifest to the latent. The New York Times speaks of
the "unlikely beauty of the work," adding that it is "not standard
beauty, obviously, but a beauty of commitment and absorption." I have
to believe that McCarthy's perceptions can be very little different
from the rest of ours. He has, indeed, almost perfect pitch for
disgust elicitors, and accordingly making the art he does must be
something of an ordeal. That may have the moral beauty that
undergoing ordeals possesses, especially when undertaken for the
larger welfare. But if it is that sort of ordeal, then it has by
default to be disgusting. As the Gothic statuary demonstrates--or for
that matter, the history of showing the fleshly sufferings of Christ
and the martyrs--artists down the ages have had recourse to some
pretty disgusting images for the ultimate benefit of their viewers.
(Taking on the iconography of Disneyland, as he does, is hardly
commensurate with overcoming Satan's power, but I'll give McCarthy
the benefit of the doubt.)
Something over three decades of
McCarthy's work is on view through May 13 at New York's New Museum of
Contemporary Art in SoHo, and since he is widely admired by the art
establishment, here and abroad, there are prima facie reasons for
those interested in contemporary art to experience it. The disgusting
works have mainly to do with food, but--citing Haidt--disgust is, at
its core, an oral defense. There is no actual gore, though McCarthy
uses food to evoke the images of gore. Similarly, there are no actual
envelope violations; no one is actually cut open. But again, various
accessories, like dolls and sacks, are enlisted to convey the idea
that the exterior envelope of the body is breached or violated.
McCarthy makes liberal use of ketchup in his performances, and in
interviews speaks of the disagreeable smell of ketchup in large
quantities. That is part of what I have in mind in speaking of his
art-making in terms of ordeal. There may or may not be actual shit,
but chocolate is what one might call the moral equivalent of feces,
as you can verify through watching a few minutes of his Santa
Chocolate Shop. Karen Finley used only chocolate to cover her
body in the performance that landed her in hot water with the
National Endowment for the Arts a few years ago--but everyone knew
what she was getting at.
The use of foodstuffs
distinguishes McCarthy's art from that of the so-called Vienna
Actionists of the 1960s--Hermann Nitsch and Otto Mühl are
perhaps the best known, though the actor Rudolf Schwarzkogler
attained a happily unmerited notoriety through the rumor that he cut
bits of his penis off in successive performances of Penis
Action. The Actionists made use of real blood and excrement, and
excited at least the illusion of humiliation through such happenings
as that in which a broken egg was dripped into Mühl's mouth from
the vagina of a menstruating woman. They were heavily into
desecration. McCarthy is pretty cheery alongside these predecessors.
His work refers to nursery rhymes and children's stories, and he
makes use of stuffed animals and dolls, often secondhand, and
costumes as well as rubber masks from the joke shop. Some writers
have described McCarthy as a shaman, but he rightly sees that as
something of a stretch: "My work is more about being a clown than a
shaman," he has said. As a clown, he fits into the soiled toy lands
of his mise en scènes, which kick squalor up a couple
of notches, as Emeril Lagasse likes to say when he gives the pepper
mill a few extra turns.
The clown persona is central to
what within the constraints of McCarthy's corpus might be regarded as
his chef-d'oeuvre, Bossy Burger (1991). But he worked
his way up to the creation of this role through a sequence of
performances. In these, he stuffed food in his pants, covered his
head with ketchup, mimicked childbirth using ketchup-covered dolls as
props. In one, or so I have read, he placed his penis inside a
mustard-covered hot dog bun and then proceeded to fill his mouth to
the point of gagging with ketchup-slathered franks. Throughout, food
was placed in proximity to parts of the body with which food has no
customary contact. But many human beings are reluctant to touch food
that has merely been left untouched on the plates of strangers.
Disgust is a defensive reflex, connected with fear, even if we know
the food that evokes it is perfectly safe and edible. That is why
there is so strong a contrast between beauty and disgust: Beauty
McCarthy got the idea of using food as the medium
of his performances in the course of searching for a very basic kind
of activity. Inevitably, he had to deal with disgust, which is
inseparable from eating as symbolically charged conduct. It is
understandable that he would stop performing for live audiences (as
he did in 1983) and begin to devise a form of theater to put a
distance between himself and his viewers. I would not care to perform
Bossy Burger a second time, even if I had the stomach to
perform it once. It is perhaps part of the magic of theater that
disgust survives as an affect, even through the video screen. It
doesn't help to know it is only ketchup.
The action of
Bossy Burger transpires in what in fact was a studio set for a
children's television program, and the set--a hamburger stand--is
exhibited as an installation. It shows the damage inflicted on it by
the performance, and looking in through the open wall--or the
windows--we see an utterly nauseating interior, with dried splotches
and piles of food pretty much everywhere. It has the look of
California Grunge, as we encountered it in the work of Ed Kienholz. A
double monitor outside the set shows, over and over, McCarthy's
character, togged out in chef's uniform and toque--and wearing the
Alfred E. Neuman mask that connotes imbecility--grinning his way
through fifty-nine minutes of clownishly inept food preparation. Thus
he pours far more ketchup into a sort of tortilla than it can
possibly hold, folds it over with the ketchup squishing out and moves
on to the next demonstrations. These involve milk and some pretty
ripe turkey parts. The character is undaunted as his face, garments
and hands quickly get covered with what we know is ketchup but looks
like blood, so he quickly takes on the lookof a mad butcher. He piles
the seat of a chair with food. He makes cheerful noises as he bumbles
about the kitchen or moves to other parts of the set, singing, "I
love my work, I love my work." Everything bears the mark of his
cheerful ineptitude. At one point he uses the swinging door to spank
himself, but it is difficult to believe this constitutes
self-administered punishment. He looks through an opening at the
world outside. McCarthy says he envisioned this chef as a trapped
person, but whether that is an external judgment or actually felt by
the character is impossible to decide from the work itself. Viewers
may find themselves wanting to laugh, but a certain kind of
compassion takes over. Perhaps it is a test for tenderness. Whatever
the case, even writing about Bossy Burger makes me feel
You won't get much relief by looking at Family
Tyranny, in which the character uses mayonnaise and sings, "Daddy
came home from work" as he prepares to do unspeakable things to his
children. "They're only dolls" helps about as much as "It's only art"
does, which underscores Kant's point about disgust. Painter
mercifully turns to other substances in its slapstick comedy about
the art world. McCarthy plays the role of art star, wearing a sort of
hospital gown, a blond wig and huge rubber hands, and he has a kind
of balloon by way of a nose. Everyone else in the action--his dealer
and his collectors--wears the same kind of nose, which perhaps
caricatures the hypertrophied sensitivity that exposure to art might
be thought to bring. At one point, the Painter climbs onto a sort of
pedestal as an art-lover kneels to smell his ass. In another action,
he chops away at one of his fingers with a cleaver, and crows OK!
when it comes off. This belongs to the iconography of self-mutilation
that has, since van Gogh--and perhaps Schwarzkogler--become an
ingredient in our myth of the true artist. The Painter's studio is
filled with huge tubes of paint (one of them labeled shit), and he
parodies the Abstract Expressionist address to painting by slapping
pigment wildly here and there, rolling it onto a table and then
pressing his canvas down onto the paint while pushing it back and
forth, all the while singing some version of "Pop Goes the Weasel."
Paint, food and blood serve throughout McCarthy's work as symbolic
equivalents. I could not suppress the thought that Painter is
a kind of self-portrait--there are photographs elsewhere in the show
of an early performance in which McCarthy frantically whipped a
paint-laden blanket against a wall and window until they were covered
It will be apparent that I am a squeamish
person, an occupational impediment for an art critic if Jean Clair is
right about the new aesthetic (for my response to that contention,
see www.toutfait.com/issues/ issue_3/News/Danto/danto.html). I am
not, however, disposed to prudery, though I have a strong memory of a
certain visceral discomfort when I was first writing on Robert
Mapplethorpe's photographs. McCarthy's Spaghetti Man I thought
was pretty funny. It is a sculpture, 100 inches tall, of a kind of
bunny, wearing a plastic grin of self-approval. It could easily be on
sale at F.A.O. Schwarz were it not that the bunny has a fifty-foot
penis, which coils like a plastic hose on the floor beneath him. It
is a kind of comment, but from an unusual direction, on Dr. Ruth's
reassuring mantra for insecure males that Size Doesn't Matter. It
really does matter from the perspective of masculine vanity, even if
Spaghetti Man's organ would put too great a distance between himself
and a partner for any show of tenderness during coitus. So its
message may well be that we should be grateful for what we've
I don't have anything very good to say about The
Garden, an installation of McCarthy's on view at Deitch Projects,
18 Wooster Street. The garden consists of fake trees and plants--it
was a movie set--in which one sees--Eek!--two animatronic male
figures, one doing the old in-and-out with a knothole in one of the
trees, the other with a hole in the ground. Some ill-advised writers
have compared the work to Duchamp's strangely magical last work,
Étant Donnés, where one sees a pink female nude,
legs spread, sharing a landscape with a waterfall and a gas lamp. The
masturbations in The Garden are too robotic for mystery, and
the meaning of all that effort too jejune to justify the artistic
effort. Cultural Gothic, a pendant to The Garden, is in
the main body of the show at the New Museum. It is a life-size
sculpture of a neatly dressed father and son engaged in a rite de
passage in which the son is enjoying sex with a compliant goat.
Whether the motor was in its dormant phase or the electricity not
working--or the museum inhibited by some failure of nerve--there was
no motion when I saw it. I thought that an improvement, but purists
might think otherwise.
If a critic's clout can be measured by the ability to make an artist's name, the most important art critic in America today is clearly Rudolph Giuliani. Just over a year ago he excoriated the Brooklyn Museum of Art for including in its "Sensation" show Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary--the elephant-dung-decorated painting of an African BVM, which the mayor found "anti-Catholic," blasphemous and disgusting--and turned Ofili himself into a sensation overnight: One collector, I heard, complained that the media attention had driven Ofili's prices so high he couldn't afford him anymore. If I were Jake & Dinos Chapman, represented by a perverse sculpture of deformed and weirdly sexualized children, I would have been seriously peeved, and if I had been Richard Patterson, whose Blue Minotaur, a profound meditation on postmodernity and the heroic tradition, got no attention at all, I would have wept.
You'd think the mayor would have learned to stay his theocritical thunderbolts, but once again he has gone after the Brooklyn Museum for including an "anti-Catholic" work--Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper--in the new show of contemporary black photographers, "Committed to the Image." He's even suggested that what New York needs is a "decency commission," which got big laughs all around, since the mayor, a married man, is openly carrying on with his mistress, upon whom he has bestowed police protection worth some $200,000 annually at taxpayers' expense. As the whole world now knows, Yo Mama is a five-panel picture in which Cox appears naked, as Jesus, surrounded by male disciples--ten black, one white--at the Last Supper. As an artwork it's negligible, glossily produced but awkwardly composed and, to my eye, rather silly. Cox is thin and beautiful; the men, in robes and caftans, are handsome and buff--apparently the first Christians spent a lot of time in the gym and at the hair salon, getting elaborate dreadlocked coiffures. Unlike the figures in Leonardo's Last Supper, which are highly individualized and dramatically connected, the figures here are generic and stiff. My eye kept going to the limited food on offer: bowls of wax-looking fruit (did they have bananas in Old Jerusalem?), rolls, pita bread. Was the Last Supper a diet Seder?
If you want to see visually haunting work at "Committed to the Image," there's Gordon Parks, Albert Chong, Imari, Nathaniel Burkins and many others. LeRoy W. Henderson's black ballet student, dressed in white and standing in front of a damaged classical frieze, interrogates the Western tradition much more deeply than Yo Mama does. Mfon's self-portraits of her mastectomized torso, a meditation on beauty, heroism and tragedy expressed through the female body, lay bare the high-fashion hokiness of Cox's costume drama. For fan and foe alike, the interest of Yo Mama appears to be political. Cox describes her art in ideological terms ("my images demand enlightenment through an equitable realignment of our race and gender politics"), and she has been quite pungent in defending it. As with The Holy Virgin Mary, the mayor hasn't actually seen it, nor had the numerous people who sent me frothing e-mails after I defended government support for the arts on The O'Reilly Factor.
Even the New York Observer's famously conservative art critic, Hilton Kramer, who usually delights in withering descriptions of pictures he hates, apparently felt that depicting Christ as a naked black woman was so obviously, outrageously anti-Catholic he need say no more about the photo before embarking on his usual rampage. It would be interesting to know where the offense lies: Is it that Cox as Christ is naked, black or female? All three? Two out of three? If one thinks of Catholics, the people, there's nothing bigoted about any of this. (Like Ofili, Cox is Catholic--as are most perpetrators of "anti-Catholic" works.) There is no ethnic stereotyping of the sort on view, for instance, on St. Patrick's Day, when the proverbial drunkenness of the Irish is the butt of endless rude humor, especially from the Irish themselves. While we're on the subject of ethnic stereotyping, it's worth noting that in a great deal of Christian art, Jesus and the disciples are portrayed as Northern Europeans, while Judas is given the hooked nose and scraggly features of a cartoon Jew.
But if what is meant by anti-Catholic is anti-Catholic Church, why can't an artist protest its doctrines and policies? The Church is not a monastery in a wilderness, it's a powerful earthly institution that uses all the tools of modern politics to make social policy conform to its theology--and not just for Catholics, for everyone. It has to expect to take its knocks in the public arena. A church that has a 2,000-year tradition of disdain for women's bodies--documented most recently by Garry Wills (a Catholic) in his splendid polemic Papal Sin--and that still bars women from the priesthood because Jesus was a man can't really be surprised if a twenty-first-century woman wonders what would be different if Jesus had been female, and flaunts that female body. And a church with a long history of racism--no worse than other mainstream American religions but certainly no better--can't expect the topic to be banned from discussion forever.
At the Brooklyn Museum, Yo Mama's Last Supper is in a separate room with its own security guard. On Sunday afternoon, it attracted blacks, whites, Asians, parents with small children, older women in groups, dating couples, students taking notes--le tout Brooklyn, which is turning out in large numbers for the show. I asked one black woman, who described herself as a Christian, what the picture meant to her. "It shows Life as a woman," she said. "It's beautiful." Her friend, who said he was a Muslim, liked the picture too.
If only I could get the Mayor to review my book!
Show George W. Bush you support RU-486. Make a donation in W.'s name to the Concord Feminist Health Center (38 South Main Street, Concord, NH 03301) and help it buy the ultrasound machine this method requires. The center will send the President a card to let him know you were thinking of him when you wrote your check.
A review of Sol LeWitt's Autobiography.
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.
Ben Katchor had been a bit of a cultural phenomenon for nearly a decade before he became a MacArthur fellow--a first for a cartoonist--this summer; is this the beginning of comic-strip artists being recognized as "real" artists?
A woman I know once agreed to take a young Asian child to visit a school in New York, to which her distant parents considered sending her.