The other day Gene Tanta asked me some questions about assertions I made about art and poetry at the & Now Conference in San Diego. They are good questions, and they’re definitely worth thinking about, but they are broad. So in order to really reply to them, I’ll take a few different posts, and hopefully I’ll at least show Gene my thinking, my intuition, my bleeder’s disease.
First up, I think it might be useful to summarize my argument from the festival. I talked about Raul Zurita but first I talked about the Lion King. I talked about “Scar,” the creepy uncle who tries to ruin the natural (very authoritarian but multicultural) order of the lion kingdom by infecting this natural nature/order with those icons of the unnatural, the affect, the blurry and uncouth hyenas, foreigners even to the happy multicultural order of the kingdom, screaming/laughing icons death drive and/or the pain/ecstacy of jouissance.
According to my thesis, Scar – with his gothic necroglamor and his showy spectacles, his scrawny body and his accent – is a stand-in for Art, a stunt-double. And like Art, he has no future: he may assume power through infection, but he cannot overturn the natural order of lineage. In the end the true son will take back the power with the help of his feminist wife and they will have a son and restore the natural balance of the world, pushing back art into the chasm, where art’s rotting chasm will be devoured by its own infection – the yelling, hollering, affective hyenas, the foreign, confused, ugly animals. Order will be restored.
Mattias Forshage and Aase Berg (1995):
Surrealism in the ulterior times unreasonable, compromising, conspiratory, confused, singleminded, bloodthirsty. Meet it by the lemures or on the blood stained back streets or in the parks that still are ugly!
The Lion King is in large part an allegory about the role of art in the political order. Art must either be made into an uplifting humanist project (animals sing all kinds of uplifting songs throughout) – it’s how we acutalize ourselves, it’s how we find our inner voice (quietism), it’s how we lead toward a better tomorrow (avant-garde) – or it must be cast aside as a threat.
The lazy, narcisstic artists – those who do not further our cause, do not move us forward, do not heroically assert the individual against he morass of the plague ground, do not, most of all, uplift our spirits – they are art as a threat to the natural order. They are bound for obliteration. They must be suicidal. They lack the life force. They are gothic, morbid.
In this threatening regard it’s a lot like our cultural treatment of terrorists! In my &Now talk I quoted Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages:
In his book Terrorist Assemblages, Jaspir K. Puar quotes John Le Carre, writing for The Nation about Osama Bin Laden to show how images of queerness and terrorist bodies often merge: Le Carre argues that “Bin Laden’s manner in his video was akin to “a man of narcissistic homoeroticism,” which can provide Americans with hope as “his barely containable male vanity, his appetite for self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight… will be his downfall, seducing him into a final dramatic act of self-destruction, produced, directed, scripted and acted to death by Osama bin Laden himself.”
Here Bin Laden shares The Scar’s problems: he’s narcissistic and violent, but his ultimate trait – what seems to cause his entire terrorist venture – is his proclivity for “self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight.” He is of art and drawn to art and art will in the end cause him to put on his own suicide as a kind of spectacle.
One way that a lot of artists have responded to this charge is by saying: yes, we are great, we have a lineage, we do move society forward, we’re productive and responsible. Such artists have responded by disavowing the spectacle, the hyenas. They want to move beyond it, to envision a future, to be progressive. The response is often to disprove the allegory about art’s narcissism: to remove the spectacle, the necroglamor, the “limelight,” the suicide show.
Art has to be *redeemed*.
Look at the workshop ethos of the 1970s: of course similarly, it moves away from the hyenas by insisting on realness, unmediated experience, and by insisting that you “earn” the “images” in your poems (you don’t want them to be lazy, narcissistic, masturbatory, you don’t want to steal!). Or a lot of experimental art: we’re making a better tomorrow, we don’t use lazy images, we are “rigorous” (not “soft surrealism”) etc. Or Poetry Magazine (from its flier): “Poetry is the antidote to all that distraction and busyness” (ie buy this journal to do away with consumerism).
I’m interested in art that doesn’t just want to clean up art’s bad name and disavow its suicidal masochistic narcissism, but to move into, through it. Through me. Art that plays out this necro melee, with these unnerving, infected and infecting bodies. This body saturated and saturating. I am interested precisely in art that doesn’t try to redeem art. Art I don’t survive.
In part the Lion King seems correct: in Art I am shattered masochistically. I move into art and out of art and art moves through me like a beautiful ribbon in a girl’s hair. Or coming out of her mouth as she vomits on a street. Art moves through me, art tattoos me, saturates me, infects me.
From Aase Berg’s 1999 dys-master-piece, Dark Matter:
She wakes up in the middle of the night from the oil horse tightening the reins and neighing. From the great oven cutting and from the fetus child breathing hissingly against her breast cage. Out of the breast the child suckles the black foam. She can feel that the black foam is also coming out of her nose.
She sees the thousand stars against the bow – into dark oil lakes slowly sinking down. Out of the casket she lifts a jug of the warm wine. By the fire the stones roast like shriveled nuts. And the child glides moaning against her shriveled skin. A shame befalls the frozen regions. Where houses and farms have collapsed into the foam.
She knows that old animals writhe in agony. She knows that the oil horse tightens the tendons and topples over. He throws himself against walls in hard spasms. And from his stiff muzzle hang strings of the black foam.
She has to gather an antidote to the black foam. She has to gather fuel for the fire in the great oven. She has to ride all night through exploded villages. Where the foam flecks the snow and there is smoke on the river…
Genet (about Algerian liberation): “We had to admit the obvious: they had liberated themselves politically, in order to appear as they had to be seen: very beautiful.”