FERGUS McCAFFREY GALLERY, NYC
By Ian Deleón
THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-TROUBLED ARTIST
Going back as far as the Renaissance, when artists sought to differentiate themselves from the trade of craftspeople, an idea has persisted that the true artist is an outsider to the world––isolated and divinely inspired. Early on, artists were thought to be unified under the astrological influence of the planet Saturn, which explained their supposed melancholia and detachment. In their study Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, Margot and Rudolf Wittkower dissect these persisting assertions and stretch an eclipsing hand of doubt over them while reaffirming their deep, symbolic significance, “Alienation, in effect, was a rung by which artists sought to climb the social ladder.”
And just how far up that social ladder have artists been able to climb?
According to Andrew Russeth, editor at ARTnews, artists have been using their self-propagating uniqueness for hundreds of years, getting off the hook for various petty crimes, but sometimes even getting away with murder. One such incident involving the sixteenth century sculptor Cellini prompted Pope Paul III to declare that artists of such caliber “ought not to be bound by law.” In 1873, the rebellious French youth Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “I do not understand laws [...] I have no moral sense. I am a brute.” Performance artist Ulay, at the beginning of his career, showed a little less desperation during his brazen abduction of a Hitler-beloved painting from a German museum for 1976’s There is a Criminal Touch to Art.
In When Felonies Become Form: The Secret History of Artists Who Use Lawbreaking as Their Medium, Russeth also discusses Mike Kelley’s 1988 installation Pay for Your Pleasure, in which a long hallway lined with painted portraits of dead white men and quotes describing their intellectual flirtations with destruction, violence, and criminality are shown alongside an artwork by an actual murderer, such as serial killing clown/painter John Wayne Gacy.
Writing about Pay for Your Pleasure, ever-sensitive Kelley wondered, “How can we safely access destructive forces?” and suggested that “criminals themselves, safely filtered through the media, serve the same function” as art. Gacy’s paintings, he argued, “allow us to stare safely at the forbidden.” Taking Kelley’s comment at face value, it would appear that the only real difference between the artist and the criminal is restraint, and not, worryingly, intention.
Such a claim puts me uncomfortably close with self-contradiction, having written in my previous essay about REMAINS, that comparative exercises between art and criminality, while intellectually satisfying, only muddle the discourse and public opinion for active practitioners. I must however stay true to myself and my belief that there is some connection here worth teasing out, however tenuous, however painful it might be.
I’m reminded of the words of French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous, for whom “the writer is a secret criminal”. Writing in The School of the Dead, a chapter in her larger piece Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Cixous goes on to describe writing as, “the attempt to unerase, to unearth […what] will become the scene of the crime.” For her, “When I write I escape myself, I uproot myself, I am a virgin; I leave from within my own house and I don't return. The moment I pick up my pen––magical gesture––I forget alI the people I love; an hour later they are not born and I have never known them. Yet we do return. But for the duration of the journey we are killers.” She goes on to add that this is not symptomatic of the writer alone, but the reader as well, from which I like to draw the corollary to performer and viewer.
Regardless of the “killer” journeys we may undertake with a work of art, my interest in Cixous stems from her emphasis on the individual’s inevitable “return”––a necessary step back down the ladder, which could eventually lead to chaos. Drawing a parallel to the world of magic, the final and arguably most important aspect of any great trick is said to be “The Prestige”, the moment in which whatever has been made to disappear, or whoever has been apparently dismembered, is brought back. “If anybody really believed the things I did on stage, they wouldn't clap, they'd scream.”
The return to restraint is what allows us to glimpse “the forbidden” Kelley was so attracted to and “safely access its destructive forces” without getting lost or mired in the full reality of the criminal act. Cixous again: “We need the scene of the crime in order to come to terms with ourselves: we need the theater of the crime [...] To live at the extremity of life”, without falling over the edge. The return of the stolen object, or the restraint of pilfering a tiny chip off a priceless sculpture, along with a “breathtaking assumption of privilege” [Russeth] is often what guarantees the criminal artist safety from the full force of the law, but it is productive for our purposes to distinguish between what Russeth calls “the criminal artwork” and performative acts of civil disobedience. The latter are typically defined by self-restraint, the refusal of violence––sometimes to a fault. But from them we can learn a great deal about the live artist’s particular transformation of restraint, of control. Teetering along the brink between criminality and martyrdom, oscillating between vulnerability and sovereignty, it is here amongst certain live performers that we find the most thrilling and universal expressions of tension and suspense.