Readings — From the July 2015 issue

Nice Insane

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By Seth Price, from his novel Fuck Seth Price, out last month from Leopard Press. Price’s earlier novel, How to Disappear in America, was published in 2008.

He drifted through a thick and obscure world, observant but incapable of action. It took him a while to understand that he wasn’t dreaming but moving through the real world and actual life, only it was no longer his life, because his body and all its doings were no longer under his control. He found himself carrying out strange and horrible acts: murder and abduction, most disturbingly, but also other furtive activities that he couldn’t make sense of. Through all of this he was able only to watch, resigned to imprisonment in his physical machinery, his mind turning over slowly like an idle hard disk. This certainly afforded him plenty of time to figure out exactly where things had gone wrong, and he came to blame his obsession with “keeping up” — with technology, with the young, with the culture — a pursuit that had replaced even artistic production as his chief occupation, filling the vacuum that opened up when he more or less stopped making art.

It was easy to locate the moment of inspiration that had rejuvenated his painting career, making him rich but ultimately leading him to reject contemporary art. One day in the early 2000s, he’d been sitting in a new Italian restaurant, considering his supper. For decades now, he remarked to himself as he regarded a bowl of grated pecorino, Americans had possessed a sure idea of what Italian food was: what it tasted like, what it looked like, what it meant. For his parents’ generation, and even during his own childhood, Italian food meant Italian-American food, an immigrant form, once alien but now ubiquitous, a way of putting dinner on the table, hardly a cuisine. Then the Eighties happened, and everyone discovered real Italian food, food from Italy that was defiantly not Italian-American food, which consequently entered a kind of limbo. Spaghetti and meatballs: yes, everyone still liked it and cooked it, it still had its place, but that place was not a trendy restaurant.

Recently, however, which is to say in the early 2000s, shortly before he had his revelation, some notable chef had realized that spaghetti and meatballs was what people had wanted all along, and why shouldn’t they have it? This chef understood that you could give diners what they wanted without abandoning culinary invention and the associated high prices. What you did was trundle out lowbrow recipes and thematize them, burnishing them for a new audience too young to remember why the recipes had been discarded in the first place. To use a mid-Nineties term, the old recipes were upcycled.

It was a runaway success. Customers were excited and relieved to plunge into the frisson of the old/new, and restaurants all over the city, and then internationally, adopted the formula. Soon came high-end tweakings of meat loaf, mac and cheese, donuts, PB&J sandwiches, chicken wings, and even Twinkies: all cherished comfort foods that no one had previously thought to rework as pricey lifestyle fare. It must have been the times, he mused, because something similar had happened in the movie industry, which overwhelmingly pursued remakes of films that were best forgotten, the crappier the better. We live in an era of expensive fetish food, he thought, but it’s also an era in which poor, uneducated parents name their babies DeJohn because it sounds pungent yet sophisticated, unaware that these associations originated in a series of Eighties television commercials for a style of mustard. But all this stuff — high and low, classic and contemporary, good and bad — was muddled and slippery, and everyone was equally clueless. When Grey Poupon actually rolled out a line called DeJawn’s, no one wanted it, not because it was marketed as “Da Street Mustard” but because it was widely considered too Eighties.

As he sat there devouring his bucatini con le polpette, he somehow made an associative leap and found himself wondering whether abstract painting wasn’t due for a spaghetti-and-meatballs recuperation. After all, it had enjoyed a history similar to that of Italian-American cuisine. Both had appeared early in the twentieth century and were widely received with suspicion and derision (all that garlic!); both enjoyed, at midcentury, an early-adopter hipster appreciation that inevitably subsided, though not before preparing the ground for a broader mass appeal, which precipitated a fall from grace in the perception of elites. Artists continued to make abstract paintings in large numbers, but, as with cooks of spaghetti and meatballs, they were amateur or otherwise removed from the real conversation, not cutting-edge professionals in sophisticated contexts.

Someone, he realized, needed to come along and devise a painterly abstraction that embodied cultural sophistication and “nowness.” It had to look classically tasteful and refer to well-known historical byways, but it also had to be undergirded by utter contemporaneity, either of sensibility or of production method. Upcycling was evolving as an idea and was perhaps itself being upcycled: in the early Nineties it had promised to help the developing world redeem its waste, at the turn of the century it grew to encompass the food consumption of a smaller set of First Worlders with extra time and money, and now it would take on fine art, an even more rarefied realm of cultural production available to only the wealthy few. But he knew this was the way of all culture, all trends: a continuous flow from top to bottom and back again, as in a trick fountain.

He went directly home after dinner and drew up a list of working methods and materials, which he would dutifully follow in the months to come. His new painting would be abstract, he decided; there was a broader audience for the style since it matched every décor and lacked uncomfortable associations with real people, events, and political situations. Abstraction in and of itself was uninteresting, of course; the all-important twist here, the redeeming feature, would be the way in which this work was generated, which would expand in importance, endowing the abstraction with meaning. Here there was quite a bit of latitude. Most obviously the painting could be based on chance, which obliterated traditional notions of composition and looked kind of punk: accidental stains on canvas, for example; maybe the oil-pan drippings of a Foxconn machine as it produced iPhones. But then he wondered, did machines drip anymore? Did anything run on oil? Wasn’t everything becoming electric? Maybe this avenue was far-fetched. Perhaps the work might play with the medium’s material conventions, a “painting” that was in fact composed of vacuum-formed polystyrene: stretcher bars, canvas, markings, and all. Or it might be apparently abstract but actually full of charged referents that became clear only when you inspected the list of materials, e.g., “Coca-Cola spills on Nigerian mud cloth.” Or it might be computer generated, e.g., it might consist of Photoshop manipulations printed on canvas. Or you could hit all four possibilities at once: “Foxconn worker’s accidental Coke spills on Nigerian mud cloth, scanned and randomly manipulated in Photoshop, printed on Belgian linen stretched over a vacuum-formed frame.”

In truth, the production method hardly mattered, because whichever he chose, the results would look more or less the same: tepid compositions, hesitant and minimal in appearance, kind of pretty and kind of whatever, loaded with backstory. The main thing to remember, both in executing this work and in appreciating it on the wall, was to be knowing, just like the chefs who composed fancy renditions of red-sauce dishes, and the diners who paid top dollar, and the critics who wrote breezy acknowledgments.

The problem this solved was the persistent problem of taste in painting. In no arena of art-making did taste intrude so assertively and persistently as it did in the practice of painting. In installation art or conceptual art it was difficult to discern or comfortably judge the merits of a work without anxiety, but in painting the problem of taste was always right on the surface, in the frame, so to speak. It was okay to point at a painting and assert “That’s good” or “That’s bad” without feeling like a complete idiot. You couldn’t pull that off as easily when faced with a scrappy installation or a conceptual work composed of puns and feints. The problem was, while these artworks got to hover in the grace of doubt and inscrutability, there were far too many observers who were absolutely certain about their judgments as to what constituted good and bad painting, and the history of painting was therefore racked by cyclical surges of interest one way or another, now veering toward “bad” painting that indulged in tastelessness by way of excess, vulgarity, or prurience, now tacking back toward a more graphic, minimal style. Because fashions changed rapidly, a single painting might in twenty years traverse the spectrum of perceived value and then whip back again, and this variability made everyone nervous.

The new style he’d hit on, however, managed to finesse the taste problem by recourse to the old philosophical trick of playing being against seeming. In preparing the work, any number of methods or styles would do, so long as the result looked “cool,” which ensured that the painting would appear classic and minimal while emanating a vague awareness of rich historical struggle. To an observer it would seem tasteful, but in its apparent lack of concern for traditional skill or labor, its arguably cynical irreverence toward sincerity or depth, its dismissal of history, and its punk attitude, it would be tasteless.

Or perhaps it was the other way around? One couldn’t really say, or rather one could, but only with a nagging feeling of insecurity. This instability was catnip to critics and journalists, and they wrote a lot about this new painting, bickering and bemoaning and celebrating. Collectors were thankful for those gusts of language in their sails as they blew through the auctions. Young artists and students were relieved to get back to doing what they’d secretly wanted to do all along, under the powerful sign of a new contemporaneity. In short, the entire art system latched on to this revived style, much as restaurant-goers had fallen for the re-enchantment of chicken wings.

The style that gradually developed could be called post-problem art. It bore a clear if unacknowledged debt to the wonderful ad slogans of the period, like Staples’s “That Was Easy” and Amazon’s “ . . . And You’re Done.” Done! An amazing word. Go ahead, have done with all the anguished historical debates over meaning and criticality and politics and taste. For better or for worse, everyone was in agreement that the market was the only indicator that mattered now. This climate, in which artworks would certainly sell, and the fact of selling was sufficient verification of their quality, made it officially okay simply to like a painting. It was no longer necessary to deem a piece interesting, provocative, weird, or complex, and it was almost incomprehensible to hate something because you liked it, or like it because it unsettled you, or any of the other ambivalent and twisted ways that people wrestled with the intersection of feelings and aesthetics. You almost didn’t need words anymore: it was enough to say, “That painting is awesome,” just as you’d say, “This spaghetti is awesome.” Alternately you could use one of the other all-purpose terms of the era, like “nice,” “crazy,” “perfect,” and “insane.” This was a radical development, one that forwent any more complicated relationship with art; it was a tremendous ironing-out process. Before you knew it, you’d spy a Malevich and declare, “That guy’s a total badass.” Or was it Marinetti who was the badass?

These new artworks aroused accusations of cynicism, and he admitted that he was inviting that conversation. But what was cynicism? He defined cynicism as proceeding in a way that you knew to be harmful or morally bankrupt, for reasons of greed or cowardice. The question was, what if you found such compromised behavior complex and compelling? What if you believed that exploring the world of perceived or actual cynicism was a powerful way to understand our contemporary moment? What if you believed in not believing? Executives or world leaders entertaining this question would rightly be classified as sociopaths, but in the world of art these questions were okay, because suffering wasn’t directly involved and any apparent cynicism was likely to be banal and venal, e.g., cashing in by provoking your audience with facile or puerile gestures. He didn’t feel that his work belonged in this category. If his paintings were provocative, it was because they drew out acute and omnipresent cultural toxins: anxieties about cynicism and selling out, feelings that had everything to do with how fucked-up it was to live under neoliberal free-market capitalism. He found this exhilarating; he believed in it. And this tangle of contradictions was the greatest thing about art: it always meant the opposite of what you thought it meant, or wanted it to mean. Abstract versus representational, old versus new, pure versus corrupt, tasteful versus tasteless: all artistic values and categories were inherently unstable and might suddenly swap places.

Recalling his breakthrough into digital artmaking a decade earlier, he suspected that the moment he’d grasped the fact that digital art’s genius was to reconcile all opposites was the start of his disenchantment with contemporary art, and with the digital condition more generally, which was predicated on reconciliation, leveling, and synthesis. Representational painting was just as banal and outmoded as its old foe abstraction, so why was it interesting to gesture at both of them at once? Who gave a shit? From the point of view of the machine he’d set in motion, all these oppositions of taste and style were merely marketing factors to be co-opted, the way Whole Foods might absorb a pair of rival local grocers only to preserve them as themed deli counters so as to snare all their old clientele. Either/or was irrelevant, save as a gimmick to capture market share.

It was not a coincidence that his disenchantment with visual art occurred right around the time when making simplistic, often digitally formulated abstract paintings became suddenly passé, as was discussing them, critiquing them, even satirizing them. These paintings amounted to societal self-portraiture, and an age grows tired of its own face. Casting about for something to do, he found himself newly interested in writing, which, in comparison to art, offered delightfully fresh challenges. He recognized the peculiarity of this step: advanced painting since the Impressionists had jettisoned the aim of re-creating a recognizable, narrativized human world and had plunged into abstraction, whereas writing had remained in thrall to narrative and human psychology. Yes, there had been a modernist rupture, but the majority of serious literary fiction, and all mass product, went right on pursuing realistic concerns. The field of contemporary art was activated by cataclysm and relentless progress, whereas contemporary literature remained relatively staid. This was because it was a mass form, he reasoned. Who follows contemporary painting? The few. Who reads contemporary books? Everyone.

At this moment, however, he believed writing culture to be undergoing a tectonic shift. No doubt this development was late in coming, trailing by a century visual art’s own decisive mutations, but then again, for all that radical change, where was art now? Wallowing in hush money, patting itself on the back for having finally solved the evolutionary problem of how to be simultaneously good and bad, abstract and representational, popular and cutting edge, with the result that nothing was at stake but auction prices.

Writing, on the other hand, which had little connection to money and power, was only broadening its already considerable mass appeal, thanks to the proliferation of texting, tweeting, blogging, and so on, even as those same forces were emancipating writing from its long-standing narrative conventions. In fact, it was less apposite to say “Who reads? Everyone” than “Who writes? Everyone.” Maybe this explained why writing was becoming at the same time more popular and more abstract. In short, writing was becoming just plain weirder.

In this situation, and in distinction to the problems of visual art, everything was at stake: “the novel,” of course, but also “the field of literature,” “the book business,” “the future of the word,” and communication itself. No one knew what it meant. You could feel the charge of that anxious energy, it was the motor thrumming behind many recent novels and columns and articles and blog posts. He imagined this to be a historical echo of the introduction of film, with all of that medium’s looming ramifications for the image, and how odd that this contemporary upset concerned words!

He himself was not a writer by any stretch. He’d tried it years ago, had even enjoyed success with some oddball critical essays that circulated in art-world contexts, but ultimately he’d dropped it. The problem with the art world was that you were expected to write uneven, eccentric, unresolved texts; it was like being a grad student in an experimental-writing workshop. While many in the art world were wonderfully omnivorous, broad-minded readers, few were any good at writing, including most of the critics and curators, so it was easy to stand out. Most people didn’t even bother with critiques of art-world writing, and for good reason: if people criticized you for being lazy or obscurantist, you could assert that you were being “artistic,” that what you’d intended was not lucid rhetoric but Delphic poesy. Writing these texts was like making films in which everything was a dream sequence, and therefore immune to charges of illogic and sloppiness. At the same time, of course, nothing was at stake.

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