M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online #1
Is Resistance Futile?

by Daryl Chin

Although the events surrounding the panel discussion at the A.I.R. Gallery on May 1, 2001 remain vivid in my memory, the exact nature of my own remarks seems to be the subject of permanent amnesia. There's a reason for that, of course; unlike David Humphrey and Lucio Pozzi, I hadn't prepared a whole speech, I simply jotted down a few notes and then relied on spontaneity and improvisation, depending on my responsiveness to the situation and the crowd. My remarks, therefore, were reactive, which was fitting, I hoped, since, as detailed by Mira Schor and Susan Bee, the enterprise that came to be known as M/E/A/N/I/N/G had begun as a reaction to the critical rhetoric that had reinstated the mythopoeic dimensions of the Expressionist ethos into the market-obsessed art world of the 1980s. That said, one of the most poignant moments for me was Barbara Pollack's expression of confusion as to what constitutes "art" in the contemporary context. Her point, which should be reiterated, was that, in the current post-conceptual artworld, where so much of the work is designed to be antagonistic, distinctly unpleasurable, to come across work which excites and enthralls might be the closest thing to a genuine experience which we can call "art." You're more likely to experience "art" by listening to the radio or watching television than you are by going to a gallery (one of Pollack's examples was The Sopranos).

Whenever you pick up a newspaper, a magazine, or an art journal, you're inundated with expressions of cultural entropy, declarations of ideological decadence, admissions of artistic exhaustion. And it's only getting worse. Of course, a big event in terms of socioeconomic impact has been September 11, 2001; forgive me if I use that convenient marker as a means to adjust my remarks accordingly. The question of resistant culture, perhaps, has never been more acute, yet the entire enterprise of art has been so compromised, both on the right and on the left, that there appears to be an inertia regarding the positing of oppositional perspectives. Perhaps the problem is, we no longer know what distinctions to make, so we don't know how to define the mainstream, the avant-garde, the alternative. Without a force to substantiate the dominant culture, what can be resistant?

During the art season of 2000-2001, whenever there were panels, a lot of people would show up, mostly to vent their frustrations at a commercialized art system which was perceived as forbiddingly closed. The M/E/A/N/I/N/G panel was no exception. The topic of whether or not a resistant, alternative, noncommercial culture was possible at this time seemed to have struck a chord with so many in the artworld, because the audience was full. Yet there are dangers in such discourse. One danger is that of solipsism, the situation of talking to oneself, of asking the right questions so that the answers are preordained. There is a moment in Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) when Pepe the delivery boy (William Tracy) and Mr. Pirovich (Felix Bressart) are standing outside the shop, because they've both arrived early. Pepe wonders what's the point of being early; as he puts it, "Who sees you? Me. Who sees me? You. Can we give ourselves a raise? No." We can talk all we want about the situation of cultural stagnation, but if we are not addressing the institutional structures that are enforcing the stagnation, we're not doing much.

Another danger is the inertia of wallowing in the indulgence of self-pity. I was once on a panel at the Center for American Studies at Columbia University, where the topic was racism in the arts; all the panelists had been asked to prepare a statement which would provide documentation of racist attitudes as they affected cultural practice. When it came time for the panel, one of the panelists simply said, "I will give my testimony," and proceeded to deliver a twenty-minute diatribe about all the slights and humiliations she had received over the years, none related to the artworld per se, all an endless personal trauma of facing racism as a Latina in an Anglo society. It stopped the discussion dead. (I remember that, at the panel on May 1, I cautioned about this by describing a moment from the then-recent reality show Making the Band: it's a moment when the boys had just performed badly, and they are sitting around commiserating by indulging in the usual show business self-justifications, and Jacob storms out of the room. When the other boys catch up with him, Jacob says that if they want to analyze why they had performed badly, fine, but he won't sit around and participate in a pity party. And I remarked that too many of these panels had just degenerated into "pity parties.") One of the mantras of the feminist movement of the 1970s was "the personal is the political," but sometimes the personal can be just the personal.

After all is said and done, when dealing with the arts, the ultimate question is: What do you like? What experiences made you decide you wanted to be an artist? More importantly, when making whatever you're claiming is art, what kind of experience do you want to give your audience? If you say that you want the audience to understand oppression, if you say you want to provide the sociocultural dynamic, if you say that you want your art to be a tool in the fight against capitalist domination, well, ok, but surely the reason you wanted to be an artist is that, somewhere down the road, you came across a work of art which gave you such profound pleasure that you wanted to do something to produce that same intense pleasure. In that sense, art is more like addiction than it is like work. (I admit, I wouldn't know, I've never even tried drugs, but every addict I've talked to has mentioned how phenomenal that first hit was, and how their addiction was an attempt to recapture that phenomenal hit.) If, at some level, you don't want to give pleasure, why are you in the art business?

The point is: most of us enter the arts because we've had this great experience, and we wanted to be able to participate in that experience. We've encountered works of imagination that provided evidence of creativity, sparking our own creativity. But then we're stymied by all the obstacles that are put in our way because the demands of the art market dictate the premium on creativity.

In 1969, the film critic Robin Wood, in his monograph on Ingmar Bergman, noted, "And the standards by which one judges life must also be, at root, the standards by which one judges art." Our aesthetic judgements must reveal a vision of what we would like our lives to be. But too many experiences that would claim the status of art have become simply reductive. Perhaps it's naive to state that art must evoke within us some sense of wonder, some glimpse of beauty, some expanse of the imagination, but if art shrivels our minds and hearts and souls, what's the point? Part of the rhetoric of the arts during the past three decades has been a reiteration of the standards of realism. Art is supposed to represent the familiar: we're supposed to see ourselves reflected in art, and the "dominant" art is supposed to be negligible, deficient, uninvolving, because it only represents the concerns of the ruling classes. The art that we (as Americans) learn about is supposed to be Dead, White, European, Male art, and we (as Americans) are supposed to create art which subverts, supplants, supercedes Dead, White, European, Male art with... what? In the Anglo-American literary tradition, for example, there are so many examples of great women writers (Jane Austen, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, etc.) that to make the claim that English literature is purely male dominated must make you some sort of an idiot.

But that's what we're faced with now: most people who have received art training in the various art academies are receiving educations that have rendered them idiots. Instead of thinking for themselves, they are learning to be "advanced" artists in terms which do not advance either art or the imagination, but, rather, stultify, limit and stifle their mental capacities into preordained conceptual choices which have been defined in terms of already set attitudes of theoretical classification. I'd like to go back to the example of English literature: about a decade ago, I attended an NEH Summer Seminar on Performance and Postmodern Theory. More than half of the participants were women, which was great. They were all very "current" with theory: Postcolonial, Feminist, Gender Studies. This proved extremely entertaining, and I had a wonderful time. But one evening, we got on the subject of "the Canon and English Literature," and they all spouted the usual cliches about English literature being the province of Dead, White, European Men. But upon questioning, I found out that not one of them had even bothered to read Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda, Emma or Persuasion, or even Wuthering Heights. These women, so steeped in postmodern theory, had assumed that reading the work of women wasn't worth their time. And all of these women had teaching positions in various English departments in universities throughout the country. It reminded me of the time when I was on the board of directors of The New Festival (a.k.a. The New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival). One evening, after one of those interminable meetings that seemed to go on forever, some of us went out to dinner. As I'm sitting at the table with about seven other men, they all start talking about their in-laws, and their summer homes, and their dogs. Ok, so I didn't expect a group of gay men to start talking about batting averages and the World Series, but, still, this hideous parody of domesticity was just too much.

In both these instances, I could hear Rod Serling's voice, intoning my entry into the Twilight Zone. Here were examples of "alternatives": women who were so sure of the advancement of Postmodern Theory and Feminism that they saw no value in the actual work of women; gay men who were so desperate for the acclamation of normalcy that they helplessly aped the most mundane heterosexual domesticity.

To simply proclaim a position as resistant is not enough. That position must have meaning, a meaning that resonates with the culture at large and our place within that culture. And that culture must have its traditions and its values, so that alternative values can be posited and expanded, in order to subvert, oppose and supplant the traditions, which then subsume the oppositional values in a continuum of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. In the late 1960s, Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions was used as a critical paradigm to justify the necessity of the avant-garde in terms of artistic practice, but now "the avant-garde" has become the dominant artistic practice, so what's left to resist?

I'd like to admit that, since September 11, I've been to very few art openings. I've rarely ventured to any exhibits in galleries or alternative spaces, though I have gone to the press previews of innumerable museum exhibitions. One reason for my resistance to contemporary exhibitions is my distaste for the lack of substantive discussion: I can't stand the incessant careerist chatter. I have, however, attended as many press screenings as possible. Since I am not on the press lists of any major studio, that means I have not seen any major commercial releases since September 11: when movie ticket prices went to ten dollars in Manhattan, that's when I didn't need to see any movie financed by Hollywood. But I am on the press lists for those publicists who handle small independent distributors, so I've seen a fair percentage of the foreign and independent features released in the last ten months. And when I've gone to those screenings, and run into other film critics, we actually discuss the movies we've seen: not simply stating our tastes, but arguing and analyzing what the films mean, what they represent, the values they embody.

A short discussion of one recent revival, Luchino Visconti's 1960 Rocco and His Brothers, re-released by Milestone at Film Forum in July of 2002, may be useful to show how values change and works can be reevaluated. When Rocco and His Brothers was originally released here in 1961, the serious reviews were all negative, because Rocco was seen as a betrayal of the neorealist aesthetic that Visconti had helped to pioneer with his early work (Ossessione, La Terra Trema, Bellissima). In addition, the character development, the psychological dimensions, and the dramatic continuity were seen as superficial, bloated in scope, artificial. Pauline Kael noted that the movie "lost the intimacy of the best neorealist works," becoming a grandiose version of an old Warner Brothers movie; Stanley Kauffmann went further, writing that "this is a ponderous foreign version of those slum family epics that poured out of Hollywood in the thirties," and pointing out that the movie even used the old device of the boxing ring as the poor boy's escape hatch from poverty. The kind of novelistic density that was looked for in terms of character, psychology and plot was found lacking in Rocco, replaced by conventions modeled after old Hollywood movies, but given the stylistic patina of realism. Now, however, old Hollywood movies embody the highest form of our cultural values, and Rocco has been acclaimed precisely because it's a grandiose, operatic, Italian version of an old Warner Brothers movie.

People who think Casablanca is not just an entertainment, but a true work of art, can think Rocco is also a work of art, only more so. (To prove my point about the shift in values, when The Museum of Modern Art closed its building at 11 West 53 Street in May of 2002, the very last movie chosen to play in the auditorium was, in fact, Casablanca! Not Intolerance, not Citizen Kane, not The Searchers, but Casablanca.) The old criterion, in which the stylistic form was supposed to be expressive of the dramatic content, has been replaced by critical confusion. And in this confusion, Rocco and His Brothers, far from being the most fractured and uneven film in Visconti's career, becomes one of his greatest, if not his masterpiece, because film criticism now has devolved from a generalist enterprise in which practitioners knew something about literature, theater, the visual arts, music, dance, so that criticism could be brought to bear with the standards of the other arts, to a specialist enterprise where the more cinematically referential the film is, the better it is. In this regard, Rocco, a skewed realist work but a compendium of cinematic references, finds acclaim from critics who know nothing except movies. It's a reiteration of the paradox of feminist English professors who've never read an English woman novelist, or gay men who spend their lives imagining themselves in suburban marital bliss. It's part of the cloud of unknowing that now shrouds cultural practice, a cloud that we can only hope will burst into rain to replenish the drought which is contemporary art. After September 11, perhaps we have the right to expect art to mean something, both to the artist and to the audience.

In the March 2002 issue of Artforum, there was a special section devoted to Pauline Kael. I'd like to quote Paul Schrader:

Pauline Kael was the recipient of considerable invective in her lifetime; attacks were not so much the result of her specific opinions, but of her enormous impact on film (and cultural) criticism. She upset the applecart. She meant to. What she didn't know was that there would be no one to put the apples back....

Not long before she died, Pauline remarked to a friend, "When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture." That's exactly the point. She and her foot soldiers won the battle but lost the war. Mass taste has become acceptable taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film's worth. The pop films Kael most loved, such as Hud (1963), if made today, would be considered art-house fare.

Who would have thought the Establishment would crumble so easily? That, forty years after Kael began writing, Harold Bloom would be standing outside the multiplex like a lonely Jeremiah? It was fun watching the applecart being upset, but now where do we go for apples?

The reason I'm quoting Paul Schrader on Pauline Kael is that, just before September 11, 2001, I suffered one of the biggest personal blows of my life: Pauline Kael died on September 3. I had spent the entire summer anticipating her death, because I couldn't get her on the phone; it caused such anxiety in me that I was literally sick all summer. Starting in 1983 until her retirement in 1991, I was the person who was her most frequent companion at the movies. Initially, it seemed very strange to me, because I wasn't like the people that Schrader called "her foot soldiers," those film critics who were dubbed "Paulettes." No one ever identified me as a "Paulette," and there would be little reason for that, since I rarely write about pop movies, and, now, I rarely go to them. And though I have pop tastes, I don't only have pop tastes. A while ago, I was talking to the filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery about the co-optation of so much of the independent film scene. As if to prove my point, in May of 2002, the independent production company Good Machine was bought out by Universal-Vivendi. The bastion of "alternative" narrative cinema, the producers for Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes, Hal Hartley, among others, the company which provided genuine "independent" product, had sold out. Unfortunately, I can't say I was surprised, because this was the direction that they were going in when I knew them (which was when they started). And I had mentioned this to Jennifer in 1997, after James Schamus had been one of the producers of Sense and Sensibility; that certainly seemed like going Hollywood to me. And Jennifer said, but you have to look at where they were before. (Before he started Good Machine, James Schamus had worked on the fringes of the motion picture industry as a script reader for various companies like New Line Cinema.) And when I wondered why I was having such a difficult time in this epoch of instant co-optation, Jennifer said, "But you've always been an alternative kind of a guy!" At Dick Higgins's memorial a few years ago, the Reverend Al Carmines said there were two types of innovative artists: traditionalists with avant-garde tendencies, and avant-gardists who backed into tradition. (Carmines viewed Higgins as the former.) It's impossible to say what I am, but even "the avant-garde" has its traditions, as was evidenced by the creation of Anthology Film Archives in 1970, which institutionalized the avant-garde, experimental, "underground" film.

In the summer of 2001, Mikail Baryshnikov's White Oak Project presented a program of selected pieces from choreographers identified with The Judson Dance Theater; this program was, in itself, a reprise of a project of Judson Dance Theater Reconstructions which had been done at Danspace at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery in 1981. That latter project had been curated by Wendy Perron, Cynthia Hedstrom and me. By 1976 (when I began my work as a performance artist; I'd previously done work as a critic and curator), "the avant-garde" had become as institutionalized as anything else, and could be critiqued as much as any other cultural institution. Even in 1981, for example, with The Judson Dance Theater Reconstructions, the choreographers involved (including Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs and Simone Forti) had all been working for at least two decades. Why shouldn't their work have been anthologized, reconstructed, and, then, critiqued? However I discovered that there were those who didn't just not like being critiqued, but who would actively set out to make sure I had no career.

Be that as it may, imagine my surprise when Pauline Kael actually called me in 1983, wanting to meet me. If I'm not mistaken, what had happened was that I had written her a letter, because she had made some sweeping generalization in a review of hers, and I wrote a short and (I hope) witty note to offer a correction. She had already read me over the years, and when I wrote her, she decided it was time for us to meet. So my inescapable habit of offering a critique gained me several enemies, lost me quite a few friends, and brought me one of the best friends I would ever have.

After September 11, perhaps we might all be permitted a little indulgence as we try to make sense of our lives: reflect on the "obvious patterns" (to quote from the movie Laura), piece together the plot of our lives. In that case, I'd like to quote my father, who once told me that I would never be a popular person, but that the friends that I made, I would have for life. In high school, I had three best friends; I am happy to say they are still my friends, though one person moved away and I don't see that often. Then, in my final year of college, I started on a pattern that would continue for over twenty years, that is, I would identify one person as my "art friend." This was the person that I would meet on a regular basis to go to concerts, performances, art exhibits, movies, with frequent phone conversations as we discussed books, television, you name it. Over the years I’ve had many such art friends, from whom I have learnt many things and many of these people are still my friends. A few were there the evening of the M/E/A/N/I/N/G panel at A.I.R. Gallery. My friendship with Pauline actually lasted until her death, but illness caused her to retire in 1991, and she stopped coming in to see movies. With Pauline, even after she retired and was (mostly) housebound in Massachusetts, we would talk. Every week or two, we'd have a long conversation, in which she would ask me what I'd seen, not just movies, but art, music, dance, theater, performance, and I would go into analyses of what I'd seen. I'd also write her long letters, which became the most extended critical writing I would do in the last decade.
And when Pauline died, I stopped going to see anything but movies, because there's no reason for me to go. The one person who always wanted my opinion has died, and there's no one to replace her.

In Carson McCuller's The Member of the Wedding, Frankie is looking for "the we of me." The artworld, for all its incessant pattern of critique and co-optation, had been "the we of me." But as the Modernist-Postmodernist ethos of critical dialectics has been overwhelmed by the economics of commercial valuation, I had found myself increasingly isolated. Characterized as "a critic/mixed media artist/avant-garde gadfly" (J. Hoberman in 1980), I’ve found that the only critique that is admissible by mainstream avant-garde culture is one that affirms the institutional hierarchy.

And perhaps the most resistant cultural position now is one which affirms values, which upholds (some) traditions, which acknowledges cultural history. Perhaps the most radical critical act would be (to use Paul Schrader's metaphor) to put back the apples.


Daryl Chin is Associate Editor of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art; he is completing a monograph on the video artist Shigeko Kubota, which will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He has programmed a retrospective series for the 25th Anniversary of the Asian-American International Film Festival, held at The Asia Society in July of 2002.


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