The Dog and Its Vomit

The world becomes so depressingly flat when there’s no difference between a face and a selfie. But how do we keep reality from being swallowed by its image, and art from being swallowed by reality?

Elfie Semotan, Martin Kippenberger – The Raft of Medusa, 1996, Silver gelatine on baryta paper, Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain-Cologne, ©Estate of Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain-Cologne.

Imagine, an actor lights a cigarette on stage, and a member of the audience gets up to remind her that smoking is forbidden inside the theatre. It’s pretty much the opposite of what Bertolt Brecht meant when he wrote about breaking the fourth wall. To avoid this scenario, many theatres now use fake herbal cigarettes, and all anyone can think is: what’s that smell? A logic that mistakes artfully mediated outputs for reality seems to have become pervasive. Social media, for one, thrives on the escalating lack of distinction between being and self-image, life and representation, social behaviour and cultural production. The erosion of this distinction is both real and not real. Images are behaviour, but it’s worth being mindful of specifically how and when – especially if we are talking about art. The world becomes so claustrophobic, so depressingly flat, when there’s no difference between a face and a selfie, between who we understand someone to be, and what we can see of them. 

Of course, social media is not the cause of this trend, but merely its latest and most brightly lit stage. In an E-flux article that deserves to be read in full, writer and researcher Irmgard Emmelhainz traces the deterioration of the Lebenswelt –  cf. Hannah Arendt, “a world in common” – throughout the 20th century, arriving at the current state in which politicisation has fallen prey to privatisation: “an array of disparate voices proliferates through the infosphere, each seeking recognition and issuing ethical demands not from the perspective of a world in common, but rather from the perspective of ‘my world.’” She argues that one consequence of this logic – by which equality means “equal access to visibility through self-representation” – is that action, speech, and even reality, are reduced to appearance alone. I take this to mean that appearance – visual representations, images – now crowded with the demands of reality, likewise loses its native properties, and neither side wins.

In my work as an art critic, I’m constantly negotiating the cultural end of this: a wilful conflation of artwork and artist, and artist and private individual; the tendency to take formal or performative strategies as direct and intentional social action; and a blatant disinterest in the effects that form, style and mediation necessarily have on content. In this context, I wonder (with Emmelhainz) how we might wedge in between the washed-out binary of private and public a Lebenswelt of shared experience. But also how not to squander art’s potential as a performative, inauthentic, and stylised format that leaves space for works to unfold reflexively, unpredictably, across and outside established discursive categories.

Spanning from the 1960s and into the new millennium, artists like Andy Warhol, Martin Kippenberger, and Danh Vo are all in grave proximity to the pinnacles of the patriarchal canon, as well as strangely at odds with it (too weird, too louche, too glamorous). As such, I’ve found their reception histories not exemplary, but illustrative of some of the ways life might integrate with art, and how fiction, style, or whatever we name the inauthentic, can keep reality from being swallowed by its image.

Few artists have personified their work like Warhol, yet all of his artistic efforts can be understood as a distraction from his person. During his lifetime, and for decades after, the story of the soup cans and superstars was mostly read as a flippant critique of capitalism and consumer society. But, as Jennifer Sichel found in her fascinating recent study of the seminal 1963 interview with the writer Gene Swenson, when Warhol said “I think everybody should like everybody,” and “I think everybody should be a machine,” what Swenson had actually asked was: “What do you say about homosexuals?” That question was edited out, however, ultimately leaving Warhol’s iconic statements without their context. Frustrated with the censorship and homophobia, Swenson increasingly became a pariah, picketing the MoMA with a sign bearing a question mark, before he eventually ceased working altogether.

Andy Warhol, Boy with Flowers, 1955-57. ©2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

Warhol chose a different route, hiding in his profuse production of images – endlessly copying copies – always surrounded by a posse of cool kids and shielded behind a pair of sunglasses, or the lens of his camera. This highly stylised public persona acted as a buffer between him and the world. Warhol put his name to the strategy of giving everything as nothing, and it is from this push and pull between grain and surface that his work derives its energy.  

When an exhibition including Warhol’s rarely seen, often homoerotic, drawings from the 1950s opened at Tate Modern this spring, Rosanna Mclaughlin wrote for Art Agenda: “Ten years ago, the museum’s exhibition Pop Life: Art in a Material World cast Warhol as business-bro godfather to Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons. That narrative has, thankfully, since gone out of fashion, and in its place a new Warhol has emerged: a shy, sensitive outsider fighting the good fight of representational politics on behalf of queer and minority communities in New York City.” On the same occasion, Michael Dayton Hermann of the Warhol Foundation told The Guardian that “when you have a drawing of someone, the artist’s hand is there. There isn’t a barrier between the artist and the subject … It’s a much more personal and intimate way to capture someone and it tells you as much about the artist as about the subject.” So this is Warhol stripped of his shades and his screen-printers, pink and frail as in Alice Neel’s 1970 portrait.

The fresh interest in the drawings (which are amazing), the digitisation of the films, and the also quite recent recovery of the original recording of Swenson’s interview, more than warrant this shift in Warhol’s reception history. It’s also a much more interesting take on his work. But to claim, as the new exhibition does, that “the photo booth provided a safe-space for queer culture” – suggesting, Mclaughlin writes, “that his relationship with the camera was motivated by an ethics of care, simply because he was queer” – is to conflate queerness first with victimhood and then compassion, and, what’s more, Warhol with a very contemporary and highly particular understanding of sexual deviance.

While discrimination and censorship were part of the motivation for Warhol’s distanced relationship to the creations he put into the public realm, he found freedom and boldness in that detachment too. The ‘Death and Disaster’ series (1962–64), the relentless production of vapid portraits in the 1970s, John Giorno sleeping for hours – Warhol’s best works are all ghoulish and creepy, tinged with a mad kind of beauty. By squaring his circle to align with a hashtag politics, we risk missing out on those qualities. 

Alice Neel, Andy Warhol, 1970, Oil and acrylic on linen, 152,4 x 101,6 cm. ©The Estate of Alice Neel.

Warhol’s disappearing act became a template for the subsequent crop of artists. Consider the Pictures Generation (Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, etc.), for instance, as one disguise after another: distractions and escape clauses from identity. In the 1980s, Emmelhainz writes, “representativity came back with a vengeance.” But contrary to its epitaph of neo-Expressionism, not much was being expressed in the paintings of this generation of “Malerschweine” – say, Martin Kippenberger in Germany, David Salle in the US – save for an energetic facetiousness, a hint of nihilism, and some generalised discontent. And perhaps for that reason, few of those artists managed a successful transition into the 1990s, with that decade’s renewed emphasis on politics and identity. 

Kippenberger did, however, and this was precisely because he managed to throw his own body – scarred and bloated – into the mix. He became the poster-boy of a self-detonating wounded masculinity, his bar brawls, physical deterioration, and brazen charisma providing a dynamic expanded field for his works. The strategy was not so different from Swenson’s, but where Swenson had a cause and perished for it, Kippenberger’s lewd sideshow, staged apparently for the hell of it, landed him at the centre of the art world. Swenson died at 35, Kippenberger at 44. I envy neither. Because Kippenberger was a white straight man – and by many accounts, a dick – it is not possible to politicise his misery, and we might see his destructive impulses for what they were.

But, writing about the artist’s recent retrospective in Bonn, Isabelle Graw stresses that he 

did not want to overcome the art/life dichotomy. On the contrary, Kippenbergers [works] leave no doubt about the dubiousness of an art that places itself in the service of society … They are thus aesthetically mediated, fictitious psychological spaces that give us no real information about his life circumstances. Here too, art does not merge with life; and conversely, it is not an authentic life that we find in his art. 

Graw seems to align the presence of life in art with a service to society. Here we might recall Arendt’s distinction between the Lebenswelt and the public sphere, but also question this appeal for authenticity. Kippenberger’s work is dripping with pills and booze and personal tragedy. How much more life is it reasonable to ask for? The employment of fiction, caricature, even, in the rendering of his ‘circumstances’ is what makes the grossness bearable for the viewer – and maybe for the artist too. His art is a monster truck show where he was both the truck and the car underneath. Or like watching a dog eat its own vomit. I mean this in a good way. But only because of its aesthetic mediation, not because he was actually depressed or actually an alcoholic. When we come across what looks like real blood and bone in an artwork, we must trust in the artist as artist, and look for framing devices to understand what’s really being said.  

Martin Kippenberger, untitled (from the series Das Floß der Medusa), 1996. © Estate of Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

In the new millennium, Danh Vo stands out as an artist who has manoeuvred the art/life dichotomy in intricate ways. Vo’s rise to prominence was spearheaded by the sculpture Oma Totem (2009), a stack of home appliances and a crucifix received by his grandmother upon her arrival in Germany as a refugee from Vietnam. The work ignited a vulture-like interest in what Vo’s personal biography could tell us about migration and otherness, topics which provided neat curatorial selling points for his practice. 

In 2015, the artist represented Denmark at the Venice Biennial and curated the epic group exhibition Slip of the Tongue at the city’s Palazzo Grassi. The latter exhibition left me at once breathless and confused. Quivering compositions of, say, a delicious drippy thing by Nairy Baghramian, a small Paul Thek painting, and some eternally alluring personal objects of Vo’s – his dad’s watch, an old passport – made for a Janus-faced experience of both near-religious exaltation, and the much cheaper thrill of just very good taste.

Either way, Slip of the Tongue didn’t correspond with the identity-political reading of Vo that had been pushed since Oma Totem. The art historian Claire Bishop also felt uneasy, and in the pages of Artforum hit the nail on the head as to why. “It has to do with the artist’s use of history and the way his poetics of the past is prone to devolving into information as ornament,” she wrote, “Vo leans on biographical connections not only to unify objects, but to imbue them with significance,” and as a result, “the political gets buried in the personal.”  

In 2015, I agreed with Bishop. Vo’s work does not use the personal to say something political, but rather the political, or historical, to lend aura and gravity to his own aesthetic project. I felt lied to. In the meantime, I’ve seen too many exhibitions that mine the private lives of artists for political ends. If we – artists, writers, regardless of identity markers – are to spend a whole life in art, we need to be more mindful of this extractive economy. What if visibility does not equal emancipation, as is the tenuous assumption that lends the tide its force?

For one, as the literary theorist Leo Bersani said, “I think it is very important for minorities to resist the attempt to identify them in ways that would increase what Foucault called the pan-optic vision: being able to see them, and therefore able to control them more perfectly.” But also, art is at the top of Maslow’s pyramid; it does not have to be about survival, or sheer recognition of one’s humanity. Most people in the world are somehow oppressed, but in the moment they find time to make art, or appreciate it – at least for that moment, however brief – they are not. In that moment, there is space for appearance to not simply mean visibility, but also offer seduction, conflict, and reflection.   

Revisiting Bishop’s essay following Vo’s Guggenheim retrospective in 2018, I still think she’s spot on, but I am no longer sure I agree that her reading has to be detrimental to the work. In fact, there’s something quite wild and audacious to how Vo circumvents institutional interest in his person as a token of otherness to instead make himself the protagonist of a stylish and fanciful rendition of history where the chandelier that shone on the Paris Peace Accords summit in 1973 now lights up one of Peter Hujar’s divine dick photos. Vo’s is a sort of pretend-universalism, an aesthete’s fantasy of a weirder and more beautiful Lebenswelt – not, as Emmelhainz wrote of the non-shared space of the “private ordeal … a melancholic restoration of singular worlds.” He knows that he’s spinning a fiction, and this not only prevents his work from being corny, but also allows others to take part, stopping his alternative history from becoming just another false claim to truth.   

Art allows you to smoke in a no-smoking zone, to say one thing and mean another, to be multiple and to be wrong. I think we are sophisticated enough to navigate such contradictions and robust enough to endure that bit of second-hand tobacco. After all, art is the break we get from life. What’s outside is much worse. 

Danh Vo, Oma Totem, 2008. Installation view, Danh Vo, Hip Hip Hurra!, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, 2010. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.