Editorials: General Idea and the Myth of Inhabitation (1982-1983)

“Editorials: General Idea and the Myth of Inhabitation,” Parachute, no. 33 (December 1983 – February 1984), pp. 12-23. Reprinted in Struggles with the Image: Essays in Art Criticism, Toronto: YYZ Books, 1988, pp. 130-182.

Originally presented as a lecture, Sentences on Art, at the Rivoli, Toronto, as part of the YYZ lecture series "A Critical Structure(ing)," November 22, 1982. (For Ian Carr-Harris's Parachute review of the lecture, click here.)

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I think General Idea recognized a kindred spirit when they published my “Breach of Promise” and portraits by Jorge Zontal of me in the 1982 “X-Ray Sex” issue of FILE. I didn’t reciprocate, however. Wary of being drawn into their camp, a mere functionary in the apparatus of their Pavillion, instead I mounted a wholesale assault on their system. That same year I delivered a lecture on their work in front of the whole Toronto art community in the back room of the Rivoli—with GI present. It was a severe critique; yet it was also the most sustained analysis of their work they had received. Nonetheless, I saw their system as capitalistic and insisted on taking them at their word, all irony aside, when they wrote, “Fascism and Anarchy Join Hands to Create a Work of Art.” You have to remember the times, though: the threat of nuclear war, South African apartheid, the rise of neo-conservatism with the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the threat to abortion rights, Anita Bryant’s attacks on gays—and rock stars (David Bowie) and famous painters (Anselm Keifer) making Nazi salutes!

In retrospect, I see this response as that Oedipal weariness PhD candidates succumb to: I had been too long in an intense study of so-called French theory et alia (about the length of a PhD) and found semiology (and General Idea) to be the highest phase of capitalism. Nonetheless, my lecture served the purpose of the younger generation of the Toronto art community crowded in the Rivoli in their own Oedipal desires to be rid of General Idea. Only the unsuspecting art community did not expect that a year later I would apply a critique to them, too, in my lecture “Axes of Difference.”

In the first decade of the new millennium I made a slow conversion back to General Idea, realizing that there were more similarities than differences and perhaps that they were right to see a filiation: in our mutual strategies of performative fictions and commitment to a national art history. I more than made up for my early critiques with my 2013 book Glamour is Theft. Filiation may now be restored but I don't believe that the early critique was misdirected; it still is an pertinent analysis of their work if the value judgements are removed.

While researching my 2009 General Idea exhibition, I came across an interview with the artists conducted by Louise Dompierre, made in preparation for the 1993 Power Plant exhibition Fin de siècle, which is in the General Idea Fonds at the National Gallery of Canada Archives [“Louise Dompierre Interviews GI” (26 July 1991) Manuscript Series]. I was somewhat shocked to find there—in response to Louise’s queries on my Rivoli lecture and subsequent Parachute article—the claim by AA Bronson that “we lent Philip our copy of Mythologies, with all the passages underlined,” as if to imply that they had already done the work for me.

I remember in the summer of 1973 reading the then just translated edition by Jonathan Cape of Barthes’ Mythologies, published I believe in an edition with Elements of Semiology, in London’s Kensington Central Library while I was living in a hostel nearby. In the early years of semiology and ideological analysis, Mythologies was essential reading (to be somewhat displaced in the late 1970s by Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus”), so by the time I had moved to Toronto in the mid-1970s I had my own hard cover copy (1st edition, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972). So I was contemporary to General Idea’s reading of Barthes and had no need of their underlined copy as a cheat sheet—for the one thing I took away from my art history studies was how to research comprehensively. Combined with my adjacent interests in philology, deconstruction, and literary theory, this gave me the grounds for realizing myself as a close reader—with no need of outside assistance, especially from artists. So while I am dismayed, so perhaps should I be flattered as well, that my critique had to be elaborated by General Idea, master fiction makers as they were, into a fabrication; that I had created a critical effect, or rather affect, that had to be psychologically modified by the artists in an ensuing fiction. Let this episode be a figure for study in what it reveals, where neither writer nor artists are superior to one another but participating in a complex interchange where each learns, after the fact, what is in operation in this tangle of conceits and desires.

Here is the text of the interview (pages 43-46):

LOUISE: … O.K., now I'd like to go back to what we were saying earlier, because I want to eventually get to Philip's article in Parachute. And uh, so and touch upon the nature of the content of FILE magazine, because I think that as you said earlier, the article was strange in terms of the manner in which he approached the whole text of the uh— So uh, throughout these early years and, until the Pavilion, I guess, was destroyed, or went into fragments, you relied on existing popular forms, such as The pageant, LIFE Magazine— and you filled those forms with art content. But your strategy also was one of ironic distance. Or you used different kinds of strategies, I would— that's probably more accurate, in terms of what you were doing. In other words, the content became as fictitious, and idealized I guess, if you talk in terms of a fictitious art scene, so there's a sort of an idealistic level in this, uh, as the world of stardom that you created. Is that correct? Would you say that?
AA: Yeah, well, it's a strange mixture of— well there was a narrative, a strong narrative component to the work, that was based on reality, but, was also heavily fictionalized, yeah. Or— yeah, idealized is maybe a better word. It was like projecting the future into the present.
LOUISE: Yes, yes. So, how did you react when Philip Monk wrote his article? I think it was entitled Editorials—General Idea, and the Myth of Inhabitation— where, in a sense, he takes the content at face-value. Doesn't he?
FELIX: Well, he—
JORGE: He comes to the conclusion that we are championing capitalism.
LOUISE: Exactly, which was my next question!
FELIX: Well, it's been so long since I read the article, but I remember his uh, when he presented it publicly. I mean that's what he said— it was his intention to take it at face value. Remove the levels of ambiguity, and say, "What exactly is this saying."
AA: And, yeah, for us, first of all, that seems a questionable approach. And then, secondly, even once he has done that, there are mis-readings, even on a literal level, there are mis-readings.
JORGE: Well that's always—
AA: No, but the one about the Glamour article, is a pretty serious mis-reading. Because it's based on an assumption that we were just sort of taking a semiotic approach, and turning it into our language. So it was taking Barthes' Mythologies book, and re-writing it, just to sound like it came from us, which the reality was, it was making a counter-proposition. Which he doesn't, which he didn't grasp.
JORGE: We wanted to make it sound like Barthes, not us!
AA: Yeah! I'll repeat the counter-proposition, which is that glamour is to mythology as mythology is to reality. He never realized that. But then you're right, just his initial idea of reading things at face value— I don't, I don't understand the reasoning behind that.
FELIX: Also, I mean, just that phrase, as you say it, reading things at face-value. I think one of our first reactions to his whole, the presentation and the publication of that article was that he was just reading, and he was reading one article, and references to some other editorial, but it was just reading. So his taking it at face value immediately implied that taking at face-value was reducing it to the words. What they said, not what picture was on the facing page of the Glamour article, or the illustrations, or the other work that we were doing in 1975, and how that related— the performance of the video tapes, etc., etc. It was like, face value was those words on the paper. So it was very revealing to, you know Philip's perception, coming, you know obviously from a very literary, critical angle, as opposed to a visual reading of it. I mean, I know that was a big issue at the time, and it was quite odd to see in his lecture, uh, because he did use slides. And you know, like a slide of that uh— I'm just remembering— like you know, the whole issue of capitalism, and etc.— the liquid assets test-tube thing comes up, and the audience sort of goes in titters. And Philip goes— does this thing of, "Oh, they're capitalists." You know?
JORGE: And it became obvious to the audience!
FELIX: And everybody in the audience agrees with him. You know? Or with sort of nodding approval. I mean, not everybody, but, but you know, the visuals just didn't mesh with even what we were saying. I mean, it was obviously, it was you know a parody, a critique. You know it was impossible to reduce it to face-value because there was no face to it, you know, it disappeared. And uh, I don't know, that was my reaction to it.
LOUISE: Yes, well that was my difficulty, because it was decontextualizing these, this text from the whole approach you developed. You know? In your work. So— but I was certainly curious to see—
FELIX: I think the major unresolved issue with that, is uh, the issue of plagiarism. And uh, it would be curious to know what would— his thought of the face-value reading would have evolved if it had just simply been credited. Because I mean, like, all the images, not all, but a large part of the images that illustrated the glamour article, are found images, uncredited. You know? Like, this one came from LIFE Magazine, this one was found in some obscure typewriter manual, this one was, you know, blah, blah, blah. But that was, that's not a problem. And uh, so, I think it just comes down to that. That it was like, we were trying to get away with something, you know? We were taking this high-falutin' French critic, and saying we wrote it. And obviously, it was revealing that a lot of people gave us a lot of authority, because they read it that way— "Oh, aren't they smart." And then there was a disillusionment.
AA: Well the funny thing was, we lent Philip our copy of Mythologies, with all the passages underlined—
LOUISE: Oh really! Well that made it easy for him!
AA: It was very easy for him, yeah.
LOUISE: No I thought he worked hard at this! Because, I read Mythologies many years ago, and when I read his article, I thought WOW!
JORGE: He had an advantage!
AA: And he doesn't say that of course, because it would reveal that we gave him the information.
LOUISE: I thought he really worked hard at that article!
FELIX: And also, I mean, if you wanted to read it on face value, it was our thing about 'intellectual parasites', right? We stated that quite clearly, and you know that's uh, I mean you know, that's continued to evolve in the work. The so-called appropriation or whatever, which we've been involved with, for you know, long before it became fashionable, and when it went out of fashion! But uh, you know, we're still involved, quite heavily in this, uh, you know, referencing other artists in our work, and elaborating on their projects, and incorporating them, and what-have-you.