Curating on the Boundaries of Art and Visual Culture (2004)

This is an unpublished lecture delivered at colloquium on the subject of “the boundaries of art and visual culture” at the University of Toronto in January 2004.

Bear with me…I will be talking about the colloquium’s topic of “the boundaries of art and visual culture,” but first I want to talk about the “p” word: punctum, as in the assertion—need it have been said?—“The punctum does not exist.” Thinking about attending Michael Fried’s lecture here at University of Toronto a couple months ago provoked by the weird conjunction of these two names on the poster—Michael Fried speaking on “Barthes’s Punctum”—I wondered, what could Fried say; what could be said about this book from nearly 25 years ago, when Roland Barthes died and lost his influence as a living critic? What could this man, Michael Fried, who declared a war (problematic choice of words during the period of the Vietnam war), who declared a war on theatricality—and here is what he stated in “Art and Objecthood”:

(1)    The success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theatre.
(2)    Art degenerates as it approaches the conditions of theatre.
[interesting puritanical moralist language:  “degenerates.” Elsewhere he says minimalism has been “corrupted or perverted by theatre,” 136]
(3) The concepts of quality and value—and to the extent that these are central to
art, the concept of art itself—are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts. What lies between the arts is theatre. [139-42]

—what could this man have to say, except as a confrontation not a rapprochement, with the most theatrical of critics, Roland Barthes? [(Fried castigated Susan Sontag as the egregious theatrical sensibility of the period, at a time she probably was reading Roland Barthes, who in 1968 was not theatrical—or “wholly” theatrical but soon would become so.) Roland Barthes, the writer who declared that “Fiction [i.e., he means criticism] would proceed from a new intellectual art…we subject the objects of knowledge and discussion—as in any art—no longer to an instance of truth [this is what Fried’s “presentness is grace” is about (“an instance of truth”): preposterous to compare this presence, as he did, to Barthes’s “air,” Barthes who admitted his reliance on the deconstructivist critique of presence initiated by Jacques Derrida], {no longer to an instance of truth} but to a consideration of effects.” [Roland Barthes (1975 [1977]), 90].  Contrary, Fried declared that “Literalist sensibility is theatrical because, to begin with, it is concerned with the actual circumstances in which the beholder encounters literalist work.” (125) Barthes is nothing but circumstance and encounter, witness the wound of the punctum—the wound Barthes received from the image, not the one he receives retrospectively from Fried. Strange, the arrogant and impertinent attempt to assert the self retrospectively in history where it contradictorily does not belong, when otherwise history has been absent from the American’s critical practice. Is this gesture not an unacknowledged theatrical act in itself?
[Barthes: “Arrogance—He has no affection for proclamations of victory ….     Transposed to the level of discourse, even a just victory becomes a bad value of language, an arrogance …”]
          But I have to thank Michael Fried for reminding me: in a sense, Barthes was at the origins in the late 1970s and early 1980s—I had forgotten, his death in 1980 excising his direct influence—Barthes was at the origin, when I was a writer, of a curatorial practice that I thought developed in the mid 1990s, a practice that I labelled, in a1998 article “Trash as a Cultural System”—not worrying about Fried but calling forth another filiation—that I labelled theatrical: “theatrical curating.” Counter to Fried but allied to Barthes—and let’s be honest, allied to the most important art of Fried’s period to which he lost not just the battle but the war— it is exactly through the term “theatricality” that I will be outlining another history—because theatricality, it appears, is a matter of boundaries—it is on the outside of the inside. Or more precisely, the notions of value and quality determine absolute boundaries—the border of inside and outside, determining inclusion and exclusion, and distinctions of high and low. (The “p” word is also power.) Theatre, as Fried tells us, is what lies between. So we are at the heart of the topic of this colloquium: “the boundaries of art and visual culture”; and since the question posed by this colloquiumis also that of “the role of images in commercial society, and the potential for a critical image-making practice in today’s media saturated world,” we must then examine not only the relation of images to each other but their relation to the self, the “beholder” in Fried’s terminology. Not, therefore, images of quality or value, but contaminated by their theatricalized beholding, they must then be, logically, perverse, degenerate, and corrupting images. (The “p” word is also police.)
          Blame the artist: I intend to talk about how artists’ practices inform, one might say corrupt, curatorial strategies.
         But as an aside, what if as an experiment, we examined, not the literalist, that is, minimalist, art Fried was attacking in his 1968 article, but the theatre of the period, and the most extremely theatrical of it, for instance, the obscure underground theatre of Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, and the Theatre of the Ridiculous:
“This theatre has attracted little but unfavorable notice: it is slovenly, amateurish, silly, just boring; a put-on, really an actor’s lark; not art, certainly not serious art; a coterie occasion for a pariah in-group; by and for queers (not the nice kind, but drag queens and dykes and leather/motorbike/S and M hard trade); a display case for transvestites, pure camp, devoted to movie fetishism; anyhow just adolescent pornography; ritual enactment of an impotent humiliation of women (vicious, loveless); pointless, emotionally impactless, untheatrical; certainly devoid of social relevance; in sum, stupid and immoral.”
So wrote Stefan Brecht in 1968 in a text eventually published in The Original Theatre of the City of New York, vol. 2, Queer Theatre, more particularly referring to the theatre of the ridiculous. He added, “The theatre of the ridiculous is an important theatre and theatre form.”
          Experimenting thus, would we not find, perhaps, that the threat to the quality of high modernism (the art Fried and Greenberg were championing : the nearly-non-historically influential  art of Olitski, Caro, and Noland) was not the “novelty art” of pop and minimalism (Greenberg’s term) but that the opposition Greenberg established between avant-garde and kitsch in 1939 would have to be rewritten in the 1960s as one between modernism and camp. (Strange cultural congruence— two such differing articles as Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” and Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” uniting under the banner of a Kantian aesthetics of taste.) Queer culture would be seen as a threat to modernism and homophobia could be read as a subtext to modernist criticism, as when Greenberg attacks minimalist artists’ feminine sensibilities through a positive review of Anne Truit: “And with the help of monochrome the artist [that is, Anne Truit] would have been able to dissemble her feminine sensibility behind a more aggressively far-out, non-art look, as so many masculine Minimalists have their rather feminine sensibilities.” (290) The issue of quality [as in Fried #3, “The concepts of quality and value—and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself—are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts”], the issue of quality would have to be seen as one of enforcing class. But I digress; however, not too much, since in talking about quality and class, we are still talking about the guarded, disciplinary boundaries between art and visual culture, the boundaries between what belongs and does not belong in a museum or to a discourse or to a definition of art.
          So it is exactly through the corrupting term “theatricality” that I will be outlining another history that defines itself precisely by a relation of the self to an image, and, in this relation, the self makes a spectacle of itself:
“Everything follows from this principle: that the lover is not to be reduced to a simple symptomal subject, but rather that we hear in his voice what is “unreal,” i.e., intractable. Whence the choice of a “dramatic” method which renounces examples and rests on the single action of a primary language (no metalanguage). The description of the lover’s discourse has been replaced by its simulation, and to that discourse has been restored its fundamental person, the I, in order to stage an utterance, not an analysis. What is proposed, then, is a portrait—but not a psychological portrait; instead a structural one which offers the reader a discursive site: the site of someone speaking within himself, amourously, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak.”
So wrote Roland Barthes in Lover’s Discourse (1977 [1978], 3) a few years before Camera Lucida. This “portrait” would reproduce the primary structural relationship—we could say stance—of the viewer, or beholder, before a work of art—through which we, in turn, stage an utterance, not an analysis.
          I—now I want to draw attention to me—I, on the one hand, took this advice as license for a form of writing that turned such a facing (the self and the other who does not speak) into an allegory of art writing, by making this confrontation—which is not in itself unproblematic—into the subject of writing. The titles, “Exits” (1980) and “Breach of Promise” (1982) express something of the dynamic of this relation. On the other hand, license was granted the image, or particular images—images beyond the pale of the canon: say, images of violence or of the unformed, revolutionary crowd in the mass media, that is to say non-representational or non-iconic or unstructured images (if that it at all possible, that they can ever be unframed)—for a type of analysis I carried out in “Violence and Representation” (1980), “Notes on the Sumptuary Destruction of Leaders”(1982), and “Image of the Leader, Function of the Widow” (1983), where perhaps Bataille outstripped Barthes as an excessive influence on its writing. These writings suggested that violence is both attracted to the icon and is the unconscious figuration of it: no representation without violence. Society creates an economy of violence in order to mark the limits between inside and outside. Once again, we confront issues of boundaries, those of inclusion and exclusion, which are nothing but sets of prohibitions. Such images have complex social functions that are unstated. “Image of the Leader, Function of the Widow,” for instance, looked at violence and representation in terms of the relations of images of leadership and unformed crowds, examining the transitional role the image of the widow played during times of political assassination to restore leadership.

Whereas the exercise Barthes proposed became method for writing about art, the process I am about to outline for curating is not really that different, except that it deals with collections of images, not a sole fascinating picture. In that curating is an intellectual discipline, its process is not thesis driven: an exhibition only reveals its idea at the end, not at its beginning. Curating discovers what a dissimilar group of images have in common, not what immediately appears similar between them. (That is, curating deals with difference not similarity, the reverse of how it commonly is perceived.) A curator’s task is to find the submerged or unconscious narrative linking images, and if it is the curator who must first discover this linkage since it derives from his or her initial fascination, we must return to the question Barthes asks himself in Camera Lucida: What do these images mean for me?

As an example, which I choose because of its relevance to the topic of the colloquium, I will discuss my 1996 Power Plant exhibition, The American Trip.
Larry Clark, Cady Noland, Richard Prince, Nan Goldin.

         The American Trip was an exhibition about American culture’s fascination with the outlaw, outcasts, and margins of society. It recognized the role artists have played in the dialogue between the mainstream and margins in normalizing the image of the outcast. The title referred to a constant theme in the American cultural dynamic of the rejection of family and the reformation of community, now expressed in the subcultures of the margins. What starts as a celebration by artists, is appropriated by the mainstream media, and ends as a panic in the press. Nowhere is the fear greater than in the heart of the American family that the enemy is within and that the kids are not “alright.” The images of individuals in the exhibition showed them not to be traditional outlaws. They were, as the artists celebrated, the girl—or boy—next door.
[The elements of the exhibition were, thus:  the fascination with the outlaw; the dialogue between mainstream and margin expressed in the image of the outsider [a dialogue which involves complex back and forth borrowings]; the mainstreaming of the margin and the normalizing of the image of the outcast through the intercession of the artist; and the celebration of outcast community. I can’t say much about these themes here except that they are progressive in their importance. (1)]
          In the end, the fascination with the outlaw for the artist really is a matter of the self-representation of outsider groups to which the artist belongs. The outlaw is a mask, an allegory, let’s say, through which artists represent their own underground communities. Thus, Larry Clark’s and Nan Goldin’s participation respectively in Tulsa in the 1950–60s and in Boston in the early 1970s and later in New York became their means to bring a community of their (corrupt, perverse, and degenerate) associates to attention, first to itself and then to the world. Attention takes the form of influence, for instance, on fashion:  in a swing from the earlier upper-class fetishism of Helmut Newton to white-trash indecorum, fashion photography in the 1990s featured exactly the sorts of scenes depicted in Clark’s or Goldin’s books. The truth, however, is that capitalism is much more perverse than artists, and in its global cultural domination can dispense with this function of artists to broach new markets. As subcultures have become more diverse and their adherents younger and younger, the media have taken on a greater role in the dissemination of their attitudes and styles, especially when these subcultures lend themselves to commodification, … well, actually, only because they do so. But wherever we find a censorship issue, whenever we are on the edge of what can be said or not said, shown or not shown by artists, we have located the margin of an activity that society does not yet tolerate and must separate out and demonize by creating a boundary between inside and outside, between what it tolerates and what it considers beyond the pale. For instance, the immediate background in the summer of 1995 to The American Trip was Senator Robert Dole’s campaign against Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers as well as the controversy surrounding the influence of Larry Clark on Calvin Klein’s withdrawn teen porn advertising campaign, which coincided with the controversial release of Clark’s film Kids.
          Really a dialogue of complex borrowings:

Clark: images of juvenile delinquents James Dean (2)
—juvenile delinquent:
Another history of culture could be written using the genre of j.d. biker movies, from Method (The Wild One), to underground (Kenneth Anger who revitalized the genre  with Scorpio Rising ; and Andy Warhol: Vinyl, Blow Job—which, while not biker movies per se … parody of Method acting), to exploitation (Roger Corman: Wild Angel), to countercultural (Dennis Hopper: Easy Rider).

          Cady Noland and Richard Prince use images that already dwell in the public realm to different degrees of visibility and cultural resonance in order to examine other dynamics or operations of identification that do not necessarily lead to community, though they are social.
          Much of Noland’s work deals with the binary opposition of outlaw and celebrity and the transformative acts that change one into the other. These operations are representative of a deep need in the American psyche and are a dominant aspect of American culture since Puritan days. The nature of celebrity is intertwined with the theme of outsider, and both partake of the same mythologizing process, participating in a broader cultural, perhaps ultimately economic, need to elevate first and then to degrade, to celebrate and then to reproach [individuals have a shelf-life and built-in obsolescence]. Outlaw and celebrity are brought into intimate association and turned one into the other—outlaw into celebrity and celebrity into outsider. Such pairs in her work as, for example, Lee Harvey Oswald/John Kennedy and Charles Manson/Sharon Tate, now stand as signs of the historic episodes of the 1960s, opening and closing the decade. Although she usually favours only one part of the dyad—the outlaw who becomes a celebrity himself—the two are forever indissolubly wed (just as Oswald and Jack Ruby are forever bound in the instant and image of the familiar Robert Jackson photograph of Ruby shooting Oswald). As celebrity outlaw, Patty Hearst unites the two categories.
          If the celebrity—or rather the icon of the celebrity, since we are really dealing with images—attracts violence (as the history of assassination of celebrities such John Lennon makes clear), violence is intimately linked to representation. It could be argued that violence makes the icon as it unmakes the individual. Violence and the icon are as intimately linked as outlaw and celebrity.  
         In this regard, Cady Noland was on to something when in 1993 she said, “I’m interested in the differences and similarities between blank identity and iconography as well as anonymity and fame.” She spoke of these oppositions describing the American landscape and America’s tolerance for the temporary, for the ad hoc vernacular of its roadsides, for the highways with their garages, junkyards, and cars on cinder blocks, things in states of construction or decay next to the “beautiful Gestalt” of the American flag or the “palliative Gestalt images” of advertising logos such as Coca-Cola. “I try sometimes to construct a mirror of that weird stuff that doesn’t fit together, floating in a sea of palliative Gestalt images. People are able to live with the scattered and fragmented stuff because they are always reassured by the concept or the image of things that are whole.”  However, what is born in and of that fragmentation, chaos, and lack confronts wholeness with a vengeance bordering on destruction. Destruction, not the reassurance of the Gestalt, is the palliative here. [iconoclasm and iconography]
         Fragmentation is to Gestalt as violence is to honorific expenditure—the wasting or degrading—of the icon. As the outlaw becomes celebrity, the celebrity is trashed; one is elevated and the other degraded. Even as an outsider, the outlaw plays a key societal role, not only as a transformative agent through acts of violence, but as a structural figure that articulates the boundaries of inside and outside. The outlaw marks the divide between, on the one side, the indifferentiated outside, the site of lack of identity and chaos (blank identity and anonymity) and, on the other side, icon/ography and fame. The outlaw is to celebrity as violence is to the icon. The outlaw articulates violence and representation and is caught himself in its iconic constructions.

[In my text I speculated that “The drag queen and the psychopath may be the two poles of this exhibition, both consumed by an elaborate mimicry of social roles, the one sending up society’s contradictions through representations, the other enacting its contradictions through violence.”]

          Richard Prince treads some of the same degraded territory of American culture as as Noland. But distance seemingly is built into Prince’s images.  His re-photographed images pose the question of distance, the first of which, for us here, is one of the separation of generations. Prince continues in the tradition of experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger and new journalist Tom Wolfe but now without the ostensible motive of Anger’s disobedience or Wolfe’s pop thrill of discovery. Perhaps this is only because what Anger and Wolfe enthusiastically embraced as libidinal assault on the privilege of high culture in the 1960s is now the milieu surrounding us: each subculture currently has various forms of commodity dissemination and means of style communication. Raised on images from the 1960s, Prince is also heir to its attitudes to history and the image. This was the era when the image began to become dominant in culture, when the validation of truth passed in its documentary evidence from word to image. But from Vietnam to Watergate was also the moment of the delegitimation of official explanation and history: the 1969 moon landing was a studio television production, wasn’t it? We should be skeptical towards images; but this is precisely what we are not when we confront those by Prince. We assume in distancing himself from the images he appropriates, he is critical of them; in re-photographing glossy ads, re-framing their presentation, we are told he engages in commodity critique.
 [Prince knows that images are collectively received and shared. “It’s almost as if in this culture information touches a chord in us the same way a hit song makes you impulsively keep a beat with everyone else—because you know you’re not the only one who thinks the song is great. The commonality of this information retrieval, the fact that we’ve shared it and think it’s somehow part of us, makes us think about the information as a genuine experience.”  In making his images “real,” Prince wants to give them the production values of top 50 pop tunes: “I like to think that I make ‘hit’ pictures,” he said. “I try to put ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ in my pictures.”]
          Prince knows that images are collectively received and shared. His images, of course, are not his own. At their source, in this particular case, they are photographed and sent by bikers to magazines where they are published (Outlaw Biker, for example); bikers then buy the magazines and consume the images of their girlfriends [analogy to Clark and Goldin, on a white trash level]. Prince enters into the process through the “criminal” act of stealing the image, or the mere juvenile act of lifting it, appropriating the image, to use the language of the day. I have already said that we should be wary of the deconstructivist language of appropriation and commodity critique concerning Prince’s aims. On the contrary, I think we should rather pay attention to Prince’s attraction to an image that is figured in his selection of particular types—now low types, the biker chick, in opposition to the glossy images of allure and seduction of capitalist culture. Biker chicks are only what Prince claims has always been his subject: “men and women, men and men, women and women.” But more particularly, with respect to these images, he has said (although we must be guarded in whatever Prince says, as he is a notorious fabulist), “Well, as far as the biker chicks are concerned, I just wouldn’t mind being one. I’ve never said that before, but I think that’s what I really feel. There’s a certain kind of desire and a certain amount of passion. I like what I think they look like, or perhaps what they are. I think many of these pictures have their own egos and they have an imagination of their own. That’s my own particular reaction. I also think the biker chick is perhaps a more realistic representation than the Grace Kelly girl-next-door. I mean, the biker chicks are the girls next door.”
          “I like what I think they look like” is a question of identification with an image, which, seemingly, is an uncritical admission for such a hip artist—and Prince’s art is nothing but the “you don’t know what is happening, do you, Mr. Jones” hip putdown of the square. Prince has said, “Since (say) 1949 [birthdate] there has been a whole generation of artists who have grown up with the idea that they can actually have a relationship with an image as if it had an ego or were alive.” Developing a relationship with this image, Prince performs another operation on the outsider image. Prince naturalizes the image of what he is attracted to in order to normalize its reception: “I’m interested when something offensive becomes respected. I’m interested in being taken for granted. You know, marrying the sheriff’s daughter.” To think the image as being what one is attracted to is perhaps at the same time to think what the “alive” image imagines. Perhaps this is the domain Prince likes to call Spiritual America. “Spiritual America”—perhaps this today is the American dream even if we witness it degraded through boundary shattering reality television.

          In the end, the overriding theme that united the series of work by these four artists in The American Trip was only initially the fascination with the image of the outlaw. What determined the selection of images is the idea of the Family—but not the nuclear one. The rejection of family and reformation of community—the foundational dynamic within American society— is expressed in Larry Clark’s Tulsa petty thug and drug chums, Noland’s Manson family, Prince’s biker chicks, and Goldin’s transvestite drag queens.
          However, during the installation, and after the catalogue had of course been written, I realized another narrative, unconscious on my part, but implicit within what I had thus far articulated. The fascination with the outlaw, outcast, and margins of society was an allegory of the attraction to an underground art community (but not through its images, in this case). Migrations to the underground can be taken as one other evidence of the historically influential impulse in American history of rejection and reformation. However short-lived an underground community may be, its appeal persists in the images disseminated from it [also through mainstream such as Life magazine]. Its images fascinate as much as shock but they also have an unprecedented effect on certain members of its audience—which is not immediate. Their audience receives these images at a distance: the spatial distance of its not-yet participants, the temporal distance of the too young to have known it. Reception provokes a movement to underground communities; the effect, rather than meaning, of the image is this displacement.
[The structural conditions of this attraction through images, an attraction from afar—are these not the generalized conditions of representation? Now these images of an underground art scene are not necessarily artworks, any more than the images Richard Prince, for instance, appropriated from biker magazines were, at their source, art works; Prince’s act made them so. Nor are they only produced and disseminated through the underground, that is, by artists; mainstream culture aids and abets, such as Life magazine.
[Fellow traveller, Dave Hickey writing of mid-cult representation of art critics went on to say that these images of, say, Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s Laura were  “No more alluring, however, than the rough, improvisational world that I inferred from Luce Publication’s sneering coverage of Jackson Pollock’s unruly triumph and Andy Warhol’s apocalyptic opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia—where they took down the paintings to make room for the party. For myself, and for many of my friends, these newspaper stories provided our first fleeting glimpse of something other—of something braver and stranger. We recognized the smirky, condescending tone of these stories, but kids are expert in decoding this tone, which invariably means: This may look like fun, but don’t do it. But it still looked like fun, and thus, far from retarding the progress of peculiar art and eccentric behavior, poor Henry Luce inadvertently propagated it, seeding the heartland with rugged little paint-splashers and frail, alien children with silver hair.” [Hickey, 199-200)]

          That images can have a determining effect on roles [rôles] within the artistic scene itself is suggested by Robert Smithson in his unpublished 1967 article “From Ivan the Terrible to Roger Corman or Paradoxes of Conduct in Mannerism as reflected in the Cinema”:

[The Actors’ Studio] “method” dominated the major actors of the ‘fifties, and indirectly influenced the “lifestyles” of many American artists and critics. Mutations of the “naturalness” of the “method” may be seen in the photographs of artists and critics in books such as Fred W. McDarrah’s The Artist’s World and more recently in Alan Solomon’s New York: The New Art Scene. The artist or critic poses or fakes being unaffected, he imitates everyday, mundane, natural events—such as playing baseball, on-the-job painting, or drinking beer. Andy Warhol takes this artificial normality to “marvellous” extremes by having “queens” act as “plain-janes”. Thus the phony naturalism of we’re-just-ordinary-guys-doing-our-thing becomes brilliant manneristic travesty under Warhol’s direction.
Blow Job: Method could be camp content as much as the glamour of 30s and 40s Hollywood.
          The conditions of the underground, of course, no longer exist. The “underground” today is a representation. The show being over, is it possible that the underground has maintained a secret life in representation? Since that form of artistic community could be neither lamented nor recreated after its dissolution, the idea of the underground had to be relived in imagination, which meant having to await the arrival of a new generation that had no direct experience of it. Not surprisingly, the generation whose adolescence coincided with “the sixties”—artists of the 1980s—replayed that decade’s dichotomies of art in its own time. Already in the 1960s, at their very origins, the opposition between “institution” and “underground” was supplanted by the gallery success of the former embodied in the macho theatrics of minimalism and its “white cube” apodicticity. Meanwhile, the camp theatrics that ruled the underground would not outlive the theatricality of the decade itself when the streets became a theatre. The underground’s theatre of self-presentation would require a return in another form, a reprise that would have to be considered, in its own terms, equally beyond the pale. In the 1980s, sustaining a surreptitious reference to the underground would involve some type of re-presentation of self within a quotational strategy. Here would be one way to characterize American art of the 1980s: on the one hand, the institutional citational art of neo-minimalism, neo-conceptualism, and neo-geo; on the other hand, a performative citational art of photo-artists such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Thus would the interpretation of Sherman’s and Prince’s works offered by postmodernist accounts be skewed now towards an underground mnemonics.  
[analysis – performance axis]
[“Show’s Over Folks, Move Along: The Institutionalization of Art and the Secret Life of the Underground” 1997; The American Playhouse: The Theatre of Self-Presentation, 1998]
          A decade later in the 1990s, museums began busily memorializing institutionalizing the underground that is notorious for leaving few traces in the forms of works of art. The underground breach of museum culture was not so much through its artifacts, that is, bona fide art works, as through its images—but then again not necessarily the photographic images considered to be works of art. But the source of new curatorial strategies that brought these images into the museum, I speculated, in the article “Trash as a Cultural System” (1998), stemmed from artists’ underground practices from the 1950s and 1960s that curators began to mimic in the 1990s. Some of this mimicry appropriately began in museum exhibitions of these same artists. Subtitled “Rauschenberg, Warhol, Smith and Shifting Museum Practices,” my article wondered at the concurrence of retrospectives of these three artists in New York in Fall 1997. “Retrospectives” is a misnomer because another examination of these artists’ career was in evidence: e.g., Jack Smith: Flaming Creature (His Amazing Life and Times) [P.S. 1], The Warhol Look: Glamour, Style, Fashion [Guggenheim]
          Rauschenberg’s exhibition, ironically however, was traditionally retrospective. Ironic because over thirty years ago, the critic and art historian Leo Steinberg proposed that Robert Rauschenberg’s combine paintings from the 1950s initiated what he called the post-Modernist “flatbed picture plane.” This procedural torque, by which “the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes,” obliged a consequential “shift from nature to culture” in the forms of content. In other words, the painting was no longer a window that opened onto the world but a tabletop on which to arrange pre-given cultural material. This shift from the perceptual to the cultural, furthered in the camp theatrics of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith [who manipulated cultural material, codes], I suggested in “Trash as a Cultural System,” was now an organizing principle applicable to exhibitions and collections. But I also suggested that if a shift from a visual mode of thinking to one of operational processes was taking place in museums, it takes time to unfold in different institutions, witness the traditional Rauschenberg exhibition at the Guggenheim.

[Whitney Museum under David Ross: I trace the beginnings to such Whitney Museum exhibitions such as Beat Culture and the New American: 1950 –1965, 1995, Avedon 1994; as well as Nan Goldin, 1996, Keith Haring, 1997—exemplary artists at the confluence of art and a downtown scene in the 1980s]

          We must think that the flatbed principle defines other operations, not just for painting—that obliterate the boundaries between media (where performance, experimental film, and photography must be more than accommodated within the museum, but influence its curatorial practices as well), or between art and popular culture. So Steinberg concluded that the shift to the flatbed picture plane “is no more than a symptom of changes which go far beyond the questions of picture planes, or of painting as such. It is part of a shakeup which contaminates all purified categories.”  Hear that Michael Fried? The sixties shake up of society put art criticism on the defensive. Today, culture critics might fear an infectious theatricality in, of all unlikely places of conservation, the museum. Primary to this contamination, we would have to consider the actions of glamour and trash, which, however, are not categories in themselves, nor polar opposites, but, rather, an operational process on cultural material. Except the material is people or, rather, roles that combine a performance and an image: (camp) theatricalizing presentations of self by society’s hard-core detritus—of junkies, speed freaks, hoods, hustlers, drag queens, and poor little rich girls—that debase mythic images offered by the Hollywood star system and who themselves are both elevated and debased in a process ultimately controlled by the artist. The counter underground star system of Jack Smith’s Cinemaroc and Warhol’s Factory, thus, parallels other contemporaneous material art practices where refuse was transformed into glittering artifact. Through the category “glamour,” the “flatbed” principle finds its highest formulation in the queer camp theatricality of underground film.
          The consequences for curating?  I only want to suggest one: that in order to convey the narratives they want, curators now manipulate photographs alongside objects—as if they were objects of intellectual montage—with a freedom we do not extend to ourselves with works of art. Because curators now tell stories by manipulating extant sequences of photographs, they cannot afford to maintain a hierarchy between different practices of photography, between those that have achieved an art status and those, such as various sorts of commercial or journalistic photography, that have not (yet). My 1998 exhibition Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years was practice to “Trash as a Cultural System”’s observations. I could only accomplish this because Warhol’s Factory was the theory that a generation later put into practice in their own art communities.

(1) “The impulse towards the margins, its values and experiences, first as a geographic expression in the late-nineteenth-century drift to the West, then as an internal element of society starting in the late 1940s and 1950s with, among others, the Beats’ rejection of the postwar American middle-class ethos, is well known. What is less documented is the role artists have played in portraying subcultures for a wider public, as well as the complex intermingling and communication between artists' and the mainstream's depictions of the outsider.”
          “Artists have always been at the forefront of the expression of “outlaw” activity. Sometimes they document it; sometimes they are involved in its creation. As the margins have migrated more and more to the interior of society through various forms of disillusion with the American Dream and rejection of its premises, artists have been first on the scene to give artistic rather than journalistic or sociological expression. As subcultures have become more diverse and their adherents younger and younger, the media have taken on a greater role in the dissemination of their attitudes and styles, especially when these subcultures lend themselves to commodification. But wherever we find a censorship issue, whenever we are on the edge of what can be said or not said, shown or not shown by artists, we have located the margin of an activity that society does not yet tolerate and must separate out and demonize by creating a boundary between inside and outside, between what it tolerates and what it considers beyond the pale.”
E.g. Oliver Stone/Robert Dole; Larry Clark, Calvin Klein

(2) “The dialogue between mainstream and margin is a subtheme of the exhibition, signalled especially in the persistent exchange between Hollywood and artists. Hollywood not only purveys and affects; it borrows and steals. While Warhol in the 1960s was making paintings of silkscreened images of 1950s Hollywood Method actors such as Marlon Brando in The Wild One and stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, he was directing his own superstars in films that were camp parodies of both Method acting and the Hollywood star system and a celebration of his own Factory demimonde. Kenneth Anger's classic 1963 underground film Scorpio Rising ironically documents the symbiotic relationship between media icons of delinquency—its stars Marlon Brando and James Dean—and actual delinquent subcultures. In turn, his film influenced a whole series of exploitation biker films, starting with Roger Corman's Wild Angels and ending with Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider. The dialogue continues in Larry Clark's acknowledged impact on Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, for instance, and Clark’s own 1995 feature film Kids.”

 “[Mark] Booth argues. . .that camp, far from being a ‘fugitive sensibility,’ belongs to the history of the ‘self-presentation’ of arriviste groups. Because of their marginality, because they lack inherited cultural capital, and thus the accredited power to fully legitimize dominant tastes, these groups parody their subordinate or uncertain social status in ‘a self-mocking abdication of any pretensions to power.’”

          Can an image alone sustain some reference to the underground without being its actual documentation? Are reprising roles enough to keep a dialogue with the idea of the underground at least intermittent? In that the photographic image is also a displacement of time or space, doesn’t a relation to the idea or image of the underground partake of the same dual distancing: in the past, the spatial distance of its not yet participants; in the present, the temporal distance of remembering of the too young to know it? Richard Prince’s re-photographed images, which are, he says, projections of his own desires, likewise inflect this duality: depicting the space of the other (his biker chicks or some other subcultural substitute for the margins), and suggesting another time (in that usually the images can be taken to stand for another era—the 1950s, the 1960s, or the 1970s—eras, however, that Prince has passed through from adolescence on).  
          Such recourse to memory, but not nostalgia, aligns this work, with good reason, to other excavations of adolescence that inform so much of the succeeding “juvenile” art of the late 1980s, as well as the decade’s more abstract art. Centering on the suburbs, the memory of that childhood place became the ironic content to the formal citation of its period’s corresponding modernist art, the latter taken, of course, to encompass Pillow Talk as much as Vir Heroicus Sublimis.
          The suburbs, then, do not express some lack that the underground makes up for, but only the requisite distance to have a desire for it. Yet, with the loss of that original underground, and the recognition that it won’t come again, art compensates. Once an underground image is expelled from art’s orbit of interest by becoming too visible, art restlessly seeks other margins, even while image after image of it are brought into the mainstream. Art is compelled to search for margins in ever widening or narrowing circles. In the case of the latter, art focuses in on one place, so that over time, for instance, the transvestites and transsexuals of Nan Goldin’s photography replace the queens of the 1960s underground who flourished in Warhol’s films. Or, in the case of the former, art makes us travel outwards from the unnamed criminality of the New York Factory to the white trash criminal underclass of the American heartland and margins that figures so prominently in the works of Cady Noland, Richard Prince, and Larry Clark. What are portrayed in these outcast images if not substitute families? From Goldin’s queens, Noland’s Manson family, Prince’s bikers, and Clark’s drug chums and petty criminals of his Tulsa days, to the skateboarders of Clark’s late style, we come full circle to the “suburbs.” It is no surprise to find the source of future identifications here, in one image of “criminality” or another. Nowhere is the fear greater than in the heart of the American suburbs that the enemy is within the family and the kids are not “alright.” The outcast is the girl, or boy, next door, ready to seek kinship beyond his or her natural family. And so the underground remains an ideal in all these images, ever retaining its intimate link to the desires of the suburbs.