PRINT October 1981


AGING STUD (Tab Hunter): Horrible, isn’t it? All those poor people . . . . MIDDLE-AGED MOTHER, viewing roadside crash (Divine): It’s just too horrible. I can’t look.
STUD: You want to see something big, long and sleek? It’s my new Corvette. Let’s go for a ride.

—from Polyester, a film by John Waters. 1981

LOIS LANE (Margot Kidder): I’m going to slip into something more comfortable. (Leaves.)
SUPERMAN (Christopher Reeve) anxiously seeks his mother via computerized crystal; she materializes, suddenly, before him.
MOTHER (Susannah York): You must become one of them . . . Once exposed to these rays all your great powers on Earth will disappear forever. But consider . . . once it is done, there’s no returning. You will become an ordinary man . . . . O My son, are you sure?
SUPERMAN: I love her. (He is transformed.)
LOIS (returning): You did all that for me? I don’t know what to say.
SUPERMAN: Just say you love me.

—from Superman II, a film by Richard Lester, 1981

WHEN MOLIÉRE DEFENDED THE BOURGEOIS values of “light comedy” in 1622 against the church, the salons, and the critics—the priests, in effect, of High Art—he simply claimed that “the people” deserved their choice of the light rather than the heavy. Now, in 1981, we hardly need to duplicate so basic a strategy. Of course it is always necessary to mediate the conflicting claims of high, middle, and low culture—and particularly to demonstrate that these claims can be equally satisfied in a single work of art, or entertainment (thus paradoxically refuting Moliére, who wanted completely to sever “high” from “low” art). But this is not even required at present, deluged as we are with articles and exhibitions proclaiming the virtues of “Punk” and “New Wave” art. No, what is required is something bordering on post-structuralist detective work—to discover what links exist as content between these disparate activities, branded to date with bewitching, oversimplified labels. To hell with medium-as-medium, structure-as-structure, New Wave-as-the-next-thing. No more of that, please. Let us have instead a reliable verbal umbrella: “Post-Performance.” And let us have these questions asked within its sound, safe shadow: what does Post-Performance tell us about changing attitudes in the culture? What values underlie the sudden proliferation in art writing of terms borrowed from popular music? Do these terms connect at all to the bipolar verbal axes that have split High Art since the 1920s, Dada at one end, modernism at the other? Is Punk in bed with Dada, New Wave with Late Modern? More to the point, is Superman II a New Wave epic, Polyester the scion of Punk (if not Tristan Tzara)? Hmm. Let’s curl up with these questions in our own beds, and dream away . . . the answers.

I have come to realize that my concept of performance art has become old-fashioned. It is old-fashioned to insist that performance is sculpture action or sculpture evolved into the fourth dimension (time) . . . Now . . . there seems to be a return to the subject—the object not as an end in itself (aesthetic), but rather as material to explain a function . . . . the object is used in a social, architectural, or religious function. The 70s is an age . . . of theatricality and decoration.
—Tom Marioni, from the preface to Performance Anthology, 1979

“I Am Making Art.”
—John Baldessari, I Am Making Art, videotape, 1972

Between the moment that John Baldessari bent over and reached toward the floor with his hand in an early videotape—proclaiming Art to be the result—and Tom Marioni’s confession, above, lies a tortuous psychic journey. I remember when I first confronted performance,“ as a student at Rutgers in 1959. I received in the mail—by mysterious chance—a card printed by George Brecht. Drip Music (Drip Event), it announced, with the following scripted instructions: ”For single or multiple performance. A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel. Second version: Dripping.“ Though it was prompted largely by the ideas of John Cage, Drip Music has an obvious link to Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero, to Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, to Frank Stella’s shape-as-painting-as-shape. Not that it was obvious at the time. Then, it seemed like revolution. But the bareness of the text . . . the implicit refutation of theater . . . the concept of audience-as-activist . . . all these dominated art performance for the next two decades. Even Allan Kaprow’s long, near-poetic scores seem, on second reading, clipped to the point of curtness (”Large wooden beams placed separately somewhere,“ one of them begins, ending with ”getting more from less“). Even Vito Acconci’s warm-hearted invitation to viewers to encapsulate themselves alone in a small room with his image on a monitor is linked to this powerful, reductivist chain of ideas. Even Chris Burden’s choreographed act of self-willed shooting becomes, in the words used to describe it, mute (”At 7:45 p.m., I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket 22 long rifle. My friend was standing about 15 feet from me.").

Certainly the bare, alternative space nonstage provided the perfect nonproscenium for these actions. Certainly the boundary between the High Art of Performance and the Low Art of Hollywood, vaudeville, and Broadway was clearly drawn in these years. We had the Solipsist Theater on our side, paradoxically in tune with the audience, which wanted nothing easy, pleasant, or funny, unless justified by art history. Certainly it didn’t want skilled performance. Not the least virtue of Baldessari’s I Am Making Art was its intriguing ambivalence—at once a critique of the defiantly awkward amateur, bending. moving, pointing to prove his esthetic purity, and a vintage work of performance itself, of performance-only-as-performance.

The nature of the performance medium is inherently theatrical, even if it’s not the theatre of writers, directors, and designers . . . In my earliest performances, I used myself conceptually, but when I started using other people, I became aware of being a pseudo-director of a pseudo-theatre.
—Scott Burton, Performance Art 2, 1979

And who is not a borrower? Didn’t we get our face and our name from our parents, the words in our mouths from our country . . . our dreams and images from the books and pictures other people wrote, painted, filmed . . . What of me and Antinova? I borrowed her dark skin, her reputation, her name which is very much like mine anyway. She borrowed the name from the Russians, from Diaghilev. I borrow her aspirations to be a classical ballerina. She wants to dance the white ballets. What an impossible eccentric!
—Eleanor Antin, Before the Revolution (a ballet), 1979

Temporarily needing a change from working both in monotones and monochromes, I bought recordings of old night-club and cabaret singers, and clothing of a soft texture and pastel colors. I don’t know why. I just lived with it for a while.
—Connie Beckley, from text on The Chiffon Magnet, 1980

I gave up video for the Silver Screen!
Douglas Davis, from Silver Screen (silent movie), 1979

Though it is often said that American society is manipulated by the purveyors of mass entertainment, the singular fact about our “leisure” choices is that they are temporally free. In the past, what we now think of as entertainment—song, dance, pageants, storytelling—were rigorously scheduled, by church and state. They occurred only on specific holidays at specific times. Freed from endless labor and besieged by a diversity of possibilities, we choose a movie now, a stripper tomorrow (male or female), a museum the next day. Yes, pleasure is the goal of every free choice—ranging from hedonism to intellectual provocation. But why should art and pleasure be antithetical?

Now we find artist-performers turning from repetitive and reductivist strategies to song and dance, in effect. Perhaps it has nothing to do with art history at all, but with childhood television, “Saturday Night Live,” mad Jack Smith (oops, a bit close to film—if not art—history). If the intent is non-art-historical, the result must still be attended by the historians. Yes, many individuals have made personal choices (Connie Beckley out of boredom; Scott Burton out of necessity; mine made on the dead run—away from video into the movies of yesteryear), yet the result is a new kind of performance-film-television-radio, sourced in the popular as well as the visual arts. The other night I saw a replay of the comedy sketch “Bad Conceptual Art” on “Saturday Night Live,” starring Gilda Radner, undulating before two video monitors, one displaying a pair of lips smacking away, the other an unmoving profile of her own face. It was a deadly riposte, as effective as Charles Baudelaire besieging photography or Clement Greenberg slaying 3-D illusionism. You won’t see it quoted by Robert Pincus-Witten . . . though all of his readers watched it.

The delights of imitation, of theatricality, of pretending to be other than what you are (Eleanor Antin as black? as ballerina?! Scott Burton as David Merrick.) Yet it is all believable, and unstoppable. Look at James Stirling’s new addition to the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass. Here is a squat little box of a building pretending to be grand. Around the door, fronted by a tiny glass-roofed arcade, there are two preposterously fat classical columns supporting . . . nothing! The new Fogg is theater, sheer architectural theater, as deceitful as white-faced Eleanor pretending to be black-faced Eleanora. What happened to the rigor of honesty? The flat painting that had to be flat, the performer who had to be himself/herself; the bareboned Art Space as bareboned Art Space? We shall see . . .

Don’t you know the world has changed
But you’ll always be the same

—The Fleshtones, lyrics, 1981

From the standpoint of dressing, the [“New Wave”] style calls for a sophisticated appreciation of once-neglected fashion artifacts and attitudes carefully fused into a timeless present tense.
Gentlemen’s Quarterly, 1981

We must remind ourselves that the classical and Gothic languages of architecture are two of the Occident’s great triumphs. To cut ourselves off from this tradition in mindless pursuit of novelty and originality is to alienate ourselves from our culture. It is as if we were to jettison the English language, with its unrivaled heritage and powers of expression, in order to communicate in the new, but lifeless, and simplistic forms of Esperanto or Dada.
—Allan Greenberg, The Sense of the Past, 1981

Why We Delight In Representation. Of this we discoursed in . . . Athens. . . . Why we are disturbed at the real voices of men, either angry, pensive or afraid, and yet are delighted to hear others represent them, and imitate their gestures, speeches, and exclamations. . . . For . . . he that only represents excels him that really feels, inasmuch as he doth not suffer the misfortunes; which we knowing are pleased and delighted on that account.
—Plutarch, ca. 46–120 A.D.

I feel closer to [Rodney] Dangerfield, because I’m exaggerated, or rather in my mind I’m exaggerating . . .
—Michael Smith, Performance Art 2, 1979

If direct recall is cultivated most sharply in architecture—in buildings that try to imitate the pleasures and passions of the past, through marble arches and Palladian formal symmetry—it thrives as well, though less acclaimed, in Post-Performance. We have forgotten that when Blondie first appeared, it was a rock group, not Deborah Harry alone. I remember when I first saw them, on Manhattan CATV’s Channel J. I thought: This is History, if not Parody. Not only was the lead singer shaking and vibrating as the great comic strip heroine might. but the music had a nostalgic tinge, in its rhapsodic sweetness, its deft, whistle-clean lyrics; the band reeked of preparation, of rehearsal, of exact timing, of carefully coordinated theatrical presence and musical arrangements. In those days, Blondie was as revivalist as Philip Johnson’s AT&T building, now rising on 56th Street in Manhattan, or his neo-Renaissance RepublicBank Center in Houston, complete with slanted, gabled roofs.

Rehearsal is the modality of revivalism. Why? Because one only rehearses or prepares in order to be what one isn’t. Originally, punk said I am what I am, take it or leave it (a twist on Popeye’s I am what I am and what I am I am). Originally, punk, like much of early performance, cultivated the appearance of spontaneity, of doing only what the moment demanded. In this sense, Acconci masturbating beneath the sloped floor of the Sonnabend Gallery could be seen as Performance punk. Joseph Beuys talking to a dead hare was Pre-Punk punk. Now imagine Laurie Anderson before her mirror sawing away on her phone-filtered violin, like Jack Benny the night before Carnegie Hall, cultivating an Aktion. No, cultivation does not reduce the element of spontaneity, no, no. It simply casts a mold—the form—in which performers present themselves as they open up to the inherent risk of live action, whether before an audience or a camera. What is often forgotten in the standard modernist denunciation of revivalism is that imitation is nearly always imperfect and therefore unique, however much the content or form is based upon the past. In fact, imitation fails and revivalism turns sour only when they completely succeed, or take too many spoonfuls of sugar.

I don’t wanna hold your hand (I just want to beat you up)
—Art, lyrics, 1980

I’m sorry I teased you/I really want to/How would you like it if I . . . /Sucker!
—The Waitresses, lyrics, 1981

Die young, stay pretty/Die young, stay pretty/Deteriorate in your own time/Deteriorate in your own time/Tell ’em you’re dead and wither away
—Blondie, lyrics, 1980

Coming out of P.S.1 . . . one wondered about the New Wave. Good, bad, horrid, avid or genuine. It is a kick in the teeth of art history, a turning point.
—Edith Schloss, International Herald Tribune, 1981

Despite the crockery and the claptrap, Mr. Schnabel is at times a painter of remarkable powers. The picture called “Death,” painted on a surface of shocking pink velvet, is quite unforgettable. If this work, and all of Mr. Morley’s, can be taken to represent a new wave, then painting is in for some interesting times.
—Hilton Kramer, New York Times, May, 1981

It might be fun to figure out what “Punk” or “New Wave” originally meant. Certainly they meant different things, back then, though art writer after art writer now claims they are inseparable, two sides of the same pink velvet. In Berlin, circa 1977, I saw the band Sadista Sisters twang up an abortion on stage, flinging the bloodied results of their mock operation at the audience. We all remember the Sex Pistols’ violent trip across the U.S. in 1978, culminating in the breakup of the band and the death of Sid Vicious one year later. Though they may have been influenced by the hard-charging, hard-playing New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols’ defiant nose-thumbing of their audience was based securely in British class warfare. They deliberately provoked the ears with monotonous lyrics, clanging chords, dissonant nonrhythms. At this very same moment we witnessed the parallel birth of “Art Rock,” sired at once by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, La-Monte Young (all of whom were in turn sired by the venerable John Cage), and Punk itself, witnessed by memorable crowds at Artist’s Space in 1978, where American bands such as the Theoretical Girls, the Gynecologists, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks first appeared. Again we heard in Art Rock repetition, simplification, the reduction of theatricality (later exemplified in its purest conceptual form by Disband), minus the sneering hostility.

It’s just plain fun to recall, the author repeats, that “New Wave” at first signaled a break with most of this. Not in the chain forged between Rock and Art by countless personal links (David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Brian Eno were all art students at one point: the Yoko Ono–John Lennon marriage openly consummated the two worlds). That chain remained. But “New Wave” was “New” in 1978–79 because it was old, or rather different, recalling past harmonies and softer nuances. Most of all the lyrics were listened to, in the small clubs that now seem to be fading (Max’s Kansas City, CBGB), while dancing revives in larger, plusher halls. Certainly Blondie is the classic, turning, triumphant New Wave band, openly seducing its audience, blowing theoretical kisses if not girls, followed closely by Adam and the Ants, Talking Heads, Squeeze, and many more.

Why has this sharp, clean break lost its meaning in recent months? How can Diego Cortez’s “New York/ New Wave” exhibition, bristling with the graffiti-style energy of visual punk—as first announced in the meticulously compiled “Times Square Show” one year ago—adopt the same label? No, it’s not simply indifference to words. It’s the Molière Syndrome. It’s the notion that waves, breaks, changes in the popular arts are merely commercially malleable, without serious meaning. That’s wrong, my friends, wrong. Beneath Punk and New Wave, between Polyester and Superman II, there are two distinct attitudes. Indeed, they may be . . . beneath everything . . .

Suddenly, it appears, the Return of Style is at hand. Songs that swing or carry the torch or conjure up dinner dates and flowers. Wit, charm, savvy, romance. Music by Rodgers, lyrics by Hart. A blue piano, a swaggering trumpet. Frank Sinatra serving orange juice for one. Ella Fitzgerald scatting with the Basie Band. Bobby Short vainly fighting the old ennui. Fred Astaire doing anything at all.
—Sidney Zion, “Outlasting Rock,” New York Times, June, 1981

Fuck Style Let’s Dance.
—David Sandlin, Zipper magazine, 1981

What is replacing the New Wave, in music, while it roars like thunder through the halls of art? No, no, Rock is not being replaced, not even the New Right can legislate that. Dancing. Lyrics, once sustained by small clubs and audiences, are fading away, fading in the din of feet stomping, moving, ignored by bands who do nothing but play for dancing, the Raybeats, the Individuals, the D.B.’s, more on the way. Max’s gives way to . . . Bond International . . . where Art Deco rules, beginning with gold fluted stairs, angling sharply left, sharply right, each step singing—like a church organ—as one ascends the stairs, leading to an ocean liner ballroom, swooped in soaring curves. The New Wave was therefore not an end, but a beginning, an evolutionary step. Remember that Blondie became popular only through the song “Heart of Glass,” laced in disco rhythms. Whatever happened to disco? Well, it has been replaced by Rock Dancing (so you see, Left follows Right, as Right follows Left). Yes, the New Wave was a step toward . . . rhythm & blues? Well, more than that . . .

If a nonmatrixed performer in a Happening does not have to function in an imaginary time and place . . . respond to often-imaginary stimuli . . . project the subrational or unconscious elements in the character he is playing . . . what is required of him? Only the execution of a generally simple and undemanding act.
—Michael Kirby, from Happenings, 1965

In the actor . . . the first self works upon the second till it is transfigured, and thence an ideal personage is evolved—in short, . . . from himself he has made his work of art.
—Benoit Constant Coquelin, 1887

An actor . . . must in a way forget himself . . . in order to assume those of his part. He must forget the emotion of the moment, the joy or sorrow born of the events of the day.
—Sarah Bernhardt, 1924

If the nonmatrixed performer dominated the happening, the matrixed actor stands at the center of Post-Performance. Moreover, he/she stands—sometimes in fact, always in theory—on the proscenium stage. This is in no sense a distancing. In the beginning, we all felt the proscenium had to be leveled, in order to bring audience and performer closer together. Acting, the double nature of the performer, had to go as well, since the assumption of a fictional character widened the space between you and me. Better that I become myself, my honest self, in order to meet with honest you. But who is entirely honest? Who is entirely one face at all moments of the day, year after year? What began to dawn upon the makers and takers of early Happenings, upon those who furiously pursued the close-in theater of solipsism, were these truths: honesty is pretense, when demanded by the occasion. No single one of our selves can be endlessly exploited (not even Vito Acconci can level with us night after night. year after year. without running short). Forced intimacy—like forced spontaneity—creates distance. Every pair of minds and eyes needs a space in between to survive. Further, there were examples of early artists-as-actors, playing consistent roles. I have already mentioned Jack Smith. But there were, there are, Joseph Beuys, James Lee Byars, Andy Warhol, always in disguise, whether hat, costume, or blank-faced gait.

Now there is more. In Post-Performance, there is the pleasure of assumption, of creating the role that is at once yourself, and someone else. Think about Lynn Hershman playing Roberta Breitmore, in 1976, a “real” person living then, in California, with interests very close to those of the artist herself. And think of Eleanor Antin playing Eleanora Antinova, dancing with Diaghilev, half a century ago, swinging back and forth, black-faced on a stage, surrounded by costumed retainers. Can’t you see the matrix closing? Roberta as near-fiction, Eleanora as pure fiction? Or . . . here is the catch . . . has the real Eleanor Antin finally emerged, through black paint? I never felt more truly myself than when I played Charlie Chaplin, in Post-Modern Times. Not because I had always wanted to be him (I had always wanted to be myself, sans imagination, as Michael Kirby had directed me). No, because I was Chaplin without knowing it, dating back to childhood memory. The point is this: we are by nature matrixed, that is, defined always by the artifice of the moment, which is conditioned, in turn, by the artifices bequeathed by the past. When we indulge this fact, we paradoxically liberate ourselves and cultivate delight in those who watch us.

To admire on principle is the only way to imitate without loss of originality.
—Samuel Coleridge, 1817

We never used a script. The important thing in getting a story was to get the idea . . . . Now like in Safety Last we had the climb. And we shot that first . . . When you know you have a very fine finish, you’re very excited . . . to go on and make the rest of it come up to it.
—Harold Lloyd, 1958

In . . . the Biograph’s latest comedy feature, a decided novelty has been introduced. In one of the scenes the characters are made to speak their lines by means of words that appear to flow mysteriously from their mouths. This is the first time that “talking pictures” have been shown, and they will prove bewildering and amusing to everyone.
—Ad for the film Looking for John Smith, 1906

Nothing demarcates the modern movement from the past more clearly than its hatred of “imitation.” My pocket encyclopedia tells me that “Neoclassicism” is characterized by “controlled imagination and lack of enthusiasm.” In other words, to act even in the spirit of those who preceded us is . . . bankruptcy. Think now of the relentless drive in late modernism to objectify all phenomena—to produce the surface-as-surface, word-as-word, self-as-self. Purged of all reference, then, the object (the solipsistic performer in this sense is the object) becomes clean, gene, new. Yet when we turn away from restless invention, when we face backwards, what a wealth of ignored tools falls into our hands! Is the silent movie a closed cycle, admitting no further refinements? How do Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd stack up against Piet Mondrian and Jules Olitski? Or think of radio. Think of listening, alone, to “The Shadow,” to “Dracula” (“Is this your wife? What a lovely throat”), to Jack Benny, timing his reply to the question, “Your money or your life?” (Answer: Pause. Pause. “I’m thinking it over”). Or: think of the theater, conducted on a proscenium, lifted above the audience in order to more directly engage the imagination.

Imagination? What’s that? The faculty of the mind that takes perception beyond the materialist limits of the physical form. It cannot be controlled, this faculty (can you restrain it when you see Kazimir Malevich’s White on White?). In this sense, deprivation—the sound taken away from you in the silents, the sight withheld by radio—is provocation. The performer who presents himself/herself as self, limits the audience’s interpretation to what is seen and heard. The performer who presents himself/herself as someone else—as Rodney Dangerfield (Michael Smith), Ricky Paul (Eric Bogosian)—releases the full powers of interpretation. Imitation is a beginning, a place to start.

Lack of enthusiasm? Think, finally, of the film Napoleon, Abel Gance’s revived three-screen epic from the ’20s. How did it stand up against brand new multimedia installations? Should we brand any artist who decides to follow this lead—rather than the lead of recent art history—Neoclassical? Yes, post-Napoleon art implies the use of narration, story, historical recall. But none of that, not even the dreaded “script,” dictates a sacrifice of richness. On the contrary. When you hear about Acconci’s Seedbed—about countless performances between 1965 and 1978 (including my own)—you know it all. The dematerialized concept, the gesture, was, in effect, the script, as well as the performance. Post-Performance narration is more than structure. It is the vehicle to explore meaning beyond the gesture. It gladly risks recall and thus courts the false charge of imitation. If this be Neoclassicism, we stand or fall on that ground.

If the A-effect is to achieve its aim, the stage and the auditorium must be cleared of “magic.”
—Bertolt Brecht, “The Alienation Effect,” 1949

Art and Illusion, illusion and art
This is the song that I’m singing in my heart
Art and illusion, illusion and art.

—Laurie Anderson, lyrics, 1975

Glamour is used as Uniform. Glamour is seductive, a promotional entity . . . It designates the self, commodifies it, supplying the customers with the image as product . . . where self, customers and image are all having fun!
—Edit deAk, press release for “Dubbed in Glamour,” The Kitchen, 1980

In the day
when I’m awake

and things are changing,
things are at stake,

I feel the heat
of something
inside my head.

It’s the DREAM.

You don’t have to hold
my hand.
Take me to a foreign land.

Things are not
what they seem

In the DREAM

is the key
to the dream
inside of me.

Dream it near
dream it far
dream a kingdom
dream a star.


I think it’s real
I can see
and feel,
I fantasize
I close my eyes
in the DREAM.
—Song composed by Jane Hudson, performed at the Mudd Club, 1981

An unconcern with audience is a legacy of the Romantic movement in early nineteenth-century Europe . . .The new conception of the artist was of someone whose production cannot be rationally directed toward any particular audience. . . a visionary whose sources of creativity are outside his conscious control. . .
—Martha Rosler, Exposure, Spring 1979

What then is the special element that entertains? I have no answer to the question, although I should have one. All I know is that in its nature it imparts a sensation of pleasantness (and not of catharsis), it loosens up, it frees me . . . it refreshens and it soothes . . .
—Istvan Petur, from Rádió es Televizió Szemle, Budapest, 1973

Western observers were bewitched and bewildered by the glorious Polish summer: not only the establishment voices, who love strikes only when they are staged on the other side . . . but the Western Left, which has some excuses for its perplexity. What do you do with a movement which starts, as the Gdansk strike did, by singing the International and the religious patriotic hymn to “God, who has protected Poland over centuries”?
—Daniel Singer, The Road to Gdansk, 1980

You will not find a single serious essay or article written about the art audience in the last 100 years. Indeed, the presence of the audience was hardly even acknowledged in art rhetoric until the 1960’s, when the new interest in artists’ books, films, and video tapes required it—as did the premise behind the rise in public funding for the arts. Now we regularly hear, for example, that 300 million visits are paid to museums every year. But not a line about individuals, about the psychic context that bears witness to every work of art, whether painting or performance (media theories, television “ratings,” and political polls evidence the same blindness). There are endless analytic studies of the physical effects of art objects, which imply sensory receptors somewhere, equipped with eyes. But nothing about the specific viewing person, endowed with the ultimate power of mind. Which means we are peculiarly barren in theoretical depth when it comes to issues like parody, reference, comedy, imitation, irony. Each of them requires the receiving mind in order to exist at all.

As Post-Performance reaches out to embrace small, clearly identifiable audiences—via cable television, National Public Radio, record albums, videodiscs, clubs like the Ritz, the Mudd Club, the late Hurrah’s—this apparent lack of interest in the audience approaches comedy itself. Of course we are mute on the subject of audience because it signifies what is forbidden, in High Art: to act out of any concerns other than solipsistic or formal ones. Certainly this is what led Michael Fried to say, “Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theater.” But this begs the definition of “theater.” Does it simply mean a work that connects with the preconceptions of its audience? If so, much of the painting that Fried admired and supported in the ’60s is “theater,” in the sense that the work evolved out of a logic clearly understood by those who displayed, discussed, and purchased it. No, none of these materialist definitions will satisfy us, in the end, any more than the search for Victorian Marxist behavior will define Solidarity (as either Left or Right in nature). Art is either Art or Non-Art because of its specific nature (which is a compound, always, of physical and nonphysical qualities, including, of course, content). In that sense, art can eat theater alive, and still survive. It can hang alone in a room . . . or dance around a nightclub floor. Dance on, fair, dear Art, dance on . . . and on.

Serious . . . a. 1440/ad.F .serieux or late L. seriosus, f.L.serius./ 1. Of persons, their actions, etc.: Having, involving, expressing, or arising from earnest purpose or thought; of grave or solemn disposition or intention; not light or superficial; now, often concerned with the grave and earnest sides of life. b. earnestly bent or applied; keen-1672. 2. Earnest about the things of religion; religious-1796 . . . not jesting, trifling, or playful; in earnest. Hence, of theatrical compositions or actors, not jocular or comic.-1590 . . . Of grave demeanour or aspect-1613. 6. Weighty, important, grave . . . 1584.
a. He was too s. to smile; indeed, I cannot remember him ever smiling, except sadly-1880 . . .
—Oxford English Dictionary

For a generation that ruthlessly ignored history, the root meaning of critical code words was unimportant. Yet the code words are themselves coded, by events, tradition, received denotation, as well as connotation. When I was growing up, the highest accolade that could be paid any artist was this: “serious.” That the term was dipped in the rise of Puritanism, that it connoted attitude or style only, not content or quality (of any kind), was beside the point. No, it was the demeanor that was grave, not the thought. Think, too, of all the words that circled around this central manner: “Important” . . . “Significant” . . . “Difficult” . . . “Severe” . . . “Tough” . . . “Rigorous.” Think of the color black, of repetitive speech, of Cor-ten steel: “I cannot remember him ever smiling.” These are matters of form and approach. If we have passed through a tough, grave, important period in art, we have also seen instances of seriocomic revolt: remember Ad Reinhardt’s comic strips, playing on the other side of his grave paintings: remember Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue; remember Warhol’s demeanor, never smiling, in the service of wit. If, finally, foolishness is appearing again, in film, song, and story, this tells us nothing about the essence of the matter, whatever you say, October (the editors are no longer “confident,” in issue number 16, that they can wipe the smiles off our faces). Serio-comedy attends the art of the moment as gravity embellished the art of yesteryear.

Comedy is a thing of pleasure, not of clowning, something measured not exaggerated, gay not impudent; and those who give the name of comedy to all sorts of wantonness, are using a definition of their own fancy. Jests season a work but not always; for there are serious episodes that are not all clarified by jests. And when the latter are inserted, they disrupt the whole tale. But the charm of the study is the excellence of a well-expounded incident which, tho it is not full of absurd sallies, has unity of action and a logical progression of scenes, as the play demonstrates. This yields a pleasure which remains a food to noble minds. Hence, those who consider comedy close to buffoonery are in error.
—Nicolo Barbieri, from La Supplica, “What is a Buffoon?,” 1634

What is the role of humor in art? When we hear laughter in a museum or gallery context—in any context where the art audience is present, say Hurrah’s or the Ritz—does it spring from a shared body of information or opinion? We began to laugh in the mid-’60s, with Pop. It was cool, edgy laughter—only Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns roared, mostly at parties—but it was laughter. No joke can succeed with any audience unless it is based on a shared set of ideas, if not attitudes. When I introduced a set of lines in Silver Screen that played with the idea of flatness, I heard the gallery audiences guffaw, out loud. That doesn’t happen when the movie is shown to theater audiences, where other, broader lines provoke the laughs. I vividly recall Donald Kuspit’s riposte to Miriam Schapiro’s feminist statement at a Cooper Union panel in 1979, eliciting huge belly laughs that reflected an anti-feminist position missing from Kuspit’s words (but present in the audience). Comedy, in this sense, is as much a formal device in recent performance as the idea of art-only-as-art, which led to the gestural theater of the ’60s and ’70s. Comedy is comedy only when it is based on shared precedent. It is also, therefore, a rhetorical device in art writing, and lecturing, reflecting backward and forward at once, like the footnote. No, don’t say DOWN WITH THE FOOTNOTE IN THE ’80s, no, no. Rather, let us transform the footnote into a solid punch line!

Paramodernism is more in the nature of a rear-guard action than a vanguard assault in that it seeks to reassert qualities, such as decorative color and form, emotional stimulation and the sumptuous use of evocative materials, that were expunged from art during the reign of color-field abstraction and hyper-realism . . .
—Helen A. Harrison, New York Times, June 1981

Don’t think I can fit it on the paper
Don’t think I can get it on the paper
Go ahead and rip up, rip up the paper
Go ahead and tear up, tear up the paper.
—Talking Heads, lyrics, 1979

(SUPERMAN III appears, ripping through this page from below. He scans it anxiously. Confused, he taps on his crystalline computer to summon his mother. She appears, fast as ever.)
MOTHER: What is it now, my son?
SUPERMAN: Where is Divine? Just a few pages ago, she stood right there (points toward upper left).
MOTHER: My son, she belongs to another time. She is there, now, not here.
SUPERMAN: Back in the Cafe Voltaire, with Tzara and Huelsenbeck?
MOTHER: No, son. She is sparking the boys at Woodstock Nation.
SUPERMAN: Good for her. But I’m living now, on this page, filled with answers to the questions raised on page 31. Shouldn’t I supply them, now, here?
MOTHER: At this point, the answers are self-evident, my son. Where is Lois? There’s an important question.
SUPERMAN: She left me, again! This time she called me . . .
MOTHER (horrified, at last): No!
SUPERMAN: Can’t you tell? Just look at me. The moment I returned to my Kryptonite stature, Lois looked at me . . . and concluded that I had become decorative again. . . sumptuous . . . evocative. “You’ve
gone back!” she said pointing at my red cape. “You’re not vanguard! You’re rear-guard!”
MOTHER: Humph! I wouldn’t stand for that sort of talk from a layperson.
SUPERMAN: You can’t blame her. She wants me to be lean, sleek, mild-mannered. So I can make love to her. She wants a normal Modern Male. She wants . . .
Clark Kent!
MOTHER: Why? Aren’t you more fun to look at the way you are? You’re certainly slimmer than Divine. As for love, I’m sure you can make it, if you try.
SUPERMAN: (brightening noticeably): You are? You really are? How?
MOTHER: Love is like art. Remember that, my son. Millions of people make it every day.
SUPERMAN: They do? Hmmmm. It sounds sort of . . . commonplace.
MOTHER: (fading out); Don’t worry, son. Some people make it . . . better than others.
(SUPERMAN III straightens up, smiling. He flaps his decorative red cape defiantly in the wind, even blows it a kiss. Then he leaps UP, toward you, and away.)

Douglas Davis, 1981.

Douglas is an artist and writer who lives in New York City.