PRINT March 1982



To the Editor:

Will the real waitress please stand up?

An article by Douglas Davis entitled “Post-Performancism” appeared in the October 1981 issue of Artforum. Accompanying this article was a photo identified simply as “The Waitresses, 1979.” The text carried a quote from a hit song by a punk rock band which calls itself “The Waitresses.” The juxtaposition of the quote and the visual image—each identified only as “The Waitresses”—implied that these two groups are one and the same.

They are not!

This group of “The Waitresses” (speaking) is a feminist art performance group which has been presenting performance art events in and around Los Angeles since March 1978. The members are: Chutney Gunderson, Denise Yarfitz, Anne Gauldin, Anne Mayor, and Jerri Allyn (in New York). We collaboratively create and perform pieces using the waitress as a metaphor for women, presenting issues such as stereotypes, sexual harassment, work, money, and world hunger and food distribution. Over the past three and a half years we have appeared in restaurants, galleries, on national TV, on radio, at conferences, in numerous publications, and on the streets of L.A.

We do not identify with punk. We do: sing, dance, rehearse, have a deep concern for audience, create characters such as “Wonder Waitress” and “The Great Goddess Diana as a Waitress,” and use comedy to make serious points.

The photo in Artforum depicted “The All-City Waitress Marching Band,” an event organized by “The Waitresses” for the Pasadena Doodah Parade in December 1979. We invited our friends and L.A.’s feminist art community, most of whom had also at one time been waitresses, to don uniforms and join us. With kitchen utensils as instruments we marched down Colorado Boulevard (the route of the Rose Parade) singing such favorites as “Here Comes the Toast”—to the tune of “Here Comes the Bride.”

Hopefully this clarifies the current mix-up in the annals of waitressing history, not to mention contemporary art, be it “high,” “low,” or “over easy with hash browns and toast.”

—Denise Yarfitz
for “The Waitresses”

To the Editor:

Kate Linker has, quite inadvertently I think, misrepresented my statement concerning Fermion (“Reviews,” January). The term “critical mass” refers to the minimum quantity of a fissionable material necessary to sustain a nuclear-fission reaction. Rather than trying to “counteract” Fermi’s achievement of converting matter directly into physical energy, I have attempted in my sculptures to achieve an analogous conversion of matter directly into art energy. For the political ramifications of these new mass relations, Linker ought to look, not to my works, but to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

—Carl Andre
New York

To the Editor:

I congratulate Artforum for having selected as reviewer for Slave to Beauty, my biography of the pictorialist photographer F. Holland Day, a critic with the literary sensibilities of Kelly Wise (Artforum, November 1981). He was both generous and perceptive.

It should be noted, however, that Wise chooses not to accept certain facts, and ascribes several statements to me that are not quite accurate. Facts: Day was considered as an equal to Alfred Stieglitz back in the 1890s. He was elected to the Linked Ring Brother- hood (the precursor to Photo-Secession) only one year after Stieglitz himself (and Stieglitz was elected at the same time as Rudolf Eickemeyer, another pictorialist who has been largely forgotten). Stieglitz had enormous respect and admiration for Day even after their fatal squabble, as witness the fact that he was so eager to see Day’s post-1904-studio-fire pictures that he offered to buy them from Frederick Evans. Sadakichi Hartmann called Day “the most ambitious and accomplished of our American portrait photographers,” and other critics tended to place Stieglitz and Day upon the same exalted pinnacle of achievement, despite the differences in what they actually did with a camera.

Day’s work, symbolic, mystical, literary, is so foreign to late 20th century esthetic ideologies that it is, of course, difficult to realize how exalted he was, and how profoundly his Ebony and Ivory, and other black male nudes, were admired for their technical virtuosity. But there is nothing difficult about his female portraits; their appeal is immediate and direct. If Rudolf Eickemeyer was absolutely dumbfounded at his first viewing of Day’s dramatic portraits, and wrote to Stieglitz to tell him that he was overcome with a sense of Day’s originality, we should believe that Day was, in fact, quite remarkable in his own time.

––Estelle Jussim

Kelly Wise replies:

What Estelle Jussim’s fine biography underscores is the brief moment of glory, like a match struck with an exquisitely delicate flame, enjoyed by F. Holland Day. The “was considered as an equal to Alfred Stieglitz back in the 1890s” seems more interpretative than factual. What does “equal to” mean? As a creator of arresting and original images? As a pioneer in the uses of the “hand” camera? As a critic? An impresario? A forecaster of things to come? As an art magnate whose judgments bore weight both in and beyond photographic salons? As an editor and empire-builder? In 1887, P.H. Emerson awarded Stieglitz first prize in a competition sponsored by Amateur Photographer (London), the first of countless honors that Stieglitz would garner. In 1893 he became the editor of American Amateur Photographer and a year later the first American to be elected to the Linked Ring. In 1897 he was offered the presidency of a new organization resulting from the merger of American Amateur Photographer and the Camera Club of New York. In the same year he founded and began editing Camera Notes. By 1903 he had announced the formulation of Photo-Secession and had launched the prestigious quarterly Camera Work.

Stieglitz placed himself at the center. As Jussim states, Day recognized the immense political power wielded by Stieglitz. With a cable Stieglitz blocked the exhibition organized by Day titled “The New School of American Photography” scheduled to open at the London halls on the Linked Ring—that exhibition did open October 10, 1900 at the Royal Photographic Society—and Day was to discover later that Stieglitz would prevent his “directing new exhibitions elsewhere.”

I find the relationship between Stieglitz and Day as portrayed by Jussim alert and fully engrossing. For Stieglitz, that relationship was fraught with ambivalence. For Day, I sense profound respect for Stieglitz before their unbridgeable rift. Jussim includes a significant disclosure by Day. When in 1899 he was urging Stieglitz to establish an “American Association of Artistic Photography,” Day wrote Stieglitz the following: “I would sooner think of flying than to undertake a photographic movement which you would refuse to head in the fullest possible way.”

I do not wish in the least to diminish F. Holland Day, but I continue to believe that between these two gifted men there were considerable differences in ambitions and accomplishments.

—Kelly Wise
Andover, Mass.

To the Editor:

“Before we write off (neo)expressionism and discard it completely,” it is one thing to parody its false premises, its frank adolescence and sensationalism, but another thing to compare it with the gutsy issues of “Faustian will-to-power” underscoring the spiritualism of German Expressionism. This polemical association misleads us into the closure of a moral muddle, a critical and taxing problematic surfacing in Donald Kuspit’s unusually lucid and readable article entitled “The New (?) Expressionism: Art as Damaged Goods” (November, 1981). Kuspit’s criticism and denunciations are appreciated; what is disappointing is the writer’s excessive fascination with the pseudo-religiosity and elitist theosophy informing the Lebenswelt of a rampant Symbolist-Expressionist art of an earlier chronicle. Let us not equivocate; one need not be sanctimoniously redundant in arguing what is evident, that this “cooked up” concoction of neo-Expressionism appears to lack the force of “ethical” or “moral ” commitment. On the surface, the appropriation of the childish in order to “look like” or give the appearance of perversity, asserts itself as a reflection of cultural decadence. However, what is inadmissible is Kuspit’s oversimplistic script concerning a complex situation: while ruminating through passages overloaded with homespun homiletics concerning the cynicism of capitalist economy, what is more spurious and distressing is the writer’s persuasiveness to have us believe that in the instance of German Expressionism one may discern an exemplary sense of fervent “moral commitment,” that in invoking the pathos of an authentic. Faustian will-to-power, the movement itself was in keeping with the category of the ethical, to convey “an active and organizing force in the evolution of life.” This characterization is quite innocent in its attempt to conceal what is most evident; rather, it may even be said that Kuspit’s vigilant distinction between an Expressionism regarded as the artist’s spiritual will-to-power and one dependent upon the heritage of “folkism” confuses and blurs—even blinds us to—a reality that we have come to discredit. This reality is that the orgy of the Spirit, the thirst for an art of sublime feelings co-existing with the desire for transcendence, the need to inoculate the commonplace with the “Faustian will-to-power” all comes down to the distracting fact of psychic derangement, the “spiritization” of the demonic. Here, the truth may be said: German Expressionism’s “Faustian will-to-power,” its charismatic reformation of stripping consciousness down to its childlike conditions, its unrelenting demand to return to a religious attitude “akin to that of the Nazarenes,” only unveils the malaise of an enlarging apsis—that of the demonic. It is this pivotal issue that Kuspit fails to explore; but then, as an analysis and critique of vanguard showmanship, the essay would need to undergo a reorientation in perspective, a sudden about-face, for what appears in superficial relief as a diagnosis of “false pregnancy” may in fact be another “turning point” in the prolonged campaign to “desublimate” and “demystify” the tortuous and paranoic drama of the romantic World-Soul. The esthetic irreverence of neoExpressionism is an act of protest, “the secret rebellion of the bourgeois against his own class,” as a sort of tonic or therapeutic measure raising the level of self-consciousness in regard to the demonic imbedded in capitalist popular culture. The realization that the so-called bourgeois “enemy camp” is capable of assimilating the “anarchic” and the “regressive,” transforming such oeuvre into haute kitsch, is no argument or proof of fraud or hypocrisy; rather, the tactics of “new wave” art, like those acts of disrespect implicit in alternative spaces and community-based art, ought to be reappraised as acts that invest life with “moral alternatives,” not only as initiatives in the demystification of the established values of capitalist popular culture, but also “the only truly alternative art there is today,” to undermine the incarnation of another cycle of gnostic-theosophical bamboozlement of the World Spirit. We have come to the juncture where radical formlessness arises as an ethical possibility for art; what has been made certain is the untenability of that dream of an art belonging “on the altars of the coming spiritual religion”; what we have to brace ourselves for is an art “seized by a deeper horror” (Martin Buber).

—William Proweller
Fredonia, N.Y.

To the Editor:

I don’t understand why it’s my duty or pleasure as a writer to arouse reviewer Douglas Blau’s lust (“Books,” January). The text of The Persian Poems isn’t a naif’s expression or anyone’s fiction: it is a Persian grammar book (Elementary Persian Grammar, by L.P. Elwell-Sutton) with enough words changed to abolish the charge of plagiarism. If a grammar book is pornographic, then The Persian Poems is pornographic.

—Kathy Acker
New York

To the Editor:

What was so disturbing to me about Thomas Lawson’s article Last Exit: Painting (October 1981) was Lawson’s self-consciously restrictive and reductive menu of present viable esthetic possibilities, as well as his reading of Modernism as an exercise in negativity, in subversion. Most significantly, I believe he has not listened enough to the most useful words he quotes, those of Octavio Paz, quoted as stating, “Negation is no longer creative. I am not saying that we are living the end of art; we are living the end of the idea of modern art.”

Does this statement, then, posit an art of subversion? That is, does something have to be killed in order to die? Do we have to destroy art in order to save it? To patch together what, I hope, isn’t an unfair reading of Lawson, he says that what a “radical” artist must do in order to avoid “instant cooptation or forced inactivity” is to destabilize the “certainty of appearances,” to make art works that misrepresent themselves as art works, to deconstruct art by making paintings that aren’t paintings, photographs that aren’t photographs, films that aren’t films.

It is clear that what Mr. Lawson is seeing is the essentially reductive position that every Modern movement has taken toward whatever culture it faced. Deconstruction—and reconstruction—were part of every creed, but the progress of esthetics over the past ninety years has drawn each “Modernism” closer to the deconstruction and reconstruction not of human society so much as of the much narrower circle of “art” culture—artists, museums, the market, the critics. Now is the time to end the game, Lawson says.

He’s right, but instead of ending the game, Lawson suggests that the only rational, creative thing for the players to do is to keep playing, with full knowledge of its meaninglessness. That might seem courageous, almost romantic, if it were truly necessary. The game isn’t art, the game is Modern art, as Octavio Paz pointed out, and the way out is the very same way we got in: freedom. Only an implicit acceptance of the game itself keeps a player in the arena. Why not leave? Why stay and pretend?

“Pluralism” isn’t Modernism’s last word—it is rather the first indication of Modernism’s true maturity, of the gift Modernism has brought, that artists no longer must keep up what has become an uncreative dialectic with art culture—there isn’t, finally, a single right way to make art. That a single (new, comprehensive) way was the only way to go was the Modernist artist’s great initial premise. It was an idea that allowed a thickly-painted Japonized copy of a Delacroix print, a bicycle rack, or an American flag rendered in encaustic on canvas to be, and to be, in time, considered as Art, for Art. Modernism’s job is done, and we all know it.

Lawson praises David Salle’s paintings for being “dead, inert representations of the impossibility of passion in a culture that has institutionalized self-expression.” Is passion impossible? Hasn’t passion been liberated by modern culture as much as trivialized, or capitalized upon? Just because passion must go an extra mile in self-awareness, because it must remember its own temporality, doesn’t vulgarize it unless it was a vulgar passion to begin with. Is all self-expression institutionalized?

Not mine. I’ve never shown in a gallery. Only my friends own my art works, and I have never been written of by a critic. In other words, I am an artist who is existing quite well without engaging the “problem” of art culture in my art works directly, without a place in it (except as a museum worker and an occasional critic). If Lawson senses that the art world has given us no choices other than the ones he and his friends have made, he cannot see what has been won.

—J.W. Mahoney
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Washington D.C.

Thomas Lawson replies:

A great deal of the criticism I have received in relation to my article has been the result of careless reading or misreading, too often inspired by art-world paranoia, so I am grateful that J.W. Mahoney took the time to pay attention to my argument. That argument can be restated quite simply: is it possible for artists to act within a culture that uses an ideology of free choice to restrict critique and ultimately freedom? Citing recent failures as a warning against undue optimism, I answered with a tentative affirmative. Mahoney finds my reservations too depressing, however, and suggests that artists can do anything they like, so long as they keep it private. But dropping out like this is a truly hopeless solution, turning the artist into just another counterculture crackpot on the outer fringes of society. If art is reduced to an activity that makes one or two good friends feel good, it really is finished.