PRINT December 1992


Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, by Camille Paglia. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

So far we have seen two acts of the razzle-dazzle Camille Paglia show. The first act—the exposition, as it were—was Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, a tumescent tome that ranges swaggeringly over the whole of the Western cultural patrimony, resembling in its ambitions such old-fashioned surveys as Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and E. R. Curtius’ European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, but hyped-up and amphetamized for the MTV generation. Dirty, too—Paglia’s willful lubriciousness at times gives the impression (no doubt one that she welcomes) that she has one eye on the Loeb Classics, the other on Stroke. A work of solitary lucubration, Sexual Personae was incubated on the barest fringes of an academic community that Paglia frankly reviles.

Her second act is Sex, Art, and American Culture, a collection of op-ed pieces, book reviews, and lectures done over her two years of celebrityhood. Paglia remains determinedly naughty, a giddy enthusiast of Madonna and Liz Taylor and a gun-toting she-assassin of crabby feminists and Francophile academics. Paglia has herself become the intellectual as Pop persona, which almost necessitates a degree of self-parody. When she doesn’t give you a headache (as you read you can hear the decibel level rising, see the gesticulations growing ever more manic), she can be quite funny. Paglia ridicules con brio.

Paglia may be as much a symptom of cultural malaise as the Foucault wannabes and sad-sack feminists she showers with contempt, but I can’t help sort of liking her. What she really ought to do is give up her self-appointed role as Madonna’s secular priestess and tell us more about herself. Even though she is free enough with the first person singular and goes on and on about “my generation of the Sixties” as if she were the only one to come back alive, you get the feeling that she is holding back on the real dirt. In her self-mythologizing “Sexual Personae: Cancelled Preface” she writes, “Paterian subjectivity claims for the essay the imaginative authority normally reserved for poetry and fiction. Oscar Wilde says . . . ‘The highest criticism is the record of one’s own soul.’”With that in mind, I look forward to Paglia’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua_.

David Rimanelli is a writer living in New York. He is a frequent contributor to Artforum.


The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, edited by Thierry de Duve. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1991.

Marcel Duchamp had his first retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963 at the age of 76. The exhibition, organized by Walter Hopps, was, as Richard Hamilton has noted, significant for many reasons, not the least of which was its lesson that Duchamp’s oeuvre must be seen “as a whole: as an entity so infinitely complex that his work resists attempts to transmit adequate experience of it.” We know from his long-standing assistance in the acquisition, preservation, and multiple “assemblages” of his oeuvre, both for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and his “portable museum” entitled Boîte-en-valise (Box in a valise), that Duchamp would have been sympathetic to this perspective. And apart from the idea that appearances don’t tell the whole story, Duchamp’s confusion of artistic and sexual identity, his fascination with paradox, myth-making, and iconoclasm, certainly reinforce Hamilton’s idea of an “infinitely complex” subject resistant to essentialized meaning.

Unmoved by the indifference of the readymade and Duchamp’s shifting of the balance of esthetic power toward the spectator, many art historians have veered toward allegorical or esoteric interpretations of his work. Yet recent scholarship has begun to chip away at metaphysical readings that shroud Duchamp in the poetics of courtly love, n-dimensional geometry, or Neoplatonism. The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp marks a significant and welcome shift in the study of the Dadaist master. This beautifully designed book of 11 essays records the proceedings of a three-day bilingual colloquium held at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, in 1987—on the occasion of that school’s and Duchamp’s 100th anniversary. Organized by Nova Scotia’s H. Dennis Young and by Thierry de Duve, who, in addition to participating in the colloquium, transcribed and edited the proceedings and served as chair for seven of the sessions, the conference provided the opportunity to appraise the state of Duchamp criticism a decade after the major Duchamp retrospective in Paris at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the as-of-yet untranslated colloquium at Cerisy-la-Salle. While this volume covers the methodological spectrum of recent Duchamp studies (seven of the participants have since 1977 published books that in whole or in part deal with Duchamp), its transcription of the discussions following each paper affirm what is implied by the title: no model will ever be sufficient for comprehending the totality of Duchamp’s oeuvre.

This is not to say that the hegemony of one interpretation must yield to a kind of “elementary parallelism,” to employ a typical Duchampian phrase. Rather than rationalizing the extraordinary diversity of Duchamp’s oeuvre through recourse to his notes or conceptual projects, decoding both in the service of some higher value, this book gives renewed emphasis to the visual and phenomenological aspects of the work. The two exceptions offer a notable contrast in themselves. In Craig Adcock commentary on Duchamp’s notes and work, n-dimensional geometry is employed as an all-encompassing model for revealing and analyzing the artist’s metaphysics. In a more conjectural way, de Duve’s paper—by reconsidering and retranslating two of Duchamp’s more important notes, the “Preface” and “Warning” from the Green Box—grounds the meaning of the artist’s writings and work in the specific worldly acts and decisions of his life. Through an imaginative extrapolation of Duchamp’s mathematical ingenuity, and in a manner that directly mirrors Duchamp’s “algebraic comparison,” de Duve reconfigures a number of analogies involving works and exhibitions that challenged conventional institutional and esthetic hierarchies. His assessment of this period redefines not only Duchamp’s role in Dada but also the role the artist played in shaping his own critical success.

Ultimately, Duchamp emerges here as gendered, textual, carnal, and visual. Recent scholarship displays a somewhat unconscious urge to confront the totality of Duchamp’s psycho-physiological being, and, in the process, to expose gender as constructed. Molly Nesbit, for example, examines the possible relationship between Duchamp’s draftsmanship and the gender-based instruction of drawing in the public education system of the Third Republic. Even Andre Gervais’ intertextual and etymological mining of Duchampian wordplay reminds us “that the onlooker is involved literally from head to toe ... the entire body of Duchamp’s visual, and especially, literary work is mapped onto the onlooker’s body.”

Another important trend attempts to examine visuality in Duchamp’s work in relation to the quintessentially Modernist understanding of the “retinal”—a concept far more complex than the mere optical effects of Impressionism. Indeed, the issue of Duchamp’s “optics” plays a controversial, if not central, role: Rosalind Krauss, in one of the book’s most significant essays, addresses the nexus of vision and desire—a long-ignored issue that is central to understanding Duchamp’s complex optics. Herbert Molderings ascribes profound importance to Duchamp’s adoption and development of an equivocal optical machine; its inclusion in the Large Glass, he reasons, contributes to the work’s “final incompleteness.”

Overall, such complex debates are greatly amplified by the transcribed discussions that follow each paper. This is in welcome contrast with another recent Duchamp anthology, _Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, edited by Rudolf E. Keunzli and Francis M. Naumann, five of whose contributors are represented in the present volume. Despite Keunzli’s adept and informative introduction, his anthology features narrowly focused, often highly technical readings; the absence of the kind of exchange that charges de Duve’s book leaves the reader with the sense that no debate is really possible. In contrast, the discussion fostered by the Nova Scotia colloquium not only points to the future of Duchamp studies but suggests some significant directions for the new art history. Given the key role that this volume will undoubtedly play in the art-historical redefinition of the “subject” and its modalities, de Duve’s introduction is disappointingly cursory. More explanation of the organization and structure of the colloquium and some discussion about the recent methodological shifts in Duchamp studies would have helped to focus and contextualize the book’s dissonant, at times contradictory arguments.

Mason Klein is an art historian and critic who lives in New York City.


The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl,1978–1990, edited by Malin Wilson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

In a well-known spot cartoon by Ad Reinhardt. an abruptly anthropomorphized abstract painting points an admonitory finger at a scoffer who, confusing significance with pictorial perspicuity, had rhetorically asked: What does that mean? The painting’s riposte is: What do You mean? Reinhardt’s cartoon is a witty version of a form of art criticism that has largely vanished from the present scene. In this view the artwork criticizes its viewers, some of whom, in articulating their responses, at once define their own meaning and the meaning of the art that called them into question. The great paradigm of this sort of reverse criticism is the stunning last line in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem on an archaic torso of Apollo, in which an astute criticism of the sculpture is transformed into an astute criticism by the sculpture of the critic, who perceives that he must change his life. The statue does not simply tell him that he fell short, in the manner of a red banner in a work by Barbara Kruger; it reveals his shortcomings. It is my sense that those who have not had the meanings of their lives put in question by works of art have not participated in the critical transaction that alone justifies the existence and experience of art. Nothing else—not pleasure, information, political truth, quality, or visual excitement—is a substitute if the whole point and meaning of works of art is that they should move the souls. of those who are present to them.

The bulk of art-critical writing today largely treats works of art as problems to be solved, texts to be interpreted, phenomena to be explained, symptoms to be etiologized, structures to be deconstructed, messages to be decoded, images to be liquidated for their verbal cash values. In all of this, the work is passive, and the critic speaks from a position of superiority. The only critic I know of who consistently respects the works he writes of as active, treating himself as their passive respondent, is Peter Schjeldahl. It is not simply that he keeps alive an all-but-forgotten style of criticism: he maintains the life of the art he writes about, rather than allowing it to be submerged beneath dark theories, cynical diagnoses, arcane hermeneutics, ideological tub-thumping, sociosexual exposés, and generally obfuscated in the name of explication. Schjeldahl writes as a poet, which he is, not merely in the respect that he is one of those by whom language lives, to cite Auden’s criterion, but in that he consults and trusts his responses. This makes him always a wonderful critic to read, if only because he gets us to think about our responses, and to worry when they fail to cohere with his.

I especially love reading Schjeldahl on artists to whom I do not respond, or respond to negatively when he instead is glorified by them. Sigmar Polke is a case in point. “The dynamic mess of many of Polke’s paintings,” he writes in “The Daemon and Sigmar Polke” (a literate allusion to a once-famous title, The Devil and Daniel Webster), “suggests the work of a blind man with good luck” (a witty allusion to a line in Plato in which Socrates describes himself as a blind man who has hit the right road by accident). What I will have seen is just the dynamic mess and not the good luck, but the fact that Schjeldahl sees the luck gives me a reason to feel that I must mein Leben ändern, open myself up to a response more positive than anything that has so far happened. Schjeldahl is alive to the obstacles: “Instances of crude jokiness, decorative fuss, and dubious mysticism abound in his work, sometimes making one feel vaguely humiliated for even looking at it.” But then, almost like a spiritual advisor, he says, in the next sentence, “This is a salutary humiliation.” It is all a sign of Polke’s “daemonic seriousness,” and of his conviction that “aesthetic decorum appears to be roughly as important in the present state of civilization as table manners during an air raid.” Now a lot of art today is antiesthetic in this way, deploring beauty when the world is being ravaged by AIDS, starvation, and moral blight of every order. But Schjeldahl sees this as just part of the present state, and so part of the problem: “Lugubriousness, frenzy, and apocalypse [are] the unearned small change of current style.” In Polke, in any case, the response is You must change your civilization. Now you may not get this from the artist, and you may not take this from the critic. But at the very least it provokes you to question the validity of the criteria under which you are keeping this artist at a critical distance.

The title of this selection of Schjeldahl’s work comes from a phrase in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: “listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.” Schjeldahl cites and glosses this line “for its bedrock American eloquence and an esthetic disposition that if it were a proverb might go ‘Make the best of the worst.’” I guess this means that if the crack of doom comes over the jukebox, you may as well dance: which sounds a lot like minding your table manners during an air raid after all. And it perhaps explains the photograph of the author in wing collar and tux, holding a cigarette elegantly, dressed for the apocalypse. Or it may simply mean that no art is so bad that something good may not be found in it if you are a responsive enough critic. Schjeldahl is unfailingly generous, even with artists he sets out to scold. He is, for example, against almost everything Grant Wood was for, but American Gothic is “a magnificent fluke”—once more the luck of the blind—which “works well enough . . . for the image to take hold as a touchstone for complicated thoughts and feelings comparable to those evoked by a great short story.” In Jeff Koons there is “a twerp’s ethos, though I don’t doubt that Koons is a one-in-a-million twerp.” Notwithstanding which, “I became a Koons konvert.” Still, what he chiefly wants to do is proclaim greatness, as with de Kooning, “the best painter of this half-century, in the opinion of anyone with eyes in a head.” Or Hopper: “Only individual human hearts can ultimately assess the diagnoses of this doctor of democracy who asked if the soul—and art, which is its mirror—could survive an inclement century. His answer: yes, in a way.” Courbet’s way of painting “inculcates a restless disgust with the merely esthetic. You want to run out and start a riot, milk a cow, have sex, eat an apple, die—do anything rather than stand around abrading your nerves with the angel-grit of ’fine art.” Velazquez we “can use . . . for remembering how to love life: directly, with an attentiveness and a responsiveness that drive thoughts of ‘love’ and ‘life’ out of our heads and consume us like a clear flame.”

Whatever you may think of all this, it will budge you from the discourse of signifiers, difference, hyperreality, late capitalism, and like counters that get shuffled across the board in writing about art, and return you to what brought you to write about or think about or worry about art in the first place.

Arthur C. Danto is the art critic for The Nation and a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, New York.


Art & Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity, by Thomas McEvilley. Kingston, N.Y.: McPherson & Company, 1992.

The art historians of the future, what will they say of us? Will my sense that art of the current period has passed some significant threshold be confirmed, or am I simply suffering from that typically Modernist delusion that I live in a period of unprecedented historical change? One thing Thomas McEvilley’s new collection of essays gives me is the reassurance that my perceptions are not delusions—or at least that someone else out there shares them.

McEvilley believes something fundamental has changed in art, and though he assigns no precise date to this transformation, he does identify a moment when the discourse around art turned an important corner. The year was 1984, and the occasion was the exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth Century Art,” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. McEvilley’s memorable essay “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief,” first published that November in Artforum, argues that by decontextualizing tribal objects, and by valuing them only insofar as they could be read as supporting the tenets of Modernism, the exhibition was a spectacle of “Western egotism still as unbridled as in the centuries of colonialism and souvenirism.” (It is too bad that the subsequent exchange of letters between McEvilley and the exhibition’s organizers, William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, was not also reprinted here.) Presumably unintentionally, the “‘Primitivism’” show had the effect of illuminating this egotism as much as the effects it sought to document.

As the rest of the essays in Art & Otherness show, McEvilley’s critique of “‘Primitivism”’ was the opening shot in a wider campaign. Drawing on anthropology (Marvin Harris, James Clifford), classical history (for example, by likening Modernism to a certain Scythian cult of the first century A.D.), and other sources, McEvilley states the case against much, if not all, that Modern art held dear. He is particularly effective in placing the idea of the value judgment, that albatross of “quality,” in healthy perspective. McEvilley sees the progressive opening-up of the formalist citadel of Modernism, an essentially exclusionary (or exclusively essentialist) movement, as culminating in the “globalism of the ’90s.”

At the moment of the 1989 exhibition “Les Magiciens de la terre,” at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, it may indeed have seemed that a new era of a truly international art world was about to be ushered in. Included here is McEvilley’s keynote statement for that show, which exhibited large numbers of non-Western artists on an equal footing with Europeans and Americans. McEvilley’s editorship of the now defunct magazine Contemporanea, where he made a point of publishing global coverage of art, probably also contributed to his optimism.

Unfortunately, two unforeseen developments have derailed this expected age of globalism. One is the worldwide economic slump. As the ultimate sources of exhibition financing—collectors and governments—cut back drastically, it becomes harder for both institutions and individuals to embark on ambitious projects involving artists from faraway countries.

Also since “Les Magiciens de la terre,” communism has collapsed in Eastern Europe. This has shifted the West’s attention toward Europe and away from the third world. Particularly in Germany, the newly freed east is drawing off massive amounts of capital, leaving that much less for initiatives involving other continents. Furthermore, the collapse of old political divisions has unleashed new nationalisms and turned many people’s attention to local problems—problems exacerbated by the economic slump. (The “domestic policy” focus of the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign is one example of this.) In short, the globalism promised by “Les magiciens de la terre” now seems as likely as the “new world order” proclaimed by George Bush after the Gulf War.

But these unforeseen events by no means weaken the power of McEvilley’s book, nor the strength of his thesis. Something did indeed happen in the wake of “‘Primitivism,’” and since then issues of multiculturalism have risen to the top of many agendas. If the globalism McEvilley seeks has been delayed, its realization remains ethically imperative. The absorbing essays included here on contemporary art from India and Africa suggest how much the West has to gain by meeting the rest of the world on even ground.

The central point in Art & Otherness is that Modernism and formalism are deeply wrapped up with colonialism. Charting out a post-Modern, postcolonial world has become McEvilley’s driving passion, but this does not mean he has lost interest in What individual artists are accomplishing. Indeed, in what may be the book’s most exciting and riskiest moment, the present conduct of art is specifically addressed in three short sentences tucked away in the introduction: “At moments of intense social ferment, art can serve to retard, disguise, or misrepresent a society’s potential for change. Today, against all odds, art is performing the opposite role. Tracking the future, it senses avenues along which a new self may emerge into the light of a redefined history.” McEvilley modestly allows the reader to fill in the names of the artists creating this “new self,” but he leaves us in little doubt that they exist. In the absence of a working time machine, those eager to know how scholars of tomorrow will see us could not do better than to read Art & Otherness.

Meyer Raphael Rubinstein is a critic who divides his time between New York and Milan.


Céline: A Biography, by Frederic Vitoux. Trans. Jesse Browner. New York: Paragon House, 1992 (first published in France in 1988).

Elizabeth and Louis: Elizabeth Craig Talks about Louis-Ferdinand Céline, by Alphonse Juilland. Palo Alto: Montparnasse Publications, 1991.

Biographies of great men tend to reduce the supporting cast—especially wives and lovers—to shadows, or else to handmaidens. Take the case of Louis-Ferdinand Céline (and it is always “the case” with this difficult author), whose debt to his wife, Lucette Almansour, in his final years is here described in a passage of Frederic Vitoux’s recent biography. Perhaps unintentionally, Vitoux has written a galling and polarized elegy to feminine instinct and emotion versus masculine craft:

Occasionally, in the evenings, he’d call on Lucette to bear witness. He asked her to remember. He’d give her the clues: Sigmaringen—crossing Nuremberg—Bessy’s death. . . . Yes, she remembered. The words came naturally to her, words and emotions. She would begin spontaneously to reexperience the story she told—the recent past, so alive for her, that recaptured the music of long-lost feelings, the movement, the rhythm, the dance perhaps. With Lucette, intuition won out. She spoke of Bessy’s death and she cried. That is what must have captivated Louis in her words: not facts or sentences, but the emotion, the essence, the very substance, all that he would later have to organize and transpose in the endless labor of style.

Céline, that endless laborer of style, has always made trouble for the life/work distinction so useful to critics. In the ’30s, this French Modernist novelist forever complicated his own reception by publishing two pamphlets that made him the most renowned French anti-Semite of his generation. Then, in a trilogy of postwar novels—about his flight from France after the liberation, his misadventures crossing Germany, his detention in Denmark, and his return to France in the ’50s as a misfit—he was able to turn his paranoid persona into the butt of his own jokes. In the late ’50s the French were tiring of heroic resistance narratives, and were ready, if not to forgive, at least to reread their most hated literary figure, in part for his style and in part for his hilarious tales of a defeated Vichy government in pathetic exile at a German castle called Sigmaringen. Castle to Castle, 1957, is Céline’s funniest book, extending the experiments with the French sentence and with phantasmagoric first-person narrative begun in his two prewar novels Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan_, 1932 and 1936 respectively.

Vitoux’s book is perhaps the most complete, most thickly “narrated” of the several biographies of Céline’s life: the childhood with shopkeeper parents, medical school, Geneva and work with the League of Nations, trips to Africa and New York, and, of course, the abrupt, meteoric literary career, beginning with Journey to the End of the Night, which, barely missing France’s major book prize, launched Céline’s enduring hatred of literary institutions. Finally, the descent into anti-Semitic raving, war, exile, trials in absentia, the return to France, death.

Generous healer of the downtrodden, Montmartre regular, animal lover (Vitoux’s most lyrical moments are about Céline’s cat, Bébert), racist—many and varied Célines go into the writer whom Vitoux describes as “a creator of the close-up”: “He paints miniatures. He writes by synecdoche. In short, he takes the part for the whole, he sees only the part—and that part becomes immense, becomes a universe.” The formula is useful and accurate. The “close-up,” making the part the whole: the incredible political and social distortions, the inversion of Jewish persecution into his own martyrdom, the paranoia, the refusal to accept reality. The close-up is both Céline’s gift and his poison. No biographer can adequately explain why he made the Jews the explanation for the problems of the world, any more than why his experiments with style worked. What his racist passion had to do with his successful writing is yet another thorny question, straddling style and ethics.

Vitoux organizes all this with great skill, and deserves praise for doing so, which he has duly received: “This is the definitive Céline biography. Reads superbly in translation. It will never be superseded. There is no more research left to be done,” Kurt Vonnegut gushes on the book jacket. Nothing, however, could ring less true to Céline scholars, who are constantly digging up new information. It is notable here that the most original material in Vitoux’s biography is its testimony from Almansour, who lived with Céline from the time he wrote his first anti-Semitic pamphlets to his death, in 1961. If Vitoux is a sympathetic yet knowing narrator of Céline’s turbulent life, the reason seems partly that Almansour’s serene perspective supplied him with a wifely charity toward his subject.

Among the most surprising finds since the original, French publication of Vitoux’s biography is the rediscovery of the enigmatic Californian Elizabeth Craig, the American dancer, her whereabouts long unknown, who lived with Céline while he was writing Journey to the End of the Night. Alphonse Juilland, a retired Stanford French professor, managed to find her, and last year he self-published Elizabeth and Louis. Obscure in the U.S., the book has been picked up by the Éditions Gallimard, France’s largest publisher (and Céline’s own), for a French-language edition scheduled for late 1993, in preparation for Céline’s centenary.

Juilland’s story is as much an autobiography—a story about Juilland’s obsession—as it is the story of the woman Céline called a genius and a Molière in drag. The cumulative fantasies about Craig on the part of both Céline and his critics and biographers would make a book in themselves. Céline speculated that Craig had married a gangster and become a drug addict; one critic insisted that she had married a “Jewish judge.” As it turns out, her husband was in the real estate business. The great merit of Juilland’s book is to have restored to Craig not only a part of her humanity but her own voice. Why did she disappear from Céline’s life? When Juilland asked her, she replied simply, “I had turned 30 and I thought: When I’m 40, what is he going to be looking at?” Craig refused to grow old under the weight of Céline’s fantasies, so she left.

For an extended comment on the handmaiden situation, familiar enough in the literary and art worlds, read Amanda Cross’ most recent mystery, The Players Come Again (New York: Ballantine, 1990), a whodunit-cum-meditation on biography, male Modernism, and female musedom. Gabrielle Foxx, widow of famous Modernist Emmanuel Foxx, is suspected of having authored her husband’s greatest novel, Ariadne. Sleuth/English professor Kate Fansler gets a fat book-contract to write Gabrielle’s biography and to solve the problem of her influence. What she learns, though, is not that Gabrielle wrote Ariadne but that she did write an unpublished counternovel to it—her own version of the same story, which, Kate tells her editor, “will alter everyone’s view of high modernism, it will bring gender to the foreground of what had previously been a rather reactionary and male literary period.” At the end of the story, Kate tears up her contract and oilers instead to edit and write a preface for Gabrielle’s own book.

Literary biography is often voyeuristic and grandiose. It is no substitute for the work itself. We need it and lust after it, as though it could explain the fiction. Two current “metabiographies,” Greil Marcus’s Dead Elvis and Rachel Brownstein’s forthcoming Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comédie-Française, face this problem head-on, seeking not the inner truth of personality but the layers of myth and distortion surrounding their subjects. Céline begs for this kind of biography—his life was in many ways as much a performance as Rachel’s or Elvis’—but it will take a brilliant, patient, and uncowed narrator to work through the levels of polemic, political passion, and myth that surround this impossible figure.

Alice Yaeger Kaplan teaches in the Romance Studies and Literature Department at Duke University. She is the author of Reproductions of Banality, 1986.


Investigating Sex: Surrealist Discussions, 1928–1932, ed. by José Pierre. New York: Verso, 1992.

“I don’t see any difference between the encrusted shit of the woman one loves and her eyes. Perhaps someone could explain,” declares André Breton in Investigating Sex: Surrealist Discussions 1928–1932. In this collection of predominantly unpublished material, the patriarch of Surrealism heads 12 separate question-and-answer sessions that document the sexual practices, fantasies, and philosophies of over 30 of its members, including Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and the mysterious, though arguably female, Y. The subjects discussed range from unusual parts of the female body in which to ejaculate to encounters with succubi and incubi, affording comical though rarely titillating bedtime reading.

The predominance of male participants (women were present in only 3 of the 12 sessions) frequently lends these sessions a boy-scouts-recounting-sexual exploits quality decidedly lacking in eroticism or even the thrill of surprise. Occasionally verging on self-parody—“Why does one renew desire? Is it insufficient in itself and if one judges that it is, in the last analysis, insufficient in itself, why renew it?”—these documents seem at times to justify Georges Maine’s critique of the Surrealists as “base idealists.” Too often the variety of sexual desires and proclivities discussed is flattened beneath the overtly self-conscious quest for novel conceptualizations of erotic life. Still, the array of fanciful responses in these sessions reflects the eccentricity and humor of Surrealist writing at its best, and they are generously peppered with witty repartee occasioned by internal rivalries. Echoing the reader’s sentiments at certain moments, Max Ernst remarks: “I really wonder why some people carry on living—Queneau for example. I’d gladly make them a present of a length of rope.”

Sheila F. Glaser is Assistant Editor for Artforum.


Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, by Carol J. Clover. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992.

Freud was one of the first to insist that the more stunning discoveries about the nature and representations of human sexuality are found where we least expect them: you never know where sex will rear its head to tell its secret tales. Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film is testament to the unexpected and sometimes unusually cruel sites from which, in all its uncanny mutations, sexuality speaks. After being dared by a friend to see Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Clover, a professor of Scandinavian and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, began to rethink the nexus between gender and horror, and the standard theoretical reliance on notions of the “male gaze” and “male mastery” to explain their connection.

While film theory, feminism, and their combination all offer viable interpretations of how horror uses and misuses the female body for its own sadistic, misogynist ends, according to Clover they nonetheless ignore and even misrepresent the appearance and experience of the male body and spectator. In a discussion of over 200 films, ranging from mainstream Hollywood to low-budget cult horror cinema, Clover shows that the relationship of the young male, the primary viewer of horror, to its central screen figure, the female victim-hero, is quite different from what previously has been assumed. Just as girls will not be girls, boys will not be boys; each, when it comes to horror, will be neither one nor the other, but sometimes both, sometimes even something other that makes them look the same. Clover concentrates on three subgenres of horror film in which her title’s metaphoric chain saws wreak havoc on both male and female sexual identity and identifications: slasher, possession, and rape-revenge films. In each of these, Clover details the operation of cross-gender identification to show how the body in question is neither “‘really’ male (masquerading as female) or ‘really’ female (masquerading as male). . .instead the excitement is precisely predicated on the undecidability or both-andness or one-sexness of the construction.”

Chain Saws concludes with a meditation on the male pleasure in horror. Clover argues that it is not sadism but masochism, understood in its most precise and technical sense as “feminine masochism,” that explains why men choose to experience fear and pain through the figure of the female and her body. The persistent failure of gender-interested critics to take into account the male’s own pleasure in assuming the passive position of suffering itself reveals the need to reinvestigate and refine the politics of representation at play in such discussions. In her readings of both particular horror films and of film and gender theory, Clover does what every cultural critic hopes to: she calls into question our habits of seeing.

Ramona Naddaff is a writer and editor living in Paris.


Tibetan Medical Paintings, edited by Yuri Parfionovitch, Fernand Meyer, and Gyurme Dorje. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 2 vols, 1992.

If ever there were a book to warm an encyclopedist’s heart, this is it. The premise is simple: 77 paintings, reproduced in large format, from Blue Beryl, a late-17th-century medical text commissioned by the Fifth Dalai Lama in order to integrate all the scattered complexities of Tibetan medical wisdom into a single coherent system. The book begins with a discussion of the principles of medical education, and goes on to show the basic elements of pathology, diagnosis, and treatments. It’s highlights include nine extraordinary anatomical illustrations, some dozen plates detailing herbal and other medicines, and—my personal favorites—three complicated forays into the inspection of urine specimens for signs of demonic possession. Although each plate is flanked by excellent interpretive notes, the entire work contains more than 10,000 images, making a second volume of text and black-and-white plates necessary just to navigate the endless parade of plants, minerals, symptoms, and treatments involved. The arcane knowledge stored within may appeal to specialists, but this book is a particular treat for those instinctively drawn to Tibetan painting yet intimidated by the prospect of having to learn the whole cosmology just to know who’s who.

Dan Cameron is a writer and curator who lives in New York. He contributes frequently to Artforum.


Entrails, Heads & Tails: Photographic Essays and Conversations on the Everyday with Contemporary Artists, by Paola Igliori. New York: Rizzoli. N., 1992.

A cultivated disarray holds this album of artists together. Alastair Thain took the shadowy photographs that give such nuances to the unnumbered pages. There’s an odd extravagance afoot: a shimmering meadow of flowers beyond Wolfgang Laib’s house is given a double-page spread—how very sumptuous, in black-and-white! Here and there pictures were supplied by the subjects themselves, and these can prove telling. Cy Twombly, for instance, appears in his 30s in the portrait he provided, while Louise Bourgeois occurs in several of her varied roles—as artist, wife, mother, and pixie/sage. At times I was reminded of my own unruly appointment book, in which the precise date of some remote encounter must be located before a particular phone number can be found: there and only there—in teeny-weeny smeared digits, or maybe in that other person’s handwriting—is the elusive code.

Entrails is the brain child of Paola Igliori. Her interviews are full of the kind of chit-chat, spacey and rambling, that is the lingua franca of all studio visits. The patter, however, can be pierced by revelatory lightning bolts, opening the discussion onto wide metaphysical pastures. Of the 11 well-known artists represented in the book, one alone—Twombly—avoids the talking cure. The conversation with Vito Acconci, an inspiring nut, is the best all-around read; Laib, in his glass house, gathering pollens, offers the most exalted vision of the artistic life; with his airplane gliders and hollowed volcanoes, James Turrell is the radical Westerner; Gilbert & George seem most complex (even contradictory) politically; Francesco Clemente is the intellectual dandy; Enzo Cucchi is the silliest; Sigmar Polke is demanding but a lot of fun; and Julian Schnabel is Julian Schnabel. Eventually, given patience, something rare also unfolds in this album: the impression of a highly idiosyncratic artistic family united in work.

Lisa Liebmann is a writer who lives in New York.


Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture, edited by Anthony DeCurtis. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.

In the high noon of the 20th century, legend has it, a funky new beat born on the fringes of America swept across the world, forever changing pop culture. Sometime around 1950 and virtually overnight, an entire generation began grooving to this hybrid of white country and black rhythm and blues. Taking rock’s honky-tonk origins for granted, most contributors to Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture (which previously appeared in a slightly different version as an issue of South Atlantic Quarterly) understand rock’s birthright as one of rebellion against and transgression of both racial and sexual conventions and, as editor Anthony DeCurtis proclaims, “a vision toward which we can aspire.” Blending critical methods already familiar to readers of rock literature, Present Tense is a scholarly but lucid spin on a genre often marked by extremes of staggeringly shallow journalistic enterprise or incomprehensibly dense professorial debate. Throwing rock journalists and academics under one cover, this collection auspiciously spans that yawning gap—DeCurtis alone can flash both a Rolling Stone press pass and a doctorate.

The essays go beyond straight music criticism to mount a more general debate about how to theorize a contemporary history in which cultural innovation gets done by repeating and interpreting the immediate past. For Robert Palmer, who is concerned with recovering the African-American roots of rock, history is a linear progression marked by moments of creative invention. Necessarily concerned with uncovering “firsts,” this writer determines that technical innovations made by African-American blues guitarists in the mid-to-late ’50s prefigure the sounds of guitar virtuosos of later decades. Often perceived as originators, these later artists were already replaying the past. Sidestepping this preoccupation with origins, Michael Jarrett irreverently characterizes history as a “compost pile” where original, copy, and their variations mingle to spawn innovation by producing even more degraded copies through misreading the copy as origin.

Present Tense is compelling and vital; not simply as a literate take on rock culture, but as a document of the struggle to come to terms with rock ’n’ roll’s technologies (sampling, performance, video, etc.) and an attempt to capture the essence of these forms by forging unique styles of criticism. Predictably, post-Structuralism is in heavy rotation: writers recast Walter Benjamin as a prophet of rap, offer covers of Jacques Derrida’s greatest hit “Logocentrism” to critique everything from the privilege accorded live performance to the vexed phenomenon of the sellout, and induct Roland Barthes into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Out of this frenzied carousel of references, one leaves with the impression that most of the writers concur with the admirable sentiment expressed by Laurie Anderson in an interview anthologized here: “There are plenty of rules and taboos yet to be broken, and somebody’s gotta do it.”

Sydney Pokorny is an Editorial Assistant for Artforum.


Jean Cocteau: The Mirror and the Mask, a Photobiography, edited and compiled by Julie Saul with an essay by Francis Steegmuller. Boston: David R. Godine, 1992.

Is there any more misleadingly titled photograph than Man Ray’s famous Cocteau with empty picture frame of 1922? The frame that Cocteau holds between himself and the camera may not have a picture in it, but it certainly is not empty. It’s full of Cocteau. In fact, it was not Man Ray but Cocteau himself who staged the portrait, and thus it’s hard not to see it as a symbol; Cocteau was an early master of art as self-promotion. The Mirror and the Mask lets us survey the results of this aspect of Cocteau’s career: we can see him in pictures with or by his famous pals (e.g., J. H. Lartigue’s 1955 photo of Picasso feeding him something off his plate); at work or at play (Cecil Beaton’s Cocteau smoking opium at the Hotel Castille, ca. 1938); composing, reposing, posing (was this man never caught off-guard?). In spite of all the artifice, Cocteau does not exactly emerge as a Protean figure in these pictures; his identity is always established by signature details, like the constantly rolled-up cuffs that reveal his famously elegant hands. Though Cocteau’s universe was full of mirrors and masks, it certainly was no less full of himself.

Keith Seward is a regular reviewer for Artforum.


An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro. New York: Vintage International (Random House), 1986.

Set in the aftermath of World War II, this quietly told story describes the musings of an elderly Japanese art teacher who longs for the lost world of imperial Japan, in which he was much honored for the fervent patriotism that informed everything he did. In the present moment of defeat, the country has changed course, and his paintings are considered embarrassments, best kept from public view. In place of praise he receives blame: he has used his talent to lead a generation disastrously astray. The artist’s former fellowship and pleasures are as ruined as the delights of his city’s beloved old pleasure district, which is hurriedly being buried under construction as the nation rebuilds and redefines itself.

Tied to the past, out of sync with con-temporary perceptions, the artist seeks to justify his work to a community that turns away from all reminders of failure, no matter how forceful or skillful its execution, no matter how honorable, and formerly honored, its intentions. Underlying An Artist of the Floating World is a discussion of the fragile identity of art and artist when defined politically and thus made vulnerable to changeable agendas and selective memory. Bound to the attitudes and events of the moment, the committed artist in effect becomes a propagandist, and the artwork, to be judged successful, becomes forceful propaganda. It is only the rare “masterpiece” that overcomes being received and judged solely on those merits.

The topic is complex, but this short novel—first published in 1989, and now reissued in a paperback edition—raises it elegantly without offering simple answers or simplistic villains.

Amy Baker Sandback is a writer who lives in New Hampshire.


Heartlands: A Gay Man’s Odyssey Across America, by Darrell Yates Rist. New York: Dutton, 1992.

Out in the World: Gay and Lesbian Life from Buenos Aires to Bangkok, by Neil Miller. New York: Random House, 1992.

Travel often yields opportunities for sexual experiment and pursuit, which is probably why our literature abounds with novels and travelogues in which an individual confronts his or her desire in some exotic place. This romantic notion—that simply by changing locations one can somehow break free of moral strictures and discover one’s “true” self—has lately become so familiar as to seem commonplace. Which is why it’s interesting to observe two gay writers, both long out of the closet, coming to terms not with their sexuality but with the paucity of adventure and lack of inner revelation afforded by post-Stonewall travel. Both seem to imply that at this moment in our history, gay men might want simply to stay home by the fire with a loved one.

Darrell Yates Rist was raised as a Pentecostal, married and lived as a heterosexual, then came out, moved to New York, and became a gay activist. To write Heartlands he spent three years meeting (and sometimes sleeping with) gay men of the American interior. But it’s not a very spicy adventure. In fact, with HIV everywhere and gay culture in a state of confusion and retreat, the book is less Huckleberry Finn than Pilgrim’s Progress. Even those not fighting disease struggle against violent, bigoted neighbors and, often, a degree of self-loathing. Rist suggests indirectly that the work of activism is a new conduit for passion; he’s sexiest when banging the pulpit. Though he spends a lot of time interviewing men at highway rest stops and in dark bars, he’s really just there to write a book.

Is loss of libido really the end condition of sexual liberation? Hard to say. Rist is so idiosyncratic: he seems at war with himself. And his interviews are oddly solipsistic. Each respondent’s particular condition seems somehow to describe Rist’s own state: tired of the work, angry at the loss, stung by the injustices of HIV. Why, I wondered, have my own experiences of gay America been so much more varied?

Yet Heartlands is a valuable book, and defines a certain moment in gay history. Its truth seems to me more atmospheric than factual—it captures mood, not statistics. One of the subtlest revelations in the book comes in Rist’s inability to discuss his own HIV status. He never really gets around to it, except to say he’s at risk. It’s a notable silence in an otherwise candid story, a silence any gay man will recognize.

The last of Rist’s adventures is a visit to a young California man who is facing life in prison: he shot the family friend who had exposed his homosexuality to his parents. Though homosexuality contributed to this man’s misery, it is presently a nonissue, since his only concern in a maximum-security lockup must be survival. His situation, Rist suggests, speaks to the experience of today’s gay America: the sex is over and survival is all. His romantic hyperbole compromises his supposedly journalistic account. By replacing the touristic fantasy of easy friendships and fast sex with a vision of the gay community as a series of small, embattled tribes, outnumbered and ravaged by disease, Rist achieves his own dark romance. Immediate and convincing but not necessarily true: a gay Last of the Mohicans for the armchair sexual adventurer.

Neil Miller’s Out in the World is a thorough, gently professorial work of careful observation and reportage. Miller, a former editor of Boston’s Gay Community News, likes facts, figures, and professional organizations. For him, gay life the world over seems to consist mainly of thoughtful lesbians at home, gay men arranging discussion groups to explore their identities, much concern about true and lasting relationships, and—on occasion—a stray visit to a bar. The book is strikingly dispassionate, to the point of P. G. Wodehouse–like comedy. At an oasis in the Egyptian desert, Miller’s guide, Mohammed, confesses that “sometimes he resorted to sex with donkeys and sheep. In the desert, he said, that wasn’t strange at all. In fact, he rather enjoyed it.” A moment later Miller continues, “He seemed most interested in foreign women, though.”

Similar triumphs of understatement recur throughout the book. In Hong Kong, Miller meets a young homosexual who “had studied at the University of Texas . . . where he had been exposed to Western notions of homosexuality. By day he worked for a financial-services company; by night he wrote movie criticism.” What to make of such statements? Or, for that matter, of the very notion of a world survey of homosexual activity? In the end, the book seems a valiant effort, full of gentle encounters that are entertaining but never get to the bottom of anything.

Miller does make the valuable observation that gay liberation and activism are Western notions that will be slow to take hold in foreign cultures, which have their own ways of doing things. If Rist’s book reads like James Fenimore Cooper, Miller’s seems more like the gay version of National Geographic: an entertainment, in which a lot of curious facts convince you of nothing so much as of the profound differences between one culture and the next.

Justin Spring is a novelist living in New York who contributes regularly to Artforum.


Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, by John Gruen. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Keith was a master. Some of his signature ideographs were weapons in a war against intolerance and pretension, others were seismographs of sex. Still others, like his famous crawling baby, document a search for innocence and mint-fresh modes of consciousness. He found that newness, that power of beginning, in Pittsburgh in 1978 at a Pierre Alechinsky retrospective—“I couldn’t believe that work! . . . It was the closest thing I had ever seen to what I was doing with these self-generative little shapes, suddenly I had a rush of confidence.”

The “rush of confidence” continued, sovereign and full of punch. Haring profusely entwined “self-generative” little shapes—very sexy in their interlocking emergence—on the walls and floor of the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1978. He was getting more and more excited: “I was thinking that the very act of painting placed you in an exhilarated state—it was a sacred moment.” In addition, the sexual freedom he was experiencing had a bearing, very much so, on the rise of his ecstatic body-line meanders: “And I was happy, because I suddenly found that my art was blossoming as was my sexuality.”

John Gruen’s Keith Haring juxtaposes voices from the painter’s past with an eye for biographic continuity. Here are the critics, artists, gallery owners, rock stars, with whom Haring moved: Madonna, Timothy Leary, Tseng Kwong Chi, Roy Lichtenstein, Leo Castelli, and more. Gruen, piecing interviews together so that insights flow sequentially, presents a memorable mosaic of witness and confirmation. His text and generous array of images help us find our way back to a rich and unexampled voice.

The book lets you see Haring acting out, in three dimensions, ideas he’d later transfer to canvas, like a 1980 performance piece in which he framed his head in a television screen. He was studying and documenting everything—semiotics, black dance, New Wave, Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, arts African and Oceanic. In the summer of 1980, a cast of characters, slouching toward some transcendent Bethlehem, exploded in his mind with a force that changed the course of popular vision: “Suddenly all these other scenarios began to unfold. I drew humans who were having sex, and who became incredibly activated when being zapped by these flying saucers. The flying saucers looked like Mexican sombreros, but they were my archetypal vision of what I thought a mythical flying saucer would look like. . . . Out of these [and other] drawings my entire future vocabulary was born.” One awaits the certain arrival of a Ph.D. candidate linking all of this to Liquid Sky or The War of the Worlds. But these were not Haring’s only sources.

For he had also discovered an inspiring equivalent to the Palladium in the ’50s mambo era, or the Harlem Savoy in the reign of ’30s swing and lindy—the Paradise Garage in Soho, the Roxy circa 1983, the whole wide world of b-boy choreography. Haring talks about these sources, “electric boogie . . . movements that had electric pulsation, which would be transferred from person to person.” This fit Keith’s world of zapping rays and power exchange perfectly. By 1983 “I began incorporating [Paradise Garage, Roxy, and other Hip-Hop choreography] into the images I was making. Break dancing was a real inspiration, seeing the kids spinning and twisting around on their heads. So my drawings began having figures spinning on their heads and twisting around. My exhibition at the Fun Gallery was . .. a reference to this whole Hip-Hop culture.” A perfectevocation of the Degas of the breakdance/electric boogie: four Day-Glo b-boys head-spinning on a wall at Houston and Bowery in 1982. Keith carried all that democratic hope and glory, the dancing of the people, to an ultimate wall, the Berlin Wall. in October 1986.

By the last period of his work, 1986 to 1990, Haring had become an artist-citizen on a global scale, muralizing a Parisian hospital, painting in Tokyo, decorating a blimp for the bicentennial of the French Revolution in June 1989. Still, for all the ecstasy and glory, paintings of skeletons sometimes intervened. Knowing in 1988 that he had AIDS “and because of the death of Andy [Warhol] and Jean-Michel [Basquiat] I felt it was time to prove something.” He did all right. You can see the increase in power in the incredible new colors characterizing Red Room, 1988, and Silence=Death, 1989. Gone the barking dogs and dolphins. In the masterpiece Untitled, 1989, color—pinks, blues, grays, blacks—takes on elegiac qualities. Keith understood he now had to paint in terms beyond the line that separates this world from the next. Ecstatic interconnections played back lessons learned as one of the most active and significant painters of the ’80s.

Haring achieved, at the end, a level of felicity the spirits understood. Now he is with them.

Robert Farris Thompson is a professor of African-American art history at Yale University.