PRINT September 1993

Jonathan Borofsky’s What Is Dragging Me?

If you don’t think it’s better to be rich, send me your money!
—Joan Rivers

When Good Art Happens to Bad People

ADORNO POINTED OUT that our biggest tragedy under modernity is that we’re not even tragic! Denuded of Specialness under consumer culture, we fail to distinguish ourselves even in our moments of failure—our failure to be masterful, to be strong, to be fashionable, or even to adequately express our inadequacy. Maurice Blanchot made a brilliant career working the constitutional “worklessness” of his favorite 20th-century art geniuses, who would repeatedly disappear as they emerged into the lofty death of their work—the art object, the impossible site of increased existence where they were free to be misread, misunderstood, misused by readers even less graced than themselves, lower down on the esthetic food chain, and doomed to the even more ignoble fate of not even “failing” to represent themselves properly. We encounter every new and improved expression of this worklessness with a mixture of gratitude and chagrin: gratitude that our familiar private torpor is being validated and expressed, but also, even more ignobly, chagrin (how dare he make work out of my blockage—the stuff I think I have to throw out before I even get started! How dare he start and finish precisely where I hesitate to begin!). When we encounter this work, this workless work, we see our own worklessness reflected back to us by the more enterprising soul: when a Higher Esthetic Power achieves this amazing reversal of torpor into plenitude, we feel liberated—and doubly unworthy! This reaction is obscene.

When we get destroyed rather than fortified by what is strong and good, and when we allow this situation to cross the threshold of consciousness, we’re talking about a level of late-cultural perversity, something exquisite even, that only the truly Special can dilate upon, share, and appreciate. Rudely snapped back to reality, we are not even permitted the absurd private tragedy of our own thwarted narcissism—our worklessness—our precious torpor, the luxurious delay that is also the infinite potential to do anything as long as we don’t do it yet.

While it is practically a modern institution for the artist to emerge as Star Nobody, failure, and loser, unable to finish or perfect either the work or the life, Andy Warhol took the cult of the Nobody to its fullest flower by transvaluing the “nothing,” the wannabe, the rut, into a positive thing. By confusing nobodies with Superstars, and vice versa, through the magic of media overexposure, Warhol performed the ultimate public service by setting up secondhand experience, identities, and feelings as the jackpot, rather than the consolation prize that Reality keeps on giving us. At the same time, in keeping with his paradoxical genius, he also made subsequent nobodies ever after feel like even bigger zeros, because they’ll never be as big and as successful a nobody as Warhol. Like a human TV, he said yes to the transvaluation of values between Fame and Boringness, Boringness and Fame—to the effective confusion between the producer and the consumer, between the supermodel and the drip.

If Warhol made the most radical esthetic gesture of the past 30 years by confusing the original and the copy, he opened the way for the reactive antimastery masters of the ’80s, when art stars outdid each other with new and improved expressions of the person as buy-product of representation, culminating in Jeff Koons’ spiritual fitness plan as a kind of ultranormalized cultural lab specimen, inviting everyone to “become him,” to abjectly emulate his fate as the cheerful mirror of banality in the form of luxe kitsch. Given Jonathan Borofsky’s throwaway-looking sketches of one-liners and dreams, multimedia installations with drawings laying all around showing art from when he was a kid, I’m shocked that more people haven’t cited him as one of the pioneers of the post-Pop Pathetic art that is happening now. In the ’70s, Borofsky was working the more inclusive and transformative aspect of Warhol, which made nothing out of something, but also achieved the reverse—lifting up previously shunned material such as jealousy, nervousness, and chatter to the status of Art, seeming to bliss out in the failure of reality to deliver the Perfection promised by attractive packaging, taking the deflated fantasy as his inspiration.

Art should show us how to live, to activate the highest stimmungs and increase our power with affects of joy and positive body images, rather than depression, unworthiness, decay. But even Hegel pointed out that Spirit is no goody two-shoes engaging only in wholesome relations—a stranger to the lesser human feelings who invalidates them or virtuosically projects them onto external objects and blows them up like faux dinosaurs in a Steven Spielberg blockbuster, Art should activate our highest spirits and, in a beautiful passage in his Preface, Uncle Wilhelm tells us that Spirit must manifest itself precisely by “tarrying with the negative,” by looking the bad stuff in the face, the weak stuff, the stuff like the rotten relative you’d rather forget because you’re afraid you’ll become just like them. True power, or Spirit, emerges through overcoming the unworthy, the disappointing, by giving it adequate expression—not by tiptoeing around it, or, worse, by psychotically denying it through the cult of Taste and Purity, as if Spirit could even reveal itself untainted by human consciousness. If Beauty is a Supermodel, Spirit comes into being as the Subject reading the magazine, feeling flabby, enduring its devastation, maintaining itself in devastation, turning the page braced for fresh horrors, fresh trauma, fresh beauties: “It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.”1

Perhaps the most profound thing that seems to be happening in art products now is the increasing obviousness of Spirit trying to emerge through art, as it does, through this “negative” route, opening up relations of joy and acceptance by embracing excrementalized feelings, materials, and subject positions previously shunned by classy cultural outlets and institutions.

Perhaps we have descended as a species to such a low that we need to create wretched cultural objects to feel superior to something. This is not to say that anything traversing the negative automatically gets extra esthetico-spiritual points; in many cases we see that bad art can happen to good people. But that’s OK. (I lie.)

Indeed, Spirit is in for Fall, and a recent Vogue spread featured great outfits influenced by “priests, nuns, rabbis, and monks. . . . The look is one of penitence and personal conviction.” Calvin Klein agreed, “There’s such an elegance about priests. I think it’s a wonderful look.”2

Rhonda Lieberman



1. Wilhelm Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: at the University Press, 1977), p. 19.

2. Henry Alford, “Simply Divine,” Vogue, August 1993, p. 131.