PRINT April 1994


LAUTRÉAMONT AND ALFRED JARRY are idealized as touchstones of the avant-garde mentality, the artist who dies young (Umberto Boccioni, Franz Marc, Eva Hesse, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe) is automatically beatified, the child is held up as the authentic artist of spontaneous vision and imagination—historically, avant-garde art has always quintessentialized youth.1 As José Ortega y Gasset wrote decades ago, “All modern art begins to appear comprehensible and in a way great when it is interpreted as an attempt to instill youthfulness into an ancient world.”2 Ortega also thought avant-garde art saved us from “the seriousness of life” by restoring “unexpected boyishness.”3

The sentimentalization and cultification of youth, the belief that art renews both life and itself by becoming avant-garde (for to be avant-garde is perpetually to make new beginnings, new “advances”), indeed the belief that the avant-garde is a fountain of artistic youth that can never run dry—all these ideas mask a less benign truth: avant-garde art today looks like a case of arrested development, of petrified youthfulness. Under constant pressure to prove that art can still be fresh and young, the avant-garde itself long since began to seem like an old, redundant idea. Institutionalized, slick, “museum quality” (the phrase is symbolic of self-petrification), it has gone into “hypertrophy,” to use Clement Greenberg’s word.

Avant-garde art has always been adolescent in outlook, but now it has become an aging boy, an ossified Peter Pan, living its own death. It’s not that avant-garde art is by definition incapable of moving beyond an adolescent attitude; its inherent rebelliousness and desire for novelty may make it prone to a sort of regression, but artists can turn this symptom to creative, critical purpose—can use it to invent a new sense of self, and of art. The avant-garde today, however, has taken on a dogmatic, demagogic form that makes its adolescence obvious, as though in a desperate effort—no doubt unconscious—to assert its continuing viability. However shrewdly sophisticated, this mode of being is a cul-de-sac.

The word “adolescence” derives from the Latin “to grow up.” (In antiquity, this stage was thought to last until about 35.) But to remain in a state of growth is not to have grown up at all. A growing process that is perpetual is finally directionless and purposeless; growth becomes an excuse for never considering what it means to grow into something particular, that is, to become mature. It suggests that one doesn’t want to grow up and in fact cannot grow up. All that is left is to institutionalize one’s immaturity, masking the fact that it has become a permanent state, an entropic condition.

To mature is more than a matter of accepting (with whatever resignation) the seriousness of life—of recognizing that there is much about life that is fated or unchangeable. To grow up, Ortega writes, is to enter one’s own space of “tranquility,” a space that “permits one to choose the truth, to abstract oneself in reflection.”4 It involves gaining what for Ortega is man’s “most essential attribute”: “the possibility of meditating, or withdrawing into himself to come to terms with himself and define what it is that he believes and what it is that he does not believe; what he truly esteems and what he truly detests.”5 The adolescent, by contrast, is always “beside himself,” acting “mechanically in a frenetic somnambulism.”^^6^

There is precious little art around that appeals to adult autonomy and introspection. Most of it is all too adolescent, a mechanical acting out, accompanied by an inward turning off of feeling.7 More particularly, it involves a sense of depersonalization—the feeling of not being a self, and the anxiety that one has no self to be. As Edith Jacobson suggests, the point of the acting out is to deny this anxiety.8 The art of Andy Warhol epitomizes this, with its pseudo-tranquility—its “cool”—in the midst of the storm generated by its own aggressive depersonalization.

This unholy mix of acting out and turning off is virtually a character structure in our society. We see adolescent killers who feel nothing for their victims—just like in the movies, one of them said in the New York Times9—and white-collar criminals manipulating the stock market, threatening society’s economic underpinnings while feeling nothing for society as a whole. A related attitude lies at the core of conceptual or “simulated abstract” painting, as it has been called, like that of Peter Halley or Jonathan Lasker. These artists’ work strips abstraction of its meditative aspect and makes it a somnambulist semiotic construction—a linguistic trance, free of affect. This is more or less what Joseph Kosuth’s conceptualism was from the start, and what Art & Language became when it went visual. All of this art is adolescent, in the violence it does to the tradition it claims to disrupt, and in its exhibitionistic intellectualization of its hostility, an exercise that gives it a premature, illegitimate sense of identity.10 Delinquency is a typical adolescent temptation, and all this art toys with delinquency, as though it were an ideal state of being—a short way to achieve one’s difference, to differentiate oneself, but one that masks destructiveness. Is Ortega’s “boyish” avant-garde artist a delinquent in all but name?11

It is perhaps Jasper Johns’ youthful work that most clearly, even eloquently integrates acting out (through gesture) and turning off of feeling (through its semiotics). Robert Rauschenberg’s early work, on the other hand, turns on feeling by semiotic acting out; that is, it personalizes mass-produced signs, even finding personality inherent in them. It seems to express an ebullient belief in our society’s signs, as if they were life-enriching, personally gratifying, deeply felt. (But aren’t they actually meant to deceive, brainwash, even “soul-murder” us?12) Rauschenberg’s genius was to find his deepest self in signs, cryptically revealing himself through them; Johns’ genius was to expose the whole cynical mechanism of social “signing” and its schizoid effect on the self. (If Johns is regarded as the greater artist, it is because, subliminally, our society is as schizoid as his art.) Johns and Rauschenberg represent opposite sides of the adolescent mentality: Johns, rebellious disbelief, and gestural acting out as disinvestment (decathexis) and depersonalization; Rauschenberg, eager belief, and overinvestment in or repersonalization of an impersonal world, overcoming its indifference to declare that it can still make one different, that is, provide one with a “different” self—an artist’s self.

The adolescent turns off to society, as a symbol of primal passivity, but at the same time turns on to action as “a magic gesture: [action] averts evil, it denies passive wishes, and it affirms a delusional control over reality.”13 Yet such gestural acting out—such apparently arbitrary gestures as ironic emblems of one’s aliveness—can become fanatic, an instrument of the “ideological mind” that Erik H. Erikson finds characteristic of adolescence.14 It is a mind that uses “intolerance as a defense against a sense of identity confusion”15— a mind that stereotypes both the world and its own identity.

Magical/fanatic gestures have a long avant-garde history. The “‘gratuitous act, an act having no motivation and no reason,’” expressing a “schizoid split”16 (the act of pseudointegrity that is actually destructive is typical of what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position), has been with us at least since 1917, when Jacques Vaché fired a pistol during a performance of Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias. Later, André Breton immortalized Vaché’s “gesture” by declaring that the ultimate Surrealist act was to fire a pistol into a crowd. And one was to feel nothing in doing this, nothing except, perhaps, contempt—the defensive illusion of omnipotence—for the victims of one’s “revolutionary outrage.”

To the extent that to act out is to try to knock the bourgeois mentality off its perch, adolescent acting out does have a role as a critique of an overrigid society, a society that is essentially self-reifying. To D. W. Winnicott, delinquency is a last cry for help, a call for what he terms a “facilitating environment” (an environment that is “facilitating” or nurturing to the self); delinquency constitutes a criticism of the social world for its inability to provide such a setting.

An artist like Mike Kelley seems fully aware of the element of acting out in his artmaking, and presents it in an explicitly psychological and critical context.

Perhaps Breton’s remark about the pistol once bore this productive kind of shock. For everyone and his brother to start shooting off guns, however, is pure adolescence. (In the early ’60s, it is worth noting, Rauschenberg and Johns sometimes joined Niki de Saint Phalle in “firing a gun at her canvases in performances.”17) The avant-garde at its best may act out against the standard order of things, but at a certain point the original contribution gets lost. Officially full of risk and danger, with a subcurrent of benign boyishness, the avant-garde art action is actually the emotional equivalent of the adolescent pulling the wings off a butterfly (tradition? the audience?) to see what makes it fly.

Sadistic behavior, of course, is not uncommon in adolescence.18 Is avant-garde art one big sadomasochistic adolescent adventure? Marcel Duchamp’s conferral of the status of art on found objects is finally sadistic toward art, in that it nihilistically denies the art object’s difference from other objects—denies art’s ability to make a psychic difference. Duchamp’s is an intellectual form of acting out. He is basically an adolescent voyeur with violent tendencies, as both his early Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1912–23, and his last piece, Étant Donnés . . . , 1946–66—both works are masturbation fantasies—make clear. Dadaism too is overtly nihilistic, voyeuristic, and hostile; it is a form of adolescent projection. And the compulsive (sexual) repetitiveness of Minimalism and of certain forms of Conceptualism reveals the somnambulistic character of such intellectual acting out, and of acting out as such. All of this suggests the not-so-sublime character of the avant-garde artist who is stuck in adolescence—who is more into expression than organization," and who uses perversity as a way of hiding (from him- or herself as well as from others) while seeming to reveal his or her true self exhibitionistically.

Turning off and acting out are both characteristic of adolescence, “the terminal stage of childhood.”20 Both involve “discharge of instinctual tension . . . by responding to the present situation as if it were the situation that originally gave rise to the instinctual demand”21— that is, responding to a contemporary situation as if it were a childhood one. In part, turning off feeling reflects a refusal to recognize one’s regression. (It also prevents guilt in the aftermath of antisocial acting out.) Acting out, on the other hand, involves an “inability to tolerate frustration, a special disturbance of reality and of self-criticism.”22 As a “bent for dramatization,” it is “related to exhibitionism and scoptophilia,”23 and also to excitability and overactivity.24

Diffuse acting out seems characteristic of the avant-garde mentality. One thing it indicates, for example, is “a general overstimulation and sensitization for all stimuli—in the sense of a much lowered threshold for both input and output,” that is, a “lower stimulus barrier.”25 Surely the description applies to an overproductive—compulsively productive—avant-garde artist such as Picasso? Always trying everything, ceaselessly experimenting, Picasso had what Leopold Bellak, discussing acting-out behavior, calls “a lifelong excessive stimulus hunger ... [an] inability for containment and the constant need for discharge.”26 For Picasso, the work of art became a kind of discharge. And his pictorial fragmentations relate to Bellak’s “inability for containment”: in acting out, “past experience [dominates] perception of contemporary stimuli,” distorting them.27 (As Wilfred R. Bion makes clear, fragmentation is not exactly creative integration.) The distortions of Picasso have been stylized and academized by later artists, and his hyperproductivity is both mimicked and mocked by mass reproduction, but these developments only confirm that art has become a more diffuse acting out than it ever was before.

In this neo-avant-garde period, it seems, a good deal of art is dominated by an awareness of past avant-garde art, as evidenced by the many compulsive, uncreative appropriations of it. Neo-avant-garde art tries to neutralize its models, even defeat them, by splitting off its representation of them from the feeling they attempted to project, for example by making the representation ironic. One might think such art was post adolescent, but this is deceptive. Maturity involves the ability to integrate feeling and representation. Neo-avant-garde art, though, carries the avant-garde split between feeling and representation to an extreme from which it seems there is no return. If the “heroic” aspect of the early avant-gardes was their attempt to create new visual languages that would bring unrepresentable feeling into existence, their very ambition may have led to their turning off of feeling: they were forced to recognize the futility of trying to represent feeling in a visual language that made sense to both artist and audience. In late avant-garde art, however, beginning perhaps with Minimalism, Conceptual art, and Pop art, turning off became an end in itself—a hypostatized attitude.

Out of the tragedy of neo-avant-garde art, full of hubris yet ironically and blindly repeating the old paradigm of adolescence, a genuinely mature art—an art of unexpected tranquility—may yet be horn. But this will not occur before we recognize this art as a tragedy—or, at the very least, as a peculiarly black farce.

Donald Kuspit is a contributing editor of Artforum.



1. Giorgio de Chirico, for example, wrote that “to be really immortal a work of art must ... come close to the ... mentality of children.” Quoted in Marcel Jean, ed., The Autobiography of Surrealism, New York: Viking, 1980, p. 7. Wassily Kandinsky described children as “the greatest imaginers of all time,” and advised artists to emulate them, in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, New York: Dover, 1977, p. 17. In “On the Question of Form,” in The Blaue Reiter Almanac, 1912, reprint ed. New York: Viking, 1974, p. 176, Kandinsky also noted “enormous unconscious power in the child,” and said “the academy is the surest way of destroying” that power. Wordsworth’s poem “Ode (Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood),” 1803–6, exemplifies the Romantic origins of this idealization of childhood.

2. Jose Ortega y Gasset, “The Dehumanization of Art,” 1925, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Writings on Art, Culture, and Literature, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1950, p. 47.

3. Ibid., p. 46.

4. Ortega, “The Self and the Other,” 1939, in ibid., p. 164.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Analyzing the 12-year-old villain of the film The Good Son, Jack Kroll per-fectly describes the adolescent type: he is a “homicidal homonculus” with an “absolute lack of affect.” See Kroll, “The Bad Seed, Part Deux,” Newsweek CXXII, 11 October 1993, p. 59. The cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-head are similar examples; they are the commercially kitsch dregs of adolescent Dadaism.

8. See Leopold Bellak, “The Concept of Acting Out: Theoretical Considerations,” Acting Out: Theoretical and Clinical Aspects, 1965, eds. Lawrence Edwin Abt and Stuart L. Weissman, reprint ed. Northvale, N.J., and London: Jason Aronson, 1987, p. 10, for a summary of Jacobson’s ideas. Dale Boesky, in “Acting Out: A Reconsideration of the Concept,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 63, 1982, p. 46, argues that “acting out ... expresses the psychic reality of the transference memories,” and should he distinguished from “the coincidental motor action or behavior which might or might not appear as an aspect of the compromise formation engendered by the (unconscious transference) fantasy.” This “narrow” definition distinguishes acting out from the “pejorative” application of the concept “to any antisocial activity,” although antisocial activity and acting out are often connected.

9. The remark is weirdly reminiscent of something Warhol wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975, p. 91: “1 always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in the movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen to you in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television—you don’t feel anything.”

10. Erik H. Erikson, in Childhood and Society, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1950, pp. 306–7, notes adolescents’ aggressive impulses and generally “hostile innerworld,” which correlate, ironically, with a tendency to stereotype themselves and the outerworld (p. 262).

11. Bellak, p. 9, and Erikson, p. 307, note the tendency to delinquency in adolescence, as though the adolescent were testing self- and social limits.

12. In his Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood and Deprivation, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989, Leonard Shengold describes soul murder as “a certain category of traumatic experience: instances of repetitive and chronic overstimula don, alternating with emotional deprivation, that are deliberately brought about by another individual” (pp. 16–17). Soul murder involves “taking away a person’s reason for living,” and occurs in “the confrontation of the powerful and the helplessly dependent” ( p. 19). Shengold argues that there is “institutionalized soul murder” as well as “individual soul murder.”

13. Peter Blos, quoted in Bellak, p. 9.

14. Erikson, p. 263.

15. Ibid., p. 262.

16. Mark Kanzer, “Andre Gide: Acting Out and the Creative Imagination,” in Aht and Weissman, pp. 38, 36.

17. New York Times, 7 October 1993.

18. See Anna Freud, quoted in Erikson, p. 307.

19. Bellak, p. 8. That is, he or she is dominated more by primary-process than by secondary-process thinking.

20. Blos, quoted in Bellak, p. 9.

21. L. E. Hinsie and R. J. Campbell, quoted in Bellak, p. 3.

22. Phyllis Greenacre, quoted in Bellak, p. 8.

23. Ibid.

24. Bellak, p. 6.

25. Ibid., p. 9.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.