PRINT April 1994


Canvases Fear

WHAT IS AN ARTIST’S BIGGEST FEAR? Surely a persistent journalist telephoning to ask this question might number among them. Nevertheless, this month I gritted my teeth and accepted the daunting assignment of tabulating the art world’s terrors.

One might expect artists to shield the inner working of their psyches as one would the cards in a poker hand, fearful that exposing the unconscious motives that motor the art might give away the store. Not so with most of the artists, writers, and musicians we contacted. On the contrary, my calls were often greeted as a welcome diversion from an even bigger fear—that of the blank canvas, page, or stave.

In most cases, sheer delight in cherished symptoms outweighed the fear of divulging psychic secrets. Though Louise Bourgeois is not exactly known for her reticence when it comes to sharing childhood trauma, I still had to pinch myself when she picked up the phone on the second ring and, after modest encouragement, began to recount the less than doting ministrations of her decidedly austere dad.

All in all, the artists polled answered with candor. Jeffrey Eugenides, author of the much-praised novel The Virgin Suicides, revealed a pair of highly personal, highly primal worries; King Buzzo of the pre-/postgrunge band the Melvins described a not-so-quiet moment he shared with his wife during the recent L.A. earthquake; Martin Kippenberger took three days but (thanks to the somewhat beleaguered curator of his retrospective at the Museum Boymans van Beuningen in Rotterdam) faxed back a response worth the wait in pith—a word per day, to be precise. Only Sophie Calle balked at my request, but she had good reason: she didn’t know me from Adam—but then neither did anyone else. A medium-sized fear of my own—that my tape recorder would malfunction mid interview—played itself out as Calle explained how she works her own lesser fears in the name of art; in one case she allowed complete strangers in the South Bronx to take her where they wished.

Why did these estimable persons make their private fears public? After admitting that she generally loathed this style of inquiry, Bourgeois summed it up: “The question’s definitely a good one.” After all, a hundred years of Modern art have proved more than once that trolling psychic depths can yield esthetic rewards.

MARTIN KIPPENBERGER (artist): To be alone!

JEFFREY EUGENIDES (novelist, The Virgin Suicides): Anything having to do with the prostate.

Phobically speaking, the first thing that comes to mind is being thrown into a pit of snakes. On a Freudian level this is quite an embarrassing fear. When I was a kid, my father used to take me to these dubbed Hercules movies to instill in me something of our Greek heritage. Someone was always being thrown into a snake pit in those movies; I think my fear derives from them.

Working on something I’m writing, I remembered those movies, those bastardized renditions of Greek mythology. They brought back bits of my childhood. This fear isn’t pervasive in my life—I don’t have to deal with snakes too often, or snake pits. But being thrown into one is the worst thing I can imagine.

SOPHIE CALLE (artist): I don’t want people to know my biggest fear because it’s a power I don’t want them to have over me. I have sometimes experienced fears in my work, but only lesser ones, which I can control. For example, in a piece called Suite Venetienne, I followed a man everywhere he went. My fear was that he would realize not only that I was following him, but also that he could take me wherever he wanted. In effect, he could control me.

In another piece, in the South Bronx, I asked people from the neighborhood to take me wherever they wanted. The fear, obviously, was the danger I might be in. But these are fears I can manage. I might want someone else to know my larger fears, but not a man I have never seen, interviewing me on the telephone.

PATRICK MCGRATH (gothic novelist): It’s very mundane—it’s heights. Recently I was driving in Utah with my wife and stepson, and we were moving across a plain toward a range of cliffs. I couldn’t see a pass through the cliffs, and was rather whimsically wondering about this when I realized to my horror that the road had turned into a narrow gravel track and was climbing steeply with no barrier rail up the sheer cliff-face. After about ten yards I was dripping with sweat, my knuckles were white, and I had to face the fact that I was terrified and couldn’t go forward. It was a strong physiological reaction—despite losing great face with my stepson, who took to calling me Mr. Vertigo, I just had to reverse down onto safe ground.

As a small child I fell out of a tree, broke my wrist, and was knocked unconscious. This could be the origin of my vertigo. I’ve also read that deep in our simian unconscious there is a terror of falling, that being the worst thing that could happen as we swung through the trees. This fear wasn’t there when I was seven or eight, but it has become stronger and stronger, to the point where I can’t watch rooftop scenes in movies. I also have trouble with high buildings. The interesting thing is that there is always an equal and opposite impulse to go forward—an impulse to jump. So accompanying the terror is a drive toward the very thing that terrifies.

In my most recent book, Dr. Haggard’s Disease, the narrator is a doctor with a steel pin in his hip. He has a house on the side of a cliff, and there’s a rickety staircase down the cliff. And I have him going up and down the staircase in various states of morphine intoxication and pain. In putting an unsafe staircase down the side of a cliff, and making a man with a bad leg clamber up and down it, I may have been attempting to work through my incurable vertigo.

KING BUZZO (musician, the Melvins): I have two main fears: fear of being boring and fear of being incarcerated. I think what we’re doing is pretty interesting; until I feel it’s completely dire, I’ll run this puppy into the ground. As for fear of prison, I look kind of weird, and I sometimes get this whole treatment about being suspected of shoplifting. One of my biggest fears would be sitting in front of a jury and hearing somebody say “Forty years,” especially for something I didn’t do.

I also have a fear of financial insecurity, and a fear of mechanical failure when we’re playing. Working in a band, you’re dealing with a lot of people—the business people, the record company, the booking agents, the people at the clubs you play. There’s so much that can go wrong—so I guess another big fear is being unable to trust anyone. But I had an ulcer a couple of years ago; I had to mellow out and let a lot of that go, or have a hole eaten through my stomach.

I live in L.A. I was there during the earthquake. It was horrible. It wasn’t so much fear of death, it was just scary. I was in bed with my wife and we were just sitting there in the pitch black holding on to each other. What I didn’t realize was that for weeks after, every time we were asleep and there was even the slightest aftershock, I was sitting up awake in bed immediately. Natural disasters freak me out. But I think prison would be worse—being incarcerated wrongly seems more evil. It ties into my fear of trust.

LOUISE BOURGEOIS (artist): Not being ready. I myself am always ready; when people who are supposed to meet me are not ready, I leave.

My father could not tolerate a person who was not ready. If he gave us an appointment and we didn’t show up on time—I say “we” because it wasn’t personal, everybody was treated the same—he left. He abandoned us. He left us stranded. So there was a terror of being abandoned. My father was bossy, bossy, and met people on his own terms. He brought me up to be ready or else. The “else” was a deep fear—of being abandoned. I am still functioning under the fear of being abandoned because I am not ready.

I can take care of this fear now. But it is still rambling, rambling, down in me somewhere. For instance, I was expected to be at the Venice Bienniale last year, and I was ready, the show was ready—and at the last minute I did not go. It was a revolt. My not being there even though I was ready—overready—shows how much I react to the boss who says, “Go there.” Everybody said, “You have to go.” But I said, “No, I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to be there. I’m ready to go to Venice, but it is my decision to go or not to go, and I decide not to go.” Sixty years later, seventy years later, this surprising independence I’m showing today is a compensation.

ROBERT YARBER (artist): The fear of going mad. I’m kind of a ’60s person, and in the ’60s we thought of madness as a great escape route from an overly determined social environment. Since there was a parallel fear of becoming normal, there was this pull in both directions.

There is always a fear of being in a situation where one might do something inappropriate—lunge at a policeman or a ruffian, someone who’s armed. I don’t go around armed myself, but I assume certain people do. When faced with a dangerous situation one is usually smart enough to flee, but there is a derring-do.

I happen to be a person who seems to fit the “suspicious character” profile at airports. I’ve been stopped many times by security agents at airports and taken into the men’s room and frisked. Maybe it’s because I’m thin, or have funny eyes, or look nerve-racked, but they don’t want me on the plane until they’re sure of me. You have fear at that point—though you’ve done nothing wrong, you want to break for the exit. And then you’re afraid they’ll use a lot of bullets.

A lot of my work over the years has been about the fear of losing control, and also this wanting to lose control. A bad dad may have triggered this fear. Everybody has a bad dad. Mine was a nice guy, but sort of like Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners—he was very emotional. Also it may have been growing up in Texas, having these bizarre highway patrolmen hovering about all the time, the sort of people you saw in movies about the South. Those guys were real.

EMILY PRAGER (writer): Being jumped on the street and beaten to a pulp. Being hurt.

Intellectually, I guess my biggest fear is having my freedom taken from me. As a post-’60s satirist, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had almost total freedom in which to write. But the American world prior to the ’60s, the world in which I grew up, was not so free, and that world is always with me. Perhaps this is why I so deeply despise the world of political correctness, because it is a world with a rigid, restrictive, antiesthetic, hidden agenda that poses as being profreedom. Telling me what words to use and what to write is nightmarish to me. Further, “native American” is the only term in the entire P. C. panoply that is accurate and clarifying. I especially hate the phrase “people of color,” which I find racist in the extreme. Is that different than “colored people”?

They always burn the books first. Then they ban the paintings.

Jeffrey Slonim is a contributing editor at Allure and Interview. His column “All Around Esthetes” appears semiregularly in Artforum.