PRINT April 1994

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Artist

I’m banal. We’re all banal, that’s the point right? Yup, I think that’s it.
—Sean Landers, [sic], 1993

SEAN LANDERS, THE artist-cum-writer-cum-artist, is always crying about wanting to be a “genious” and questioning whether everything he does has to “mean something.” On the merits of his handwritten book [sic] (hey Sean, I read every word, on all 454 pages), and also of his shorter epistolary works, numerous self-indulgent and narcissistic video performances, and bronze sculptures caricaturing average working-class schmoes and other “loser” types culled from the novels of his arch rivals in the literary field, I would say there’s plenty of “meaning” in his work. For openers, let’s call it humorous, prattling, seriously insincere, self-deprecating nihilism. As Landers writes, “No wonder Duchamp gave up and just played chess. The more you think the more you realize how pointless everything is. To enjoy anything you have to delude yourself.”

By his own admission, Landers is a member of a new “lost generation”—the white middle-class offspring of baby-boomer America, lacking the exigencies of an unjust war to oppose, a countercultural revolution to fight, or even a strong intellectual left to join. This generation’s art is steeped in ambivalence, always at odds with its own worth. When Nirvana sets its mental machinery at figuring out happiness, the formula that songwriter Kurt Cobain comes up with—“I’m having fun/I think I’m dumb/Or maybe just happy”—is strikingly like the “Leonard Cohen afterworld” that Landers shows us when he videotapes himself jerking off in the studio, or pens his affable but interminable “streams of nothing” and “chronicles of idleness.” If misery loves company, Landers might be consoled by his art’s part in a larger esthetic and cultural tendency that wears its asocial attitudes and nonintellectual dispositions, its paranoia and its delusions of grandeur, its adolescent tendencies and its obsessional leanings, on its sleeve. He deserves to be singled out, though, for taking it over the top: his efforts to show that the inner idiot is in control are totally convincing. The work gives us little opportunity, perhaps little inclination, to identify with an expressive “consciousness,” to appreciate esthetic accomplishment, to enjoy the irony of institutional critique. What’s left?

Either the subject who seems to speak in this work is entirely the product of social and unconscious processes that it will never much know, or it does not fully mean what it says. Or maybe both. Not that this genious necessarily deserves a MacArthur, but the work is hardly uninformed. Its aggressive lack of panache notwithstanding, it clearly depends on ideological models in place since the ’60s: buried in its prehistory are both Conceptual art, grounded in a philosophical inquiry into art as a self-defined, self-referential practice, and Minimalism, with its exploration of how repetition can both embody and dissolve content. Landers’ texts repeatedly reference themselves, self-consciously and tautologically. Pages torn from a yellow legal pad fill a wall, pushpinned edge to edge; dizzying compilations of writings spill over a canvas. Reading becomes a physical and visual endurance test, defying completion. To the extent that it divests itself of theoretical models once seen as fundamental to progressive 20th-century art, we might even consider Landers’ language a form of radically innovative, quasi-heroic abstraction—even as it paraphrases an alternative model in which art’s duty is seen as the reproduction of the social world. Thus we are constantly brought back to the form itself: is it novelistic, diaristic, parody, critique? Is it literary at all? Is it art?

Does it matter? Landers’ comic language of mundanity divorces his Conceptual and Minimal frameworks from their earlier functions, substituting solipsism for self-reference, routine for serial repetition. His gestures of self-abasement and his loud show of bad faith subverting any philosophical seriousness, he wreaks havoc with prevailing catechisms. The texts lampoon artistic practice, the figure of the artist, and the artist’s relation to the market. They also take on the viewer—questioning our desire for art, and the means by which that desire is piqued, or frustrated.

Art has long been charged with the responsibility of upsetting the status quo, challenging convention, and injecting youth and vitality—indeed, life itself—into a system fraught with anxiety over its depleted social function and ever pending obsolescence. Younger artists particularly are often expected to turn this trick through some form of insult to the audience—as long, that is, as the “shocks” aren’t too disruptive. Many card-carrying members of the art world retain a skeptical conscience concerning this contradiction between negation and affirmation. Biting the hand that feeds you may be cathartic, but once built into the system, it is a compromised form of confrontation. And its familiarity as a strategy can, and has, produced a secondary symptom: a pervasive feeling of contemporary art’s impotence and ineffectiveness.

Landers, a virtual heat-seeking missile for soft spots, mines this malaise adeptly. In a clearly strategic choice, apathy and doubt walk hand in hand with malice in his work—his “autopilot dribble” is as likely to be turned on the viewer as on himself. Those who persevere against “such utter boredom” as his writing seems to compel eventually encounter a direct “fuck-you everybody”—fuck you for enjoying his pose of ineptitude, for laughing at his bad jokes, for buying into his shtick, for wondering whether his trite confessions might actually have something to do with “truth.” Self-described as “a slice of wonder bread, with a slice of Kraft American cheese and a swath of Frenche’s yellow mustard on it,” Landers asks himself, “Why are people paying for my art? Every trip to the Met is an exersise in denial about my own lack of ability. Has our culture really become this thin as to allow somone like me acceptence as one of it’s artist.” Besides second-guessing his audience’s responses, and forestalling them, this passive/aggressive show of insecurity taunts and challenges our tolerance for “transgression” in art.

It’s not as if Landers’ patheticness had pathos. Through a rhetoric of monotony, he reduces the confessional mode to spectacle. The videos may appear to document his life as he seems to live it (hanging around doing not much, then showing it to us, in Andy Warhol–like real time), but the principle of translating experience into art has no integrity in this work. (In [sic], Landers writes, “I really do want to be an art genious and describe my generation, and this time and all the humanity for timelessness. Is wanting to enough? Or do you actually have to do it.”) As lived experience becomes a dangling signifier, the critique that might address Landers’ appropriations of Conceptual and Minimalist devices is displaced, replaced, by the question of whether we believe that this image of the artist corresponds to the man who has produced it. Landers’ use of the conditional voice to qualify his sordid confessions and disclosures (“What if I told you that ... ”) further insinuates the figure of what a literary critic would call the unreliable narrator: the possibility that this portrait of the artist as a young artist lies somewhere between artistic fiction and ruse.

Landers the character and Landers the artist/author are never clearly distinguished here, and never clearly united either. That the literary skills on display announce themselves as inadequate for “real” fiction only muddies the waters. So we want to think we understand the artist’s life, are fully in possession of it (as voyeurs, as vicarious insiders and bohemians)? Landers is disgustingly willing to accommodate us. Indeed he delivers himself up to our desire, soul and body: we see him paunchily naked, and learn his tastes in sex (hetero, and lots of it); we meet his friends and acquaintances, his lovers and exlovers, his family, his rivals, his dealer, his collectors; we know his inner torments and doubts, his aspirations and fantasies. Along the way, we also get his views on “the new male sexuality” (soft, sensitive, and threatened by “empowered” women), American literature, contemporary art and its practitioners, and a host of other topics.

Much of this seems like we’re getting the real guy, some seems smoke and mirrors. Yet ultimately, of course, what’s staged and what’s autobiography is beside the point. Sean Landers knows he has a workable gimmick in “Sean Landers,” but the real interest of his work is its strategy as art, the way it functions both to typify and to problematize the state of contemporary art by resorting to a self-canceling play of opposites: take one part conceptual inquiry, one part “realism”; one part truth, one part parody; one part esthetic novelty, one part esthetic debt; one part searching, one part savvy; one part sincerity, one part irony; mix and stir. Thus Landers maps the maze in which avant-garde transgression is wandering—maybe even lifts himself a little above it, looking for the way out.

And for all its shoddy production standards and elevation of low achievement, this is work that puts real art problems on the table—problems of classification and valuation, of the relation between merit and materiality (as demonstrated by the difference between scribbling on yellow legal pads and fabricating bronze sculpture), of the worth of any artistic gesture, of the place art occupies in our culture. In the short term, the confessional overdose Landers feeds us is certainly some kind of antidote to the politically correct seriousness of the ’90s—and that’s not to mention Modernist art’s tradition of sincerity, of expressiveness, of the inner child as boy genius. Landers’ overorchestrated excursion into the depths of the soul reveals (surprise!) no radiant core but only boredom and pettiness. Should we want to stay tuned, he’s put us on notice: don’t expect Jackson Pollock to emerge from the chrysalis of self, expect Walter Mitty.