PRINT April 1994

The Très Boring Hours

I’m a loner/I’m a sorry entertainer
—Daniel Johnston, “Sorry Entertainer,” 1983

Yet there was a voice within me that said: Someday you will be considered the most intense and, in a certain sense, the most significant young prose writer in America. And I listened. . . . My advice to the young people of today? I’m tempted to say: Surround yourself with flunkies and yes-men and have naked slaves, perfumed with musk, fan you with plastic fronds as you write. Because that’s what’s worked for me.
—Mark Leyner, Et Tu, Babe, 1992

Are you bored yet?
—Sean Landers, [sic], 1993

The following are transcripts of a series of telephone conversations taped by the author between 24 February and 10 March 1994, coinciding with his unwanted introduction to the “work” of Sean Landers.

ANATOLE “TOTO” DEJOUISSANCE editor-in-chief, Whitespace: Art and Beyond magazine]: Hello, Andrew? Toto here. I have something that’s just too perfect for you. Surely you’ve heard of Sean Landers, leading star of the neo-Conceptual abject multimedia ironic-self-promotion loser movement?

ANDREW HULTKRANS: Uhh, nope. I’m in Siberia, you know—I mean San Francisco.

ATD: Oh . . . quite. Well, he’s generating quite a buzz here in the city, and I think you’ll find his work fascinating. In fact I see you as, well, contemporaries. He’s got that ironic-self-promotion thing down, and his milieu is that same disenchanted-overeducated-underemployed-self-obsessed-white-male-twentysomething-angst thing that you wallow in so artfully.

AH: Thanks . . . I guess. . . .

ATD: You’ll do it then? Fabulous! I’ll have some things Fed-Exed to you today: slides, videos, a book, and press, of course. We’ll need 2,500 words by the 13th of March, and. . . .

AH: Waitaminnit Toto, I’ll need cash, lots of it, my name in 24-point—preferably in deep violet—at the top of the opening spread, and a grainy black-and-white shirtless portrait photo on the contributor’s page or I won’t even consider—

ATD: Yes, yes, my dear, anything you want. Now just make sure you’re awake before ten tomorrow or the Fed-Ex man will see you in your undies.

AH:—and sidebars on my weightlifting techniques, my shocking sexual aberrations, and—

ATD: [audible bursts of French; something about Foucault and pastries] Toto Dejouissance speaking . . .

AH: Alright Toto, I got the stuff. What’s the deal with this book? I mean, [sic]?!? That’s like turning in a college paper called “Untitled 1.” And the cover? Looks like he’s clowning David or something, although he looks more Koresh than Michelangelo. I can see the title of my article now—under my name, of course: “Sean Landers: Loser or Poser.” What are you getting me into here anyway?

ATD: [sic] ah yesss. Well, the title is a multivalent pun that mockingly appropriates a favorite barb of Sean’s critics. As you’ll see, Sean can’t spell, so reviewers quoting his texts often write “[sic]” after the misspellings, in smug condescension. Sean brilliantly deflates the pejorative nature of the word by recontextualizing it as a badge of honor—much as the gay community has with words like “queer”—thereby exposing the petty jealousy and creative frustration that pervade art criticism. Of course, the title also connotes “sick,” raising questions about the artist’s health and sanity while glorifying the perverse, the sordid, the malaise d’artiste.

As for the nude pose, it’s a still from the provocative yet inviting video piece Italian High Renisance and Baroque Sculpture, in which Sean campily echoes poses from classical sculpture while listening to Mass on the radio. The piece simultaneously explores male identity, the artist’s ambivalence about Catholicism, the intersection of the voyeur and the onanist, and the electronic mediation of worship—of both “God” and self. It’s truly post-Modern.

AH: Stuff it. I had my fill of that Bo Drillyard bunk in college. The only worthwhile idea any of those Frenchies ever had was Lacan’s five-minute shrink session—now that was a scam. Speaking of scams, how’d Landers convince his vanity press to publish 454 pages of arthritic handwriting? Publicsfear Press? Come on, Toto, do you really expect me to read this drivel?

I mean, the cartoons are kinda funny. The one with the naked woman with the box over her head saying “This is all you really want” bleeds truth for me. And the young woman painter thinking “Should I do ‘angry woman’ political art and sell lots of paintings, or paint what I want, get accused of ‘ripping off’ some male painter, and go nowhere?” is a nice riff on how the art world railroads women artists into P.C. because it’s fashionable. But then again, we all know this. Is Landers gonna show me anything new? At least the videos look promising. Lessee . . . Drunk—I can relate to that. Anyone’s Orgasm? As long as that includes my orgasm, I’m down. Wisper, Italian High Renisance . . . sic is right. This guy went to Yale? What did he write on his application, “I rully want to be a sculpter”? Jeez. I mean, I’ll give him a shot, but don’t expect anything on the sculpture. I’ll only end up saying something like “Mr. Landers knows a great bust when he sees one,” or “Mr. Landers has a fine eye for a figure.” Isn’t sculpture dead anyway?

ATD: [sigh] As long as collectors are buying sculpture, my dear, it isn’t dead. Really you are so ribald. Forget about the sculpture. Sean’s really evolving into a multimedia artist. It’s his videos and writings that have made him the talk of the town. By the way, his phone number is [deleted] in case you want to chat. Now remember, we need it by the 13th. Ciao.

AH: [desperate] —Toto—about that cash—I’m running low on aminos, and—

[A week later. Landers’ answering-machine message—too banal for ink]

AH: Landers, I’ve been reading your “book” and there’s something I thought I’d share with you. There’s another wannabe writer who posed all-but-naked on his book cover—that’s right, Landers, Howard Stern. And you know what? His book was the #1 best-seller for months. All the talk shows want him. Fans line up around the block for him. He gets to do cable-TV specials with ten surgically augmented 17-year-olds in bikinis crawling all over him. He gets to, and I quote you here, “listen to soft rock and have big boobs bounce in his face” all day long. You “can’t look at a yellow legal pad without dreaming of a Pulitzer”? Hah! Face the Muzak, Landers, Howard Stern will always be a more successful writer than you.


[Landers’ answering machine]



ATD: Hello? Toto speaking.

AH: Yeah, Toto, I’ve cranked out some paragraphs on this joker. I also paid him a couple of crank calls. Always good to terrorize your subject, eh? Here, lemme read you what I’ve got. I tried to tone up my language a bit so I wouldn’t sound like Al Goldstein in the middle of The New Yorker. Then again, Al Goldstein might have an interesting take on this guy. Landers is a perv! I mean, he meticulously describes shoving a toilet plunger up his ass!!! Anyway, here goes: [reads]

On first inspection, the work of Sean Landers takes the “art” of documenting boredom beyond Andy Warhol’s eight-hour Empire “film”—a work of laissez-faire subrealism that should have remained in the narcoleptic slumber it inflicted on its audiences. If you have boring, depressing, mildly schizophrenic days like Landers does, you can relate, but that doesn’t absolve him for adding them to my psychic calendar. As I listen to Landers croon “Never get caught between the moon and New York City” yet again, I have to ask myself—is this art?

Landers’ work implies that the seal of approval bestowed by the art world of today—by dealers, critics, and collectors—precedes all traditional debates over esthetic value. An artist is “made,” to borrow Mafia parlance, and his work is thenceforth received as “art” regardless of its craft, intelligence, esthetic quality, or content. Of course it may then be savaged by critics, ignored by galleries, and shunned by collectors, but these later reactions are irrelevant to the characterization of the creator as an “artist.” He may eventually be labeled a “bad” artist, but once he has received the coveted “ARTIST” imprimatur it can never be removed, except, perhaps, by his own volition.

This is the tattoo parlor from which Landers has emerged, though he is currently exploring his badge’s clout in other VIP lounges (e.g., the novelist’s). Certain critics maintain that Landers’ work is about “male subjectivity at the margins,” or “notions of ethnic liminality in the melting pot,” or “troping the postindustrial commodity”; Landers would have us believe that it’s simply about “sex, death, art, and life.” But it is also about knowingly pushing the envelope of what is acceptable as “art” once the creator is officially established as an “artist.” In other words, Landers exhibits subcreative studio detritus as a challenge to the art world—an arcane, insular network that nonetheless shares its economy and dynamics of attention with mainstream pop culture.

This parallel is not lost on Landers, a self-declared talk show junkie. His written works and home videos function as the tabloids do for pop-culture icons: they provide fans with every soiled panty, every sweaty session on the leg-press machine, every mundane moment, and every personal anecdote, whether authentic or spurious. Indeed the authenticity of these glimpses of the stars is immaterial, since the tabloid’s goal is simply to provide new slides for the fans’ projectors. Landers has made this dynamic the core of his art, mutating from a trained sculptor into a paparazzo chasing his own “fame.”

Never mind that Landers doesn’t have enough groupies to justify his tabloidlike coverage of himself. He wants them, and that’s what matters. He’s an “artist” and this is his “art.” For Landers, the “artwork” is the arch commentary the “artist” provides for his work. It is not the badly modeled bust but the price tag dangling from its neck, reading “Fuck you. $5000, suckaaah! Love, Sean Landers.” This is scarcely original, of course, but then again, what is? Landers cops strategies from Warhol’s “factory” mass-production techniques and Jeff Koons’ Gordon Gekko–in Disneyworld hypercapitalist kitsch marketing schemes, but more important, he shares their pathological passive-aggressive habit of flipping the bird at the art-world audience while desperately demanding its love.

Let’s ignore Landers’ place in the metanarrative of art for a moment and take him at face value. Like a manic-depressive venting to his shrink, Landers makes his art a sounding board for the neuroses of an overeducated, media-saturated white boy with a lot of time on his hands. (I should know.) His rantings—on video and in writing—vacillate schizophrenically, recalling now the naked love/death obsessions of institutionalized singer/cartoonist Daniel Johnston (whose verses include “I’ll never marry/I’ll never wed/No one wants to sleep with you when your flesh is rotting”), now the steroid-fueled megalomania of novelist Mark Leyner. Landers is both a maudlin auto-confessor and a pornography-warped pervert. A sap whose sentimentality is balanced by his ability to find God in D Cup magazine. A “kickass artist” and a “weak little maggot who deep down just wants to listen to soft rock and have big boobs bounce in my face.” He embraces these contradictions as lovingly as he would one of his wet-dream paramours. And if we take him at his word (a tough proposition), he broadcasts every detail of his “nerotic” (unpack that) life “for you.”

This apparent generosity is, of course, largely disingenuous: like the freakishly “victimized” guests on Oprah, Landers is actually broadcasting his multimedia personality for himself. It is the way he delivers his “sincerity” that distinguishes him from the adult victims of Martha Stewart–induced inadequacy on daytime TV. Landers masterfully employs ironic abasement as a self-promotion strategy. In his giant 1993 words-on-canvas piece Patches, for example, he writes, “This painting is like a phone call from a nerotic, self-obsessive, depressive friend who is so inconsiderate they don’t realize they’re boreing you. Well, at least you can walk away. See ya later.” And, “Hurculeon efforts make me feel like I’m less of a hoax. If it’s a lot of work at least I can appease my concience. I guess I don’t believe in my own ideas <==Bullshit Sean, you think you’re great!” Arguably defensible delusions of grandeur are constantly deflated by such insecure disclaimers, and vice versa. This endless circularity of self-awareness seems to insulate Landers from possible criticism—except, perhaps, the criticism that as art, endless self-awareness sucks.

That dismissal must be qualified, at least in part. In [sic], for example, where Landers attempts the kind of “automatic writing” that Jack Kerouac wouldn’t even have thought was typing, Landers occasionally gushes streams of apparent emotional honesty, specifically relating to his love life. That they are unabashedly sappy does not detract from their effect: momentarily taking Landers out of his in-joke, these passages destabilize what would otherwise be a painfully arch conceit and invite our entrée.

And yet . . . In a passage tucked unobtrusively away in Patches, Landers identifies the central problem of his art: “I will kiss ass while shamelessly biteing the hand that feeds me. And obviously I’ll admit to both. Does that then neutralise it, or critique it. If so, is critique meerly high faluten self consiousness?” To answer those questions: Neutralize? You hope not. Critique? You’re getting warmer. High-falutin’ self-consciousness? Sean, I shouldn’t have to tell you—it’s a crucial part of your art, for God’s sake, and it’s paying your bills.

Well? Whaddaya think?

ATD: [sucking sounds, possibly an Altoid] Yes, well . . . it’s certainly feisty. I am tempted to ask you to tone down the voice, but then again, Sean’s work relies so heavily on his idiosyncratic voice, there’s a nice echo there. Hmmm . . . you seem to be ignoring the existence of the established neo-Conceptual confessional art school, questions of narrative transgression are entirely absent, and I was hoping for some discourse on the fragmentation of subjectivity by projection through various media, but perhaps you can work those things in with a phrase or two. I must say I detect a hint of jealousy in your writing, but that’s part of the reason I assigned the piece to you in the first place: such invidious projections—on canonized precursors, on the institutional exclusivity of culture—and the willful assent to cultural relevance are key tropes of Sean’s oeuvre. Despite your attempts to question his status as an artist, your effort to come to grips with his art is clearly analogous to his own trials before the cultural powers that be. And you have to admit that Sean’s onto something—he wouldn’t be where he is today if his work were completely without merit.

AH: Sure, the shtick works, but Landers isn’t the kickass artist he dreams of being. I guarantee you that [sic] will never be mandatory undergraduate reading. You yourself just pinpointed Landers’ true talent when you cited the art world’s acceptance of him as proof of his artistic merit. His self-declared project is hustling the New York—hell, the international—art world into making him matter. He’s got shows, he’s got collectors, he’s part of a “movement” or at least a “thing,” he’s got art-magazine editors calling me up for features, he’s making money ferchrissake! The living embodiment of the slacker dream, he’s taken mediocre talents, shameless laziness, ironic self-awareness, and end-less angst—qualities shared by so many of our generation’s accredited white boys, including myself—and is parlaying them into fame and cash. I tip my Philly Blunt cap to him. But Landers, if you’re reading this, and I know you are, remember that I’m right behind you. And you know what? I’m 27. You’re what? 31? You ain’t getting any younger dude. In a few years those nude videos will be even more embarrassing than they are already. You’ll end up as the lurching wino from one of your cartoons—wearing a has-been T-shirt and publicly urinating at gallery openings as critics and art mavens shake their heads and vaguely recall your “moment” back when. Meanwhile, my late-’20s juices are just beginning to flow. I maintain a rigorous workout schedule to hone my rippling physique. By the way, Toto, do you think any galleries would be interested in my home videos? They make Landers’ look like the Disney Channel. I want to show the world what I’m capable of . . . Toto?

Andrew Hultkrans is a writer who lives in San Francisco.