PRINT May 1994


Helmut Newton

RECENTLY, WHEN I HAD REASON to look at a lot of Helmut Newton photos, I underwent a reaction worthy of further investigation. Imaginarily disordered by the elixir of these fabulous images, not unlike Jerry Lewis turning into hipster Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor, I felt so glamorous that I went right into Bendel’s and found something on sale I never would have considered trying on, even venturing into the Fancy section, where I only go when I am feeling especially spirited, and handling really expensive pants. With a bit of reflection, my radical failure of sublimation, the palpable slippage between my enjoyment of the Newton photos and my urge to shop, began to seem less and less strange . . . but would others see it this way?

The conflict between Art and liking nice things has been noted by others greater than I. The intro to a volume of Stendhal’s travel pieces dismisses them as chiefly inspired by the author’s need, despite his 50-something years, to dress at the height of fashion (as if this put their literary merit in question!). Proust suspected Balzac, in his bourgeois novels of ambition, greed, and vanity, of indulging in the reader the very worldly tastes of which Art was supposed to purge you. I realize, through the years, that I have kept a mental file of Great Minds inordinately distracted by clothes and furniture. Kierkegaard was an interesting reverse case, trying to appear as the idle shopper and disowning his brilliantly tortured juvenilia Either/Or as written by someone else: he claimed he happened to find the manuscript in the drawer of a desk he had long coveted and finally bought from a furniture dealer after ogling it, and making daily visits to see it, for weeks, haunted. He describes the stalking process in familiar detail: “My daily route took me past this secondhand dealer and his writing desk, and I never let a day go by without fixing my eyes on it in passing.” In On the Genealogy of Morals, Uncle Friedrich makes short work of the question of one’s personal “interest” in the art object: he mocks Kant as a ridiculous prude for claiming that the Beautiful affects us precisely because it doesn’t affect us personally but appeals to our disinterest; he agrees with Stendhal, who saw in Beauty la promesse de bonheur, the satisfaction of selfish pleasures. Indeed, since galleries and museums are inevitably surrounded by nice stores, the experience of looking at Art has long been confused with shopping for nice things.

Yet superegoic voices scold me for confusing the rewards of art with the rewards of shopping. We look to our art magazines to help us in our darkness, to cleanse us and give us succor from the gutters, the shops, the institutions in which every day is a savage, pitiless battle for dominance, pitting consumer against consumer, beast against beast, while the heart is gladdened, senselessly, with the spirit of springtime. In an effort to produce only the fine ideas worthy of my position, I turned to my new guru, Deepak Chopra, M.D., best-selling leader in the revolutionary field of mind-body medicine. I saw him on Oprah!. A friend claims he recently appeared on the porno channel “healing seven-year-old boys,” but I suspect this is a slander, coming as it does from a linear determinist (a radiation oncologist). Aware that it is a delusion that I am cut off from grace and plenitude, I am on the alert for expert advice on how to connect myself to the Universal Mind, the sooner the better.

As I suspected, my sense of heightened glamorization after looking at the Newton photos was not delusion but the true Reality that we are conditioned to dismiss, continually, because of the veil of illusion we incorporate as social conditioning. You and I are special. Sages and achievers throughout the ages are connected to the Higher Truth that we are all One Mind; those stuck in the delusion of individual finitude stagger under a false burden of scarcity, they labor under the illusion that they are missing out, they torment themselves with unfavorable comparisons to others who have used up all the good stuff, leaving them to writhe in the private hell of invalidation. According to Chopra, through the power of attention you can overcome your delusion by focusing on the glamour molecules that rejoin you to the quantum field of total glamour. Since I am made of molecules, and photo spreads are made of molecules, and the world is made of molecules, we are all One; I can enhance the glamour quality of my molecules by affirming the Oneness of the molecular world, since all differences are illusion (maya), etc., as discussed above. In a world of perpetual flux, why fixate on one transitory state and wretch when Fantasy has real transformative effects? Spiritual truth is unchanging: we are all one Mind in glamour. Newly sensitized to this higher truth, I read in a gossip column that megastar Michael Jackson urged Jackie O. (another Success) to consult Chopra before seeking treatment for her health.

Thrown into an anxious froth by my panicky urge to rejoin the quantum field, pulsating with serenity, I began to hallucinate. Shrugging off the harmful voices that tormented me, the Higher Self took over: bitch-goddess of cultural studies by day, preemptively destroying arguments with her Medusa-like but nice stealth radar gaze, she conducts a fierce struggle for Truth, enduring punishing challenges to her glamour and frontal assaults on her intelligence and good taste, under the cool, mild-mannered facade of self-effacing, waiflike intellectual. At night, she prowls the scene as a slender, exceptionally well-read action figure eliminating evil in the art world, guided by the flawless instincts of her dainty sheepdog, Lady. Poised ringleader of the international Jewish Conspiracy of Glamour (IJCG), controlling the production and flow of glamour during the postwar period (via Josef von Sternberg, Lauren Bacall, Shelley Winters, Richard Avedon, Newton, Lewis, and of course Barbra) while throwing everyone off the scent by effectively disseminating the propaganda that Jewishness is not sexy, she fearlessly uses herself as a cultural guinea pig in the relentless pursuit of Truth. One woman’s moving and compassionate journey landed her . . . the Fantasy breaks off here.

Reported on Page Six of the New York Post by Flo Anthony:

The authoress was sighted in the deluxe treatment program for acute mind-body aggravation at the Illinois Home for the Jewish Bewildered, in the exclusive Lee Krasner Memorial Wing, where she busily collects string and continues to dictate her column and to develop her profitable Psychic Whiners Hotline (celebrity spokesmodel Buddy Hackett). She is attended by her adoring photographer, her loyal bodyguard/handbag designer, her perky meditation coach, and fawning hospital staff who mercifully dress in last season’s Chanel and are required by contract to speed recovery by remaining at least ten pounds heavier than the client, like Vivian Vance on I Love Lucy. Her editor/manicurist commutes weekly from NYC to inspire her with rousing lectures on Femininity and Aggression, and makes sure her apartment is free of dust.

Every morning, radiant after thighmastering, she works on her big hook (the one they’re all waiting for!), Identity: Pro or Con?, set in a dry-cleaning store in New Haven, Conn. One of the highlights: just one week after a lobotomy, the heroine wows her audience by delivering a stunning paper on cross-dressing as it subverts culturally constructed gender roles. Snatched up in a record 20 minutes by Yale University Press, the book has already created a startling buzz in the publishing world, the immoderate advance explained only by its uniformly giddy assemblage of unexpected allies including Suzanne Somers (“A fresh approach to the subjectivities of mass culture. It’s great!”), Gloria Steinem (“It did wonders for my self-esteem!”), Slavoj Zižek (“I laughed. I cried. It was better than Cats!”), Harold Bloom (“I keep it in my bathroom!”), and William Buckley (“I love the part about the Jews and the sailboat!”), whose tear-stained reader report gushed, “I keep it with me at all times. One of the most moving and inspiring first-draft manuscripts that I have ever read . . . the drama proceeds savagely, erotically . . . I now read Rhonda daily, there is wisdom on every page.”

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer and critic who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She contributes this column regularly to Artforum.