PRINT October 1994


the Hirsch Farm Project

MONTAIGNE OBSERVED that you can never win when you talk about yourself. If you say good things, people hate you, and if you say bad they believe you. This didn’t stop him, though, from using himself as a guinea pig in all of his essays. So the first half of my summer, darlings, was clouded, anticipating a week I was to spend in Hillsboro, Wisconsin, at the Hirsch Farm Project, “a ten-year experimental forum for the discussion of public art, the environment, and community,” to share and care about this year’s topic—“Optimism.” I had been invited along with seven emerging creative types (all of them sensitive about representing themselves with “labels”) by curator Mitchell Kane, who considers the week of “brainstorming” and the resultant catalogue to be his art.

Kane was initially surprised when others received his topic as a joke waiting for its punch line. In the same way that Walter Benjamin invented the concept of the aura at the moment of its eclipse, it made perfect (if perverse) sense for people to fasten on optimism now that a huge self-help industry of books, tapes, seminars, and other therapeutic services is booming, a sure indication that there’s both a big demand for optimism and a dearth of it. As precious libido (i.e., money) appears to be draining out of the art context, I thought, a look at the cultural forces that are guzzling it couldn’t hurt. Feeling soiled by my noningenuousness, I suspected I would stand out as the farm’s contrarian party-pooper: my chief perspectives on optimism were: 1) daily horoscopes and tarot readings; 2) Friedrich Nietzsche; 3) listening to (others on) Prozac; and 4), and perhaps most spiritually challenging to be seen with, Freedom from a Life of Hell, by Vernon Howard, “a unique teacher who has broken through to another world. He sees through the illusion of suffering and fear and loneliness,” and is based in Boulder City, Nevada.

Not considering myself especially fit to address the topic, I asked assorted smart people what they would do about optimism. D. commented, “This is worthy of one of those ’60s art gestures—don’t show up and send a telegram that says ‘Things are looking up.’” C. reminded me I’ve been very optimistic lately about shopping, as I’ve recently overcome a major hurdle of squeamishness and can now wear anything used, even shoes, without grossing out. And I’m very optimistic about the fall fashion for a change, “distressed glamour”; I’m finally in synch. My friend P. wisely remarked, “The only thing more stupid than optimism is pessimism.” He is a professor of comparative literature. T., a student of Jean-François Lyotard’s who begins her dissertation next week in Paris, was more affirmative: “I lost about two years of my life to depression. I think that’s good. I think there’s value to that!” This contradicts Spinoza, who thought that sad affect indicates a stupid or wrong idea, a muddiness of perception. The sense that clarity of vision or of thought will necessarily result in happiness is very different from a moral universe that implies that if you are sad then you are bad. Rather, the good news according to Spinoza is: if you are sad, you are simply wrong, that is, you are not seeing clearly enough; adequate ideas affect happy moods, which affect general well-being.

It’s funny how cultural artifacts sneak into your nervous system and affect your behavior in real life—so watch out! My invitation to Wisconsin aggravated a deeply embedded Eva Gabor fantasy, precariously dormant since I set foot in the Midwest, now festering and about to pop, having been squeezed by an imp who declared, “You’re going to be the star of that whole farm!” My fabulous farm future imminent, I packed in a swirl of competing bucolic fashion-statements. Yet I felt the undertow of a psychic trauma witnessed as a reader of Still Talking, the deeply moving Joan Rivers autobiography (with Richard Meryman). Profoundly mortified by the anecdote when the young Joan (before she became Joan Rivers) gravely overpacks for a Jamaica holiday and outs herself as unclassy, with city dresses and pumps rather than more unstructured cruisewear, I was determined never to fall into that trap. Glamour-imago dissonance split my brain: Eva . . . Joan? Green Acres . . . Can We Shop? Marabou . . . Jew? While the early Joan got shamed by the reality principle, the TV Eva exulted in the bliss of what others must struggle for through many office-hours of Lacanian therapy: never ceding her desire to be fabulous, no matter what the environmental factors, the heroine of Green Acres remains resolutely high maintenance with a good conscience. Foolishly chucking this analytic insight, I may have been short on optimism. But I knew I had the right “I’m Proud to be a Farmer!” T-shirt. I could go to that camp with casual confidence.

Nestling in a remote area of Wisconsin, the optimism farm could have been in Switzerland, but without big mountains in the background and Amish people running around. I greeted the director, Laurie Winters, with the resigned cheer of anyone about to be trapped for eight days in the boonies with ten art-achievers. A haimisheh Jewess with girlishly long curly hair, a degree in social work, and an MBA, she remarked, “I didn’t think you’d be the way you are from your writing. . . .” Masochistically, I couldn’t resist pressing her for some precision of expression here. “You know,” she beamed at me warmly, “I thought you’d be sophisticated!” She was attired in pieces from the Gap; I withstood the comment with the genial sangfroid of Jackie O. at a Hadassah picnic. Winters went on, “You know some people—they don’t know how to be in the country. . . . One of my friends can’t live without showering twice a day.” Here she recalled a “sophisticated” camper traipsing through the fields in orange silk pajamas and heels; accommodations on the farm were a four-bath luxury barn with every convenience, including a first-rate staff. It was picturesque like a week in a Ralph Lauren boutique. Maybe Frank (“What you see is what you see”) Stella was right: the world is never as subtle as you think. What kind of sophisticated New Yorker dresses for a farm? Through this incident the universe in its eternal paradox taught me never to second-guess a Gabor sister, in addition to seriously deflating the use-value of celebrity bios.

Winters’ dad, a recovering collector from Chicago and an avid student of everything, happens to be the wonderfully open-minded angel behind the program, Howard Hirsch. He made his fortune (literally) in screws, and said that SoHo, in an earlier life, had been the bustling center of the screw business. The socioarchaeology of the Hirsch farm as a palimpsest of SoHo evolution came full circle when one of the farmers noted that her first fashion boutique had been located in an old nuts-and-bolts building where Howard’s screw business had had dealings, reflecting SoHo’s spiritual itinerary from the seat of the screw to art and fashion. He had an elegant greyhound named Brave who was wearing this great collar of wine leather with hammered-bronze farm animals like cows on it. “Nice collar,” I said. “It’s very expensive,” he chuckled. “My wife brought home a leash but I made her return it.” What was it, Hermès chien?

After a week of talk about optimism, an unexpected highlight occurred on a visit to a “spiritualist” camp in an old abandoned motel with separate Psycho-like units in little cottages. Quite open to the spiritual dimension and not very skeptical, all of us agreed there were weird vibes there, like a kind of lame plane of spirits, a brothel for the low-end occult. At the weekly “séance,” which was kind of a bad lounge act, my future was revealed. Eyes closed, hands outstretched, sounding like a cross between a Sotheby’s auctioneer and Jimmy Swaggart, the medium adjusted himself to the spirits like a staticky TV. He saw people coming to me for my “services”: “Like a therapist!,” he blurted out, “a doctor! . . . or a hair stylist!” He was wearing one of those scary cowboy string ties. The next day, in a bubble of golden light, I received the epiphany of a new career option: Writer/Manicurist in Residence at the beautiful SoHo boutique of fellow farm-participant J. Morgan Puett, where, this fall season, I will hold office hours (three of them a month, by appointment only) for listening and manicuring. While this kind of kismet appears implausible in a magazine article, it occurs often in real life. (Call J. Morgan Puett, 140 Wooster St., NYC, [212] 677-1200 for info.)

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.