PRINT March 1997




To the Editor:
While I have no reason to object to the sarcastic and disparaging tone of Andrew Hultkrans’ coverage of “Chance” [“Crap Shoot,” January]—Artforum columnists are baaad!—I’m moved to reply to the sexist and racist elements of his badness.

Diana di Prima, author of some thirty books of poetry and prose, whose new book Autobiography of My Life as a Woman is forthcoming from Penguin this year, is no “relic from another era . . . on display here.” Di Prima’s visionary writings have influenced several generations of women. Her Memoirs of a Beatnik was the earliest manifesto of female transgression. Would Andrew Hultkrans have described Allen Ginsberg in this way?

Second, I don’t understand why American Indian activist Calvin Meyers should be held to different standards than Jean Baudrillard or Mr. Hultkrans himself. Why is Jean’s $100 win on slots amusing while Calvin’s talk on nuclear waste is “cheapened” when he’s sighted with a slot bucket on the casino floor?

If Andrew thinks everything is shit, that’s okay; but why are older women and minorities always, somehow, the shittiest of all? Of course we do appreciate the coverage.

—Chris Kraus
Chance Promoter
Los Angeles

Andrew Hultkrans responds:
While I have no reason to object to the desperate and sniping tone of Chris Kraus’ letter, I feel I must muzzle her loose-cannon commentary with a reply. As the organizer of “Chance,” Ms. Kraus’ defensiveness is understandable but ultimately inexcusable. I fear her blinkered perspective has clouded her critical eye, not to mention her common sense.

Objecting to my comments regarding Beat poet Diane di Prima and Native American activist Calvin Meyers, Ms. Kraus petulantly asks, “Why are older women and minorities always, somehow, the shittiest of all?” The intensity rift between my own comments and Ms. Kraus’ rebuke is so wide as to make one wonder whether she is reading from the same article. In calling Ms. di Prima “a relic from another era,” I was merely situating her generational and discursive relationship to the achingly postmodern riff-raff (myself included) attending the event. I do not know when the word “relic” acquired a pejorative resonance. Our greatest museums seem to be loaded with them. Moreover, as fine as her poetry is, di Prima, an unreconstructed Beat survivor, hasn’t a prayer of appearing radically contemporary while sharing the stage with, say, a flamboyant transgendered professor whose work concerns virtual bodies and ambiguously gendered online personae. It is hardly a damnation of her work (or age or gender) to note that she seemed out of place. Pointlessly flogging my apparent demonization of di Prima, Ms. Kraus asks, ‘Would Andrew Hultkrans have described Allen Ginsberg in this way?" Hell yes, I would have. But then Ms. Kraus would have accused me of being a homophobic anti-Semite with no respect for my elders.

_As for my “racist” treatment of Calvin Meyers, a charge as offensive as it is puzzling, I again wonder if Ms. Kraus is reading from the same script. That she cannot detect the irony in the sight of a local Native American, having mesmerized an audience of porno punters with a stunningly sincere description of the deleterious effects of cultural colonization in Nevada, lining up for an afternoon of slots at a casino, demonstrates that she needs to go back to Remedial Irony 101. Furthermore, if I actually thought minorities were “the shittiest of all,” why would I have spared Asian artist Shirley Tse or African American DJ Spooky from the brunt of my “racist” invective? Again, Ms. Kraus’ critique reveals itself to be as inconsistent as it is misguided. Had Ms. Kraus actually read my column, instead of playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with it, she would have noticed that my “sarcasm” was deployed in a strictly Socialist fashion—to each according to his needs, regardless of race or gender. In fact, the lion’s share of my barbs were reserved for unrepentant White Guy and main attraction Jean Baudrillard, who remains, in his writing and personal comportment, a very funny man.

Ms. Kraus concludes her backfiring buckshot load of a letter with the observation: “If Andrew thinks everything is shit, that’s okay.” While I thank her for her conciliatory tone, I hasten to remind her that there are many varietals of shit. I have sampled a number of them—my own included—but unlike Ms. Kraus, I have never labored under the assumption that one’s own shit does not stink._

To the Editor:
I have never before felt the urge to write a letter to the editor, but Andrew Hultkrans’ critique of the Art Center “intellectual rave” was so dead-on that it compels me to do so. I heard about the event early on and was so intrigued by what it proposed to do that I had my ticket practically before anyone else outside Art Center had even heard of it. My ticket was number seven—I took this to be a good omen. What potential: Mike Kelley, the crown prince of abjection, tangoes with Jean Baudrillard, a reigning regent of French theory. Who knew where they’d go spinning off?

I expected some boredom in an event governed by chance. I’ve read about Fluxus and listened to enough John Cage to know that tedium is one element of random activity. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would extend through three days with only momentary, sporadic relief. I also did not realize that those of us who didn’t know the secret Art Center handshake would be left on the fringe. I felt more welcome wandering around the blackjack tables among folks who could give a rat’s ass about what was transpiring in that auditorium.

Are artists so enthralled by the language of it all as to be basically ineffectual? Baudrillard’s speech was a sermon—it did not shock me to see people kneeling in reverence below the stage. I myself almost dozed off, not being a big fan of organized religion. Most surprising of all was that “Motel Suicide,” the nonevent of the year, made the front page of the Los Angeles Times.

Thank you for your sharp perceptions.

—Kristina Newhouse
Long Beach, California


To the Editor:
In her review of Diamanda Galas’ The Shit of God, [Bookforum, Winter ’96/Spring ’97], Joy Press revels in the anger and humor expressed in Ms. Galas’ work. The anger is important, but it seems short-sighted to ignore the pain that causes that anger. In this light, Ms. Press’ desire for “more of Galas’ prose, since the few tracts included here are wickedly funny,” rings hollow—it’s like looking for clowns at a funeral. This is not a plea that Diamanda become the St. Sebastian of AIDS—there are enough other artists attempting that feat. I merely wish to let her be herself, and combine humor, anger, and pain as she sees fit.

Finally, the reviewer finds the work misconceived, as “it’s a collection of text from her major works. . . . Many other pieces fall flat without Galas’ bombastic diva-tude to keep them inflated.” This seems a clear misreading of the book’s intent. In Opera: Desire, Disease, Death, Linda and Michael Hutcheon write that if opera librettos do “read badly,” the problem is with the reader, not the text. The assumptions that guide the reading of a novel or even a play are simply inadequate for reading librettos, where the musical setting plus the conventions of the dramatic script are part of what must be “read and understood.” If Ms. Press keeps this notion in mind, I’m sure it will enhance her reading of The Shit of God.

—Michael Flanagan
San Francisco


To the Editor:
I know that things have got tough in Britain in the last fifteen years, but if Richard Billingham’s family live “in a lower-middle-class housing project,” [“No Place Like Home,” January ’97] then god forbid what the lumpenproles live in. I have news. This isn’t even a working-class family, and the project is what is known in Britain as a “sink” estate. It’s where the housing authorities send the problems they can’t even pretend to cure.

Your feature on Billingham would have benefited from being written by someone who understood the nature of poverty and class in the UK. It might also have benefited from someone with a knowledge of contexts in which to place Billingham. The artist is not just “a kid with a camera.” Billingham went to an art school, and was the star of that institution’s photography course. He is far from being sonic kind of naïf. You can’t take these kinds of pictures without their being a response to the boho “realism” of Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, Wolfgang Tillmans, and, especially in the British context, Nick Waplington. (Well, you can take these kinds of pictures without that, but you won’t get them published by Scalo and hung in the National Museum of Photography.)

The joke in British photography circles is that Billingham is Nick Waplington’s doppelgänger, in the same way Will Self is really Martin Amis. Billingham simply transfers the intimate but external concerns of Waplington’s family to his own front room. In doing so he shows us what it’s like to live with an alcoholic father in a “problem” home where the only income is welfare. I can’t imagine anyone getting their aesthetic kicks from nostalgie de la boue for this lifestyle, at least not in the same way that it fuels the current British fascination for Goldin’s work or a film like Trainspotting. (Though had a twenty-five-year-old photography graduate tried this stunt with a “polite” middle-class family I do wonder how far they’d have got. “My dad’s an alchy” has so much more clout than “my dad’s a stockbroker” or even “plumber”—if nothing else you get the sympathy vote. Ray may not quite have Ewan McGregor’s body, but at least he’s got an addiction. It’s so much more interesting than drawing a salary.) In the ’60s it was essential to your cred as a British artist/rock star/novelist to cite your proletarian roots. As there are no miners/dockers/steel workers left in the resuscitated Swinging England, where do you turn to prove you’re not middle class? If you want to understand Billingham’s success listen to Pulp’s “Common People” and then go to a publisher’s party. “It’s so real, so authentic.” Unfortunately, authenticity and realism come a lot more boring than this.

Jim Lewis wonders how Billingham got the shots. How did Goldin get hers? The camera becomes a natural part of the milieu. Why did he do it? Because dirty realism and domesticity are oh-so-hip in the UK right now—they dominate fashion photography and art schools. This work is not only derivative, it’s possessed by an urgent desire to be hip. It’s not the imagery that’s fucked up in Billingham’s work, it’s the lives he shows.

On love and fucking up . . . Billingham’s family were none too pleased with their representation, and the question has to be, What do they get out of it? It’s not just your skin that gets ripped off by a photographer (pace Balzac and Nadar). Waplington had the decency to hand over the money he got from photographing his working-class subjects.

If Lewis thinks these pictures fuck up it’s time he learned something about composition and meaning in the photograph. Such an article does not become your fine magazine. Its superficiality and ignorance angered me more than anything I’ve read in several years.

—Chris Townsend
Falmer, Brighton, UK

Jim Lewis Replies:
What a strange letter.

Apparently, Townsend has a hard time distinguishing between a straw man and the real thing. But, come on: I didn’t say Billingham was a naïf, and I didn’t praise him for his realism or authenticity. On the contrary, I wrote, “he’s no naïf,” and “it’s Billingham’s artifice that’s interesting.” Can’t get much more explicit than that.

By the same token, few things in this world strike me as less consequential than the jokes in British photography circles, or the chitchat at publishing parties, or the trends in art schools, or Pulp–whoever they are. If Townsend wants to use all that as an excuse to hump his night-school Marxism, I suppose I can’t stop him; but it’s really got nothing to do with me and I wish he’d leave me out of it.

So Billingham’s family was unhappy with the way he showed them: well, then, I guess he better not go home for Christmas. But the question is decidedly not what they get out of it. We all know they don’t get much, but children often turn their art on their parents, and when they do, it’s pretty much tough shit on folks. Is photography exploitive? Yeah. Even Nick Waplington’s. Is looking at photography a form of voyeurism? Yeah. Even for Chris Townsend. Is that a problem? Maybe, a little, but there isn’t much you can do about it, except join that exploitation to something deeper and better. So the real question is, What does Billingham put into it? And what do we get out of it? And that’s what I tried to explain.

I do have one regret about the article. I didn’t know Billingham’s work was quite so popular in Britain, or that it would become so popular in the US. Of course, knowing as much wouldn’t have changed what I thought about it; but I might have dropped my tone of “Hey Mom, look what followed me home. Can I keep it? Pleeeease?”