PRINT Summer 2001


John Miller

WITHIN DAYS OF THE RELEASE of his sometime “girlfriend” Britney Spears's debut novel, Justin Timberlake's press agents announced a $1.5 million advance for his own opus, Crossover Dribble. I wish I were inventive enough to have made that up. Where would one begin to critique such an event? The aesthetic irrelevance (which would be its relevance)? The sublimation of fact (the ghostwriting; Mr. Timberlake perhaps not having even skimmed a précis)? A sublimation that would analogize the sublimation (of questions of sexuality, of talent) in the creation of the corporate fiction that is 'N Sync?

One good place to start would be John Miller's The Price Club, which brings together the artist's writings on art and culture in light of the aesthetic and economic effects of the psychodynamics of repression. I would emphasize the book's title: Everything having its price means something. Twice Miller quotes Marx's observation that “under capitalism, the greatest work of art is worth so many tons of manure,” In order to ask, “If the political economy cannot quantify an artwork through exchange value, what, then, is it worth?” In his art, through the canny deployment of a signature brown, Miller has meditated on the consequences of Marx's complaint when crossed with Freud's theory that art arises from “an anal urge, the urge to model feces.” Miller's essays are a pungent intervention into the ideologies of beauty, representation, and looking and their reliance on sublimation complicated by the “absence of apparent function.” When Miller gets as intellectually acute and “shitty” as he is in his art, diving into the mess of desire, the results engross. In “The Body as Site,” he reconfigures two “classic minimalist and conceptual filmworks”:

[Imagine if Serra's] Hand Catching Lead were to be remade as Hand Catching Feces. And let's also suppose that Nauman's . . . Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square, were to be remade as Walking in an Exaggerated Manner so as to Prevent Incontinence. Here, what's telling is that, given the artists' respective oeuvres, Hand Catching Feces would come off as an irreverent parody of Serra's concerns while Walking in an Exaggerated Manner so as to Prevent incontinence could be construed as almost a direct extension of those of Nauman.

At his best, Miller manages to combine a shrewd understanding of art-historical correlations with a daunting knowledge of popular culture (triangulating, in one stunning passage, Richard Artschwager, Andy Warhol, and the short-lived detective show Honey West). He's tuned in to potent observations nutshelled in other's epigrammatic zingers, as when he quotes Dennis Cooper's witticism that McDermott and McGough “would make better Hollywood Squares personalities than artists.” Miller writes that “art journalism, criticism . . . is fundamentally pornographic, even at its loftiest. Insofar as it submits the material heterogeneity of the art object to the determinations of language, it inexorably serves to reconcile that object to capital's logic of total commensurability.” It's hard not to think the problem is that criticism isn't pornographic enough.

Miller tallies all accounts in his book's last section, examining masculinity and beauty in relation to dandyism; the avant-garde's dependence on sublimation; Warhol's “I want to be a machine”; Benjamin's “Jetztzeit”; and concluding with a trenchant review of the history of the institutional space of the museum. Without abandoning beauty, Miller critiques Dave Hickey and Michael Fried by using Hickey's disparagement of the museum as a “therapeutic institution” to his own ends. Miller's final sentences provide a way to reappropriate thinking itself as a complexly beautiful pleasure: “The ‘managed’ relation to artworks, especially with artists' unions like the [Vienna] Secession, may prove to be, in the end, self-management. If presentness is grace, then knowledge is power.” Nothing shitty about that.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.


John Miller, The Price Club: Selected Writings (1977–1998). Dijon, France,
and Geneva: Les presses du réel, 2000, 192 pages.