PRINT January 2003


Mike Kelley’s writings

JUDD AND JORN, NEWMAN AND GRAHAM, Asher and Smithson—when the writings of a visual artist are published, the question that immediately arises is how the texts relate to the larger oeuvre. Explanation, expansion, justification—do they constitute an entirely separate project, as with Judd? Or should they be seen as an extension of the work, as was the case with Smithson and, even more so, with younger artists close to Mike Kelley like Frances Stark, Jutta Koether, and John Miller. The first volume of Kelley’s writings, Foul Perfection—essays and criticism (poetic works, texts as parts of artworks, lectures, and more will appear in two forthcoming volumes)—seems initially to have been assembled not by the author but by the editor, John Welchman, who comments on and annotates some of the texts as if this were an exhibition catalogue rather than a collection of writings. Should we consider Kelley’s texts first and foremost as artworks?

Not really. Mike Kelley’s artistic praxis has always been marked by the fact that it is neither limited to specific genres, media, or materials nor arbitrary in its focus. Instead his work is situated within a ramified or networklike thematic field, one that is structured and clearly determinable. And when certain themes require additional information or discursive precision, he simply extends the visual work into the field of the essay. I believe this to be the rationale behind most of what is included here. Some contributions to this volume, such as those about artists David Askevold and Öyvind Fahlström, the feminine in rock culture, or the cartoon Baby Huey, are already convincing on the most basic level—they provide information otherwise unavailable. As a member of the Arbeitsgruppe Berlin, I at some point asked Kelley to contribute to our collective project “Cross Gender/Cross Genre” in Graz, Austria, simply because he happened to be the best-informed author on the subject.

Since the texts do not follow a particular formal program but function in the service of various projects, they lack stylistic unity. At certain points Kelley addresses us as if we were an auditorium full of students; then he suddenly directs his words at the art establishment from the position of an antagonistic speaker—a fan, a poet—while in the next breath he speaks from within that establishment, though not without placing demands on it. Very often there is an autobiographical moment: All the themes, artists, and movements he deals with crossed his path at a decisive moment and influenced him. Kelley’s insertion of himself into the text is a personal yet humble act in which, rather than draw attention to the influence that, say, Broodthaers, Bataille, Sun Ra, Douglas Huebler, and Paul Thek had on him, Kelley names them as witnesses to a common historical project; this is the actual object of these writings. We know from the cultural grammar of fans’ testimonials—and Kelley declares on several occasions his position as that of a fan (of Huebler, for example)—that the accumulation of mere names and themes into a larger whole can take the shape of a manifesto. We have seen it as well in the self-positioning of several younger artists who not only deploy names and references to identify and present themselves but also hold such elucidation to be sufficient. Kelley serves as an example of these procedures, with the decisive difference that he provides arguments for why particular figures inhabit his pantheon.

Kelley also articulates the larger relations among these various decisions, sometimes by implication, at other times openly and pragmatically, as in his attacks on what he calls the “critical establishment,” in particular the journal October and Rosalind Krauss. “Official art culture is much more effective in its control of history than Republican strategists, for it knows that the best way to treat contradictory material is not to rail against it, but simply to pretend it didn’t happen,” he writes in “Death and Transfiguration,” his 1992 Thek essay.

In the final paragraph of a similarly appreciative essay on Fahlström, the enthusiast’s connection between the names—Kelley relates the artist to Sun Ra, who produces an effect rather than an argument—is just one of many poetic forms identifying these overarching relations. More or less hidden, the links point toward a type of cultural struggle engaged in by Kelley, which gives many of his works (not only his texts) their succinctness as well as their edge. Different instantiations of the rejected—the psychologically abject, the culturally low, the sexually unacceptable, the artistically gone-wrong, exaggerated, cheap, as well as the clumsy American local (as opposed to the cosmopolitan European–New Yorker universal)––form not just a source of cultural truth ex negativo, the truth of the other, dark side, but an artistic-political program, as Kelley fuses this material with the countercultural aspirations of the ’60s and ’70s. This programmatic operation is the great alternative to the tidy, academically safe, European– New Yorker modernism and its attempts to monopolize political-emancipatory culture. Counter to the belief today among aficionados of trash culture, one is therefore not forced on principle to work always and only with what others reject but can actively attack the circumstances leading to such rejection and integrate the work of the rejected. For Kelley, the countercultural program of the ’60s, with its psychedelic, anarchist, feminist, and sexual submilieus, represents not just a beautiful political past but also a notoriously underrated link between politics and art, part of the Surrealist legacy and an alternative to American high modernism and its bloodless high descendants: “Radicalism and art are a contradiction of terms to American museum culture (academic Puritan agitprop of the Hans Haacke variety notwithstanding). It will be a cold day in Hell when you see a major American museum mount a show of the cultural production of the Weather Underground or Black Panthers. The situationists are OK; they’re French.”

In an essay about the writings of his friend John Miller (“Artist/Critic”), Kelley identifies the program of the writing artist and relates it first of all to Dan Graham, to whom he attributes an inclusion of themes “worthy of critical consideration within the bracket of artistic discourse,” repressed by the critical mainstream and “academic art history.” Kelley is “dismayed by the choice of figures deemed worthy to represent” the periods familiar to him: “Most of the artists that influenced me are absent from these accounts.” It is, according to Kelley, the task of the writing artist to provide a balance. For example, Miller had been calling for a new reading of Serra via Bataille well before the established critics did—predating by years Rosalind Krauss’s examination of the connection between Serra’s film Hand Catching Lead, 1968, and the abject and anal. Kelley claims implicitly that his other line of tradition, from Bataille to bad acid, produced not only more interesting art but more interesting criticism. Psychedelia stands not only for a countercultural other, ignored by an establishment fetishizing “criticality”; in the long run, psychedelia results in a better criticality. But the type of criticality at stake here—at least as signaled by most of these texts—comes in the form of an artist’s project. Its entrance into discourse can thus be mediated only by artists’ writing.

In my opinion, this fight between artists and critics, which is said to force artists into a self-defensive need to write themselves, is a pseudo-antagonism. This is a conflict not between artists and critics but between two positions, which are rather coincidentally on one side formulated largely by critics and on the other represented by artists or by critics who are not necessarily at home in the discipline of art history. The dispute turns on the question of whether leftist political art can be claimed as a monopoly of high modernism and justified theoretically with a tradition beginning in Frankfurt and New York with Adorno and Greenberg and leading via the (post)structuralist Paris of Lacan and Foucault to (at best) French radicals such as Debord; or, on the contrary, whether there is a second and just as important line of oppositional twentieth-century art that is not recognized as a properly critical force but rather as a phenomenon of decadence and social particularity: the line leading from Surrealism to the countercultures, their art and music. It is in the service of this battle that Kelley collects arguments, methods, and souls in this volume, mobilizing not only the grammar of a fan but biographical data as well. Indeed, his intellectual biography is the biography of this cultural struggle, which logically demands to be fought in the arts (since it is literally being waged in the name of the politics of a subcultural and “subreal” art) yet also always results in arguments and positions that need to be presented in written form, because the official archival discourses and lists that exclude, forget, or misrepresent Paul Thek and Öyvind Fahlström take the form of writing themselves.

By now, Kelley has achieved a few victories in this cultural struggle, even though the circumstances might not always be to his liking. Not only his own work but that of an artist like Raymond Pettibon, whose political-artistic background is similar, has been accepted by the very art-historical establishment he railed against. Still, the sanctioned reference to this “other,” anarchistically desperate and nonacademic tradition consists in isolating their leaders and bestowing on them the honors of canonization yet never in recognizing what is radical about their art. Which would be exactly the result if they were read from a subculturalist perspective. Mike Kelley doesn’t dare hope for that latter reading any longer. But even his minimal demand for a different writing of the history of the relation between art and politics—beyond art history and various sociologisms—has yet to be taken up. Still, John Welchman is right to remark that Kelley can no longer define himself as someone who doesn’t write history. This collection proves that he has not only helped write history but has had an effect on it.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a critic based in Berlin.