New York

Thomas Lawson

Metro Pictures

Thomas Lawson is the theorist of the “Real Life” movement, which means to analyze the “ideological myths” that constitute the “fiction” of “real life.” More than that, it means to sabotage them; its art is a self-consciously “perverse provocation” which intends to expose the style of contemporary “realistic” representation as “the near-transparent tool of a repressive ideology.” (Unless rhetorical, quoted material is from “Too Good to be True,” by Thomas Lawson, Real Life magazine, Autumn 1981.) This style is the media-derived instrument of social belief. Thus those sentenced to “real life” are doomed to the peculiar emptiness that results from repression; “real life” stories are artificial social productions starring people repressed into hollowness, or abstracted—subtly alienated—from themselves by their expectation of a media destiny, their acceptance of a media-determined sense of the meaning and value of their lives.

The Real Lifers want to exploit the hollowing or abstracting effect of the media, the sign of its bad faith. They want to turn the effect back on itself, making it an instrument of social critique. Thus the Real Life movement is in bad faith with the system of representation that it uses itself—that we are all mired in. We can work our way out of the trap of “real life” by making its conventions into instruments of disbelief rather than belief in the social system they reinforce and partially reify. The stories the system tells to put us comfortably asleep are retold by the Real Lifers in such a way as to awaken us to the uncomfortable reality and antilife character of the system. The Real Lifers turn the fairy tale into the nightmare—show us that it is a monstrous misadventure from which we badly need to escape. It is an unreality which has taken possession and command of the reality of our lives. Thus Real Life images are knowingly “deceitful and insincere,” “fake concoctions” derived from “recognizable imagery, imagery with identifiable social meanings, but reproduced from memory so as to throw these meanings into confusion.” This strategy deconstructs already sensational images by making them artistically sensational, giving them “a suggestion of fantasy, the whiff of allegory.” Not “coalescing” as they should, they become absurd. It is the strategy of early Pop art, with a new vehemence.

Does Lawson succeed in his deconstruction of media charisma, free us from its claustrophobia in the very act of “creatively” mediating it? Does his art carry out the intentions of his theory, or is his theory simply an apologia for a preconceived art? Or is it the other way around, the art simply a weak illustration, an afterthought, for a dogmatic social critique? These questions indicate the doubts I have, not about the entire Real Life enterprise, but about how well it artistically realizes its critical goals. My uncertainty about it corresponds to the inconsistency I find between its critical theory and its artistic practice. I attribute this discrepancy not only to the unevenness of the various artists, but also to the difficulty of treating critically a dominant mode of visual representation—the difficulty of stripping of its dominance a style of representation that is regarded as universal and commonplace. In this situation the Real Life artist may unconsciously compromise his criticality in favor of the socially dominant media image, leaving its glamor intact (e.g., Walter Robinson); or, as in Lawson’s case, so successfully may he strip the media image of its seductiveness that we wonder what all the critical fuss was about in the first place. Lawson makes the essential banality and expressive emptiness of the media image transparent; how could we ever have fallen for it, been seduced by it? With this recognition the whole of Real Life theory is unexpectedly thrown into doubt; media imagery does not show itself as so psychologically all-encompassing, so depressingly repressive. Its very commonplaceness releases us from its hold; the media image becomes a minor pleasure which in no way seriously obscures or durably affects our sense of the “true” reality of our lives.

And there are problems with Lawson’s art as well as with his theory—problems which amplify those of his theory, with its exaggerated, almost hysterical sense of the determining power of the media. Lawson’s artistic deconstruction of the media image is too obvious in its methods, and thus peculiarly inept—unequal to the image he means to bring down. He divides his recognizable or popular image into a material snapshot—something like a snap judgment as to what reality is—and a less material (if far from immaterial) “atmosphere,” an abstracted expressivity articulated by his near-monochromatic, mucuslike color. All of this is done with a quasi-tacky “realistic” touch, as if to firmly locate the results in a never-never, politically neutral land of familiarity. The division, I think, means to exemplify the traditional T. S. Eliot model of self-alienation, the idea of the dissociation of sensibility or separation of thinking and feeling. This model of alienation is obsolete and was too facile to begin with; it is only barely analytic, and hardly critical. If it is a working hypothesis about alienation, it works too easily, which means it doesn’t work. In the same way, Lawson’s pictures work too easily—and so don’t work; one might say there’s not enough critical, analytic work in them.

Because of this, the paintings show the in adequacy, although not the complete in accuracy, of Lawson’s theory of “Real Life” representation. I would argue, in fact, that media representation does not work by means of dissociation of sensibility, but rather by overassociation of thinking and feeling—the confusing of them together in such a way that the critical distance necessary for analysis of either becomes almost impossible. The media destroy perspective; they saturate us in an abundance of ideas and feelings with predetermined meanings. They make all reality sticky with foreordained meaning, so that reality overcoalesces through over association of meaning. Everything that passes through the media comes out candy-coated with import, acquires the status of an allegorical symbol. This is why nothing in the media has reality, nothing is more than a story, a “representation,” an “allegation.” I am not sure that the dissociation of the media image itself can restore perspective.

Lawson, following Walter Benjamin, sees art in the age of mechanical reproduction as a species of politics rather than a form of ritual—as a social politics that can redeem itself by analyzing its own techniques and the social beliefs they represent. But his art neutralizes itself as much as it neutralizes the media. Lawson thinks that the media make us subtly meaningless and unbelievable to ourselves; he does not understand that the media supply us with the safety net of symbols over which we can perform our lives, the safety net which makes our lives “meaningful” and “believable.” The media, in fact, offer us a kind of fullness—which may be regarded skeptically, like every premature totalization of real life, but which is far from vacuous, far from “just another story” of “manipulation and dominance.” Law-son’s obsessive insistence that “we are trapped within stories that we already know”—abstract societal representations that give us “real life”—is only the partial truth. The other part of the truth is that without these stories there is no life. We establish ourselves in critical, ambivalent relationship to these stories to change them; but the idea of life without a storyline is an unreal idea of life. The trouble with the stories we are told about our lives by the media is not that they are repressive, but that they don’t fill our lives enough. This is particularly true of American lives, with their openness, their sense of possibility beyond tradition. I don’t think Lawson, a European, understands this—he wants to tell us that we are as completely formed by the media stories we tell about ourselves as the Europeans are by their traditions, and as a picture is by the story that necessarily frames it “if it is to be visible.” But neither European traditions nor the American media stories that are presumably their substitute completely form real life, nor are they expected and assumed to do so. Particularly in America, there is always a residue of expectant amorphousness beyond them, an amorphousness out of which possibility seems to be spontaneously generated—and which Lawson misreads as somnambulistic casualness.

Thus Lawson frames his informally given American subjects in the European, Suprematist square—a square whose controlling formality becomes a check on their reality, a way of saying it is shaped by abstract forces they are hardly aware of. I accept the reality of these forces, but surely Lawson is imposing his own abstract storyline on these lives—his own implicit commitment to the ritual of pure abstraction, to as obsolete a sense of art as the dissociation of sensibility is of alienation. Is it perverse of me to think this? Not if one notices the cumulative power of Law-son’s pictures, however much each one individually lets one down. Not if one notices the artistic effectiveness of his repetitiveness, and the way it undermines the political effectiveness of his works. His art is implicitly regressive artistically, dubiously progressive theoretically and critically, and paradoxically it returns us to the religious idea of art in its modern version, i.e., to art as a personal rather than social ritual, a ritual by which we gain our sense of selfhood but not of any togetherness of selves. This is what the ideology of abstract art has become, and Lawson offers us a revisionist abstraction for which he could make the same formalist claims that Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz make for their “realism.” He needs a new theoretical base if he is to make his art as critically effective as he thinks it is—a more dialectical understanding of the subtleties of media representation of real life—and an understanding of his own strong formalist tendencies, which are far from incidental and which make us suspect that he is sleepwalking through these portraits in a way he is trying hard not to do in his theory.

Donald Kuspit