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Mario Cutajar


Narcissus looks into the pool and is captivated by an image.  We assume that the image he sees is of himself and so does he.  That would seem “self-evident.”  But psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan spent a good part of his career adumbrating the assumption that what appears in the mirror is the self.  He makes us consider that this may be a profound misperception, albeit one so common as to seem perfectly natural, even though it is at the root of everything that is unnatural about being human.  For this captivating (mark that word) mirror image is everything that subjectively we are not:  complete, undivided, coherent, autonomous, detached, cool.  It is the greener pasture on the other side.  On this side, the place where we live, we are needy, febrile, self-soiling junkies of the maternal breast.  But having glimpsed the seeming perfection of the image that passes for the self, we are like Narcissus driven to pursue it so as to close the wound in our being that separates who we are from what we want to be.  We embark on a lifelong, shape-shifting quest to achieve the glacial coolness of a fixed image, to become the succession of fictions that at any given moment constitute the ideal, oblivious to the necessary unachievability that makes every ideal an ideal.

French psychoanalyst
Jacques Lacan, 1966.

Brassai, no title, 1944, photograph taken after
Picasso's play "El deseo pillado por la cola."
Standing from,left to right: Jacques Lacan, Cecile Eluard, Pierre Reverdy, Luoise Leiris, Pablo Picasso, Zanie de Campan, Valentine Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir, Brassaï. Sitting from left to right: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Michel Leiris, Jean Aubier.
This is life in the Matrix, if we can set aside the idea of the Matrix as some paranoid sci-fi fantasy flick and recognize it as the prison of every ego, as the unreal made more real than real by the narcissism that generates our unstable, insecure sense of identity.  Narcissism, at its most fundamental, has nothing to do with self-love as it is commonly understood.  It has to do with a fatal enslavement to the image.  It has to do with enslavement to mediation as the basis of the real.  What is narcissistic is the sense that things aren’t quite real unless they have acquired the distancing quality of images, typical of which is the sense that I haven’t really been to Paris unless I’ve taken a picture of myself in front of the Eiffel Tower, or that I’m not having sex unless I can visualize the act in my head as a porn show (that will achieve even greater reality later when confessed on a talk show or over a drink with a friend).

From a Lacanian perspective, narcissism is the foundational surrender to the lure of identification, without which the very idea of an “I” would never arise.  This means that identity and the certainties that prop it up are in themselves pathological because they require a disavowal (disembowelment) of subjectivity.  And insofar as the enabler of, or vehicle for this act of disavowing is always an image of some sort (an image in the broadest sense, an ideal), art in the service of the ideal has consistently exalted alienation.  From Botticelli’s consumptive Madonnas, to Warhol’s Marilyn, to the doll women in the pages of W, there is an unbroken tradition of hiding abjection behind icons.  Such is the mesmerizing power of the image that even The Matrix, which is superficially a Baudrillardian critique of late capitalism’s simulated world, quickly renounces this critique in favor of giving the audience what it really wants:  a revenge fantasy featuring a new (Neo) invulnerable hero garbed in black who, having achieved “illumination,” can turn himself into a human missile and destructively penetrate the bullies that formerly tormented him.

Sandro Botticelli, "Madonna and
Child with Adoring Angel," c. 1468,
tempera on panel, 35 x 26-3/4”.

Andy Warhol, “Shot Blue Marilyn”, 1964,
silkscreen/acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40”.

Cy Twombly, "Untitled," 1970.

Cy Twombly, Untitled," polaroid photo-
graph printed on cotton fibre paper
coated with gelatin, printed 1992.
But there is another tradition in art, and one to which I owe my introduction to what might lie beyond the closet of the ideal.  My first glimpse of it was in the graphic work of Cy Twombly, which I first saw at an Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition in Toronto, Canada.  I’ve alluded to this in the context of a preview of Twombly’s photographs at the Gagosian Gallery, but that occasion did not permit the filling in of the autobiographical context that gave the original encounter with Twombly’s work its peculiar resonance for me.  Here I mean to remedy that omission and at the same time reveal how closely tied aesthetic receptivity is to the ability to acknowledge the truth about oneself.

This is what I wrote just over 10 years ago in this magazine:

“When I first encountered Cy Twombly's work, in the form of a small show of works on paper at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1982, I was staggered.  And I do not use "staggered" as a figure of speech.  I mean that I actually had to seek a bench in the dimly lit, empty gallery so I could recover from the turmoil into which the artwork had plunged me.  What caused this had as much to do with what Twombly's notational drawings disclosed about an attitude toward the world as it did with what they proposed about the pictorial possibilities of the "writerly" gesture.

“Through these epistolary drawings/paintings I got a hint of what it means to possess an aristocratic spirit.  Several of them consisted of little more than the artist's spastic signature scrawled large across a surface distressed and aged through repeated erasure and obliteration.  Here, evidently, was an artist whose profound appreciation of his own oddness could transform the least promising, most awkward of gestures into the perfect expression of his superior grace and infallible sophistication.” (For the rest, see

I read this today and I smile at the haste with which I summarily closed up (“sutured” in Lacanian parlance) the breach that this encounter with Twombly blew open in my psyche.  What I had stumbled upon in Twombly was the signifier of my own oddness.  Yet I insisted on reading it as the signifier of an “aristocratic spirit” because that transparent euphemism was more palatable.  More specifically, what I had seen in the “spastic,” possibly left-handed scrawling that is characteristic of Twombly, was something which connected with my own sense of being “defective,” a sense that I have harbored for most of my “adult” life and which derives from the indeterminacy (“wobbliness”) of an identity that has never managed to align itself with the conventional expectations of either adulthood or manhood.  What I admired in Twombly was, in essence, what I could never bring myself to admire in myself:  childishness and effeminacy, qualities that Twombly’s flagrant embrace of manages to transform into something like haughty eccentricity.  In other words, Twombly had made his “defect” work for him.  This I deeply envied. It was as if in looking at his almost empty drawings, I had positioned myself in front of a mirror that revealed far more than any mirrored piece of glass ever could.  For in that mirror I could also register a transposed exile:  Twombly, born in America, had found refuge in the world of the Mediterranean; whereas I, born in Malta, had traversed the world in the opposite direction.  His defectiveness was his strength.  My strength was wasted on hiding my defectiveness.

René Magritte, "The Treachery of
Images (This is not a pipe),"
1929, oil on canvas, 25 3/8 x 37”.

Catherine Opie, "Adam," 2003,
C-print, 78.8 x 62 cm.

The ironic exquisiteness of Twombly’s touch is really the exemplary affirmation of what is indefensible in oneself.  This affirmation, by its very nature, cannot be modeled on that of anyone else.  It is ultimately not the adoption of an identity, but the refusal of any singular identity.  It is a refusal of the lure of identification, a turning away from the mirror, an end to the fixation on an image and the craving to possess the sculptural solidity of a mannequin.  This is a delicate maneuver to sustain, and unsettling to those who derive their sense of identity from the hard contrast their own self strikes against others.  Freaks are tolerated, even embraced in this culture as long as they agree to be clowns (Two outstanding examples are Divine and Marilyn Manson.).  Perversity is acceptable in its thousand and one varieties, but not as the amorphous eccentricity of the introverted, nor as a state that we can inhabit shamelessly and at will.  Shared vices are lifestyles, but a desire for solitude can prompt psychiatric intervention.  Thus, we end up with the simultaneous proliferation of exacting subcultures each nucleated around some highly specialized kink and the mass flight from what was once valued as privacy.  It is now politically incorrect to express distaste for any consensual sexual practice, but a matter of widespread indifference that the government may have unrestricted access to all our phone conversations.

Cy Tyombly, Leda and the
Swan," 1962, oil, pencil and
crayon on canvas, 75 x 78 3/4".
In Twombly’s work, the affirmation of the indefensible took the form of an idiosyncratic artlessness.  This is a quality that defines the entire paradoxical tradition of modernist anti-art.  It is paradoxical because every deviation from the established conventions of artistic practice is doomed to itself become a convention upon its acceptance.  At that point its ability to convey or evoke the indefensible, which is in Lacanian terms “alien,” necessarily becomes nullified.  For years after I had encountered Twombly, I felt that he had left me high and dry.  You can copy Twombly, but to emulate his example you must repudiate him.  

In Zen Buddhism this is expressed in the adage that when you meet the Buddha you must kill him, something far more easily parroted than done.  A life without ideals would seem to offer only the monotony of minutiae.  When, reluctantly, and with a great deal of foot dragging, I started making art about and with minutiae, I had to fool myself with the thought that the experiment was nothing more than a joke.  As George said to Jerry in a episode pf Seinfeld, “It’s a show about nothing.”  But the joke has proved to be fruitful and emancipating.

I’ve also changed as a critic.  I don’t have standards anymore, merely interests.  I accept that my tastes are unreliable and given to sudden shifts.  Far from wanting to have the last word, I am relieved by the thought that I never will, for otherwise I would have to watch my unruly prejudices a lot more closely.  If I come across as self-indulgent, it’s because I no longer mind making an ass of myself.  Indeed, what would be the point of writing, about art or anything else, if it did not offer that opportunity at every turn?