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Mario Cutajar


When psychopaths rule the land, the bad boys of art don’t quite cut the figure they used to. Take Richard Prince, the subject of a recent Guggenheim Museum retrospective. In a free-associational rant in the May issue of Art in America, he declares, “I’m a liar. And I cheat too. I make things up and I can’t be trusted.”  A liar? A cheat? Someone who makes things up and can’t be trusted? Why is this guy not running for office?

But also, why at this late date the need to continue packaging the work of Prince and the rest of Warhol’s metastasizing progeny as cultural “critique?” The Guggenheim’s website introduces Prince's work with this by-now-obligatory declaration of its ironic good faith: “Prince’s technique involves appropriation; he pilfers freely from the vast image bank of popular culture to create works that simultaneously embrace and critique a quintessentially American sensibility . . . “ The embrace is all too evident, browbeatingly so. The critique isn’t. The critique never is evident in appropriation because appropriation is always tacitly or otherwise an admission of captivation. Why then this tiresome ritual of dressing up surrender as resistance?

Richard Prince, "Untitled (Upstate)",
1995-99, Ektacolor photograph, 40" x 60".

Richard Prince,
"Untitled (Cowboy)", 1989.

Because when no option presents itself but surrender, interpreting the involuntary as voluntary is the only way to save a shred of self-regard. Prince’s work spectacularizes spectacle. It invites you to enjoy the squalor of your colonized and generic subjectivity as an aesthetic experience. It is the exact opposite of critical. It is consoling. Like George W. Bush, it exalts dumbness as radical will. That it does this while always staying within running distance of irony (“I didn’t really mean it!”) is, for me, what renders it pathetic. In this regard, Prince lacks even the dignity of a defiant reactionary.

Prince’s work is symptomatic. In retrospect, his ascendancy could be viewed as prefiguring that of Bush. But equally symptomatic is the diminishment of the notion of critique.

Michael Asher, installation view at
Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2008.
Photograph: Bruce Morr.

Michael Asher, installation view at
Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2008.
Photograph: Bruce Morr.
How did critique come to be equated with the mere reproduction of the material under critique, in other words, with appropriation? It would be easy to blame this on the increasing role that theory came to play in art production in the ‘70s and later. Appropriation assumes an audience attuned to the semiotics of displacement. The fact that critique came to be understood as an essentially academic practice is itself symptomatic of a narrowing of the space of critique.

In other words, appropriation became critique only when the left had become so weak that it could mount nothing more threatening in the way of dissent than a mirror that reflects corporate hegemony.

The variation on these themes that has come to be known as institutional critique fare no better as regards political impact. Earlier this year, Michael Asher, set up an installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art that consisted of the galvanized steel skeletons of installation walls from 10-years-worth of temporary exhibitions. It was as literal an exposition of the institutional “framework” as you could possibly get. But to what end exactly? Is it not the impotence of critique that these archly self-conscious, institutionally-embedded attempts at critique end up unwittingly call to light? Are these venues not, in fact, designed to remind us of the indispensability of the institutions that host them?

More and more, I wish that art would come out of its own peculiar closet and acknowledge that it is a rarified form of entertainment for a specialized audience. And I am driven to this not just by what I see in art galleries, but also by what I come across when I’m looking for “mere” entertainment. So much art fails not because it is bad art but because of the impossible expectations that the institutional hyping of its powers of critique set up. The obverse is that occasionally, something packaged as entertainment lays bare the framework of social reality far more unsettlingly than a show at a museum. These experiences rarely happen when I go looking for them. It’s usually the other way round. They arrive uninvited in places I don’t associate with revelation. Such as the tiny screen on the back of a passenger seat on a flight back from Canada where I got to watch the movie “No Country for Old Men.”

The first time I had the option to watch it, on the outbound flight, I passed it up. But I caught glimpses on somebody else’s screen a few seats up. This funny-looking guy lugging around something that looked like a compressed-air cylinder caught my attention. Without the sound on and with no idea of the plot or even the movie title, I imagined him to be some kind of alien roaming the desert back roads armed with a death ray.

Later, I found out the character is a hit man armed with a cattle gun. The plot is relatively simple. A hunter out in the desert comes across a circle of bullet-riddled vehicles and bodies. In the back of a pickup, he discovers a stash of heroin. He follows a trail of blood and retrieves a briefcase containing two million dollars. The criminals who own the money send the human terminator with the cattle gun to retrieve it. He hunts the hunter down, visiting mayhem wherever he goes.

Javier Bardem in still from
“No Country for Old Men”

All of this is standard crime thriller fare. What stands out is the social setting. Or rather, what stands out is how utterly asocial the setting is. It is at once a real desert and a metaphorical one, a space where the germ of any human solidarity has been scoured clean by the corrosive power of money. T.J. Clark in “Farewell to an Idea” notes that modernity is “the disenchantment of the world,” the flattening of all values, and of imagination itself, when the only value that has force is exchange value. “And the true terror of this new order has to do with its being ruled--and obscurely felt to be ruled--by sheer concatenation of profit and loss, bids and bargains: that is, by a system without any focusing purpose to it, or any compelling image or ritualization of that purpose. It is the blindness of modernity that seems fundamental here. . .The great fact, to go back to Adam Smith’s insight, is the hiddenness of the ‘hidden hand.’” In “No Country for Old Men” the hidden hand is given shape in the person of the sociopathic killer who executes his victims like cattle, without hatred, simply because he has a contract to discharge. His weirdness, his unsettling smile, is what Jacques Lacan once called “the grimace of the Real,” the petrifying visage of the impersonal and empty core of the world, and specifically of a world emptied out by the imperatives of capital.

Although the word “Iraq” is never spoken in the movie (it’s set in 1980), the West Texas desert easily suggests the metaphorical underside of the desert in Iraq. Empire abroad abuts nihilism at home. The subtext, perhaps unintentional, is that the “blowback” of colonialism is not in the distant future. It was already in the past, in the rampaging, omnidirectional nature of the American death drive itself.

All Murakami images courtesy of Blum &
Poe, Los Angeles. (c) 2008 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd.,
All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: Joshua White

Takashi Murakami, "Initiate the speed of cerebral
synapse at free will," 2008, acrylic and platinum
leaf on canvas mounted on wood panel /
signage in gold and platinum leaf, 70.9" x 84".

Takashi Murakami, "Davy Jones' Tear," 2008
acrylic and gold leaf on canvas, 118" x 92.3".

Takashi Murakami, from the exhibition
"Davy Jones' Tear," May 3 - June 14,
2008 at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.
The question I asked myself after the movie credits rolled was, “When was the last time that I encountered anything in an art setting that left as deep an impression?” Then last week, I dropped by Blum and Poe to look at the Murakami paintings and was dazzled.

Of course, there’s nothing deep about Murakami. His work is “superflat” in more ways than one. It’s pure eye candy. But precisely because Murakami is willing to risk making eye candy and dispense with pretending it’s ironic--because, in other words, he is willing to risk being an entertainer--his work has room for play and technical innovation. Particularly significant for me is the way he has succeeded in bringing digitality into painting. And that success is not diminished by his employing an army of assistants to do the painting. That is part of the technical innovation: to wring effects out of painting that can only be wrung out of it by means of procedures borrowed from animation production. To give just one example: part of what establishes the digital source of a graphic are the “anti-aliasing” halos around areas of flat color. Even when enlarging a relatively simple image and transferring it to canvas, transcribing every single one of these halos (which surround the smallest dot) is a daunting task. When you pile on the shapes and color contrasts as Murakami does in the vast paintings included in this show, the task grows to Manhattan-project proportions. Factory production becomes unavoidable and as integral a part of the painting process as pouring and throwing were for Pollock.

What “No Country for Old Men” and Murakami illustrate is that we may well be at a point where the very notion of art as a mode of visual production distanced from the mass media is yielding diminishing returns. Until recently, one could make the case that this distance/aloofness guaranteed the freedom necessary for formal innovation and pointed cultural critique. But it may well be the other way round, that without the tools and distribution possibilities of the mass media art is doomed to produce ever feebler and impotently resentful piffle.

The fact of the matter is that although we tend to expect that art validate its status as art by critically distancing itself from the compromised products of the corporate entertainment industry, this distancing amounts to, at best, the opening of a temporary gap. T.J. Clark characterized the effort (which has propelled art since the advent of modernism) as a “search for the outside of bourgeois consciousness.” But in a sense, this “outside” is an outside of consciousness altogether because bourgeois consciousness is the very horizon of the symbolic order. Thus, any attempt to escape, let alone contest, the hegemony of bourgeois modes of representation involves “appropriating sets of representation which are already there in the culture” but are “beneath contempt.” Hence the close association historically between artistic dissent and “childish,” “primitive,” and “deviant” modes of representation. The problem is that the latitude of representation these marginal modes allow is not large. It’s like having to communicate in grunts and squeals in order to avoid using the language of your parents. As Clark notes, inarticulateness can never hope to be a match against the far more potent ideological machinery of the ruling class. As he puts it, “not much of the world is reflected in a gob of spit.” And, I might add, not much changes in the world after a Paul McCarthy performance.

Worse, this search for an outside of bourgeois consciousness inaugurated by modernism, turned eventually “into a general policing of spaces in the culture which previously had been useless, therefore uncharted, but which capital eventually saw it could profit from.” We know this phenomenon in the urban context as gentrification. In the cultural sphere it is the inexorable cooptation of the marginal.

At some point this search for the outside of bourgeois consciousness reached a limit and turned in on itself. That is to say, rebellion became indistinguishable from conformity, ironic kitsch indistinguishable from ordinary kitsch, and critique indistinguishable from affirmation. The radical potential of infantilism has been exhausted. This is what Richard Prince and George W. Bush illustrate. A bad ass rebel can be as much a fascist as an anarchist. Perhaps both. Infantilism, far from being a threat to the system, is what the system promotes in order to keep the masses atomized and collectively impotent. Sometimes bad is just bad.