This bit of SMH news came to me on Twitter today via the lovely @codemesh.
I haven’t really thought of BAPE in a while, but I remember a few years ago when people were flying to Tokyo for the sole purpose of buying limited-edition BAPE swag that was only available in the Japanese stores.
"Branding" is really the apex of capitalism: a genuine affective and economic investment in what is basically an entirely abstract idea of the possibility of a commodity. This collaboration is a piss-poor, DOA cross-promotion idea that was clearly birthed by executives and not by creatives, but still; we are confronted with piss-poor, DOA cross-promotion ideas every day, but most of them don’t actually produce an affective response. If you’re a member of the "streetwear community," try to pin down in words (other than "WTF SMDH") what it is that is actually making you weep. If you manage to, by all means send me an ask or an e-mail and let me know.
The rest of it - the affective investment you can’t quite articulate - that’s commodity fetishism.
I spent the morning at the Magritte Museum in Brussels. It’s been a while since I really spent time thinking about Magritte’s work, and I kind of forgot how incredible his work is, and how deeply I absorbed it as a teenager.
One of the most incredible things about Magritte is his ability to articulate not only the meaning of his work but its theoretical and conceptual implications - Magritte doesn’t really require secondary literature, and the galleries in the Museum are very effectively designed to emphasize Magritte’s art as he understood it, the walls lined with well-chosen and effectively-placed quotes of which the one on the index card above is an example. The collection itself wasn’t that mind-blowing (many key works and themes are curiously absent), but it was very well curated.
Especially impressive is a large reproduction right at the entrance to the exhibition space, in the basement, titled “Les Mots et Les Images” (“Words and Images”; you can see an image on my Twitter feed here) which articulates, in a few simple propositions and definitely avant la lettre, a range of ideas which post-structuralist theory would make self-evident several decades later. Today we take it for granted that a signifier and a signified are not essentially linked, but the clarity and simplicity with which Magritte was able to articulate these propositions, without neologisms and without obfuscation, puts contemporary theory to shame.
Also in the exhibit was a hilarious pamphlet about ass-fucking that I really wanted to take a picture of but the security guard was a dick and insisted that the “no photography” rule was, in fact, a rule. The vain attempts to museums and galleries to treat works of art like intellectual property is surreal in itself, but that’s a whole other post.
Here’s what I want: I want Steven fucking Pinker to take a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics and explain one of the propositions to me. Not all of them; not the whole book. One. Just one proposition. I’ll even do him a solid - I’ll let him read it in English, instead of embarrassing him by making him try to translate Latin. Or maybe the Critique of Pure Reason. Can you explain that to me, Pinker? Hell, can you explain any of Kant’s critiques?
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say “no.” In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb that Steven fucking Pinker has not read a single one of these thinkers he so casually and authoritatively name-drops since his undergraduate years, if then. If Pinker has ever read all of Leviathan, I will eat my fucking copy of the book.
Let’s be absolutely clear - not a single one of the thinkers this asshole claims for “science”were scientists. Not a single one of them thought of themselves as scientists; not a single one had a concept of “science” that was anything like the concept Pinker is so anachronistically imposing on them. All of these men, even if they didn’t think of themselves as “a philosopher,” thought of their work as “a philosophy.” It’s right in the texts, if you take the time to read them. And the way you can tell Pinker has no fucking clue what he’s talking about is that he misses the two most important examples that would actually support his claim: Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. Of the thinkers that he lists, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz are the only ones who actually conducted anything that might even remotely fit the bill of “scientific experimentation.” Smith was an economist. Rousseau was a dilettante. Kant…I mean, the idea of describing Kant as a an “evolutionary psychologist” is just…OMFG.
“I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block.”
Did you follow that, folks? Stephen fucking Pinker, the great scientific genius, is going to go back in time to correct Spinoza’s arguments and “guide” him. The idea that these thinkers wrote “in the absence of formal theory” is so reductive and offensive. Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Spinoza’s Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione and his correspondences with Olderburg and others, Hume’sTreatise…these thinkers were conscious of formal method and self-reflexive about it in a way few scientists today are even remotely capable of. Incredibly, implausibly, each of these philosophersinvented an inferential method, from the ground up, instead of taking for granted any assumption they were taught.
Let’s be perfectly clear - “science” as we think of it today is a new thing. It dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the disciplinary divisions we today regard as entirely natural wereformalized by people like Hermann von Helmholz. Before that there were no “scientists”: there were thinkers, writers, philosophers, ethicists, geometers, and doctors. There were also theologians, who Pinker dismisses out of hand, even though “science” would not exist without the precedent of Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus. “Science” is a fully historical product of the regimentation, organization, and professionalization of what used to just be people observing the world and thinking about it. Science is the transformation of knowledge into a cliquish guild.
But the best part of this verbal tripe is the fact that Pinker is so narrow-minded and unself-reflexive in his anachronistic, ahistorical claims that he doesn’t even realize the extent to which his critique of the humanities itself depends on ideas generated by the humanities. Like this hilarious bit: “The term ‘scientism’ is anything but clear…The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of ‘queer’ and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.” First of all - “flaunting”? And second - isn’t that fucking rich. Such an original concept! We can already see how indebted the humanities are to science. Or this bit here: “we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.” Oh, really? You know that, do you? And where did this concept of epistemological relativism come from, exactly, if not from the humanities?
Assholes like Steven Pinker think that people in the humanities resist their ideas because we don’t understand “science.” But the truth is that many people in the humanities love and embrace the sciences: there are historians of science, there are digital humanities, there are philosophers of technology. What we resist isn’t “science”; what we resist are obnoxious fucking ignoramuses like you who come up in our house and tell us how ignorant we are, how much we don’t understand, and what we should be doing with our research. This is not an issue of science vs. humanities - this is the nature of contemporary academic research and, indeed, human nature itself. I’m not saying it’s good, I’m not saying it’s healthy, but I am saying that in an era of incredible competition and increasingly narrow specialization, nobody likes people from other disciplines stepping on their turf. The sciences don’t like it when the humanities do it - have you ever seen the absolutely hideously rude responses a humanities scholar gets when they try to deliver a paper at a science conference? - so why should you expect different when you do it yourself?
Pinker is defending science against an extremely odd idea: “The mindset of science cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation. It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.”
So, first of all, I’ve been a scholar in the humanities for a while now and I’ve never heard anybody accuse science of genocide. Unless incurable dweeb-hood is lethal, in which case run for the hills. Second, “indispensable in all areas of human concern”? Well, let’s think about that for a second. If Pinker had ever read Spinoza and Hume, much less understood them, he would understand how basic claims from necessity function: namely, if science is 200 years old and aesthetic and political theory are over 2,000 years old, then former is not necessary to the existence of the latter. To borrow a formulation from Descartes - you know, the philosopher - both art and politics “can be and be conceived” without any concept of “science.”
But really there’s a point more important than all of these, which is this: Science doesn’t cause genocide or war. The humanities don’t cause genocide or war. What causes genocide is the ignorant belief in an absolute formal distinction between two things where in fact there is only a spectrum. Nobody has ever started a war under the mantra “let’s all get along” or “we’re all human,” but plenty of wars fall under the rubric of “us or them.” One of the most fundamental sources of human error, anxiety, and misery is this unreflexive tendency to set up absolute oppositions between things that have never been and never will be absolute opposites. The supposed division between the sciences and humanities is not a question of method, or of epistemology, even - it’s question of disciplinarity and the economic structures of contemporary academic institutions. Simple evidence: you can get science funding to write about Bachelard, because he’s a “historian of science,” but you can’t get science funding to write about Bachelard’s student, Michel Foucault, because Foucault was a “philosopher.”
The best thinkers - throughout history, in every field of inquiry - embrace whatever insights and information that their thought requires. The best scholars in the humanities respect the sciences; the best scientists are the ones who actually take the time to read the occasional book and can form a decent sentence. The worst thinkers are the ones who insist on inane distinctions, who set up false binaries instead of knocking them down, and who think of knowledge as an either/or proposition instead of embrace the notion that knowledge is a mosaic of perspectives that together generate an evolving and diverse picture of existence.
Personally, I think “science” can be incredibly useful to research in the humanities. I have regular arguments about this with traditionalists in my discipline. But I don’t think this because I want to “infuse” the humanities with science, I think this because I consider all human knowledge to be a single vast and manifold field, and I pick and choose what’s useful to me and not what the disciplinary guilds of contemporary academia think I need. This true when literary scholars frown at my diagrams, and it’s equally true when obnoxious, ill-informed assholes like Steven Pinker tell me that evolutionary psychology is useful for literary criticism. Don’t tell me how to do literary criticism, you self-important airbag.
Paul McCarthy’s monumental WS, currently in its last week at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side, is art on a genuinely epic scale. I saw the show four times while it was on this summer, and had several occasions to describe it (or try to) to people who hadn’t seen it. What I kept coming back to was, “It’s big. It’s really big.”
The bulk of the installation is located in the Armory’s massive Drill Hall, a 55,000-square-foot hangar space that fills an entire city block and contains a 9,000-square-foot plastic forest with 20-foot fake trees, as well as an elaborate film set of fake interiors, on which the installation’s video projections were filmed. On either end are four massive screens each showing different edits of the same scene; there are 12 loosely connected scenes that show sequentially for a total of 7 hours. The Armory’s balconies are accessible; there are balcony seats behind the screens in the rear. And to either side are smaller rooms with additional videos, dense, darkened bunker-like spaces. We’ll come back to those in a moment. The installation also spills out in the ornate, antique rooms at the front of the Armory, outside the Drill Hall.
The central conceit of the show is a relentlessly dark Snow White parody – the show’s title, WS, stands for “White Snow,” the name of the title character, portrayed in most of the films by Elyse Poppers with a fantastic blend of icy aloofness and childish delight. McCarthy himself features in most of the films as well, as “Walt Paul.” In case viewers miss the Disney references, a merchandise store at the front of the building contains copious amounts of Snow White merchandise all signed and numbered by McCarthy as Walt Paul and all marked up significantly from the prices listed on the Disney tags which are mostly still attached.
WS is a biting, dark, and furiously corporeal take on the Snow White story. The films are full of prosthetics, dirty costumes, and cheap hair; the soundtrack, one of the most relentless aspects of the show, even before you walk into the Drill Hall, is composed as much of grunts, groans, and body language as it is of words. The show is assaultive and visceral and probably not for the faint of heart. As the show’s website, promotional materials, and attendants are careful to inform the potential viewer, “This exhibition contains mature content.”
As soon as you walk in the door, an Armory worker steps forward to inform you that the show contains “mature content.” This warning is repeated – in the same terms, “mature content” – by the cashiers in the ticket office and again by the employee checking the tickets at the door. But before entering the series of smaller rooms to the right of the Drill Hall, containing a total of seven videos, a sign is posted: “These rooms contain explicit sexual content.” The thing is, though, the films in the main hall are plenty explicit; they include continuous and full-frontal nudity, an incident involving cake batter that paraphrases scat play with impressive verisimilitude, and a deliberately assaultive frenzy of general bacchanalia. Also, the sets in the main hall include a living room in which a plastic man kneels on all fours with a broom handle sticking out of his ass. The films in the side rooms are equally intense but much less busy; they feature one or two characters at a time, unlike the ensemble cast of the main hall’s films. But it’s hard to say, for the most part, how exactly the content of these films is more or less sexual than those in the main hall, or why the films on the right require a warning for sexual content but not the two films in the smaller rooms on the left.
In fact, the Armory’s attempt to distinguish “mature” from “sexual” content seems to go against the grain of the show. One of the installation’s most powerful features is its sheer what-the-fuckness. It’s not just that the show is massive and complex, it’s also that everything is going on at once. The most impressive aspect of WS is that, in its mass and complexity, the show effectively creates its own frozen time, a distinctively spatial moment in which everything is simultaneous and nothing is distinct. Of my four visits, two were alone and two with friends, and both times on leaving my friends expressed exactly the same feeling I had on leaving the first time after seeing the show alone: That was a lot to process and my brain is full; now I’m going to go figure out what it was I just saw. There are no neat thematic or affective divisions in the installation. The Armory’s promotional materials call the show’s imagery “sexually-tinged, violent, and even debaucherous,” but WS is all these things at once, and not separately. The blurring of sexuality and violence is a mainstay of 20th-century art and hardly surprising; WS not only blurs the line between sexuality and violence but between sexuality and fairytales, between violence and cooking, between debauchery and film-making, between the products of cultural production and the residue of that production. If in the 20th century psychoanalysis convinced us that sex was the secret truth of things, in the 21st century sex, like violence and art itself, is just one more texture, one more façade behind which lies nothing but the relentless machinery of production itself. Sex is not the secret message; it’s just one more form of encryption.
This last aspect is, to my mind, the show’s most interesting one, a far more original and contemporary demonstration than the old-hat notion that sex and violence might be linked, or the frankly boring imperative that art be “transgressive.” WS eschews linear narrative; it has no beginning, no before and after. This is, in fact, the most radical aspect of its revisionist take on the Snow White story: a fairytale is among the most inherently linear of narrative forms, whether it culminates in bitter moralizing, as do the oral traditions captured by Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, or in a storybook happy ending, as do Disney’s saccharine takes on the same stories. WS has no narrative; it just has an endless series of jagged fragments that tear at you from every direction, that fold and blur into each other. Are the sets in the center of the Drill Hall the left-overs from the production of the films, or are the films footnotes to the sheer physicality of the sets? When Walt Paul, in one of the “sexually explicit” videos in the side rooms, yells at a weeping White Snow to “Sign the contract!,” are we watching a behind-the-scenes moment, or another fragment of the same non-narrative? These questions are beside the point. McCarthys’ show has no beginning or end, neither a happy ending nor a bitter moral; it’s a pure stream of relentless intensities, affect as pure event. WS isn’t a narrative – it’s a space. It doesn’t tell a story – it has an effect.
If WS is an allegory, it’s an allegory of the fact that in the early 21st century cultural production is about cultural production. The show is first and foremost about itself, about its own making and its own effects. Whether the sets are the supplement to the videos or the videos the supplement to the sets, what the show suggests is the increasing equivalence of what’s being made, how it’s being made, and who is making it. That’s why the Snow White theme is exquisitely well-suited to making McCarthy’s point: Walt Disney was a pioneer in the conception of a seamless, totalizing brand-name experience, a cultural space whose content was indivisible from its context. The concept of the “Disney experience” was to evoke the same range of affective responses in an audience whether they were watching an animated feature in a darkened theater or walking through DisneyLand. It’s beside the point to ask whether McCarthy is making fun of the film Snow White, of Walt Disney himself, or of Disney as a brand; WS doesn’t so much collapse as entirely ignore these distinctions by mirroring, in its conception and execution, the cross-platform, brand-name multimedia experience that marks contemporary culture in all its forms. None of the show’s elements are primary or central; their effect is relational, an agglomeration of elements rather than a hierarchy; it all works on you together, and it all works on you at once. Like a contemporary corporate brand, WS isn’t particularly committed to any particular item, object, or product; its commitment is to itself as a whole, to its own sheer mass. What matters is not so much what there is as how much there is; the details of the show’s aggressive sprawl are secondary to its overwhelming totality.
In articulating the nature of contemporary aesthetic production, of course, WS can’t settle for imitating or “performing”: it is what it does, and in that sense the show is equally illuminating and disturbing. It’s illuminating because it demonstrates so clearly the modes of aesthetic production by which contemporary culture operates, and it’s disturbing because in demonstrating them, it becomes indistinguishable from them.
Like the blurring of sex and violence, self-reflexivity is a mainstay of 20th-century art; in fact, it’s one of the features most often associated with postmodernism. But least one crucial element of postmodern aesthetics is absent here – irony. WS is perhaps satiric, perhaps allegorical, perhaps even biting and sarcastic, but it’s not ironic. It’s too visceral, too massive, too real; it doesn’t wink or nod at its own effects but glories in them. It feels its own effects; more importantly, it isn’t immune to them. Postmodern irony, of which Pop Art is often given as a crowning example, involves a fundamental distance: for all that postmodernism is associated with the subversion of hierarchies and the critique of master narratives, it is equally marked by the artist’s ability to assume a critical posture, a distanced position from which to survey and – dare I say it – deconstruct contemporary culture’s pretenses.
WS makes no pretense of distance – it’s in your face, on blast, from the moment you walk in the door, and McCarthy is literally in the middle of it. There’s no removed critical position from which to judge it; there’s no space in the Armory from which you can’t hear its grunting animal soundtrack. And McCarthy’s position as an artist is neither distanced nor judgmental. He doesn’t deconstruct – he assembles. But he assembles in precisely the way contemporary culture assembles; cumulatively, quantitatively, intensely. The promotional materials for WS claim that it “forces the viewer to acknowledge the twister underside to saccharine idols in popular culture.” But that gesture – the ironic reversal, the sly revelation – has itself long-since become a familiar cliché of the very cultural production McCarthy lampoons. McCarthy doesn’t shock by showing us that things aren’t what they claim to be; he shocks by showing us that things are exactly what they seem – and that includes WS itself.
WS is the biggest show McCarthy has ever put on; the Armory describes it as “the pinnacle of his creative output.” It’s definitely the single largest piece by a single artist that I’ve ever seen. On a strictly logistical level, there are few art spaces in New York where one could imagine such an aesthetic behemoth; physically, at least, the Armory seems a default choice. But there’s also something about the Armory itself that highlights and emphasizes the show’s nature and effect. A renovated landmark building containing one of the country’s biggest collections of intact 19th-century interiors, the Armory is located on the Upper East Side, funded and managed by the kind of big-money art establishment to which McCarthy for decades represented an outlying antithesis. As a recent article in the NYT Sunday Magazine noted, McCarthy is a quintessentially L.A. artist and didn’t sell his first major piece until he was 45. But on my last visit to the show, I saw an entirely non-descript middle-aged attendee saunter into the installation’s merchandise store and casually buy a made-in-China pewter Snow White ring for $300. To me, the purchase felt remarkably like a piece of performance art, but I doubt she saw it that way. The marked-up Disney merch in the show’s store fits perfectly with the rest of the show – it’s not incongruous, it’s just one more way of showing us how contemporary culture packages vulgar crap and resells it to us at a profit.
Part of me wants to laugh and congratulate McCarthy for so brilliantly lampooning the establishment that has slowly and somewhat reluctantly come to embrace his work. You waited long enough on the margins; go ahead and milk the system for everything you can get out of it. The sheer degree of the price markups on these items, the lack of irony with which they have been rapidly selling (according to the sales clerk in the stores, who I spoke to twice this summer), and the $15 cover charge to enter the installation all play into the show’s basic message: it’s all the same crap, it’s just about how you assemble and market it. But at the same time, I can’t help but worry that, just as exorbitant precedent for the sale of art inflates the cost of buying it, so too will such exorbitant precedents for the production of art inflate the cost of making it. Very few artists have the name-recognition, the funding, or the capability of mounting such a show; many of New York’s hungry artists would probably be pressed to afford the ticket price for even seeing it. The good news is that art can still shock and awe; the bad news is that these effects are generated not by the art’s content but its scale and its intensity, and scale and intensity are both expensive. In this sense, as in every other aspect of the show, artist and audience are in exactly the same position. Like sex and violence, WS reveals art as simply one more name that the machinery of cultural production operates behind. McCarthy’s giant installation is a simple 21st century answer to the ironic cynicism of postmodern ennui: Art can still shock; it can still be surprising, moving and powerful. If you can afford it.