What Would They Criticize?
There’s an awful lot of interesting stuff in the second chunk of reading on our schedule (how my tune changes in just 51 pages!), but I want to fly over everything in the middle and focus on the material that basically bookends the section: the story of Edwin Johns. Over at the Bolaño mothership, Brooks suggests that Johns may be based on a performance artist called Pierre Pinoncelli, and I can see where the self-mutilation invites the link, but I think of him much more as Damien Hirst. (Obviously, there’s the taxidermy, but there’s also his nationality, his age, his rebelliousness, and his outrageous sales.)
First I want to talk about the situation of the artist in the art market. We have received a Romantic idea of the artist as a brilliant male creator, receiving inspiration from external, divine sources (alright, the Muses are older than Romanticism) and struggling heroically against the world to produce great, pure testaments to his genius and skill. Art is the extension into this world of that which is divine and unsullied, and any other purpose behind the making of art—for money, for example—taints both the result and the artist. We have the stereotype of the starving artist, nobly refusing to follow any star but his art, regardless of petty concerns like lunch or rent.
And all that of course is a load of crap, foisted on the world by men who didn’t have to earn their bread or their keep, and were thus able to ignore the economic considerations that most everyone else has to take into account when deciding how to pursue their careers. (Not that they were above accepting money for their work; it just had to be a formal afterthought.) I don’t discount the expressive and aesthetic drives that lead a creative person to art, but I want to emphasize that most people have to balance the satisfaction of those drives with meeting the first one or two levels of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. And to that extent, art must be an economic activity; it cannot be isolated from the flow of money. In truth, it can never be: the actual artist must buy her supplies from somewhere, and must have someplace to do her art (which place she either rents or pays property taxes on). But even outside the inescapable embedment of all living in economic activity, artists need to sell. To be a professional artist is to support yourself through the sale of your work.
I’m going to skip a discussion here of “selling out,” because I don’t think it’s particularly interesting. What I want to say instead is that it seems to me that the critical apparatus—the critics themselves, their reviews, their journals—is a necessary part of this situation, at least in the case of new art. (Like Edwin Johns’s.) After a certain time, artists and kinds of art and individual pieces acquire reputations, so that their relative values (both monetary and “artistic,” by which I suppose I mean a combination of aesthetic and intellectual) are reasonably apparent. With new art, though, it’s often useful to have someone to put it in context; indeed, for the purposes of market valuation, it’s essential. Basically, in my representation here, it is a purpose (among others) of the critical establishment to tell people what new art is worth.
And I say Edwin Johns’s breakthrough exhibition, the one Norton tells Morini about on 52 and 53, is included in 2666 as a straight-up indictment of that critical establishment. The man chops off his own hand and puts it in an art show, and rather than recoil, the public buys up every single piece, “although the prices were astronomical.” That’s disgusting, and something that a responsible critic would feel obligated to oppose; societies obviously can’t afford to extend financial incentives for mutilation, and a critic who cares about the field he works in (or about people at all) ought to be horrified at the idea of his discipline as a beachhead for the practice. But rather than revulsion, Johns’s exhibition inspires a whole artistic movement. Not one of amputation, true, but I think it still has to be seen as the fruit of a poisonous tree. (I’m concerned that I’ve come to sound terribly moralistic here; I hope instead I just sound firmly convinced that chopping off your own hand for monetary gain is a bad kind of business.)
And if we believe Morini, Johns did it specifically for the money, “because he believed in investments, the flow of capital, one has to play the game to win, that kind of thing” (97). That’s so deeply cynical that it feels utterly sane. And it succeeded—he played the game very well, which I can’t help but see as proof that all the players must be corrupt and monstrous, whether or not they intend to be. Of course, the correspondence between their intentions and their actions is the kind of thing critics are supposed to investigate, and here’s where I come again to the failures of the critics in this scenario. I find this whole episode so savagely…critical…of criticism that it’s almost breathtaking, and I don’t think it’s balanced out by what I see as the tenderness and affection of page 72’s characterization of outré literary criticism as a cry for love. Lots of readers identified a kind of gentle mocking of academia in the first week’s reading, but this week is much more vicious on the subject.
There are two possible mitigations here (outside of the fact that I may be taking this much too far anyway). The first is that Johns is in a mental hospital. I’m surprised at the text’s implication that there was a process of going mad involved, because I’d have said the amputation was proof that he was a danger to himself. But in any case, he may be untrustworthy. Even more, though, Morini himself may be untrustworthy. He tells Norton “he thought he knew why Johns had cut off his right hand” (my emphasis); I don’t know where Morini’s uncertainty comes from, because the text is pretty clear that Johns whispers something into his ear. Then again, that scene (on 91) undercuts itself by pointing out that it’s too dark for Pelletier to see what happened. Maybe Johns never even answered the question. It looks like we can’t be sure. But it all seems pretty sordid to me.
What do y’all think?