2009.09.28 Prolegomena to a Theory of Ah
After I wrote that thing about awe't, Reggie called. I had sent him a copy.
"What a pleasant surprise," I said. "It's been a few years." The last time I had seen him was at the documenta in 2007. He was not impressed.
"Hey, let me call you back. It's much cheaper to call from here." I don't know why this is, but my calls from Germany to the States are much cheaper than the other way around. "It will just cost pennies if I call you." Cents, I should have said. Euros don't have pennies.
"No, don't worry about it." I let it drop. He could in fact afford it. He could probably afford to buy the phone company.
"I just want to talk a little about your piece."
"Oh, you read it?" My surprise was not feigned.
"Yes, it was interesting." Which is a way of saying "terrible."
"I guess you recognized yourself," I said.
"But I don't think anybody else will, do you?"
"No. And I wouldn't care if they did." I didn't believe him.
"For one thing, I'm not a billionaire."
"I guess that was a bit of an exaggeration." What's a few hundred million?
"What did sort of bother me was the implication that I don't care. I hope you don't really think that, because it's not true at all."
"Did I say that?"
"Well, you did imply it. That whole idea of art for art's sake, what Marcuse said and all, that's a very old and very flawed criticism. It wouldn't bother me normally, but it does hurt a little coming from you. I thought you knew me better than that."
"I didn't mean it as a criticism. I said I felt ambiguous about it. I actually envy people who can live that way, who can live for art."
"Oh sure, and there are people like that. I know a lot of them. Collectors, artists, critics, all different kinds of people. I'm just not one of them."
I was on the verge of apologizing. It was true. I had lumped Reggie in with the l'art pour l'art crowd.
"Did you know I lost a cousin on 9/11?" Reggie continued. "At the World Trade Center."
"No, I didn't. I'm sorry." There. I had apologized, though not for what I had actually done.
"That hit me very deeply. And I agree with you and everyone who wants a new investigation."
"Half of New York City."
"That's right. And I hope we get it. I've signed the NYC CAN petition, and donated as well."
"Well, that puts me in my place. I haven't donated anything. Ok, it's time for me to apologize. I do."
"That's not the point, Michael. There's nothing to apologize for. Nobody is going to know who I am. But like I said, you know who I am, and I'm just a little disappointed."
Now I was really beginning to feel bad.
"Reggie, my point was really not to criticize you, or take some sort of moral high ground. I was trying to express my own confusion. I wish I could live like an artist. Or like one of those that are above it all, or outside of it, or however you want to put it." No, I didn't. I was lying, and, as I realized too late, I was still putting him in that category of oblivious Beauty Worshipers.
"As I said, I know a lot of people like that. But why pick on artists? Aren't most people like that? Isn't everybody like that to a certain extent? You can call it denial if you like, but people need to get through the day. Maybe it's art for some, pizza for others, sports, what have you. If you want to spend your life wondering who killed JFK and who blew up the Towers, ok, have a nice life. How many people can do that? How many people want to do that? It's a matter of survival. Art is a way to survive. Baseball is a way to survive. Ice skating."
"Yeah, that too. What's your point? You're picking on art as some sort of special human activity different from everything else and insisting on political engagement. Why not pick on baseball players or ice skaters? My god, people involved with art are just people like everybody else."
"Well, that's just it, Reggie. I always thought art was something special."
"It is. But you seem to be confusing it with something else, like religion, maybe. You seem to resent artists who don't have the same political concerns and opinions you do with religious leaders in Germany who supported the Nazis."
"Now you're exaggerating a bit."
"Am I? Look. I'll tell you what I think about art. It's freedom. That's what it is, nothing more or less. You don't have to like it, or do it, or have anything to do with it. You're free, too. But you are the one making demands. You want art to be something it is not. Art is not politics. Period. There is no other way to say it."
"Despite Marcuse and those guys."
"Of course despite Marcus and those guys. What do they know? Who gives them the right to judge and make demands? If they want a certain kind of art, fine. They can promote it, or produce it themselves. You can do that, too. You want to put 9/11 on an urn, do it! Find a way to do it. But criticizing others for not doing it -- and I'm not saying they haven't -- is just very lame."
"I see your point, Reggie," I said lamely. "But aren't you oversimplifying just a little? I mean, you know much better than I do how much of a role money plays in the art world today."
"Of course it does. What else is new? That's always been the case. That's life. What does that have to do with anything?"
Somehow I felt we had come full circle. Reggie was winning the debate before I felt I was really in it. What was my point again?
"It's not really a matter of putting 9/11 on an urn." This is I how I had ended my article: How do you get that on an urn (with reference to Keats)?
"By the way, you're quite wrong about that. There are plenty of artists who have dealt with 9/11." He named a half dozen. I had not heard of any of them.
"It's not a matter of 9/11 itself..." I hesitated, because I knew what was coming next would be the beginning of the end of our conversation.
"It's more like how you get '9/11 was an inside job' on an urn?"
"Oh jeez," Reggie groaned. "Come on. That's everywhere. You don't need it on an urn. You got it on signs on the sidewalk, on thousands of internet pages. Books, movies..."
"I'm sure there is work that deals with that." He did not offer any names this time. "Why shouldn't there be? No matter what you might think, this is still a free country."
"Still. Maybe not for long. Do you know of any exhibitions that deal with the political implications of 9/11?"
"Not offhand. Not at the moment. So what? What is there to be exhibited?"
"Well, that's my point."
"But Michael." He sounded exasperated, tired of dealing with this recalcitrant child. "Art is always a matter of two things: talent and discovery. It may be there and undiscovered. It may be there and you and I don't know about it. Neither one of us is omniscient!" He said this with emphasis, as if he were saying something very basic, which of course he was. "It may not be there at all. Yet. Maybe tomorrow it will be."
I decided to take a stand. Stick my neck right out on the block. "Ok, I'll put it this way. I don't think it is, and I don't think it will be. Not unless there is huge change." I wanted to say "revolution," but I knew this would not help me make my point. It was hard enough to know what my point was myself. Words got in the way, especially words like revolution.
"I don't know about that. And with all respect, Michael, neither do you. You don't have a crystal ball." No, I didn't. The things I didn't have were piling up. No moral high ground, no omniscience, no crystal ball -- who the heck did I think I was?
There was a pause. Then he said, "You seem to be obsessed with 9/11. I've read some of your work. You seem to have become a one-issue man."
I had to admit that that was pretty close to correct. That was also part of my point, but I didn't know how to get this across either.
"Have you read my thing about Pulp Fiction?" I said.
"The movie?" He hadn't.
"No, I wrote an article called 'Pulp Fiction.'"
"No, I haven't read that one."
"That may get to the point better. I subtitle it 'We are living in a novel.' A bad one."
"I'll make a note to read it." I didn't think it would have much affect on him, so I summarized.
"I'm saying if we are characters in a novel, how can we write novels?"
"I'm not sure I follow that."
I also use the allegory of the cave. You know, Plato?"
"Yeah, where the people are watching the shadows on the wall."
"Right. Well, we're the people."
"Bollocks." The Briticism surprised me. Paying me back for Plato, I guess.
Fine when you've got a couple of hundred mil, or even one mil, to untrap yourself, I wanted very much to say. But it wouldn't have been fair. Actually, it would have, but it wouldn't have seemed like it. And appearances are everything. Here in the cave. Right? What?
"Maybe you should read my article."
"I will, I promise." It wouldn't make any difference.
"Or better yet, try a work of art yourself. You used to write poetry." He was talking about our college days. I had also written some more recent stuff. It was on my website, but he had obviously not spent much time there. I could hardly blame him for that. I still felt we were both missing the point. He wasn't getting it, or I wasn't making it, or both. Or there was no point.
"That's interesting," I said. "I was told the same thing by Lawrence Durrell, years ago."
"Oh, really?" Did I detect a slight change in his tone? More...what, interested?
"But he also said publishers were vultures." I had not asked Durrell what he meant by that. I should have. Since most of my work has been self-published, what did that make me? A flesh-eating, self-gnawing, bone-picking bird-bard.
"Vultures," Reggie repeated, noncommittally. "When did you meet him?"
"That was back in 1987, a few years before he died. I visited him in Sommières."
He had used the exact same words: Try a work of art. Unbeknownst to him, I had, and proved it by tearing out an end paper of the copy of his Collected Poems that I had brought with me and on which I had transcribed "Homage à Lawrence Durrell," and handed it to him. It was at the end of a long afternoon and several of the bottles of Rhine Hessen I had brought along. It was a kind of ritual. Tit for tat kind of thing. I never found out what he thought of the poem. He did mention that the Algonquin was a hotel in New York, not a river. I still like it better as a river.
"I read the Alexandria Quartet," Reggie said. "I don't remember it as particularly political." Neither did I. "What do you suppose he meant by that -- vultures? That all great artists are dead? There's some truth in that."
"I'm not sure." I wasn't coming across as sure of very much of anything, I knew. Maybe it was better that way. Maybe that was my point. "It's not a nice image, though. Vultures are not pretty, and they eat dead meat."
"So do we. Or are you a vegetarian?"
"No, but I eat a fair amount of tofu."
I didn't say that Durrell had also said, in response to what I said, which must have been something like "Too bad we can't do without them" (this was, effectively, pre-internet days): "Somebody has to tell you if it's any good."
"Vultures or not, they're part of the world, Michael." Reggie had always had a motherly streak, and it was coming through now. I should let it go. But pride goeth before the fall.
"I appreciate what you're saying, Reggie, but I feel I haven't really gotten my point across. I don't blame you. I'm just not expressing it properly. Effectively."
"How is Vee?"
"She's fine, thanks." He had met Vee when he came to Kassel, but I pulled a blank for the name of his filthy-rich better half, so I said, "And how are yours?" hoping he wouldn't feel accused of polygamy.
"We're all fine, surviving the rat race." A cut above survival, I would venture.
"Will you be coming to the next documenta?" I queried.
"When is the next one?"
"In 2012. It'd be great to see you again." I wasn't at all sure I meant this. Our worlds were very far apart, and this conversation was not bringing them any closer.
"Oh, I have no idea what my schedule will be like then. Maybe."
"I know you weren't very impressed with the last one."
"No, I must say I've seen better exhibitions. But you never know."
We parted on friendly terms, but I knew he wouldn't be coming to Kassel again. It had been a long time since our college days.
In German it is possible to have what they call an Aha-experience. I felt like I had had half of one.