my 1980sWhy Art Is Always Emotional

Does philosophical rumination— whether it takes the meandering form of recitative, or the straitened form of aphorism— qualify as emotional? Think of Nietzsche’s rants and highs, or Wittgenstein’s hesitant, antiseptic propositions, which sometimes, at their edges, break into moods of exaltation, curiosity, and depression.

* * *

Art with an obsessively worked surface, or art that is shiny and lumpy, or art that incorporates a grid, or art that is mostly monochrome, produces aesthetic emotion in me: tremor, flush, heart-quickening. Responding, I squint, sigh, snort, clench my molars. I jot a note on my private pad, or I comment aloud. I point. Elucidating, I play tour guide. I proclaim art’s triumph over depressing circumstances. My speech grows abstract, so emotional have I become in my devotion to art’s role as crutch, escape hatch, garbage chute, playmate . . . Indeed, art, no matter how lousy, reminds me that I am a person who likes to look at art and who gets emotional while thinking about it.

* * *

Rips, flaws, holes, punctures—signs that the artist has damaged the piece in order to make it more artful—pull my heartstrings. Artaud was so upset and so creative that he put his cigarette out on his own drawing! Leigh Bowery was so excited and so expressive that he fastened safety pins in his fat cheeks!

* * *

Any sort of art enchants me, because it allows me to make friends with curators and artists, who are often sexy, introspective, and anarchic. Art is a pimp. It procures, and, like a duenna, sits in the room while the intercourse transpires . . .Yes, I have a weakness for art that pretends to be affectless, and for anyone—harlequin, harlot, theory-head—who refuses to return my affection.

* * *

Apparent absence of content, in art, stimulates me: emptiness, whiteness, blueness, pinkness, and blackness license visceral expansiveness. Forms alone, colors alone, give me shivers and permit me to dwell in caffeinated ether. Abstract art subverts the sting of former embarrassments. Here’s the formula: I used to be abject, but now I’m abstract.

* * *

Human contact exhausts me. I prefer art, which, regardless of its content, is a free ride to ecstasy, if you surrender to it, if you perform the requisite symbolic transpositions. (X equals Y. Thick paint equals transvalued shame. Radiant color equals conquered malaise. Deft line equals forgotten clumsiness.) Art assures me that I am bulletproof, that I am not stuck in a miserable conversation with someone who belittles me or who aims to colonize my entrails.

* * *

Art that deviates from precedent is, perforce, emotional, if only because it rejects the prior, the given, the laden. Rejection and refusal are always aggressive, and aggression is the motor of most emotion. Artists whose work aggressively advertises emotion: Vincent van Gogh, Nan Goldin. (Madness; blows; tears; sex; swirls; solitude.) Artists whose work aggressively avoids or disdains emotion: Donald Judd, Marcel Duchamp. And yet: I get emotional about Judd, Duchamp—about boxes, valises, peepholes, glass, shelves, parallelism. If we were to hear that Judd was a madman, or that his boyfriend beat him up, we might interpret his art as emotional.

* * *

Art or literature that responds to incalculable extremity—the Holocaust—may betray minimal emotion on its surface: Claude Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah and Imre Kertész’s novel Fatelessness probe the apparent absence of affect at trauma’s core. With trauma comes psychological deadness, the catatonia of interminable interregnum.

* * *

Catherine Opie, in her photograph Self- Portrait/Nursing, depicts herself breastfeeding her child: Opie may be art history’s first inked Mother of God, her divine body amply tattooed. Her face gives no clear signs of emotion. The baby, I presume, is feeling contentment, excitement, discombobulation. Discombobulated, certainly, am I, unaccustomed to this spectacle. Indeed, art with highly emotional content (maternity, nudity, mortality) may actually be cool, didactic, and majestically airless, while art that has no content, or buried content, or complicated and nonparaphrasable content, may contain reservoirs of tidal affect.

* * *

Sandra Dee died today, but I’m not emotional about her passing. I may feel moved after I read the memoir of her son, Dodd Darin, Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee. In Douglas Sirk’s film Imitation of Life, Sandra Dee plays emotionless Lana Turner’s daughter. Brainy melodramas like Sirk’s—or like Chloe Piene’s Blackmouth, Elizabeth Peyton’s Nick (La Lunchonette, December 2002), and Bas Jan Ader’s I’m too sad to tell you— distance the spectator from the theatrical emotions the works purportedly display. Sirk, milking melodrama, also took it off art’s menu. Darin and his ilk (eyewitness raconteurs of stardom’s toxic force field, and by stardom I mean emotional domination) secretly restore melodrama’s ermine reign.

* * *

Candy Darling, on her deathbed, as photographed by Peter Hujar, makes theater of her own emergency: bittersweetly serene, she has at last become the dying Lady of the Camellias. I’d be a cad to call this moving photo “unemotional,” and yet the emotion it offers is edged by ambivalence: the photo is a mausoleum for the dated attitudes it inspires in me.

* * *

Andreas Gursky’s wide-angle photographic tableaux—often of commodities—trigger a viewer’s awe: panoramas, whether from mountaintops or the moon, kick-start sublime experience,
for they remix the miniature and the monumental, and shock the eye out of its complacency. In May Day II, Gursky represents group emotion, of which we have every reason to be suspicious. But he recuperates individual experience by permitting one eye—the camera’s, the viewer’s—to comprehend the entire ungraspable spectacle; reduced to one voyeur’s portion, the May Day bacchanal becomes just another object to remark upon, to own, to employ as catalyst for aesthetic transport, however dressed up as politics.

* * *

Two trials: Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson. (I’m pro-Michael, pro-Martha, though not to excess, and not against reason. I’m anti-scapegoating.) The spectacle of crime and punishment produces mob emotion in a society—ours—incapable of passionate response to ecocide, genocide, and unjust war. I speak not as a self-righteous outsider to the contemporary predicament of dangerously unemotional deadness: like so many other dwellers in the American “now,” I limit my sights to familiar, framable spectacles, and I turn away from crises too panoramic for customary consumption.

* * *

Chris Ofili’s painting Afro Love and Envy hits an emotional high because it projects happiness and bright escape, and because it incorporates actual turds. Turds are objects that we
might hesitate to call emotional. They have no feelings, and we who produce turds have rudimentary, disorganized attitudes toward them. And yet turds are absolutes. They materially embody human process. They are factual, or do I mean actual, like oil paint, celluloid, bones, and buildings. When inner life is so compactly extruded—turned into turd, into art, into cinema, into text—then . . . Oh, that isn’t a sentence I want to finish!

 

Excerpted from MY 1980S & OTHER ESSAYS by Wayne Koestenbaum, to be published in August 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Wayne Koestenbaum. All rights reserved.

 

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Koestenbaum, Wayne in 1985 - (c) Louisa CampbellWAYNE KOESTENBAUM is a poet, a cultural critic, and the author of more than a dozen books, whose subjects have included opera, Jackie Onassis, Andy Warhol, hotels, humiliation, and Harpo Marx. He lives in New York.

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