DOING COKE WITH YOU
(A Venal Shine)
Where does culture live?
People belonging to the leisure classes have been, for the past few centuries, the primary practitioners of art history, critical and theoretical writing, curation, and publication. But over the last one hundred years, this field, along with its audience, has expanded. And as the field of art criticism has widened, so have the modes of writing within this discipline. One of these approaches, ‘art writing,’ is a hybrid of creative writing and art criticism—a merging of the poetic and the fictive with emerging discourses on the connect (and disconnect) between visual art and theory. This medium owes much to linguistic theory—such as the writing of Mikhail Bakhtin, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Lucy Lippard—and conceptual art initiated during the 1960s and 70s by artists that, among several others, included Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Robert Morris, Mladen Stilinović, Lawrence Weiner; the methodology was further explored in the later 1970s and 80s by Pictures Generation artists such as Jack Goldstein, Barbara Kruger or Louise Lawler.
Thirty years on, the distribution channels for art writing are chiefly magazines, journals dedicated to the practice, and books either self-published or by small art and experimental literary imprints. Living as they do within visual art’s cultural landscape, these publications are often printed in small editions, bear meticulous graphics and material design, rendering the content secondary to experiencing them in a visual or tactile way. Resulting in a shift in status from media to object.
Looks aside, the content of art writing can be experimental and rigorous reading, as the writers are often academics. And even though essays or stories written in this style can exert an exploratory and even intuitive impulse, their structure and language remains, for the most part, scholarly—their circulation limited to the small magazines and publishers known primarily to the art-world-initiated.
Which makes sense. Can we really expect people to line up at the suburban mall Cineplexes in Idaho to buy the latest art writing essay along with a bucket of popcorn on a Saturday night?
THE ECSTASY OF SHOPPING
One key democratizing development for art writing has been digital publication. Through online magazines and commentary on the medium within social media, the internet has made it possible for teenagers in rural Idaho to know about the latest theories being discussed at conferences in Frankfurt, or Shanghai, subsequently printed in the pages of art magazines and books published in London, New York, or Zurich. While this distribution signals a widening trend for the field—for perhaps this teenager in Idaho will be inspired and start writing in this mode—digital publication has also resulted in fewer people buying books, meaning less revenue, smaller publishing budgets, and fewer physical exemplars in the cultural market. As a result of these economic limitations, bookstores that remain open are increasingly rare, increasingly special. These more and more esoteric locations at which they are sold or archived become sites for fetishization.
As a result, whenever I go to some well-lit museum bookshop, I see dozens of books I suddenly have to have.
There was an exhibition in 2010 at Balice Hertling, a commercial gallery in Paris, of the late-American Fine Art Gallery creator Colin de Land’s library; in 2011, the Bidoun Library traveled to art fairs and finished at London’s Serpentine Gallery. The initiation of these archives in the space of a commercial gallery or art fair—both being exhibitions that I personally enjoyed and believe to be historically significant—shifts these collections into the realm of the sculptural, thus increasing one’s desire for their components as symbols.
In 2012, the Art Writing Library that I co-founded with Beatrice Loft Schulz at Goldsmiths University in London, while we were studying on the Art Writing MFA course there, was modeled after the generous, self-critical, and historically significant Colin de Land and Bidoun libraries. But, like its forebears, the structure of our archive inadvertently fell into a mode of commodified display that contradicted the de-facto-Marxist approach much art writing at Goldsmiths invoked.
Following this ideology, concurrently there was much discussion within both the art writing course, and the greater Masters of Fine Arts course as the University, about the ways artists and writers could avoid the seduction of the art market after leaving Goldsmiths; how we, as practitioners, could retain our criticality by focusing on discursive approaches to art making instead of commercial objects. With the Goldsmiths Art Writing Library, while we were attempting to contribute to these discursive approaches, that is, making expensive books available for free to University students, I believe that instead, we embodied the object-based status were trying to subvert.
This contradiction is undeniable. The Goldsmiths Art Writing Library—housed as it was at a university notorious for anti-object discourse, while producing generations of artists flooding the culture and market with lots of very expensive objects—was hidden in some corner of the school. Behind lock-and-key, its components were positioned as artifacts of exotic mystique: as collector’s items among emerging creative classes.
More personally, I am also guilty of making, collecting, and enthusiastically writing about rare artists’ books. I, and several of my friends, have published them, we have participated in art book fairs, we shop at them, and we search for them on AbeBooks. And when I am shopping on AbeBooks, I imagine that if I buy this or that specific printing of a specific book, I might be the only person to have it. And this makes me feel good.
Actually, I could write that same sentence and insert any type of luxury item. That amazing brown leather coat from one of Vetements’ early collections, before everyone was talking about them; this coat, made before the design house became so popular, will surely be a coat that no one else but me will have. And because I own one of the only versions of this coat, the coat becomes less of a coat serving the function of keeping me warm, and more of a token, an object to be longed for, desired.
For me and many of my friends who are similarly situated in the art field, we can’t afford a Rothko painting, but we can afford one of Allan Kaprow’s early zine-style publications, and these too become status symbols.
Sometimes I wonder if these book fairs are really just the most attainable art market for those of us who make our livings in the art industry. We are professionally obliged to work within or breathlessly throughout those art fair aisles where we see the wealthy drop significant loads of cash on paintings destined to hang above their dining room tables—an exchange many of us claim to be against, yet which is the instigating gesture of economy that provides most of us with our income, even if we work at a museum, or at a university, or a journal, if we are a part of the art system in any form, then we are complicit parties to these mechanizations—that those of us who even tangentially serve these buyers, can finally afford to do some object shopping ourselves at these art book fairs. So that we too can participate in the collecting game.
Beyond art book fairs, when I visit hip art books bookstores where the music is loud and usually pretty good post-punk, and everyone seems to be making low salaries but dressed in Dries Van Noten, I realize there are lots of other books I really just have to own.
Somehow, my life has operated around a giant crater: one that must be filled by this obscure interview between two artists I am marginally interested in.
Standing there in that well-lit shop, I am totally interested in this book of interviews where interlocutors recycle any number of conversations had the previous year in, similar, ‘paradigm-shifting’ discussions.
And there I will be, standing in this book shop: believing that my writing, my personal life, will not move forward until this overpriced hardback book of talk, back-and-forth between artists whose work I barely know, is securely resting on my bookshelf. There it will undoubtedly gather dust, while, thankfully, the title and author inscribed on the spine will serve as a citation when guests come by.
A testimony to my impeccable taste.
Before it was on my shelf, when I was still in the transactive moment, my emotions were almost the same as I experience on sale days at high end department stores, the day after Christmas, when most of the stores are marked down by up to 80%. There we are, buying all this stuff, in total euphoria, because this is the one day out the year that we can actually afford Rick Owens.
In a 1917 paper titled ‘The Spending of Money in Anxiety States,’ Karl Abraham said that ‘Buying objects which have only a momentary value, and passing quickly from one object to another, are symbolic gratifications of a repressed desire—that of transferring the libido in rapid succession to an unlimited number of objects.’
This passage is cited brilliantly by John Miller in his 1985 essay, ‘The Commodity as a Country Music Theme.’ Actually, that’s where I found the Abraham passage.
But, see, please note what I just did there.
With the previous two paragraphs I demonstrated Abraham’s assertion about the libidinal aspiration implied by spending money on things, by listing references. That is, I similarly asserted my taste, my knowledge, by throwing in a second citation, and of John Miller no less, and without even providing the Miller passage. All I did was mention him. As if to say, “I have so read widely and elegantly that I’ve got references on mental speed dial.” Anthologizing becomes a practice, a methodology; and one that draws close to a form of institutionalized name-dropping bearing procedural similarity to shopping.
I assert my really magnificent palate.
THE TRAP OF TASTE
One way that cultural taste is communicated is the ranked list, or, the “top-ten,” “–fifteen,” “–five,” etc.
For the Goldsmiths Art Writing Library, we included a series of reading lists selected by authors whose books were a part of its archive. We thought it a good way to activate the project, but the 2016 version of myself now looks at that thinking in 2012 and doesn’t agree.
In her 2010 book High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, Isabella Graw points to an increase of these types of rankings in the fields of art and more general media. She describes the practice as originating in 1980s music journalism, as a “way to break with the kind of anti-hierarchal consensus attributed to hippies and old-guard leftists.” She explains that “In contrast to the normative ritual of discussing a topic to death for hours, this format claimed the right to presumptuous positions and personal likes or dislikes, which were unjust by nature and which also no longer required lengthy justification.”
On the topic of art-world-rankings, Graw says that these charts “satisfy the desire for clearly defined hierarchies in a global art world that is perceived as increasingly confusing...” She concludes “What counts here is not what the notables in question say they like, but how they position themselves by means of their selection.”
A quote has become pervasive and impossible to accurately attribute.
In writing this essay, the best original citation I could find was not a citation at all but instead a loose, internet association, citing Picasso as its original author. With a few variations, the gist remains the same: “Good taste is the enemy of creativity.”
But what is good taste? Is it something advertising art directors have been inventing for us over the last century? Is it some bourgeois notion of being “in the know?” Is it the overly-precious and even more overly-privileged generators of Indie culture?
Later in the same book, Graw traces Immanuel Kant’s writing on the subject, in his Critique of Judgment. For Graw, if Kant’s guideline for a “pure judgment” is “aesthetic judgment that makes claim to universal validity,” then “the peculiarity of an aesthetic judgment lies in its normative power: it should be accessible to and shared by all.”6 What’s more, Graw points out that according to Kant’s analysis, individuals should be able to assess a judgment for themselves, by their own measure, without, as he put it “groping about among other people’s judgments.”
However, ranking seems to do exactly the opposite. In fact, it is a trifecta of “groping about” with “other people’s judgments.” And this is the point of Graw’s chapter on the subject: further citing Heidegger’s writing about assessing objects, Graw points out that “Today, especially under the conditions of the information and media society, it should go without saying that no one makes judgments “for himself,” totally unaffected by what others say, think or write.” Graw writes that in fact, “Never before has judgment-formation depended so heavily on the kind of ‘idle-talk’ so despised first by Kant and later by Heidegger.” And that we are now faced with the reality that, “What Kant condemned as invasive chatter now forms the basis of our capacity for aesthetic judgment.”
Earlier in her book, Graw points out several places where these rankings come into rapid play, such as during the opening days of the Venice Biennale, where, she says, “art world figures literally scrutinize each other’s preferences.” That, “at every corner, one is asked, ‘What did you like?’” which she says actually means, “What do you rate?” She is quick to point out that this is a clear result of a lack of time, of that “general sense of being in a rush,” so that “people just call names to each other in passing.”
While flexing our referential abilities is partly to do with our employability (after all, if we are to participate in the art field, we must convince potential collaborators that we know what we are talking about), what I am challenging is not this basic need to make a living, but instead the point at which discussion transforms into encyclopedic burlesques. And sure, the more emotionally intelligent among us appreciate that when a conversation turns into a name-dropping monologue, it’s merely a sign of insecurity that a mature person would be sympathetic to, instead of annoyed by.
But still, it’s annoying.
And still, we all do it.
We just can’t help telling people how amazing our taste is.
We know we don’t need more shoes at that after-Christmas-sale.
We know we can’t afford it.
Yet we are exhilarated to buy the shoes anyway.
Here’s where I become that teenager in Idaho.
I have to refer back to the past three years, over which time I’ve been writing my novel. Well to say the truth, I was thinking about writing my novel and not writing it, for the first two, the last year I actually sat down and wrote the thing. And, in order to do that, I had to organize my life in such a way—or maybe it’s more like my life had to organize me in such a way—that the novel writing became a full time job.
I focused on it; I set myself a per diem word-count (a rudimentary and totally effective approach for someone as prone to procrastination as I).
I had a routine.
As a result, I became much less interesting, and my citations, pedestrian.
Here’s the thing: while I was writing, I had to stop reading.
I couldn’t read theory at all, nothing even close to it.
I couldn’t read conventional novels either, because I noticed I started adopting the novel writer’s own intonations in my own writing.
I couldn’t even watch movies. Not even the bad action movies I love so much, because they pulled me in too deeply. I was thinking about the insides of Jason Bourne’s head, not getting lost in the labyrinth of my own voice.
I couldn’t engage in conversations that led anywhere substantial. Substantial conversations were too distracting.
Instead, my once light, infrequent consumption of trashy movies and TV—my general ease with mainstream culture—became a constant viewing experience, a way of life. I started spending all my down-time watching reality TV. My breaks between writing, those moments that used to be occupied by reading the news, articles, novels, watching movies with a narrative structure, or talking on the telephone and developing actual thoughts, were all preoccupied by reality TV.
I have now watched every season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
I know about all the fights, their origins, their outcomes; all their stints in rehab after overdosing on chardonnay and pills; I even started following the housewives on Instagram. I have spent so much time zoning out in front of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, that I have begun to feel as if these women are constellations in my own social circle. In fact, I am almost ready to graduate to, what I have been told, is the crème de la crème of the franchise: The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
And my writing has come easier.
Somehow, this zombie type of media consumption has better enabled me to execute the kind of writing one must if one is constructing a narrative novel. A conventional novel. In order to write in this mode—that is, to describe and demonstrate actions by characters whose motivations and reactions and unfoldings needed be developed—I have really needed to be on a constant ‘intake break.’
That is, consuming little beyond the hour-long space-out intervals spent keeping up with the Kardashians. Which has become the only type of break I can take, that later allows me to go back into this world I am inventing.
Sure, not every writer seeks to make novels.
What with the popularity of art writing, these days, writers with the aspiration of making a straight-up novel are actually pretty rare. And really, I’m not sure that producing a plot-driven novel, and the practice of art writing, reside anywhere near one another. Stephen King and Nora Roberts both make great novels. They achieve their aim. Nonetheless, are Stephen King and Nora Roberts good models for understanding, or even innovating, devices for character development and narrative surprise deserving of the same attention as, say, Flann O’Brien? I argue, absolutely.
Further, and more to the point, my defending the inventiveness required to make a story replete with social relations sounds uneasily like ideas of originality, or more annoyingly, a genius gesture now theoretically outdated—what with, according to Barthes and his inheritors, the author having died fifty years ago—even hokey. I sincerely agree that research, appropriation and documentation are certainly more accurate forms of contemporary address. Such devices are often used in art writing, attesting the innovation and contemporaneity of the medium. But wherever narrative-driven fiction might fall on the timeline of creative methods, for me to have been able to sit down and invent a world in the form of a novel-length story—outdated as the medium might be—it has been necessary for me to erase all my references. To stop shopping.
BEVERLY HILLS, 90210
The contradiction to the point I just made, about erasing references, lies in the title of this essay: “Doing coke with you (a venal shine)”. The title is constructed from references: an advert for my intellectual inconsistencies. Which was probably already apparent, but whatever.
The title also likely comes across as a juvenile attempt to relate a drug story.
Which it might be.
But here’s the back-story: I wanted to both copy, and to invent.
For fans of the New York School poet Frank O’Hara, “Doing coke with you” is an obvious travesty of his 1966 poem “Having a Coke With You.” It’s a poem that has a lot of personal significance for me. Probably for a lot of others too; so much so, that it’s clichéd that the poem has said significance for me.
Anyway, recently I was exchanging SMS messages with a friend, and I made a joke about how we were going to hang out later, using the title of O’Hara’s poem. He wrote back, “doing coke with you.” It wasn’t an invitation. Well, I don’t know, maybe it was. His response was an obvious, and kind of funny, if immature, update of the title, an attempt at banter in the context of SMS exchange. That SMS turned out to be a very good title for the themes I’ve introduced here.
Shopping, commodity exchange, fetishization of objects, these are all components to that horrible world we all can’t live without: capitalism. And coke is the par excellence substance of capitalism. I am not the first nor will I be the last to make that point. Eighties literary icons understood the symbolism of this quintessential eighties drug: Jay McInerny in Bright Lights, Big City, J. G. Ballard with Cocaine Nights (even though it was published in 1996), or Bret Easton Ellis with Less Than Zero, demonstrate this dynamic far better than I could clumsily point out here.
But humor me for a moment: If I took coke, or drank three espressos, and then visited an art book shop or fair, I think I would be a lot smarter than I am. I think that my references would be outstanding. I think that I would be able to consume and regurgitate citations so much faster than I am naturally able.
I would not need the depressant-down time of my reality TV consumption.
I wouldn’t need to stop reading books while attempting to write my own.
I wouldn’t need to stare at the wall thinking about my Real Housewives, and what might happen on next week’s episode.
I would be able to both read interesting books all the time, to have passages from them readily at hand in conversation (without forgetting the author’s name), and at the same time, I would be able to write my own novel.
In essence, I would be a much better shopper-writer, if I were consuming more Coca-Cola, coffee, or any amphetamine cousin.
Returning to this essay’s title. Its second, parenthetical part is an amalgam of Charles Baudelaire’s “A Venal Muse,” and Douglas Coupland’s recent e-Flux essay published parallel to the opening of the Venice Biennial, “Shiny.”
The first reference, from Baudelaire, I used because it worked. I can’t really say much more than that. The academics won’t like because they will want me to explain spontaneous gestures… which would mean the gesture wasn’t really all that spontaneous to begin with. But whatever.
The second, Coupland’s 2015 essay titled “Shiny,” is one of my favorite essays recently published. I won’t take up too much of your time reciting Coupland’s essay. It’s online. It’s free. It’s a great ride.
But Coupland describes the modern horror of the art fair. The look-a-like shopping malls and their parallel book fairs, exhibition openings, book launches, and performances that everyone-who-is-anyone will attend. He argues that at all these functions, no matter the player in the art system—that is, the artist, dealer, curator, writer, collector, or technician—“Everyone gets art’ed out and exhausted and feels like they’ve just walked across ten miles of nonstop casino noise and bling. Everyone just wants to go back to the hotel and sleep and strip their brains of shininess. But instead they freshen up their look and go out for cocktails. And then they do it all over again the next day.”
There’s the parallel, stripping ourselves of shininess, staring at the wall of an anonymous hotel room in Miami, and streaming another form of spectacle straight from an editing room in Burbank, California. But I would like to ask: Does our system of aggregating examples?
Of this never-ending research that is supposed to help us write more interesting texts, to make more interesting work, when all it seems to do is tire us out completely. All the way to the point that I am watching Lisa Vanderpump and Kyle Richards as a form of spa treatment. Can this endless process of getting smarter and smarter, be dangerously homogenizing? Are we all just parroting one another? Have we all been to the same performance? We all hit the same sale, so that we’re all wearing the same shoes?
If our worth is measured by how many references we have at the ready, carefully curated by a small group of tastemakers with increasingly expensive educations, from where they drew said taste from some other tastemaker. Are we thus really much different than the current type of art collector? Clamoring over one another in the first hours of an art fair, hoping to be the prized buyer of the latest, fashionable painting, so that it can be ostentatiously hung over an ostentatious table.
What would a book fair made up entirely of Reality TV look like? Or an art book about Reality TV? Probably like botox. Can this “diverse critical culture” help shape a “diverse critical culture,” when instead, it seems like a new mainstream has been established? How can we deepen the inquiry? What is the writer supposed to be enacting? To destabilize the inherent institution, fetish status of an art book, a novel, a text and ask it to go beyond itself?
Or could the answer be found in the mode of distribution?
Think about John Knight’s Journal Series, begun in 1977. In this work, Knight reverses the dynamic of the “ranking,” to something more generous. Instead of assembling a list of titles that demonstrates Knight’s tastes, he selected one of these publications for specific individuals he knew professionally, or, who knows (I actually don’t know), people he had personal relationships with, and sent them a prepaid subscription in the mail. Later writing about Journal Series in his essay “Knight’s Move: Situating the Art/Object,” Benjamin Buchloh attests that “The subscriptions are imposed on these recipients without prior notifications, consultations, or consent, nor are they given an explanation of the overall purpose of the enterprise: Antique World was sent to one of the most important Pop artists; Unique Homes went to a Belgian collector; Soviet Life reached a contemporary critic.” Buchloh further points out that “these selections appear random at first,” but “they actually establish an ambiguous semblance of correspondence to the receiver’s presumed personal interests and identity.”
More to the point of taste, Buchloh writes “Knight’s Journals Series employs further strategies to invert the conventions of reception by replacing the act of individual choice and selection with a form of aesthetic octroi.” “Octroi”—an Old French term that I too had to look up—to grant or authorize.)
For Buchloh “by blurring the boundaries between choice and imposition [Knight] interferes with the aesthetic object’s supposedly distinct spheres of private and public,” so that “an unsolicited public mass cultural object intrudes into the private sphere.”
I wonder if our methods of distribution could be made more politically relevant by invoking Knight’s strategy, and assembling reading lists based on what we think the reader might want, instead of what we like. So that instead of assuming that our taste is a rubric by which good taste is measured, our role would instead be to engage with recipients. Maybe this is what the creators of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are doing. I suspect few of the show’s producers actually spend their spare time watching the spectacle they create because, really, it is not merely entertainment at all, but calculated product placements… a response to a demographic they know endlessly feeds off a shared fantasy.
Returning to Knight, we could follow his gesture all the way to the point that we do away with the idea of a physical archive. Instead we make the site of the library the readers’ homes.
However what of the object bind of the components of the Journal Series, now sitting in the homes of recipients? Buchloh explores this potential in asking if the magazines, now a pile of monthly or quarterly deliveries, should “be encased as art objects, and with their newly acquired value thus be protected from use.” (Such as we did with the Art Writing Library, arbitrarily deciding that these titles deserved to immortalization on a list and behind a glass vitrine.) Or, as Buchloh next suggests, “should the [Journal Series] magazines remain accessible for potential readers?” Because, Buchloh rightly asks “Where does their value reside: in the function that they can exert or in the aesthetic dimension that they have acquired, once properly exhibited?”
Because really, books are made to be read, to be used, to be a part of our lives. Spines are made to be bent, passages underlined. These ideas are meant to exist in the world. So how would we likewise rupture the sculptural status of art book.
To think that a library that would include art book titles—so, one that is likely associated to a University or well-funded private foundation—is outside of the enmeshing of a commercial art world with a view of education as transaction has become an increasingly complex fiction.
Maybe it’s the novel that I have been trying to write all this time.
In fact, my appreciation of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills will likely emanate from my novel’s pages like a sugary, drug store perfume. Maybe even a signature scent designed by one of the show’s stars. A relic that is for someone else, a symbol of the very highest taste
Mary Rinebold Copeland is a writer and art critic based in London and France.
Mary’s short story ‘Beige’ appeared in Hotel #2 (under the name Mary Margaret Rinebold).