“Crime and Perfectionism”

Posted: April 16, 2018 in Uncategorized

A post from the last time I taught this course.

A child is amoral. A Papuan too, for us. The Papuan slaughters his enemies and devours them. He is not a criminal. But if a modern person slaughters someone and devours him, he is a criminal or a degenerate. The Papuan covers his skin with tattoos, his boat, his oars, in short everything he can lay his hands on. He is no criminal. The modern person who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons in which eighty percent of the inmates have tattoos. People with tattoos not in prison are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats.

–Adolf Loos

A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards, as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.

–Ludwig Wittgenstein

TEACHER: Dear Student: OK, I’m even more on board with you than before with respect to these key issues. Especially after going to the Smithson Effect exhibition yesterday. In case you can’t tell, I am absolutely exasperated, indeed infuriated, by the way many critics, or what Krauss calls “Historicists,” feel compelled to read all artistic activity, and by extension all political action, in the most beaming terms. In discussions of the most virulently antinomian acts and objects, the same nauseating words come up again and again: Beauty, Inspiration, Achievement, Excellence, Progress, etc. It’s so obvious to me that Smithson and Krauss saw that kind of meliorism for the pure ideology it is, an ideology which, for all its claims of benevolence and good will, performs a very specific kind of violence against those it seeks to boost and cheer. It’s maddening. In strict defiance of this mania for the upbeat, Krauss and Smithson begin to explore the notion of formlessness and wretchedness, as deliberately anti-aesthetic and, if you will hear me, anti-political positions. They begin, in a word, to embrace the Ugly. Both artist and critic take a deliberate turn toward the outrage of art as Vandalism and Crime. This is exactly what a piece like Glue Spill is all about – I don’t care what anyone else may say. If the great modernist architect Adolf Loos sought to establish modern Art and Cultural as the diametrical opposite of of Crime, then Krauss and Smithson have tried to undo Loos’s work, arguing in their respective theory and practice that Art and Crime are indissolubly linked, veritable cradlemates. Consequently, the two great artists of the ’60s and ’70s, for Krauss, will be Robert Smithson and Sherrie Levine, one a savage and the other a pirate.

Jean Dubuffet
Body, 1950
oil, soot and dirt on canvas

  1. Nat says:

    This definitely makes me think of punk after seeing SLC Punk! again last night. By incorporating so much crime and chaos into their lifestyles, punk becomes as much a rebellious form of performance art as it is music. And then as time goes on, even academics who appreciate that, can’t help but defuse the caustic aspect of those movements in the act of studying them. I think that’s a big point that Hickey is getting at in Air Guitar.

    • It’s hard to teach rebellion without turning each movement into just another historical period. I do my best to keep my subject matter raw and unfriendly to textbooks. But almost inevitably everything in the college curriculum turns into some expert’s property, as Dave Hickey puts it. In Don DeLillo’s bitter academic satire White Noise (so much in one title), even Hitler turns into “Professor Jack Gladney’s Hitler”. Now that Kendrick Lamar has won a Pulitzer prize, he’s certainly shortly to become “Professor Norris White’s Lamar”. If I can learn anything from Hickey, it might be to acknowledge and respect criticism for what it inevitably does, but to continue to keep teaching theory like the cherry bomb it is. While the former may be inevitable, the latter is absolutely necessary.

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