BY David Deitcher in Frieze | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

Death And The Marketplace

Art and Mortality

BY David Deitcher in Frieze | 06 SEP 96

Death casts a long shadow these days over life, and therefore over art. In museums and galleries, in concert halls and theatres, in performance spaces and movie houses, even while reading quietly at home, there are so many cultural occasions that bring mortality to mind. Artists need not deal directly or even obliquely in their work with death, sickness or loss for the spectator to end up thinking about these things. They need only die young, or have rumours circulate about the state of their health, for the uneasiness, the silence and solemnity to set in.

So much sadness can also cause confusion and anger. Only recently have I begun to make sense of the misgivings that for some time now have overtaken me when encountering death in the marketplace for art. As a sympathetic critic, I'm inclined to look closely at art that addresses these things in order to understand the response such works generate in me. Perhaps that's how I temporarily lost sight of an elementary axiom of cultural production: that meaning is constructed relationally, within broader framing contexts. Keeping this maxim in mind helps reveal the extent to which ambivalence about this culture of public mourning remains contingent upon certain aspects of the cultural economy in which it proliferates.

For like the larger market economy of which it is a part, the cultural economy shapes, and in many ways disfigures, us and the art we create and interact with as we try to make sense of the lives that we lead. Reflecting critically upon the economic and discursive frame does not absolve cultural practitioners from ultimate responsibility for the creative decisions that each of us make. But as AIDS continues to cut its terrible swath, claiming more than one generation of artists among its many victims, the market culture is advancing a parallel incursion into this tragedy, and morbid symptoms abound.


Knowing that someone is HIV-positive, or has AIDS or cancer, can distort the way I see an artist's work. I'll scrutinise even the most abstract object for something that may not even be there. This morbid curiosity suggests potential difficulties in evaluating art that actually manifests such personal struggles. Little more than a year ago, New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce described having such troubles in relation to the choreographer Bill T. Jones and his dance performance, Still/Here. 'By putting dying people into his act,' she carped, 'Jones [put] himself beyond the reach of criticism'. Croce insisted she could not review an artist she felt 'sorry for or hopeless about'; could not 'put asunder' the 'cosy complicity' between artist and audience that results, she claimed, from such situations. In this way Croce justified her decision not to attend Still/Here, though this reticence did not prevent her from using that work as the pretext for an attack, in which Jones' career figured prominently, in her account of the precipitous 30-year decline of American dance.

The contradictory results of Croce's strategy were far more interesting than the revelation of her reactionary cultural politics and raging turns of phrase. (Throughout, Croce baited liberal readers with the deliberately inflammatory designation 'victim art'.) Her essay added to the voluminous publicity surrounding Jones' work, while being unable - as a polemical non-review - to stem the tide of praise. More than anything else, Jones' multi-media extravaganza needed the kind of formal critique at which Croce has proven so deft on other occasions, since Still/Here seemed to me (though not to most of the other members of the audience) embarrassingly literal, unimaginative and clichéd. In this context, Croce's tantrum seemed only the most spectacular manifestation of the widespread failure of critics, on the left as well as the right, to interrogate works in which the attempt to deal with personal tragedy or social injustice offers no guarantee of artistic merit.


These days, few practitioners seem capable of creating dance performances that go beyond received ideas and the kind of unexamined self-revelation that actually inhibits human connection. Among the exceptions was Neil Greenberg's Not-About-AIDS-Dance which I recently watched on videotape. Staged at The Kitchen in 1994, Greenberg and his ensemble performed a sequence of short dances, old and new, newly combined. From time to time, brief statements by Greenberg were silently projected onto the rear wall behind the dancers adding contextual details about the circumstances in which the dances were composed and about the individuals performing them. These comments ranged from the purely anecdotal ('Jo is from Australia'; 'Christopher will now perform his solo from Branches, Swords, Flowers, Spears, Ribbons') to the frankly shattering. In one slide Greenberg revealed that he is himself HIV-positive. In a later sequence, he reported the deaths during one summer and fall of Greenberg's brother, Jon, and of friends and colleagues Ed Hartmann, John Falabella, Richard Wolcott, David Hagen and Donald Greenhill. Throughout, the dancers continued their largely abstract patterns and combinations.

At first, I attempted to equate these dances and their fragmentary hints of drama with the grim circumstances the slides described. Yet, as a rule, they remained stubbornly resistant - related to those contexts by circumstance and juxtaposition alone, precisely as they did in relation to the contingencies of their immediate performance that night. More anecdotes, then still more names of the dead: Danny Jacobs, Ron Vawter. The effect, on the one hand, was to underscore the inexorable, yet episodic, terrorism of the AIDS epidemic within communities like Greenberg's. On the other hand, Greenberg's juxtaposition of dance and contextualising information effectively cast the notion of 'victim art' in doubt. Setting aside the debatable question of whether or not such information elicits the audience's sympathy, its situation in this work served to bracket AIDS and art - from each other. It was, then, Not-an-AIDS-Dance, in precisely the same sense that any work of art that is created in the age of AIDS can be both permeable and impermeable to the effects of the epidemic.

These days, artists don't have to be infected or ill for aesthetic predicaments to arise. If they exhibit work that they have dedicated to someone else who is ill or who has died, then conflicted thoughts and feelings crowd the viewer's mind. Does the work embody a profound engagement with the individual to whom it is dedicated? Does it depart in any significant way from whatever the artist would otherwise be doing? To what extent does the dedication bathe the artist in a righteous, narcissistic, glow as he or she grapples with loss?

Not too long ago, Julian Schnabel exhibited a series of very large paintings dedicated to his studio assistant, Paolo Malfi. Expressionistic renderings of 'Adieu,' or 'Il Conversion di San Paolo Malfi,' served as the most prominent element - sometimes the only discernable element - in these otherwise abstract works. Turning grief into his motif, Schnabel made it impossible for the viewer to determine whether the untimely death of his friend in a motorcycle mishap in Rome was the tragic inspiration or the clincher the artist needed to lend a note of gravity to these sunny decorations. Admittedly Schnabel has always been an easy target, but his exhibition at New York's PaceWildenstein warrants mention here because it revealed with such stunning clarity the predisposition of the market economy to embrace death and (some of) those who grapple with it. In a similar vein, how else but in relation to the market's opportunistic hunger for meaning and authenticity is one supposed to understand the recent group exhibition at the same city's Edward Thorpe Gallery devoted to the grisly topic 'Epitaphs,' the title primly spelled out in morbid Gothic typeface at the dead centre of the engraved announcement?

But sometimes the apprehension that swirls around an artist's decision to dedicate a work can be dispelled. Before I noticed that Jim Hodges had dedicated his November exhibition to Felix Gonzalez-Torres (who would die of AIDS-related complications less than two months later), one of the two works in his show demonstrated the intensity of his engagement. The dedication itself was easy enough to overlook, since it was discreetly tucked away at the end of a modest artist's booklet that accompanied the show. Given adequate familiarity with Gonzalez-Torres' art, anyone could have understood Hodges' Already Here - Already There (1995) as a homage to his friend. It was as if this handsewn, floor-to-ceiling web of white fabric flowers was inhabited by Gonzalez-Torres' own works. In addition to the fact that its title recalled the text from one of Felix's more lyrical paper stacks ('Somewhere better than this place. Nowhere better than this place.'), the form and spatial effects of Hodges' sculpture recalled Gonzalez-Torres' cascade of strings of light called Untitled (North) (1993). This virtual possession of Hodges' work by his friend's can partially be grasped in terms of conventional artistic influence. But it also helps to tie it to the psychoanalytic concept of introjection - the imaginary taking-into-oneself of the desired object, which functions in grieving to assist the mourner in managing the finality of separation and loss.

Sometimes even the most heartfelt attempts to strike the right balance of despair and anger in publicly marking the loss of a beloved friend ends up inappropriately spotlighting the artist. Sometimes this happens as a result of the star system that operates in even the most undercapitalised sectors of the cultural economy. Given a high degree of visibility, an artist's public expression of grief and rage may seem at once credible and moving - and yet not unlike playing to the public. This is how I came to understand the conflict that clouded my otherwise appreciative reading of a text by Zoe Leonard, which was published in the inaugural issue of the queer arts journal XXX-Fruit. The decision to print Leonard's writing as a facsimile of her hand-written diary resulted in the creation of a fetishised text. As such, it foregrounded the presence of the (absent) artist as she recounts her ordeal. I can understand this editorial decision as consistent with the appeal of Leonard's art, which, centred as it is on the ephemeral traces of her itinerant desire, is focused as much on Leonard herself as on the objects of her attention. I can even understand how reproducing her hand-written pages might intensify her emotional message for some readers. But for me it proved distracting, even narcissistic. Whether or not an artist is predisposed to narcissism - an ego construction from which I claim no exemption - is of less interest to me, however, than the way public mourning plays within its powerful framing context.


In today's market culture, death is prized, like genius. In fact, the two can be closely related, the operable rule being: the sooner the better. As artists die young, they are positioned strategically within a narrative trajectory that can lead to the construction of mythic, and highly marketable, genius. The appeal of the short-lived genius is deeply rooted in Western culture. For behind the pop spectacle of today's flaming youth there stand the more picaresque denizens of Bohemias past; and, beyond them, historically remote Romantics along the lines of Lord Byron and Géricault. This mythology now haunts the burgeoning cottage industry in posthumous exhibitions, such as those devoted to the works of Mark Morrisroe, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1989. For many reasons, these exhibitions have not only been occasions for viewing or reviewing the legacy of a gifted artist who was deprived of the chance to develop more fully. They have also been fraught with doubts about the institutionalised hunger for brilliant youth, about promotion and profiting from the dead. Morrisroe appears to have been a resourceful artist and self-inventor; a not uncharismatic, queer adherent of Andy Warhol. In the context of current efforts to elevate Morrisroe to the status of a cult figure, one cannot say - at least not precisely - that his death was untimely. Pre-eminent among these efforts was that of the Boston ICA which has recently situated Morrisroe at the epicentre of what its curators and commissioned authors have constructed (in another well-worn, art-historical marketing groove) as the 'Boston School'.

But is there any viable alternative to such posthumous business? Avoiding the appearance of impropriety or the reality of motives that, in any event, are always impure is simply not reason enough to consign Morrisroe and other artists to historical oblivion. In this context, the work of the Archive Project, which was initiated in 1994 to record, and occasionally to exhibit, the works of artists with HIV and AIDS, is having a tonic effect. Since it is the Archive Project's mission to document works by all such artists - regardless of their perceived talent - one of its auxiliary consequences has been the introduction of a much needed counternarrative into the contemporary discourse on art and AIDS. There is reason to believe, however, that the meaning of this particular counternarrative may escape most art-world institutions (at times, even the Archive Project itself), which, after all, have been constructed to assist in genius' discovery, installation and maintenance. For the more the Archive Project succeeds in its stated mission of documenting a tragedy that the project's administrators have always understood to be social as well as cultural, the less it assists in the elevation and marketing of genius.


These were not the kind of issues that I remember from the heated discussions that used to take place about the relationship between art and AIDS. From the formation of ACT UP (New York) in 1987 through its peak of creative activity in 1989-90, AIDS activists had argued that, in the midst of this highly political health crisis, the only art that could possibly matter was political art of the kind that was then being created collectively within the crucible of ACT UP. Gallery art that addressed AIDS, death and loss, art that relied upon the more private resources of individual reflection, art that memorialised, that lamented, that described pain rather than promising empowerment, all these were considered ill-affordable luxuries. It only made matters worse - or so this argument went - that such art about AIDS could supply liberal viewers with the effortless 'out' of distanced empathy. As a member of ACT UP, who also happened to value some of this art, I was never comfortable with this polemic. Then, during the spring of 1989, I saw art that undermined the terms in which it was cast. It was, after all, in a commercial gallery that I saw David Wojnarowicz' art which was simultaneously angry and poetic, politically astute and mournful. And it was in public, on a billboard high above Greenwich Village's Sheridan Square that I saw art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres that enhanced the gay pedestrian's sense of self-worth and community identity by promoting historical reflection in a way that was as introspective as it was intimate. Seeing such work led me to enter into the debate about art and AIDS, in which I argued for the necessity of dismantling boundaries that some activists were reinforcing out of an anger that I shared: boundaries between the private and the public, the personal and the political, boundaries, in short, between (what Douglas Crimp in an important later essay would call) 'mourning and militancy'. Even in museums and galleries, I thought, art could help to illuminate the political and personal dimensions of the AIDS crisis, and contribute to a culture of shared experience that might, in however modest a way, help individuals contend with the enormity of the losses they were suffering.

Since then, the context that framed that debate and gave rise to its attendant activist culture has changed. Well into the second decade of the AIDS epidemic, survivors are understandably discouraged and burned out. ACT UP still exists, but only as a vestige of its former self. Loss of life within the coalition has been staggering. So has loss of hope. No longer is ACT UP the galvanising, nationwide network of more-and-less articulate, angry and creative individuals it once was. Gone are the large demonstrations and the attention-grabbing 'actions.' As for the lucid, empowering graphics that accompanied demonstrations, they could most recently be found gracing the walls in historical exhibitions such as Exit Art's 'Counterculture', and the Drawing Center's 'Cultural Economies'.

To be sure, activism continues, but in different and less visible ways. Former and current members of ACT UP are working in ad hoc or community-based organisations that might look after the needs of the sick; contend with the problems that confront lesbian and gay youth; resist the takeover of public school systems by reactionary zealots; or work to develop new strategies of dealing with the continuously unfolding crisis in HIV prevention. Others, more expert in biomedical matters, now participate within mainstream national efforts to find a cure, and, lacking that, to discover better ways of managing HIV and its debilitating effects.

Recently, some members of the AIDS-activist artists' collective, Gran Fury, issued a statement in which they reflected upon these circumstances and noted, among other things, that 'the images which have endured through the AIDS crisis are not ones of activism. Rather, they are symbols of remembrance and reprieve: quilts, ribbons and angels'. Appropriate symbols, they conceded, for the acceptance of AIDS as an epidemic with no end in sight; but not a political response to the continuing health crisis that, whatever else it has become, is still rife with political significance.

While Gran Fury's list of quilts, ribbons and angels hardly exhausts the inventory of recent cultural responses to AIDS, their essential observation rings true. There is indeed a cultural tendency these days to respond to AIDS in commemorative, memorialising and sometimes abstract ways. In part, this is the justifiable result of a transition from the early, simultaneously angry and more hopeful, period of AIDS activism. Given the current circumstances, it is as necessary that some cultural responses acknowledge the sorrow that permeates so much of contemporary experience as it is that others express outrage or try to find answers to social, political and personal questions which in some cases seem intractable, and in other cases truly are. Contributing, as well, to this melancholic cultural situation is the structural predisposition within the mainstream cultural economy to the timeless and universal, and, in that sense, to the abstract cultural utterance.

Recently, a friend reminded me of a published discussion in which this issue was revealingly explored. Staged in conjunction with a Rudolf Baranik exhibition at Ohio State University in January 1987, the debate included Baranik, show organiser Jonathan Green, critic Lucy Lippard and curator Bill Olander. Together, they paid special attention to Baranik's series of paintings known collectively as the Napalm Elegies. Olander introduced a note of respectful dissent to the proceedings by speaking about some problems that he identified with the tendency to universalise death in art until it becomes 'the idea of death'. Even with the best of humanising intentions, to universalise death is to level experience - like the evening news, Olander added, it 'make[s] all deaths the same death'. There is a difference, he insisted, 'between the death of a Vietnamese child at the hands of American servicemen and the death of a child in its mother's arms in the warmth of a home, surrounded by family'. As artists strive to shape something timeless and universal out of pain, suffering and death, victims can be robbed, Olander noted, 'of historical specificity'. The problem, he concluded, is politics - not '"correct" politics', he said, but 'engaged politics'. What Bill did not say, but which as a gay man with AIDS he surely also meant, was that art's tendency to universalise death also naturalises it, and that this naturalisation can rob deaths that really are political of their political meaning.


But then, one might ask, isn't specificity, rather than abstraction, precisely what one finds in the diaristic photographs of such artists as Mark Morrisroe and Nan Goldin? Well, yes and no. To many contemporary spectators, death is just one aspect of the milieu that these artists have pictured - the implied result of lives that the powerful still like to moralise about. And the more famous Goldin's photographs become, the more unnerving the part played in them - directly and indirectly - by death. A recent press release announcing the forthcoming Goldin retrospective at the Whitney Museum quotes curator Elizabeth Sussman on the subject of the photographer's 'unflinching emotional attachment to her subjects'. She also credits Goldin with endowing her sitters and their milieu 'with a certain glamour and dignity'. Sussman contrasts this quality with 'the photographers of the postwar New York School' who, she claims, pictured 'a seedy kind of Bohemia'. And indeed, Bohemian glamour (though not always dignity) is certainly evident in the honeyed or fuschia light that so often illuminates Goldin's sitters.

I remember when I first saw Goldin's pictures how troubled I was by that seductive light and its role in the sympathetic, even complicitous relationship that Goldin so evidently maintained with her subjects. Over a decade ago, the pictures were modestly scaled and barely framed; or they appeared as projections in musically-accompanied slide presentations of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986). Even then, at a time when the milieu Goldin represented was very much a happening scene, her pictures seemed possessed not just by glamour but by nostalgia - nostalgia for the just barely past and the still present. Now that so many of the individuals Goldin pictured have passed away, it is upsetting to see their images recycled as large-scale cibachromes or, even worse, clustered together as composites within a single frame where they coalesce into sexy, brutal and/or tragic narratives for a market that is now so hot for her work.

Critic Peter Schjeldahl recently asserted (in relation to a Morrisroe exhibition) that Bohemia is a hopelessly outmoded concept. I think not. In light of Morrisroe's posthumous elevation, and of Goldin's ongoing apotheosis, it is evident that Bohemia still functions as an indispensable trope, helping the market culture to sell its wares. And within that stereotypically colourful and incendiary romance, death still plays a part - establishing the ultimate in tragic realness. In the most recent New York exhibition of Morrisroe's photographs, a statement about the artist was framed and hung on the wall where it served as both introduction and endorsement. The author of the statement, Nan Goldin, began it with one staple of the contemporary Bohemian: 'Mark was an outlaw on every front - sexually, socially and artistically'. She ended her statement with another: 'The work Mark left behind when he died at 30 leaves one to only imagine how far his work would have developed if we hadn't lost him at such an early age'. Written, no doubt, in love and loss, the ability of Goldin's text to function promotionally depends not just on the popular respect for Goldin and her work, but on the fact that, as written, her statement clinches Morrisroe's credentials as the tragic punk-Bohemian of the 'Boston School'.

Does this mean that Bohemia has also become culturally untouchable? Not quite. I recently read Sarah Schulman's novel, Rat Bohemia (1995), and found it in some ways to be an astringent relief from the glamourising effects of even the most gifted diaristic photographers. In her novel, the only romantic trope inheres in the rats of the title who together figure as a clunky metaphor for the young queer women and men who are Schulman's protagonists. Like the resilient rodents, whose annihilation is so persistently and vainly sought by the city, Schulman's protagonists would not be missed by the mainstream society of their parents and siblings should they all just up and die. At its best, Rat Bohemia describes relationships with a kind of expressive detail and distillation that facilitates a sense of connection:

David sat there and told me his most private thoughts about his death. While he was talking, I did exactly what I'd done forty times before which is to very matter-of-factly refuse to pretend that he's not going to die. In the meantime, what I had to say paled in comparison to his experiences but I'm the one who's gonna be left behind. Doesn't that have a meaning too?

One does not have to have lived through a situation like this to recognise truth in the narrator's simultaneously guilty, frustrated, sorrowful and angry stalemate with her dying friend. Perhaps this is what 'transcendence' can mean in art today: the ability to distil your reality and to make it available to others; and to move in that sense from sharply observed specificities to the generality of a broader comprehension.

Art may be politically powerless compared with, say, the telecommunications industry. But art does have the potential to form a connective tissue between the living and the dead so that those who grieve can also proceed with living in full recognition of all that we have lost. In this sense above all, art can console. Art can also help to promote change as artists give shape to the details of diverse experiences, making difference no less challenging but perhaps a little less menacing. For these and other reasons, it becomes that much more important, in the shadow of AIDS, to maintain critical consciousness about art that testifies to contemporary struggles with sickness, death and loss. Contrary to what some have said, there is no conflict between being humane and being critical of all aspects of the culture we inhabit. In times of crisis, such as ours, being critical isn't just possible, it's a moral responsibility. The problems arise, I suppose, in dishonesty. For example, in mistaking an empathetic failure of nerve with community solidarity or real support; or in failing to recognise when a critique is less constructive than competitive - when, that is, the principal goal is to annihilate prospective competitors amidst ever dwindling resources. While each of us is haunted by conflicts from primordial pasts that fuel criticism, be it of the constructive or annihilating kind, it may also help to keep in mind the disfiguring effects of the market economy as it encourages cultural practitioners to equate success with profit, and profit with exploitation not just of the living, but of the dead.