- A Photograph by Daniel Peebles
There are many headshots in the history of art from the straight on genre of portraiture that commemorates the head shot (or upper body) against a landscape or later gray or brush stroke declared painted background to Roy Leitchenstein Girl Drowning where only the head of the girl is seen against watery background saying she would rather drown then be saved by Brad to Chagall’s early twentieth century 1913 The Lovers, where the male lover painted blue has literally lost his head over his beloved. Then there is the virtual head shot of the beheading recently popularized when the British students rioting over tuition found by chance Prince Charles and his wife Camilla headed through their riot and proudly yelled, “Off with their heads.” Shouting for the removal of the head (as lots of revolutionaries love to do) is about something. If as the University of Pennsylvania exhibit claims (and Seinfeld bastardized for television) that modern art is essentially about “nothing”, while I have always thought there are very distinct different kinds of nothing, the Peebles photograph Sonnet is about something.
After 9/11 a pathologist in the New York city morgue wrote an article about why he had resigned his position. The doctor was haunted by the beheadings done by Muslims he had seen on the internet. The doctor imagined over and over day and night what it must feel like to have a knife sawing off your head, especially since the procedure was never performed quickly in one fell swoop. Like the kitten thrown into the oven to roast, suffer, and die, the doctor could not get the beheadings out of his head. Why would a doctor who routinely performs autopsies be brought to the point of emotional paralysis by a beheading. There is nothing insincere or ironic about a beheading.
In a time where postmodernism is both radically political and housed in the most staid of institutions, the American university, what is of interest about the Peebles photograph is what it is not. Contemporary or postmodern art is celebrated as a series of ironic typos on art history. When happy most break into song, art critic Jerry Saltz breaks into overtures of adjectives. Saltz in one paragraph described Gerhard Richter as “majestic, haunting, voluptuous, vulnerable… despite deathly coldness…complex, supple, and subtle…inscrutability, surprise, strangeness, and awe…flecked, blazing paint. Richter is an important painter and doesn’t deserve this American Idol treatment.
Jerry Stalz writes approvingly of Jeff Koons:
Saltz’s comments remind me that what is described on television as the gritty realism of television ( Hill Street Blues, Southland, The Closer) look the most stylized and out of date later on. The closer the correspondence to contemporary reality is alleged the farther away the work moves from reality and into historically trapped style over time. What if important contemporary art is not always an illustration of Simon & Garfunkel’s LOOKING FOR AMERICA as Acaemistas always suppose. As Saltz’s comments illustrate, irony produces critical adjective hysteria, a kind of anomia of the mind, a politicized social embarrassment, whereby a knowledge of objects is replaced by social hallucination about what America is suppose to be and what it never achieves.
What makes Chandler’s Philip Marlowe different is money is not the motivating factor. “What do you want from me, Marlowe?” “If you mean how much money, nothing. I didn’t ask myself here.” In Chandler the authorities, whether doctor, journalist or police, have the stink of corruption. Corruption and conformity are one in the same. When Chandler wrote art was an antidote to the prevailing corruption. In the prevailing current situation, capitalism is still corrupt, art criticism is the antidote. This makes for an ironic situation where artists conform to critics where this intimate relationship starts with artists as college students and critics as professors.
What was learned about the Hells Angels by the ATF agent who infiltrated their herd was what can be seen anytime on the streets of New York city -- that the outlaws were conformists and expected conformity just as fashion demands conformity, all of the stylish women are wearing the same style of boots, in the interest of being special. A certain manner of behavior was prescribed and thus possible to imitate by ATF agents. The practice of contemporary art is also the herd mentality. Conformity in art has become the following injunctions:
In other words, our contemporary artists are like the way Kenneth Fearing described a group of businessman in 1946, “imitation cynics, disappointed sentimentalists, and frustrated conspirators.” Our artists who claim no distinction between art and life make some of the most sequestered art ever invented.
Irony is pervasion like pornography, and, as the Supreme Court ruled about pornography, irony is not always definable but “you” know it when you encounter it. Stan Brakhage liked to say that the poet Charles Olson didn’t like irony because he never understood the “iron” in it. In the late seventies, before irony took over, Fred Worden, who transported art for a living in NYC, told me the battle was on in New York art imagery between “sincerity” and “insincerity”. About the same time, Stan Brakhage, just as he had earlier in subliminal response to Roland Barthes and other postmodernists called an abstract light work The Text of Light made a paired series of autobiographical work called Sincerity and Duplicity. A simple definition of irony would be he literal and intended meanings are at cross-purposes. All of the conformist injunctions listed above circulate around a sense of irony.
Saltz practices critical irony without knowing it. Peter Plagens wonders if art students imitating Jeff Koons even understand their gestures and art are ironic.
Bad painting would be bringing back those elements of painting currently repressed or seen as bad because those elements were previously unseen or viewed as unimportant.. Martin Kippinberger is self-consciously bad. His badness plays to the audience. He is like a female porno star pretending. Can we then say that the female porno star questions the notion of authenticity.
What if an artist like Peebles doesn’t buy into this tradition finding it the academic equivalent of taking something out of your closet, putting it on the wall, and calling it art? What if philosopher Jerry Fodor is right that holism is wrong? What if that combination of Dear Abby and Mr. Natural of the nineteenth century Emerson was right about distinctions? What if, contrary to postmodernist posturing, the stocks I bought and sold during lunch and the science fiction movie I saw afterwards is a different order of experience than art? What if the presently inconceivable is possible that even Peter Plagens is a more interesting artist than Jeff Koons. Who will end up in the Guggenheim “2000 Show” in 2100?
Artists are in an arms race to be first. Being first gets you points. Those points get taken away if the work limps badly thirty years later. More points are added if the work that was first stays strong. What about work that is not first but has interest? Art is the movement from the inconceivable to the habitual. A medium might be the message but a medium is not an art (think radio) and the artistic first use of a medium or mediumistic context is a footnote to that medium unless the art does not suffer from an attachment disorder.
The “Pictures Generation” (Peebles’ generation) exhibition at the Met in 2009 recasting a movement from 1974 to 1984 is a sleepy affair that gathers together art that famously used appropriation, photography and the media as new ground turning the historical tide that never seems to quite close the deal. Art world “facts” quickly become fictions when even older historical “facts” are disregarded as this exhibition does. Most of the artists selected are collage extended and no more. They did take photography seriously in a different way than others, but their attitude about America was as hippie counter alternative culture cliqued as the Sears catalogue was the glowing opposite view of America, and their primary theme that it wasn’t about the individual but the over-riding culture code was stated better by Yeats “who can tell the dancer from the dance.” Was Sherrie Levine doing anything more than illustrating Roland Barthes theories about “cultural codes”?
While politicized beheading could be an ironic postmodernist installation with political overtones and fake blood, Dan Peebles appears to use photography without irony. It is not clear in Dan Peebles’ photograph if he is caressing the woman’s head or has ripped it off. If the head is ripped off, it does not appear to be for any discernable political reason, it is just something that has happened in daily life, the triumph of the vernacular. The determinative Narcissism of the man in the photograph could be “our time and our America” or any time and any place. There is no remorse in this photograph and that lack is neither political nor apolitical.
From Brakhage’s “ The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes” (1973) revealing the hidden reality of autopsy to CSI and Dexter virtual splatter has become commonplace. In fact, Dexter is so ironically a serial killer who has a day job with the police as a blood splatter analysis (and he is very good at his job.) Peebles photograph is a body piece without any actual fluids ala Kiki Smith or Janine Antoni or Victor Aconti. It is the moment before the bodily fluids begin to gush. Peebles has accomplished the postmodern project of restoring the body to the eye without either indulging in slasher porn or postmodern irony. Isn’t the old-fashioned definition of photography about the frozen moment? This is the frozen moment before the fluids gush. Peebles has accomplished the postmodern project without the postmodern ideology. It is an unusually important image.
Marriage has been described as the fighting by two people over resources that are not sufficient to sustain even one. Monogamy has been described as marriage’s foundation. There is monogamy in Peebles' photograph and a closeness. Needs are met and neither party will be betraying their commitment to the other. It is the disease of our age that we find irony and insincerity everywhere like a cat who believes every doorbell ring to be a death threat by a paid pussy assassin. With the photograph, what is expected to be ironic is not. The passion of the monogamy is not ironic and it is also sincere. The artist believes in his image, which does not necessarily make the art object a first person declaration.
At an avant-garde film presentation, a male undergraduate student, who had been dunked in the postmodernist goo by his teachers, proudly snottily told the visiting filmmaker that “all forms have a history”, i.e. even geometric forms are socially constructed have a genealogy are not “pure form”. “What’s the history of your form,” the kid demanded. Foucault would have been proud enough to want to screw the kid. This all sounds wonderfully postmodern and hip. First, even a political leftist like Lakoff spent his linguistic career showing before categories were socially constructed, the architecture of the body and mental wiring put constraints on how meaning is constructed. Hot and cold colors are recognized cross-culturally. If an artist uses red predominantly in a painting the hotness of the red could be recognized cross-culturally. Even more important, if an artist repeats a circle pattern in his painting there is a history revealed. The circles related to the history of every other artist who has used circles in their paintings. To talk of socially constructed use of form “genealogy” is an academic way to recast the formalistic history of art where contemporary artists are aware of what other artists have made in form like the painted small colored circle (“dots”) from Kandinsky to Damien Hirst.
Put another way, great art, important art, has neither too many nor too few ancestors. Too many ancestors and the contemporary work is too derivative, too few ancestors and the work is too lame to invoke the past. The derivation is so watered down the contemporary work just seems a stew with everything in it, everything being a form of tasteless nothing. Jerry Salz claims every painting is a critique of and related to every other painting ever made. That is true to the point of how the painting before you is aware of which paintings which were done before.
In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, the Merrill Streep character insists fashion is inescapable because what we wear is socially constructed from the history of fashion. Streep does this by telling the Ann Hathaway character the blue sweater she is wearing to escape fashion implicates her in fashion and that damn blue sweater has a genealogy. Good art doesn’t come like fashion off the rack. Peebles photograph has a history right through Robert Creeley’s The Warning in For Love,
For love –I would / split open your head and put / a candle in / behind the eyes.
the more idiosyncratic works of Minimalism, Maya Deren and filmic psycho-drama, Raymond Chandler and noir, back to Surrealism (although Peebles photographic is better than surrealism which began which began with the limited imagination of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table), Crime and Punishment and to the Christian painters. Ironically, although Peebles echoing Emerson justifies beheading as a crime of passion, his moral world is more translucent than Koons. Koons helps create “the moral confusion amidst which is he is glorified” (Algis Valiunas on Norman Mailer.)
The image is minimal and direct, as in a specific kind of set, there is a man and a woman, day and night light sources and some furniture in shadows. The problem with pithy social constructivist sayings about social reality like who can know the dancer from the dance (perhaps mystic for Yeats) or I do not write I am written, is social reality upends the statement just as changes in the “real” alienate the current gritty media realism of the time from the real. Alvin Alley’s dance Revelation is tight, built to often blur the distinction between the dancer and the dance in the first section. With the inclusion of white dancers, the white dancer stands out from the dance. This a major flaw in Alley. Photography, like dance, was an art before it was invented and has rarely been since. If one doesn’t go to the cardiologist expecting a discussion of podiatry, this photograph is one instance of finding art that stays art. Peebles’ photograph is not so fashionable so it is doubtful it will go out of style and become unfashionable.
The Postmodernists and Academics would dismiss Peebles photograph as subjective Whim. The photographic doesn’t claim tenuous identity or place numbers on a photograph that refer to footnotes below the photograph ala Roni Horn is not part of multi-media like Matthew Barney and, isn’t built from detritus of New York city like Jennifer Williams, doesn’t use collage with oil painting to question gender roles like Susan Bee Bernstein, Peebles doesn’t try to Pop the weasel like Julian Opie, doesn’t repeat the same thing like Katharina Fritsch and doesn’t use celebrity culture as a trampoline like Elizabeth Peyton. The Peebles’ photograph is a dramatic metric with limited props. Other contemporary art stays warm, safe, and waves and winks.
I love repetition in art and the repetition of Warhol and Minimalism. I tried to very unsuccessfully discuss Sol LeWitt’s repeating with the Gertrude Stein repeating loving Brakhage back in the seventies. When later Paul Arthur trashed my essay “New York Cut the Crap” because he I thought I couldn’t see Minimalism for my love of subjective indulgence (even though I quoted Mel Bochner on what made a subject for art.) it was clearer to me that the ontology of repetition was not understood. Just as Koons doesn’t understand real kitsch, which is encasing a napkin in saran wrap from the restaurant where you celebrated after your grandson graduated from Harvard, and pinning that embalmed icon to your apartment wall, repeating the same thing one hundred times doesn’t necessarily get into the ontology of repetition. Katharina Fritsch repeats to be creepy as if repeating a rat or a poodle many times makes the subject creepy. The operative assumption is that after Warhol repeating is a postmodern merit badge as if postmodern digital culture is more repetitive than industrial manufacturing culture. Peebles photograph doesn’t try like Fritsch to be creepy, it just is creepy. Before the random artist repeats to be creepy that artist needs to understand if the single utterance is creeper than the repetition. Peebles’ photograph is creepy because it is self-contained and resists variation and repetition.
Artist like Opie or Fritsch are really didactic educators trying to fix our false consciousness. Part of that false consciousness being treated these days is to believe that art can really count. On his merchant site julianopieshop.com it is written:
All of the objects for sale, from postcards and badges through to wall vinyl’s,
reflect his ambition to break down the barriers between what is deemed to be
‘fine art’ and ‘everyday’…not only the imagery that is important to him, but
also the way things are presented and packaged.
Peeble’s photograph is creepy because, following Emerson in “Experience”, the beheading is depicted very normal and so very vernacular. The photographer and the man in the photograph are the same. Knowing that is no more external than it helps when encountering poetry to know that words can rhyme. The photographer thinks his photograph counts for something. Thus, the photographer uses the man in the photograph to perform the beheading. Arthur Danto pegs the strongest contemporary art trend as breaking down the distinction between art and living. Peebles does a good of making the beheading live as a real world event without resorting to special effects.
Time is frozen but the drama before and the drama to come is clear. The content nor the technique are new but the reshuffling of the content and the technique make something viable and new. Peebles has achieved a style within the vernacular without it becoming the stylization of vernacular culture. Brian O’Doherty thought the vernacular was what you got walking down the street in New York or with Robert Rauschenberg. Peebles is the vernacular of violence in relationship. The power of the photograph probably comes from the interaction of the subject, the five elements, man, woman, daylight, night (the light is on and it is dark inside), and place. Peebles builds his photograph out of the most basic set of elements possible, nothing is extraneous and nothing is missing. In addition, he has no ambition to educate us.
Why is LaBraun James three-point shot from mid-court with no time left, an action as body oriented dramatic and graceful as anything in Alvin Ailey or Paul Taylor not also art? One suggestion was because it was not repeatable, but there are dances scored so that parts of the dance are never the same twice. Why is long-haul trucking not an art? It relies on the relationship between body and machine and pushes the mind into sleep-deprived drug induced altered state. The answer is no historical aesthetic ancestors are awakened by these activities. To paraphrase Emerson, substituting art for man every art work is a quotation from all it’s ancestors. Why is a surgeon who uses the body as his primary medium in a way that an artist -- even a body based performance artist never -- could not an artist? When a surgeon operates a different set of ancestors rises up. It is what Frederick Crews calls a “discipline” and disciplines have various different concerns and boundaries A poet could write a poem about LaBraun James but basketball would be content not ontology. The “artist” who had multiple plastic surgeries performed upon herself and then displayed photographs of the procedures and some of the cellular results as art is using what was done in another discipline by a surgeon just like the poet writing about LeBraun James. In theory, art can be anything from the cosmic to the “snail’s trail in the moonlight” (Brakhage). Artists play at many things, but often fail because they are only playing (in other disciplines). Art can be bad. Political art can be doubly bad often, if you understand political economy, bad in both the discipline of art and the political, bad aesthetics, incoherent politics.
In the seventies, a big deal was made of “task oriented” art. William Wegman would videotape a ball bouncing, the piece would end when the ball fell through a hole or his dog would be assigned a task and the piece would end when the dog completed the task. Richard Serra on 16mm black and white filmed his hand up through his forearm attempting to catch hunks of lead dropping from the top of the film frame. At that point, art has moved from Action Painters to task. Today, we turn our affairs over to financial planners to tell us how much life insurance we need and how much we need to save for retirement. We were snug in our inert world until the beheadings began. Here, the photographer assigns himself a definite action and accomplishes it by being in the photograph. The photograph is a definite action. There is no sequencing we only see the completion of the assigned action. All photography of people beheads them All photography no matter of what is a beheading. The literature critic Elizabeth New writes of the point in the poetic line where “sight consents to Being” and our “open[ing] to it”. This is the Academic version of Koons Hallmark world of ice cream and lollipops. Peebles photograph open into murder as a beheading. In contradistinction, the moral eipgraph for Peebles’ beheading is what George Stroud in The Big Clock thought after his affair where a woman died, “ Everything was the same as it had always been. Everything was all right. I hadn’t done anything. No one had.” With the photograph Sonnet, the head is on and off simultaneously. The off/on state of the head is somewhat dependent on the version of the photograph being viewed. On Peebles’ website the neck of the woman is reddish and there is a small triangulation of black between the man’s left and right hand and her chin. This reading is as a small moment after the beheading, right after the severing. The “reddish” color around the throat is actually on second look the drapery from the couch. There is no visibility to any other part of the woman’s body. One could say perversely, in the photograph, the man has gotten head, literally.
I am reminded again and again that Stan Brakhage was right in claiming that great art arises out of a deep personal crisis. I accept what Brakhage said because I know most important art is not merely illustrative of that personal crisis because art is not a rendering of just emotion, but a way of knowing (see my “New York Cut the Crap”, 1978, published in History of Canyon Cinema, 2008.) The Postmodernists especially among the language school insist that language makes reality and since language resides in the instability of the pun so does reality. Beheading would be a great word to play language games upon to use as a language game football. But, pain and disease are one of those areas where language comes up short and doesn’t have much to say (and what is said is pretty uninteresting). The same is true of cancer. Cancer doesn’t care about your language about the words you use. All explanations and rationalizations fail before cancer. Cancer is an objective fact that being bodily should be observer dependent, but cancer although happening in the body is like gravity. Even digestion has some observer dependent influence. Brakhage wanted to get to know his cancer. His cancer didn’t want to get to know him. Although some have tried, there is no way to double-talk your way around cancer. Cancer doesn’t care how you define it. Cancer arises from the most basic fact of life the division of cells. Cancer will define you into non-existence. Likewise, Peebles’ photograph doesn’t allow anyone to double-talk their way around it.
The concept of the frozen moment may have originated in photography, but it is also a much used strategy of some painters. Balthus uses it in his 1933 The Street. It was a staple of the classic revival after the first World War. Hitler’s favorite, Adolph Ziegler wants to use it in 1937 The Four Elements identifying elemental allegorical power with eternal truth but there is some movement on the faces of the women in the first and third panels of the triptych. Peebles’ photograph participates in the frozen moment but uniquely turning that moment into a before, during, and after simultaneity. It isn’t that the form is an extension of the content, the context is also its own conception.
Peebles Sonnet doesn’t have the postmodern seal of abjectivity like Dan Schutz’s 2002 Sneeze, where snot explodes all over the headshot, but it renders the same kind of expressive discomfort within the realistic glass of the camera lens. Creeley condemned art that has an aspect about it of “look ma, I’m dancing”. Although beheading is a much more charged subject than sneezing, Peebles Sonnet is more detached (pun intended) than Schutz’s Sneeze. Schutz knows she has you like postmodernism always plays the casino’s hand and knows all the cards.
What cuts anymore? What can matter in art? The white liberal fans of Alvin Ailey associate his sentimental dances like Ailey intended with the civil rights movement and the history of the pain of slavery. But this epiphany by historical association, this sentimentality about past crimes, is as disconnected from meaningful aesthetic violence as an elderly Hells Angel going to bed in the early evening with a warm glass of milk and thinking about the drugs he would have done, the pussy he would have eaten, who he could have killed if he wasn’t middle-aged and lugging around an oxygen tank. The three possibilities allowed by the contemporary art scene that no longer work are sentimentality, irony and extreme gore. In denying beheading, murder, as crime the photograph identifies with the Emersonian mind that is serious without being stern or disapproving. The literary critic, Harold Bloom, in evaluating whether the author Shirley Jackson is “canonical” states that “The Lottery” only “wounds once” and is thus not canonical. The Peebles photograph in drawing blood without gore (or snot) wounds more than once.