Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Trickery vs. Transgression Open Thread

I have some faint memory of having heard of Dorothy Podber but never had the pleasure of meeting her. Not that everyone who did considered it a pleasure, mind you. I know she was an East Village legend, but I've always lived on the West Side and, well....

Now it's beside the point. The New York Times reports that Ms. Podber passed away at the age of 75, and so I never will meet the woman who, among other things, shot a stack of Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe paintings...and not with a camera:
Ms. Podber was an artist in her own right and in the late ’50s and early ’60s helped to run the Nonagon Gallery in Manhattan, which showed the work of a young Yoko Ono and was known for jazz concerts by performers like Charles Mingus. But she became famous, or infamous, in the art world mostly as a muse and a co-conspirator of more prominent artists like Ray Johnson, with whom she staged impromptu happenings on Manhattan streets.

In one, she and Mr. Johnson persuaded people they had just met to allow them into their apartments, where they would then play records used by speech therapists that contained samples of stuttering.

“She said people were pretty nonplused, as you’d expect,” Ms. Ely said “She and Ray would also do another bit where they’d re-enact the shower scene from ‘Psycho.’ ”

In a 2006 interview with the writer Joy Bergmann, Ms. Podber said: “I’ve been bad all my life. Playing dirty tricks on people is my specialty.”

Certainly the most outrageous was her unsolicited contribution to a few of Warhol’s “Marilyn” silk-screen paintings. In the fall of 1964 Ms. Podber, a friend of the photographer and Warhol regular Billy Name, visited Warhol’s Factory on East 47th Street in Manhattan with her Great Dane (named Carmen Miranda or Yvonne De Carlo, depending on the account). Ms. Podber asked Warhol if she could shoot a stack of the “Marilyn” paintings; he apparently thought that she wanted to take pictures of them and consented.

But she produced a pistol and fired at them, penetrating three or four. One of them, “Shot Red Marilyn,” with a repaired bullet hole over the left eyebrow, sold for $4 million in 1989, at the time setting a record at auction for a Warhol work.
Some of Ms. Podber's bad "tricks" were actually crimes, if still amusing in their creativity:
She once ran a service that dispatched maids to doctors’ offices, primarily as a way to get the keys to the doctors’ drug cabinets.
The charm of a trickster's craft is inversely proportional to the distance one is from the actual event, I generally find. Still, I find trickery more charming than transgression because it incorporates wit, even if a bit wicked. But that distinction begs for a definition or two, so:
  • "Trickery" definitions suggest the main goal of such actions often includes the desire to part a fool from his/her money. The word "con man" is a shorter version of "confidence trickster," for example.
  • Definitions of "transgression" center on crossing the line of acceptance. Often "transgression" is a crime, but sometimes it's merely the crossing of a "moral principle."
In this respect, transgression seems less selfish, if one accepts that its point is to illustrate the absurdity or actual harm of that line of acceptance (with an assumed eye toward progressive changes), whereas "trickery" generally has baser and more self-centered motivations. But if that's the case, why are "trickster" artists more enjoyable to be around? Consider this an open thread on transgression and trickery in art.

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41 Comments:

Blogger Tyler said...

I love this idea.

I'd love to see a series of small shows on the topic... say six curators each getting a gallery and the opportunity to present their idea of 'artist-as-trickster.'

There's Cattelan, trompe l'oeil, Victor Vasarely...

2/19/2008 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

the, er, trick, though, would be to do a show that was or wasn't itself somehow tricky...I mean, once you enter into this realm, there are no lines, no guidelines, and thus no sure-fire ways to avoid flopping big time.

A straightforward dry look at trickster art would be akin to a dry anatomy professor's play-by-play description of a porno movie...it's missing the point to a large degree

if you know the show's about trickery, would/could you experience the show in any meaningful way?

2/19/2008 09:49:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

OT, but on the same vane.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, French Author died Mionday at 85

2/19/2008 11:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a dry anatomy professor's play-by-play description of a porno movie

...could be fun. just sayin'...

2/19/2008 11:11:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Transgression, by itself, is too easy. Transgression that leads to enlightenment, now that's something.

2/19/2008 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Yes, thank you, Chris. I was about to say that it's a pity that people can get serious critical attention just for being cheap and obnoxious.

People have, from time to time, accused me of being a 'fraud.' I reply that I am exactly what I seem to be: words on a screen. It is the plethora of unexamined assumptions which the reader brings with them which gives the impression that I am something other than that.

2/19/2008 12:45:00 PM  
Anonymous L.M. said...

The joy of trickery is that every con-artists secretly desires to let us all in on the joke. You're right, Edward, it's ultimately an act of wicked generosity (the pleasurable kind)

2/19/2008 12:59:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

You would rather be had than be changed.

2/19/2008 01:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

catherine i like your blog.

2/19/2008 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

Thanks! keep reading...

2/19/2008 02:03:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Change is painful. Humans defend ideological territory as fiercely as they do physical territory.

2/19/2008 03:23:00 PM  
Anonymous L.M. said...

Hell, I'm constantly transgressing moral principals, especially "Honour Among Thieves". I'm really curious to know what art works people here find transgressive (and perhaps who or what it's transgressing.)

2/19/2008 04:05:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm really curious to know what art works people here find transgressive

Well, Andrea Fraser's untitled video is one example.

2/19/2008 04:15:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

back in the day some artists fucked corpses as art - and the Viennese Actionists are on record with meat play. so it's interesting that Mapplethorpe or Serrano or Frasier are held up as the most transgressive. What falls beyond the pale?

Murder, corpse fucking and torture, basicly.

Though really you can have esthetic distance from anything - that's the lesson we learned from the Nazis. Or the Aztecs. Or the Inquisition.
Or TV.

No one took the corpse fuckers seriously because I think it was kind of ambiguous what they thought they were achieving, for example, by penetrating a dead body - whats the conversation there? Self agrandizing fetish bullshit or making an important contribution to art history? Thats the question, I think.

Corpse fucking isn't taught in schools, you just sort of do it.

Anyone who's seen two girls one cup or a bunch of prisoners dancing in unison to Thriller knows art is kind of an inside thing.

2/19/2008 04:42:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

I think I agree that transgression is now a limited word, in a way that it once wasn't. Sometimes I cringe as well when people rely on "contradiction" to drive their work. I think that the recent use of the critical terms entropy and formlessness by the likes of Rosalind Krauss were attempts to move the discourse away from these.

Fraser is more about complicity and "being had" than transgression.

2/19/2008 04:42:00 PM  
Anonymous L.M. said...

I'd venture to say that 'complicity' is far more rich, complex and interesting than the idea of this week's art messiah bonking the shallow bourgeoisie on the head. (once again, dumb ole stupid bourgeoisie always needing to be bonked on the head)

Edward, I also think Andrea Fraser's video says more about complicity than transgression. (I really liked it)

2/19/2008 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

You see? Transgression is easy. You fuck a corpse. You tie a dog up in your studio and starve it. You video yourself having sex with someone. Pornography is often transgressive because most people prefer to fuck in private. (There's a great scene in Eastern Promises, which I just saw, where Kirill orders Nikolai to have sex with one of his concubines to "prove" he's not a homo -- and eventually Nikolai does. Then he tells Kirill to go away while he gets dressed. With later revelations, this scene reverberates back and forth through the film.)

Funny that Ed would consider Andrea Fraser's work transgressive in any serious way. It's about as transgressive as your average Jenna Jameson vehicle. Porn with a Purpose! Give me a honkin' big break, please.

Hey, Ed, I'd like to "initiate" a piece by "approaching" you to "arrange a commission" with a gallerist on my behalf. You find me a gallerist and I'll video him fucking me in the ass for an hour. I'll call it "Transgression: The Treatment of Artists."

If that works out, we can collaborate on my next project, which will be the world's biggest art gangbang. We'll get dealers and collectors of all stripes to bugger me. Even Edna with a strap-on, if we can talk her into it. Transgression everywhere!

See how easy it is? How pointless?

Although I'm getting a little turned on just thinking about it....

2/19/2008 04:58:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I didn't offer it up as an example that would out-trangress "Murder, corpse fucking and torture," or wasn't more about something else than it was transgression, per se, as much as one example of a piece that crossing the line of a moral principle (i.e., you don't trade sex for money). As an example.

2/19/2008 04:59:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Yeah I know. But if the work itself is about sex for money, you collapse it into a didactic ham fisted tale full of sound and fury, whereas it could mean something more.

I rather think its about meaning, and how meaning is manufactured - that in fact meaning is used to set up boundaries to be transgressed, and that these mutable boundaries sometimes create a greater violence than the moral ills they are designed to police.

Complicity is a nice word and I noticed its being bandied about more and more. I expect careers to be made off of it - I noticed Johanna Drucker "started a conversation" about complicity - whatever. I don't talk to those fascists.

2/19/2008 05:11:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

"Liberal guilt" is another nice term - makes my conservative roots grow in.

2/19/2008 05:15:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

impeach my bush

2/19/2008 05:20:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If someone asks for an example, is it necessary for the person offering one to ensure it will then be all things to all people?

Or let me put it another way: are you saying that Fraser's video didn't cross the line of some moral principle (which was the definition of "transgression" offered)?

If you're not saying that, then you're arguing for the sake of arguing. If you are saying that, then I'm curious where your moral principles stem from.

2/19/2008 05:24:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I was just underlining my point, which is that plain old garden variety transgression is easy. Find a line, cross it. There are lines everywhere, so just pick one. Hell, it'd be transgressive if I showed up at your gallery, picked my nose, and wiped a booger on one of Joy's paintings. Easy!

Which is why I wrote "transgressive in any serious way". Fraser's video may be vaguely transgressive -- although given that people have been trading money for sex since money was invented, I'm sure how it qualifies as truly transgressive in any way, except by the letter of the moral law, which almost no one follows anyhow -- her video may be vaguely transgressive but it's not transgressive by much.

2/19/2008 05:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Transgression is yet another cop-out for people who don't have the talent to put good art together. Chris is correct that it is easy, and essentially correct that it is pointless except that there are so many people who will reward it for alleged boldness. I say alleged because often the transgressions are merely elaborate acts of flattery at their core, and seem to take a stand against something without ever doing so. Fraser is a fine example. "[Fraser's] work raises issues regarding the ethical and consensual terms of interpersonal relationships as well as the contractual terms of economic exchange." Ooh, look at the issues rise. I've said elsewhere that the raising of issues is the currency of a certain segment of the contemporary art market, and as such it is no more transgressive than buying groceries.

2/19/2008 06:17:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

This just in:

Lee Harvey Oswald got a secret MFA at Columbia.

I'm on a private beach. No sand drawing allowed.

2/19/2008 06:17:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Talent is just another word for entitlement.

2/19/2008 06:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Talent is just another word for entitlement.

You're the one on the private beach.

2/19/2008 06:32:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Yeah, raising issues and asking questions -- what the fuck is up with that? The key to the Socratic Method is Socrates knew the answers.

2/19/2008 06:45:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The key to the Socratic Method is Socrates knew the answers.

Socrates knew where he was going to lead the discussion, despite the often more interesting tangents his pupils brought up. That's not the same as knowing the answers.

The practice/position of raising questions in art (as opposed to didacticism) is seen by many (me included) as a more honest way of acknowledging the fact that artists are no more privvy to the "truth" than any other mere mortal. Artists doing so are judged on how valid and well-considered their questions seem. If that form of artistic expression isn't your cup of tea, that's fine, but it's not, in and of itself, a measure of "talent" or lack thereof.

2/19/2008 07:24:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I guess I wasn't the audience for AF's piece (I'm more into first person shooter games)- is that an intellectually weak position?

A monkey looks in no philosopher looks out.

What gets you high? What do you do when nothing gets you high? How far would you go for a high?

2/19/2008 08:45:00 PM  
Blogger Carla said...

But isn't the practice/position of raising questions in art didactic? I mean when an artist 'arranges' an experience for the viewer, regardless of how undetermined the results may be. Within this scenario, it seems we are being led/herded in a dishonest way. We experience the illusion of creating our own experience.

Edward, more than once you have simplified this as an either/or of the viewer being "spoonfed" versus interpreting for himself. I don't think it's that polar.

2/19/2008 08:46:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

It's more honest -- but much more difficult -- to pose questions and then answer them interestingly. Simply asking questions is what dumb people do. Continuing to ask more questions without waiting for answers is what really dumb people do. Asking really obvious questions -- "Is it good to trade sex for money?" -- is what extremely ignorant people do.

And I really don't think asking questions or answering them is the province of art. That's the province of philosophy. And -- bottom line -- philosophy has already covered many of the obvious questions. It's like the atheist who says, "If God exists, why is there evil?" Hello, theologians have been working that out for centuries, and anything you can come up with has been already been worked out. If you're really interested, you're going to need to do a lot of very hard research before you can hope to discuss religion intelligently.

However, if you're in the company of dunces and boobs, then you can probably look really erudite when you baffle them with a question like "Why is there evil?"

I mean, let's consider this concept of asking questions and raising issues. What question is answered by Rousseau's Sleeping Gypsy? What issue is raised by Pollock's No. 5, 1948? What is explored by Manet's Olympia?

Asking questions in art is pure sophistry and a waste of time.

2/19/2008 10:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Our great philosophers have been writers and talkers for good reason - language is the natural realm of philosphy. Art is not. There's a balance point at which art can serve both its intrisic and an extrinsic function well, but it's not a halfway point - it's a point pretty close to visual quality. Press it into the service of philosophy, and you end up with illustration in the pejorative sense - something that is neither the full flower of art nor anything more than a subsidiary project of a verbal effort.

The raising of issues is a particularly half-assed formation in any case. What exactly needs to happen for an issue to be raised? Any faint gesture in its direction.

2/19/2008 10:41:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

Even if making good art is the primary goal, it is easy to be inadvertently transgressive if your work naturally deals with issues that are hot buttons for people.

Louise Bourgeois said, “Art is telling the truth about things that grownups don’t want to think about.”

2/20/2008 07:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question for a viewer witnessing the so called "trangression" is the extent to which he/she is complicit with it via watching it. Does one run away and call the cops or stand there and say hmm how very interesting? How is it an illusion of an experience with art not to decide?

That last question BTW is not didactic but open. If you answer it, Carla it will have started a dialectic.

simpleposie.

2/20/2008 08:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS Ed,this is a great topic. I might be wrong but I seem to remember reading Pliny a million years ago - a great description of a public gathering before a couple of different artists renditions of a bowl of grapes. Everyone is arguing about the relative efficacy of the paintings when a bird makes an attempt to pilfer a grape out of the surface of one of them - smacking right into the illusion.

J@simpleposie.

2/20/2008 08:35:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The thing about the position some here are defending here in regards to artwork that "raises questions" is that in order to do so one must talk as if the artwork in question operates on only that level. That such a description of of it automatically encapsulates all of it. That because it "raises questions," that's all it does. Or that because it does it must therefore also lack something formally. That all such gestures are automatically "faint."

What issue is raised by "Pollock's No. 5, 1948"? Whether what was to go on the canvas should be a picture or an event, for starters. I'm still not sure that's been answered definitively. YMMV.

What's not being discussed here much, but perhaps it's time to do so, is the fact that formal proficiency in and of itself (as subjective as that remains) is rather dull in most artist's hands. It's simply not enough anymore for many art viewers. It would be nice if there were more of it (most artists can stand to work on their craft), but as a goal unto itself it strikes me as anachronistic. It's like learning to operate an abacus better than anyone else around you. That train has left the station.

Indeed, what's also not being discussed, but needs to be, is that conceptualism is here to stay, and fighting against it as if one might turn back time or open the eyes of the fools who've bought into it is a waste of time. If you're unhappy with the state of aesthetics, by all means fight to raise the standards...but do so in a way that is relevant to your contemporaries.

2/20/2008 08:37:00 AM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

Thanks, Ed. I'll be bold here and ask people to read my post on Sotheby's (red) and the Flag. A lot of the issues here are very relevant - What is the value of proficiency? what does it mean for a work of art to be "interesting"? Where does a work of art stand in relation to convention or law?

2/20/2008 08:56:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

we were at white columns last weekend to see the closing show of two video artists and the axiom, if you don't get it, there's nothing to get was what we left talking about... sigh

2/20/2008 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Ed sez:
That because it "raises questions," that's all it does. Or that because it does it must therefore also lack something formally.

I think the trouble is that artwork which "raises questions" almost by definition can't do anything really good as art -- must lack something formally -- because it contains too much philosophy and not enough art. Too much in words and not enough visually.

Franklin usefully imagines a line, a continuum, with the purely visual at one end and the purely verbal at the other. Art is at one end and philosophy at the other. A given work falls somewhere on that line. Too far to one side and something intended as art becomes too much philosophy.

What's not being discussed here much, but perhaps it's time to do so, is the fact that formal proficiency in and of itself (as subjective as that remains) is rather dull in most artist's hands.

Agreed. Formal proficiency isn't enough. It never was.

Indeed, what's also not being discussed, but needs to be, is that conceptualism is here to stay, and fighting against it as if one might turn back time or open the eyes of the fools who've bought into it is a waste of time.

You make a good point. It is something of a waste of time. Tilting at windmills and all that. But still, I feel it's necessary.

I don't think it's fools that have bought into conceptualism. Not exactly. I think it's just that some people have taken as true certain assumptions, and what I'm trying to do is question those assumptions. (In words -- not in my art. My art does not raise questions.)

One of those assumptions is this idea of transgression, that art should cross boundaries, should shock, should, as LM wrote, bonk the bourgeoisie on the head. And what I'm saying is that taunting the bourgeoisie is really easy and not worth much. Too many people confuse avant garde art's annoying the bourgeoisie as a side effect with its main purpose, which was exploring visual quality. They've tossed out visual quality -- which is difficult -- and kept annoying the middle class -- which is easy.

And on that score I think people are still getting it wrong. Fraser may think her video raises questions, but given that pornography in America is an enormous business involving major corporations like GM, AT&T, and Hilton, I'm thinking even the bourgeoisie wouldn't be shocked (or titillated, for that matter) by her video.

2/20/2008 11:48:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

i think artists use to have more power and be sought after and there fore used to be free to have more fun for example we were in the museum of the city of new york last weekend and in one of the dollhouses were original miniature artworks by duchamp, zorach, lachaise, etc... artists worry too much now about 'if their work will sell' and we are a dime a dozen... and just by putting lots and lots of really big words next to your art on the wall doesnt make it more important- the opposite, it just make its failure more pronounced as it collapses under the weight of all the rhetoric, diatribe, transgression-

2/20/2008 11:59:00 AM  

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