Friday, October 10, 2003

Have I mentioned my trip to the Saatchi Gallery yet? It's in the old County Hall building along the Thames, a formidable Victorian structure that's been invaded by such emissaries of Cool Britannia as Damien Hirst (formaldehyded shark), Chris Ofili (he of the elephant dung Virgin Mary), Marc Quinn (six pints of blood ahead), and Tracey Emin (make your bed!). Much of the work is reflexively obsessed with its position in the art world, its status as art meant to trouble such concepts as "status," "as," and "art." (You can view some of the pieces in the collection, fortunately or unfortunately without the smug little bits of explanatory text that are posted in the actual gallery, here.)Seeing so many works by comparatively few artists, all working within the comparatively small scene of British art, brought forward the outlines of the British art scene qua scene, which in turn served to raise my awareness of any "scene's" sceneness. I was reminded in some ways of the discomfort I felt a few years ago when I picked up a copy of The Germ at Cody's in Berkeley (I had just arrived in the Bay Area) and read an interview in the back with one of the Gizzis (was it Peter?) which consisted in large part of his memories of various characters and moments in the history of the avant-garde poetry scene. I don't remember which scene particularly, which is part of the point: I didn't know who was being referred to and my feelings of exclusion were almost palpable, manifesting even in the grainy feel of the cover with its eccentrict pseudo-eighteenth century artwork.

Of course I didn't let this put me off permanently. And I don't know how poetry, or any medium, could assist in building community without exclusion; every us needs a them. Arguably, I was able to follow a path into the community that The Germ and other avantish publications had made manifold for me, materializing like a plate-glass window I hadn't known my nose was pushed up against. A willingness to open and surrender yourself is required that isn't any more humiliating than "submitting" to magazines and book publishers. (I am reminded at this point of a great show This American Life did once about how people who, their first day on the job or in school or wherever, make a tremendous effort to pretend that they've always been there—listen to it here.) There is always that awkward moment, brief or protracted, of becoming avant-garde, an anxious category of being if ever there was one. Bob Perelman's Birmingham talk touched on this, the careful curatorship of "the new" practiced by longstanding avant-gardes—the Steve Evans vs. Fence controversy is his signal contemporary example of this. Evans' point, if I recall correctly, is that authentic avant-garde communities are formed in concert with radical social and political practices that are necessarily predicated by a community-formation based on something other than aesthetics. To be introduced to an avant-garde aesthetic divorced from the social (assuming Evans would even concede that such a thing can exist) in the pages of a magazine like Fence or VOLT is to come from a position of hopeless naivety which can all too quickly metamorphose into opportunism and self-commodification.

The Saatchi artists are in a similar position to the editors of and writers who've appeared in Fence (I am one of them); not because they, with postmodern shamelessness and elan have willingly entered a scene that takes its name from an advertising executive, but rather because they have become identified with each other by submitting to and appearing in the same magazine and not by cohering within a geographically or politically or even aesthetically defined space. We didn't make the magazine but found it within a historically pre-existing landscape; now we must take responsibility for making it or be accused of bad faith. I am perfectly willing to accept this responsibility; I acknowledge that I came to the avant garde (I define this by an embrace of what I can only oxymoronically call traditionally avant garde values; I do not claim to be avant garde) through the back door of what Rebecca Wolff undercritically called "weirdness" and not through an enlightened politico-critical position. What I deny is any imputation that, having come in the back way, that I should be refused the front parlor or secret speakeasy den where the revolution is being plotted by those who laid the cornerstones to the house. Less flowerily (there's a Lawrentian phrase if ever I coined one), I simply want to argue that it is possible and, for me at least, creatively necessary for the Fence writer to develop a social-political position within his or her writing even if that writer was initially and only attracted by—shock of shocks!—their perhaps poorly understood pleasure in the "weird" texts first encountered in Fence, Conduit, Columbia Poetry Review, or any number of journals that publish the work not found in Poetry and The New Yorker, etc.

An aesthetic community is always and by definition more than a merely aesthetic community, because community is always a polis. And I've found the aesthetic community that's loosely formed around these magazines and blogs to be as non-hierarchical as I could wish; as far as I can see, you pay your ticket to enter simply by being interested enough (there are barriers to anyone's acquiring this interest, but that's a discussion for another time). From Skanky Possum to Nada & Gary I see people, some with MFAs and some without, coming together and making stuff happen without becoming or wanting to become "The Patron" (you can see a version of Ashley Bickerton's painting if you click here and scroll to the bottom) that Evans accuses Wolff of being. Once you're aware of this community of intersecting scenes, you belong to it. And you will be put in the position of rejecting or embracing what is other to you every time you check your e-mail inbox.

Evans' critique retains a good deal of force; it's out there, a dark planet troubling any will toward thoughtlessness on my part with its gravity well. No freedom without rigor, no play without impacting and being impacted by other people. No form without a force that one must assume a critical consciousness of and responsibility for, else you become another brick in the wall, another node in the Matrix. No solitude. What meaning will I make of being numerous? The question is urgent and inescapable.

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