DECEMBER 13, 2018
AFTER IT WAS ANNOUNCED in August that The Village Voice would cease publication, New York School poet and current New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl reminisced about his years as the paper’s art columnist: in 1966, 1980–1981, and again from 1991–1998, after which Schjeldahl left for his present gig and Jerry Saltz, now at New York magazine, took his place. Schjeldahl had wanted to return to the Voice in the mid-1980s, but, he writes,
the fabulously acerbic Gary Indiana (who ended one column with this direct address to his readers: “Fuck you”) held the art-critic post by then. It seemed like every time I ran into Gary he said he was about to quit, but he didn’t quit — playing dog in the manger, in my exasperated view.
Indiana wrote for the Voice weekly from March 1985 through June 1988, a period which spanned the second term of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the expanding onslaught of the AIDS crisis, and the “Black Monday” stock market crash. Against this backdrop, the art world suffered the death of Andy Warhol, alongside countless artists who died during the epidemic; the metastasization of the art market; and with it, the gentrification of downtown Manhattan. Though Indiana never ended a column the way Schjeldahl remembers — the address is included as numbered paragraph three of 16 in his February 2, 1988, column, “Blood and Guts” — Indiana consistently approached his job with the confrontational gusto of the Voice’s co-founder, Norman Mailer, who once defined “freedom,” Indiana recalls, as “being able to say shit in the New Yorker.”
For three years, Indiana’s column provided a weekly antidote to bullshit in an era when the business was thriving — in museums and galleries, but also at the Times, where The Art of the Deal topped the “Best Seller” list for 13 weeks. Collected in one volume — as Semiotext(e) has, in its recent publication of Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns, 1985–1988 — the columns could be read as a first-person report from the end of history, a bleak and hysterical “chronicle of life under siege,” as editor Bruce Hainley describes it. It’s true that Indiana’s column documented the demise of New York’s avant-garde and the victory of consumerism, bad taste, and financial speculation, personified by Indiana as “Planet Debby” in homage to the “debutantes” he reviled for opening galleries on his block in the East Village. This history is the raison d’être Semiotext(e) offers for rescuing these Voice columns from the archives. Ironically, it is largely the purveyors of archives — scholars and their ilk — who will find Vile Days engaging as a portrait of the artist as a youngish critic, working a day job he clearly despised, but which provided him with much of the literary material — as well as the practice, discipline, and stability — necessary to become one of contemporary American literature’s most astute if unforgiving prose stylists.
It’s unlikely that Vile Days will lure many new readers to Indiana’s oeuvre: at 600 pages, the book may be a hard sell to all but the students of criticism, art historians of the 1980s, and Indiana devotees who already constitute Semiotext(e)’s audience. The author himself, as Hainley points out in his afterword, dismissed the Voice pieces in his 2015 memoir I Can Give You Anything But Love as “a bunch of yellowing newspaper columns I never republished and haven’t cared about for a second since writing them a quarter century ago.” And yet, something more like ambivalence is suggested in permitting the columns to be published by Semiotext(e), which has subsumed much of his work into its brand in the last decade, recently reissuing his novels Resentment (1997) and Three Month Fever (1999), and collecting his plays, short fiction, and poems as Last Seen Entering the Biltmore in 2010. The republication of Indiana’s back catalog has resulted in a minor renaissance for the author’s work — New York’s Seven Stories Press also released new editions of Indiana’s first two novels, Horse Crazy (1989) and Gone Tomorrow (1993), this fall — standing out among Semiotext(e)’s ongoing recovery projects, which preserve (in the attempt to canonize) a specific school of theoretically informed fiction, essays, and criticism that puts the “transgressive” reading practices, radical politics, and experimental writing of French philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida in conversation with the confrontational aesthetics and conceptual inclinations of the much-lamented downtown art world of Manhattan in the 1970s and 1980s. While Deleuze and Guattari’s analyses of capitalism and Foucault’s concept of biopolitics still feel relevant in a political climate that, in many ways, they seem to have predicted, the opaque style of writing and slippery ideological stance of Derrida and Baudrillard in particular leave this poststructuralist generation of French theory looking somewhat passé in 2018 in spite and perhaps because of its massive influence on academic discourse in the 1980s and 1990s, which led even sociologists and political scientists to sprinkle extraneous parentheses and precious linguistic puns throughout increasingly dense, “performative” prose.
Semiotext(e)’s history can be traced back to the arrival of its founder, Sylvère Lotringer, in New York in 1972 to join the French department at Columbia University. A child survivor of the Holocaust who studied with Roland Barthes and made his living as a journalist and professor of French literature, Lotringer missed 1968 in Paris (he was teaching in Australia at the time) but found post-Stonewall New York similarly ripe for revolution. Rampant with crime and drug addiction, the city almost declared bankruptcy in 1975, and its squalid tenements and Lower East Side dive bars gave birth to punk. Disaffected by the careerism of the American university, Lotringer shifted the focus and audience of the journal he’d founded with a cadre of graduate students to disseminate developments in post-Saussurean semiotics downtown, and in November 1975 Semiotext(e) hosted the Schizo-Culture conference, where representatives of New York’s avant-garde, John Cage and William S. Burroughs (members of what Indiana would later call, in a negative review of Nam June Paik’s 1986 show at Holly Solomon, “the Club”), shared a stage with emissaries from France: Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard. By the 1980s, Lotringer had crafted a unique position for himself as middleman for academia and the art world, along with a requisite persona less revolutionary than hipster: a “downtown celebrity and […] pariah in Columbia’s Department of French Literature and Philology” who “plays chess with John Cage, has tea with Natalie [sic] Sarraute, and shows up at department meetings bare-chested in a leather jacket after doing coke all night with William Burroughs.”
That’s how Chris Kraus, Lotringer’s co-editor and ex-wife, portrays a character very much like him in her 2006 “self-published” novel, Torpor. Indiana contributed a blurb to Torpor at Kraus’s request, calling the author “smart as fuck” and comparing her book to Céline. When I talked to Semiotext(e)’s managing editor Hedi El Kholti this spring, I was surprised to learn that it was only through Torpor that the two writers came to know each other: Kraus had participated in the same experimental theater, performance art, and film scenes as Indiana, and later published many of his friends (Cookie Mueller, Kathy Acker, Lynne Tillman) when she started the press’s Native Agents imprint in the early 1990s; Indiana contributed several short stories to Semiotext(e)’s magazine when it still existed in the late 1980s. Both writers have since taken part in an exodus of ex–East Villagers westward, to Los Angeles, where Semiotext(e) has immersed itself in that city’s art scene and fostered a niche in collecting art criticism, publishing volumes of essays and reviews by Kraus, Tillman, Robert Glück, and others written for magazines and exhibition catalogs between novels and poetry manuscripts. Expanding Indiana’s presence in the list by making available works that had fallen out of print also seems to complement Semiotext(e)’s recent translations of novels by French, mostly gay writers from the 1970s and 1980s — Pierre Guyotat, Tony Duvert, Hervé Guibert, and others — some of which the press had excerpted in its early history but has only committed to since “professionalizing” in 2001, when MIT Press took over distribution from leftist Brooklyn publisher Autonomedia.
And yet, it is difficult not to recognize in Semiotext(e)’s publication of Vile Days a broader cultural nostalgia for the “globally hyped, short-lived phenomenon known as the East Village Art Scene.” The zeitgeist has been fueled by the Whitney Museum’s controversial David Wojnarowicz retrospective, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, which opened this summer alongside Semiotext(e)’s publication of Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz. Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy’s Writers Who Love Too Much (2017) — an anthology of “New Narrative” writing that, according to writer Rob McLennan, “responded to post-structuralist quarrels with traditional storytelling practice for reinscribing ‘master narrative,’ and attempted to open up the field to a wider range of subjects and subject positions” — locates the roots of this queer, AIDS-era literary movement in the San Francisco poetry scene of the 1970s, self-proclaimed heir to the New York School and the Language poets, including among its members Semiotext(e) authors such as Acker, Bellamy, Glück, Tillman, Eileen Myles, Kraus, and Indiana (the press also published Killian’s memoir Fascination this month). Jarett Kobek’s novel The Future Won’t Be Long (2017) dramatizes the years 1986–1996 from the perspective of two club-kid artists squatting on East 7th Street. Kraus’s biography After Kathy Acker (2017) sought to deflate Acker’s image as “Great Writer as Countercultural Hero,” but its gossipy style only perpetuates the unwarranted romanticization of a bygone epoch — or, as Indiana has put it, “necrophile bullshit sentimental crap.”
In I Can Give You Anything But Love, Indiana concedes that there is slight truth in the “myth of a protean ‘downtown’ Manhattan, held to have been a great churning centrifuge of creativity”:
A lot of people devoted time to other things besides fucking, drugging, and partying themselves blind in clubworld. New York was more interesting. It wasn’t a giant suburb of nothing yet. […] By 1982, though, a hamster-wheel culture of recycling and imitation was well underway, in appropriated art, sampled music, postmodern architecture — the idea of originality had begun looking questionable.
A 2004 remembrance titled “One Brief, Scuzzy Moment,” which serves as preface to Vile Days, clarifies further: while “much neo–east village art was tepid, a fair amount of the earlier East Village’s more risk-taking chutzpah had started losing steam circa 1982,” and many of “New York’s best people” were already on their deathbeds, or not far from it — Peter Hujar, Cookie Mueller, Jack Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe. For Indiana, “the change from the ’70s to the ’80s was in fact dramatic and rather nauseating,” he writes in a review of paintings by James Nares: “A kind of negative idealism segued into a species of affectedly brainless optimism. […] The Mudd Club was about exhibiting the dark underside of high culture; Club 57 was about wanting to be on television.”
Anti-TV vitriol aside (and there is much of it in Vile Days), Indiana’s columns are not without praise for “a politically informed, enlightened absurdism,” which may have been the idée fixe of 1970s downtown culture, but by the mid-1980s was mostly to be found in the work of established artists who had weathered the masculinist, commercially oriented storm of Neo-Expressionism — Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Gretchen Bender, Richard Prince — and those who would have, had their careers not been cut short by untimely death: Gordon Matta-Clark, or Hujar, whose 1981 photograph of the author, Gary Indiana Veiled, adorns Vile Days’s cover. Indiana betrays a soft spot for photography, a medium in which he has been known to work, and his September 30, 1986, column, “The Death of Photography,” reads like a self-consciously important essay on the subject in the tradition of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, two critics whose sway has not left Indiana unaffected. In the essay, he establishes the influences of photographic documentation of conceptual art, on one hand, and avant-garde film, on the other, on the landscape of contemporary photographic art. Indiana sounds not unlike Walter Benjamin when he argues:
The omnipresence of photographic images in daily life comprises a duplicate universe, a metaworld of appearances, with its own deafening soundtrack, its own hologram geography. The conflation of reality with fiction is the premise of contemporary mass media: nothing is true, but everything is “real.”
Of course, by 1986, Sontag had already introduced theory to the middlebrow weeklies, and Indiana was far from the only critic waxing philosophical in the popular press. If anything, he appears skeptical of the academic critics who had come to saturate the discourse — thanks to his nemeses at October and Artforum, no doubt, but also Semiotext(e), which began publishing translations of Baudrillard through its Foreign Agents imprint in 1983. In January 1987, the philosopher’s clout had so inflated that an exhibition titled Resistance (Anti-Baudrillard) opened at White Columns in “protest” of Baudrillard’s lecture on Warhol delivered simultaneously at the Whitney, but Indiana had decried the postmodernist’s writing as “self-swallowing gibberish” in his review of Art After Modernism a year prior. In another memorable column, “The Critic’s Role” (November 17, 1987), Indiana chooses the “Art Against Apartheid” exhibition at the UN General Assembly as an opportunity to rail against what he frequently bemoaned as “the Cult of the Name”:
[W]hen people in the art world say that critics have more importance in a shrinking art market, they simply mean that buyers will monitor the writing of critics more carefully for the frequency of proper names before making that risky investment. There are structures that exist to ensure that this, and nothing else, will be the critic’s role.
Yet, for all of Indiana’s warning against the culture’s obsession with proper nouns, he revels in naming them in his own hand: Roman Polanski and Roy Cohn in early plays, Lyle and Erik Menendez (as “the Martinez brothers”) in Resentment, Andrew Cunanan in Three Month Fever. Critics of I Can Give You Anything But Love made much of Indiana’s swipes at Sontag from this side of the grave, but should it befall upon the writer to deprive readers of what they want, especially when it happens to be true?
For the writer under capitalism, a job is a necessary evil, and while the work of livelihood and passion can be mutually beneficial when separate, the former is all the more malicious when it drains the energies of the latter. Tempting as it is to overdetermine Indiana’s juvenilia, written on deadline for a paycheck, and genius though it may often be, we would be wise to heed the advice of its author: “[P]eople who keep dredging up what a great place New York was thirty or forty years ago should just shut up and open a funeral home, where nobody minds if you talk about dead people all day.”