“Artists are the worker priests of the cult of man.”
That’s a statement by Brice Marden. A brand new painting by Marden will set you back about nine hundred thousand dollars. In addition, Marden has been pretty up front about his drug use. He really likes to smoke pot. So what kind of cult is he talking about? And where can we find the seminary?
Two weeks ago I found a book. (In New York wisdom is always speaking to one from the dust; books litter the streets.) It was Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. Some of you will remember it. It caused quite a stir back in 1990. It was interesting to see it lying there, washed clean of controversy.
The first chapter, titled “Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art,” is a humdinger. Rather than put up a defense of Ms. Paglia, allow me to note the Philadelphia Inquirer’s blurb on the inside: “Paglia makes more outrageous claims in her first 20 pages than most academics make in a lifetime.” It is a work of art that speaks some truth. From page 28:
Everything is melting in nature. We think we see objects, but our eyes are slow and partial. Nature is blooming and withering in long puffy respirations, rising and falling in oceanic wave-motion. A mind that opened itself fully to nature without sentimental preoccupation would be glutted by nature’s coarse materialism, its relentless superfluity. An apple tree laden with fruit: how peaceful, how picturesque. But remove the rosy filter of humanism from our gaze and look again. See nature spuming and frothing, its mad spermatic bubbles endlessly spilling out and smashing in that inhuman round of waste, rot, and carnage. From the jammed glassy cells of sea roe to the feathery spores poured into the air from bursting pods, nature is a festering hornet’s nest of aggression and overkill. . . . Nature is the seething excess of being.
The most effective weapon against the flux of nature is art. Religion, ritual and art began as one, and a religious or metaphysical element is still present in all art. Art, no matter how minimalist, is never simply design. It is always a ritualistic reordering of reality. The enterprise of art, in a stable collective era or an unsettled individualistic one, is inspired by anxiety. Every subject localized and honored by art is endangered by its opposite. Art is a shutting in in order to shut out. Art is a ritualistic binding of the perpetual motion machine that is nature. The first artist was a tribal priest casting a spell, fixing nature’s daemonic energy in a moment of perceptual stillness. Fixation is at the heart of art, fixation as stasis and fixation as obsession. The modern artist who merely draws a line across a page is still trying to tame some uncontrollable aspect of reality. Art is spellbinding. Art fixes the audience in its seat, stops the feet before a painting, fixes a book in the hand. Contemplation is a magic act.
I was raised in an American Christian cult of salesmen. For this reason I have always admired the artist Jeff Koons. Koons worked as a commodities salesman in the early years of his career. He once remarked that he loved selling because it was “an act of conscious control.”
The cult of my upbringing was the Mormon Church. Mormons bristle at being called “cultists” but to a degree they are, as are all dogmatic believers in the “vision” of one individual; and in Mormonism, that individual is Joseph Smith, Jr. Camile Paglia was mentored by a secular fan of Joseph Smith’s, Harold Bloom.
In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom writes adoringly of Joseph Smith. He quotes Ms. Paglia while speculating on Smith’s charismatic persona and the source of his power. In a quick scan of Sexual Personae I found this quoted text near the bottom of page 521 in the Vintage paperback. While reading this original source material (which is about the androgynous nature of charisma — a topic for another post) I was struck by a line in the paragraph above it: “An unanswered question of history is how one individual can control masses of people.”
Growing up I was often asked “Can a good Mormon boy be a great artist?” or phrased another way “When will Mormonism produce a great artist?” I’ve never really been able to answer those questions until now. No and it won’t. And here’s why.
Conceptual art systems (and all art systems are conceptual) are self contained. They grow by excluding other systems. They either swallow them, as an artist learns to subsume the master, as did Pablo Picasso, with rapacious skill. Or they turn away, like Donald Judd, in self-righteous anger.
Joseph Smith was an artist. A profoundly great and grave one. His art makes Picasso’s look like child’s play and Matthew Barney’s . . . infantile. His was an art that dismissed Luther, Calvin and Wesley and went head to head with the foundational texts of Western culture. And to a shocking degree he won. The whole Intermountain West is his Marfa.
No one can be an artist in the shadow of Joseph Smith. An artist tries to create objects that are in themselves charismatic, that continually attract attention and “witness” to the greatness of the artist. In the contemporary world these objects replace religion. The work of an effective contemporary artist makes people believe. Not in anything in particular but rather in the artist. In this sense, every artist’s practice, and the circle of people that support it, constitutes a cult.
Having left the cult of my birth and writing in a way that can seem self-aggrandizing let me conclude with this. I am at the beginning stages of artistic maturity and am making no claim to greatness or to my power as a prophet. Having an artistic project “stick” in the culture is as much a matter of luck as anything else. Additionally, the personal consequences of being an authentic cult leader, extreme narcissism, may not be all that desirable.
So for the moment, I take solace in a quote from that consummate Jack-Mormon cosmopolitan, Wayne Thiebaud: “One doesn’t have to be a great artist to be interesting.”
I’ll second that, and count myself a member of the Thiebaud cult. And Martin and Judd and Ray and Walker and Friedman and Kauper and . . .