What Would They Criticize?

There’s an awful lot of interesting stuff in the second chunk of reading on our schedule (how my tune changes in just 51 pages!), but I want to fly over everything in the middle and focus on the material that basically bookends the section: the story of Edwin Johns. Over at the Bolaño mothership, Brooks suggests that Johns may be based on a performance artist called Pierre Pinoncelli, and I can see where the self-mutilation invites the link, but I think of him much more as Damien Hirst. (Obviously, there’s the taxidermy, but there’s also his nationality, his age, his rebelliousness, and his outrageous sales.)

First I want to talk about the situation of the artist in the art market. We have received a Romantic idea of the artist as a brilliant male creator, receiving inspiration from external, divine sources (alright, the Muses are older than Romanticism) and struggling heroically against the world to produce great, pure testaments to his genius and skill. Art is the extension into this world of that which is divine and unsullied, and any other purpose behind the making of art—for money, for example—taints both the result and the artist. We have the stereotype of the starving artist, nobly refusing to follow any star but his art, regardless of petty concerns like lunch or rent.

And all that of course is a load of crap, foisted on the world by men who didn’t have to earn their bread or their keep, and were thus able to ignore the economic considerations that most everyone else has to take into account when deciding how to pursue their careers. (Not that they were above accepting money for their work; it just had to be a formal afterthought.) I don’t discount the expressive and aesthetic drives that lead a creative person to art, but I want to emphasize that most people have to balance the satisfaction of those drives with meeting the first one or two levels of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. And to that extent, art must be an economic activity; it cannot be isolated from the flow of money. In truth, it can never be: the actual artist must buy her supplies from somewhere, and must have someplace to do her art (which place she either rents or pays property taxes on). But even outside the inescapable embedment of all living in economic activity, artists need to sell. To be a professional artist is to support yourself through the sale of your work.

I’m going to skip a discussion here of “selling out,” because I don’t think it’s particularly interesting. What I want to say instead is that it seems to me that the critical apparatus—the critics themselves, their reviews, their journals—is a necessary part of this situation, at least in the case of new art. (Like Edwin Johns’s.) After a certain time, artists and kinds of art and individual pieces acquire reputations, so that their relative values (both monetary and “artistic,” by which I suppose I mean a combination of aesthetic and intellectual) are reasonably apparent. With new art, though, it’s often useful to have someone to put it in context; indeed, for the purposes of market valuation, it’s essential. Basically, in my representation here, it is a purpose (among others) of the critical establishment to tell people what new art is worth.

And I say Edwin Johns’s breakthrough exhibition, the one Norton tells Morini about on 52 and 53, is included in 2666 as a straight-up indictment of that critical establishment. The man chops off his own hand and puts it in an art show, and rather than recoil, the public buys up every single piece, “although the prices were astronomical.” That’s disgusting, and something that a responsible critic would feel obligated to oppose; societies obviously can’t afford to extend financial incentives for mutilation, and a critic who cares about the field he works in (or about people at all) ought to be horrified at the idea of his discipline as a beachhead for the practice. But rather than revulsion, Johns’s exhibition inspires a whole artistic movement. Not one of amputation, true, but I think it still has to be seen as the fruit of a poisonous tree. (I’m concerned that I’ve come to sound terribly moralistic here; I hope instead I just sound firmly convinced that chopping off your own hand for monetary gain is a bad kind of business.)

And if we believe Morini, Johns did it specifically for the money, “because he believed in investments, the flow of capital, one has to play the game to win, that kind of thing” (97). That’s so deeply cynical that it feels utterly sane. And it succeeded—he played the game very well, which I can’t help but see as proof that all the players must be corrupt and monstrous, whether or not they intend to be. Of course, the correspondence between their intentions and their actions is the kind of thing critics are supposed to investigate, and here’s where I come again to the failures of the critics in this scenario. I find this whole episode so savagely…critical…of criticism that it’s almost breathtaking, and I don’t think it’s balanced out by what I see as the tenderness and affection of page 72’s characterization of outré literary criticism as a cry for love. Lots of readers identified a kind of gentle mocking of academia in the first week’s reading, but this week is much more vicious on the subject.

There are two possible mitigations here (outside of the fact that I may be taking this much too far anyway). The first is that Johns is in a mental hospital. I’m surprised at the text’s implication that there was a process of going mad involved, because I’d have said the amputation was proof that he was a danger to himself. But in any case, he may be untrustworthy. Even more, though, Morini himself may be untrustworthy. He tells Norton “he thought he knew why Johns had cut off his right hand” (my emphasis); I don’t know where Morini’s uncertainty comes from, because the text is pretty clear that Johns whispers something into his ear. Then again, that scene (on 91) undercuts itself by pointing out that it’s too dark for Pelletier to see what happened. Maybe Johns never even answered the question. It looks like we can’t be sure. But it all seems pretty sordid to me.

What do y’all think?

13 thoughts on “What Would They Criticize?

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston February 5, 2010 / 9:44 am

    I note that the Johns bits are bookends to (or maybe bookended by? I’m a week ahead and forget the precise sequencing) a whole lot of stuff about prostitution. (Were this a book in English, I’d try to attach some meaning to the fact that the man’s name corresponds to the name we give to clients of prostitutes). Both the prostitutes and, in this case, the artist are selling their bodies (the artist rather more literally, or at least permanently, than the prostitutes). Yet you recoil not from the prostitution (and Espinoza’s blunt statement that they’re made to be fucked, not psychoanalyzed) and its attendant reification but from the commoditization of the artist’s body. That sounds like an accusation, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s just a curious juxtaposition, and I wonder if you have any thoughts as to why one might react so strongly in the one case but not in the other.

    I agree that either Johns or Morini may be untrustworthy, and it’s not at all clear to me that Johns did in fact sell his hand for the money. As antagonistic as he seems to be toward Morini, I can see him telling Morini it was for the money just to get his goat. What a cruel thing to say to a man stripped of full and proper use of his body through no apparent doing of his own.

    Re Johns and Pinoncelli, I can’t help escaping the fact that Pinoncelli has a connection to Duchamp, who’s referenced in this section and the next (in a couple of ways, I think) and later in the book. I won’t elaborate for fear of spoilage (though I don’t think it’d really be spoilage), but keep your eyes peeled. Still, the Hirst reference is a neat one to be turned on to as well.

    • Jeff Anderson February 5, 2010 / 2:06 pm

      You bring up a good point about the connection between the prostitutes and Johns. My instant excuse would be that I was trying to stick mainly to talking about him and his show, but that’s a bit facile. I think they’re addressed so close together in order to highlight the tie between them. I guess I am more upset by the hand incident, probably, as you say, because it’s permanent. I mean, it’s often difficult (especially given what we see of Vanessa’s life) to extricate prostitution from exploitation and degradation, but to the extent that it can be done, I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with the former. And I don’t really much like Espinoza or Pelletier, so I’m not that worked up about Espinoza’s comment: he’s a brute (worse, actually; think of the cabbie) speaking for himself, and it’s just one more reason to dislike him. Still, thanks for the question—I want to introspect a bit more on that one.

    • Dan Summers February 5, 2010 / 4:19 pm

      FWIW, I did recoil from the critics’ recourse to prostitutes, and considered it yet another justification for my increasing dislike for them.

  2. Daryl February 5, 2010 / 3:47 pm

    Facile or not, your instant excuse is reasonable enough for me. 🙂 In light of the violence that we’ve had only a peek at so far and will become immersed in shortly, I am very much inclined to consider the matter of exploitation of and degradation of women. I agree that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with prostitution, but I think we will get a sense as we move on that there’s a nasty imbalance between the price people will pay to reward a self-inflicted wound like Johns’s vs. what they’ll pay for a woman’s body (whether that body is being used for sex or, say, as a disposable set of hands in a factory).

    Of course, there’s also the matter of art for art’s sake vs. art produced so that critic-pimps like our bunch can come along and not only appropriate the work but feel a sense of entitlement/ownership w/r/t the artist’s very person (else why chase the man?). Maybe Bolaño’s exploring that relationship in Johns’s self-mutilation as well.

    • Jeff Anderson February 5, 2010 / 6:50 pm

      I think you’re probably right on to be wary of what’s coming, as far as that imbalance goes. (You’ve read the book, you’d know.) I kind of dread what’s going to happen, because it taps into such a large area of violence and injustice and social rot, and that’s always depressing.

      “Critic-pimps” is nicely tart, I think. I like the way it expresses that aspiration of personal ownership, and it feeds right back in to the pure commodification of human beings that you gesture toward with the disposable set of hands. It’s harmful when people become materiel, in whatever way.

  3. Dan Summers February 5, 2010 / 4:27 pm

    I think the episode with Johns reveals a lot of Bolano’s cynicism about the way we approach art. (The broader commentary about criticism that permeates the entire first section of the book is of a piece with this.) Johns knows how the world values art as spectacle and sensation, and makes a cold calculation about how to succeed therein.

    And look at how the critics exploit Archimboldi. Their entire careers are built on the legacy of his actual work. He creates, they dissect, comment, criticize and make a comfortable place for themselves in the world. No surprise that they avail themselves of prostitutes. The way Bolano writes them, their entire world is based on exploitation.

    • Jeff Anderson February 5, 2010 / 6:44 pm

      Dan, you just covered in 50-some words what I spent 1,000 maundering about, and more clearly. My hat, I take it off.

      And while I agree with you that Bolaño writes our critical quadrumvirate as (almost?) exclusively exploitative and parasitic, I have to think he’s got his thumb on the scale there. It’s probably my ambition squeaking in my ear, but there must be room for good criticism—analysis, constructive thinking toward new understandings, that kind of thing. Properly done, it’s another kind of creation; not always necessarily the same as artistic creation, surely, but still a valuable kind. Perhaps Bolaño would have disagreed.

      • Dan Summers February 5, 2010 / 8:02 pm

        Oh, certainly. I absolutely agree both that Bolano (and I still haven’t mastered the tilde here on the PC in my office) has it in for critics, and there is a place for good criticism. I tried to indicate this by saying “the way that Bolano writes them,” but I’m happy to clarify. I don’t really know where Bolano’s beef with critics comes from, but it has become more and more apparent as the novel has unfolded.

  4. Jeff Anderson February 5, 2010 / 8:19 pm

    Ah, sorry to have misread. We’re on the same page, then. Now I’m curious whether maybe Bolaño had some really ugly run-in with the lit-crit establishment, but then I start to feel psychoanalytical and irrelevant. 🙂

    Protip: To make the ñ on a PC, hold down Alt and type 0241 on your numeric keypad, then release Alt. (Or just highlight the name somewhere, then copy and paste.)

    • Dan Summers February 6, 2010 / 12:33 pm

      FINALLY it works! (On my Mac at home I can do it no problem.)

      A thousand blessings on you and yours.

      ñ, ñ, ñ!! Wheeeeee!!

  5. Todd Murry February 11, 2010 / 5:36 pm

    I think you glossed over the madness aspect too quickly. I read this Johns’ story as one of a guy loosing faith in the fact that things have meaning, and doing something so crass as to practically dare the critical establishment, buyers – anyone at all really – to call him on his bullshit (hoping they would). When they not only didn’t, but in fact rewarded him more richly than he’d have thought possible, it proved so that “meaning” was not a sane concept. It’s like a religious person categorically, through some experiment with human nature, finding out that god exists but is retarded and/or completely bonkers. I thank that’s a pervasive theme of the novel so far… humanity’s delusion that they’ve found meaning somehow dissolving, and what it’s like “outside the wall” (to reference another work touching on this theme) or (in this novel) inside the cave. And what better place to start examining that sort of delusion that by looking at critics.

    • Jeff Anderson February 11, 2010 / 8:37 pm

      That’s an interesting interpretation, Todd, and one I’d like to hear more about. It’s a reading I think I’d be quite sympathetic to, if you could show me more. For instance: Do we get something from Bolaño that shows Johns losing that faith? I remember something more like a snapshot of the artist as a young rogue, but I might be forgetting something.

  6. Todd Murry February 15, 2010 / 2:27 pm

    I’m just saying that you’ve got to, when trying to get a read on this, explain why he’s crazy. If you take the straightforward info literally, he chopped off his hand for money and got money. If that were it, he’d just be drinking by a pool or something. But maybe I out to fine a point on it. Maybe he didn’t consciously do this as a test… he believed he was doing it for the stated reason, but when things worked out the way they did, the lack of repercussions (again, this is probably too simple a word) attracted an existential predator from his unconscious mind. In fact, I think this feels more right than what I said before – he didn’t do it as a test, but he was, on some level, not able to deal with the existential implications of what he doing actually working perfectly, and the physical reminder of the “lack” of whatever – the possibility of meaning really – was just an outward manifestation of the gnawing nothingness that started eating at him.

    My issue is that I don’t know that I have anything to support that except the faith that the fact that he was driven over the edge was important somehow, and this is a way that makes sense to me in terms of what’s being struggled with (the whole book so far seems to me to be about the human need for meaning and an examination of people trying to find meaning in various states of having imposed – i.e. fake – meaning stripped away… y’know, refried Sartre).

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