Per Contra

Summer 2007

Visual Arts

Back to Archive 

Still Against The Grain by Donald Kuspit



Like Jarry, Artaud (1896-1948) was anti-bourgeois, but for a different reason:  he thought the bourgeoisie was indifferent to and unaware of the unconscious.  Artaud “attempted to replace the ‘bourgeois’ classical theatre with his ‘theatre of cruelty,’ a primitive ceremonial experience to liberate the human subconscious and reveal man to himself.”  It is worth noting that the Britannica writer puts bourgeois in quotation marks, implying that for Artaud consciousness was inherently “bourgeois.”  Indeed, for both Jarry and Artaud, “bourgeois” was a generic term for civilization, consciousness, and high art--the Others in control from their perspective.  Civilization, consciousness, and high art had to be negated, that is, control had to be subverted so that uncontrolled or chance unconscious impulse could express itself.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that one is conscious of expressing it; too much consciousness would make for art.  Presumably such chance, primitive, anarchistic, unartistic expression is more authentic--because more deep-rooted--than conscious, civilized, controlled, artistic expression.  It is self-evident in Chimes’s well-painted portraits, however much uncontrollable chance impulse continues to exist in the “primitive,” anarchistic grain of his frames.  The split between the painted portraits and the wooden frames suggesting the split in Chimes’s psyche between unconscious impulse and conscious control.  Like Jarry and Artaud, Duchamp also was a negator, as he acknowledged.  If, as Janine Chassequet-Smirgel argues, negation is perversion when it involves turning the world upside down without setting it right again, then Jarry, Artaud, and Duchamp are perverts. 


“Lifelong mental disorders sent [Artaud] repeatedly in asylums,” and he ended his days in one.  There he wrote hostile letters to famous people--in effect superegos--and made portraits tracking his mental deterioration.  The emotional distortion evident in the face of Chimes’s portrait, based on a photograph of the young Artaud, becomes flagrant in Artaud’s late self-portraits.  One scholar thinks that “Artaud’s... works, less important than his theories, were failures.”  But one of them “Heliogabulus, or the Crowned Anarchist” (1934), deals, however obliquely, with the paradoxical relationship between social destructiveness and impulsive creativity--the use of creative power to subvert society, resulting in the artist’s Samson-like destruction of the temple of art.  It is the pre-eminent symbol of civilization and consciousness at their most masterful--in firm control of unconscious impulse and fantasy, their anarchy socialized by being transmuted into dynamic structure.   But Artaud, along with Jarry, regards such control--self-control and social control--as bourgeois and thus philistine.  The sacred temple of traditional art is a philistine place of bourgeois self-worship for them.  Stripping civilizing and controlling consciousness from art, the anarchistic artist destroys its bourgeois temple, that is, the museum--leaving anti-art--the ruin of civilized and civilizing art--in his wake.  One has only to recall all the anti-museum statements in avant-garde manifestos to get the point.


Helioglabulus or Elagabulus (204-222) was similarly destructive.  Becoming emperor in 218, that is, as an adolescent, he became “famous mostly for his eccentric behavior.”  “He imposed the worship of Baal upon the Roman world,” subverting its traditional worship of the Olympians.  Thus he provoked Roman society as a whole by replacing a civilized high religion with a barbaric low religion.  He executed generals who disagreed with him, much as the avant-gardists executed traditional artists.  He openly held homosexual orgies, offending and outraging Roman morals.  He further provoked Roman society by giving his favorites important positions because he found them personally beautiful.  He had gone too far--here was someone with supreme authority who subverted social authority from the inside.  Helioglabulus was killed by his own Praetorian Guard, in what can be regarded as a suicide by murder.  He had to be killed to preserve Roman sanity and society, not to say dignity and order.  He did what was socially forbidden--certainly in public--and unconsciously knew he would be punished for baiting society.         


Jarry, Artaud, and Duchamp are Heliogabulus-like Samsons.  In attacking and destroying the temple of bourgeois art, they attacked and destroyed themselves.  (I regard Duchamp’s abandonment of art for chess as a form of self-destruction, all the more so because he regarded a game of chess--like his word games--as a quasi-scientfic experiment rather than a tasteful work of art.)  Chimes rises above them by restoring the temple of art they subverted and ruined by portraying them with the high art it preserved for posterity, as though they were as sacred and immortal as the temple.  It is an ironical way of undoing what they did.  Chimes dialectically reverses the damage what they did:  subsumed in his high art, they become high artists themselves.  He in effect civilizes their anarchy by enlisting it in the cause of high art. 


To fully understand the difficulty of Chimes’s redemptive task, one has to squarely face “Jarry’s scatological intent,” as Elizabeth K. Menon calls it in her essay “The Excrement of Power:  Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi, and Dada.”  “The customized word ‘merdre’ was pronounced, a total of thirty-three times” in Ubu roi.  This provocative “mot magique,” as Rachilde called it, “served as the opening line of the play.”  “The plot of Ubu Roi was simple,” as Menon writes--as simple as that word, and indicative of the adolescent simplemindedness of Jarry.


What Menon does not note is the age-old unconscious equation money and shit (analyzed by Freud), suggesting that Ubu Roi’s money-hunger--he “murder[s] anyone to increase his own wealth,” as Menon says--reflects Jarry’s desperate need for money.  It is worth adding that Ubu Roi was “a grotesquely obese mounted guard,” suggesting that Jarry unconsciously realized his own grotesqueness and the grotesque position of the avant-garde.  Ubu, “encouraged by his wife, butchers the royal family in Poland [and] usurps the throne,” implying that he is the winner in an Oedipal drama.  Ubu’s attempt to repeat his success by overthrowing the Russian czar fails, and “Ubu and his wife sail to France,” that is, he returns to reality.  It is a rude awakening:  the money is running out, leaving him to perish in his own shit. 


Jarry, it should be noted, was homosexual, like Helioglabulus, and “Marcel Jean and, more recently, [Dana] Tiffany have declared the use of spirals in the textual and visual works of be direct references to his homosexuality....As Tiffany explains:  ‘The spiral is a direct and graphic representation of ‘inversion,’ the static drawing of a spiral actually seeming to turn upon itself in an optical illusion that never comes to an end.  The question of inversion is central to any discussion” of Jarry.  Tiffany notes that in the various portraits of Ubu that Jarry made, “the spiral is stamped on Ubu’s belly, as both a graphic representation of the intestines and, through the relationship between the words gidouille and androuille, ‘not only the word for sausage, which in link form are more or less like the intestines, but also a rather savory word for indicating the final product of the intestines, which is intimately associated with the location of homosexual intercourse’.”  Perhaps Jarry’s homosexuality was a mask for coprophilia.  The spiral can also be regarded as a symbol of fellatio performed on oneself, suggesting narcissistic inversion.


Be that as it may, Manon and Linda Henderson suggest that “Duchamp’s adoption of the spiral forms for his Rotoreliefs  and in his Anémic Cinéma” derives from Jarry’s pataphysics, and that Duchamp’s Rrose Selavy  and L.H.O.O.Q. may be an acknowledgement of his homosexuality, whether acted upon or not.  (Leonardo was homosexual, and Duchamp may have been identifying with his homosexuality as well as his genius.)  But what I want to get at is Duchamp’s muted Tourette’s-like tendency to the scatological and inverted--they are pataphysically inseparable--use of words.  Michel Arrivé writes that Jarry “was ‘inventing a new language made up of word parts already infused with their own sets of meanings.”  Thus “the words physique, phynance, and merdre  existed on a level of equivalence” for Jarry.  This may have been a way of disguising his shame at being a homosexual while at the same time demonstrating and celebrating its “deviance” and “originality,” that is, the homosexual’s special and privileged way of making original or unbourgeois connections--based on the belief that homosexual intercourse is an original or radically different way of having sexual intercourse, and as such anti-bourgeois, perhaps even a sort of revenge on heterosexual intercourse ideologized as bourgeois, all the more so because the parents that are one’s origin had to be heterosexual (of course they no longer have to be). 


The basic point is that Jarry’s “Parler Ubu” was appropriated by Duchamp, as Manon convincingly argues.  Roger Shattuck has described Parler Ubu “ ’as quasi royal speech’ that results in ‘coarse inverted preciousness’,” which seems an accurate description of Duchamp’s punning word and object--and words were readymades for him--games.  Writing about Anémic Cinéma, Katrina Martin notes that one “sense[s] ‘something dirty’ without knowing precisely why” in Duchamp’s manipulation of language.  “For instance DE GROS THE ‘reads’ as décrotter, in vulgar slang, ‘to de-crap’.”  Duchamp goes Jarry one conceptual step better.  Using Duchamp’s distinction between “animal expression” and “intellectual expression”--he despised the former, perhaps because it was too emotionally and physically direct (let us recall that he made minor Fauvist, that is, wild beast or savage paintings before he became a conceptual guru)--one can say that Jarry gives us an “animal expression” of shit, the more fastidious Duchamp gives us an “intellectual expression” of shit.  As Manon writes, “Alfred Jarry may indeed have thrown merde  into the faces of his audience at the opening of Ubu Roi; with the Anémic Cinéma  Marcel Duchamp placed the suggestion insidiously in the viewer’s brain.  While he had written the following equation in 1914, arrhe/art=merdre/merde, Duchamp’s closest approximation of the ‘scatology of art’ implied by the performance of Ubu Roi, was his 1917 presentation of a urinal as a fountain, which caused a similar disruption to public sensibilities.”  Both were “surprises”--suggesting just how quickly Apollinaire’s idea of surprise, which, as Shattuck wrote, involved “not a shattering of tradition but a careful selection of the best of traditional elements” (such as we see in T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland), degenerated into the realization that the only thing that could surprise people was the scatological, that is, humiliating public exposure to shit, suggesting that the public was composed of assholes.  Thus surprise was quickly degraded into shock, but of course the shock could not last, which is why one had to continue to throw shit at the public, which is what Dada did, as Manon makes clear.  But by then shit was another public nuisance and irritation, for the shock waves from World War I continued to reverberate long after Dada shit and shock became fashionable art.  Dali writes that Duchamp wanted to make belly buttons with shit in them--the ultimate Dada ironic gesture; the next best thing is Manzoni’s cans of shit.                


Chimes’s importance has to do with his post-avant-garde ability to transmute avant-garde adolescent shitmakers--anti-artists, that is, artists who regard their shit as art and transformed art into shit without digesting it--into fine artists despite themselves.  His way of doing so--of getting out of left-over avant-garde shit--is to turn Jarry, “the Adolescent God,” as Tiffany called him--I would say would-be God--into a plain old art god by portraying him as a morbidly magnificent presence.  It is an act of great generosity as well as obsessive homage.  Chimes suggests in effect that Jarry’s pataphysical anti-estheticism--and all those who appropriated and developed it, that is, who turn anti-bourgeoisism into a movement (which is of course to turn shit (in whatever form), the ultimate universal readymade and discarded-rejected nihilistic material, into a movement)--is in historical fact a surprisingly new esthetic, and thus genuine art, by portraying them with esthetic care and respect.  Thus Chimes preserves creative sanity by transcending their creative insanity in the act of acknowledging it.  It is a wonderful achievement:  Chimes inverts the inverted, that is, dialectical reverts to them in a grand synthesis of the tradition of the new they inaugurated and the Old Master tradition they thought they were destroyed and synthesizing.  This makes Chimes what I call a New Old Master, at least in his panel portraits.  Ironically, Chimes regressively attends to the original avant-gardists to strengthen the ego of the traditional art they subverted.  Paradoxically, by depicting them as strangely strong rather than pathologically weak egoes--oddly infallible for all their fallibility--Chimes does art and society a great service by defeating their anti-art anarchism.



Links to Works by Thomas Chimes:

Portrait of Alfred Jarry

Antonin Artaud