Head in a Jar: Watching Artists

Rhythm 0

When I was just out of school and working in food service I hoped there would never be a time when the wish of Robert Crumb – as related to the audience by his wife and fellow artist, Aline, in Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb – to just be a head in a jar would resound so much. But I still think all the time about how I do think I am or I wish I was a head in a jar, not a body. Watching bodies is something I think about as one who is very isolated: that I need it, that I should do it. Only July 8th I read my writing for an audience for the first time since an audience has become a new thing. When I was a student, class had to have been a performance and my classmates an audience because I was acting by being there, I was a horrible student. I went for the crowd. When I read it did not matter if anyone was listening and I felt it would be most apt if people went about like they would be there anyway and did not pay me more attention than the books in the store they could not divide their attention into small enough pieces to look at – I wanted to acknowledge my work as the person who created it and as someone carrying something for which I am responsible. Otherwise I could go about what I do like I do not create work, and my work has nothing to do with my body. Then I consider what my body is for and why I write. I think about why this is the form toward which I have gravitated even though I have no visual model, even though I never saw someone write and took that into consideration plus the impulse to be a head in a jar.

Marina Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective at the MoMA included a performance called”the Artist is Present” and this was the subject of a documentary by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre – also called the Artist is Present – that premiered July 2nd on HBO. Throughout the documentary, Abramovic prepares to execute “the Artist is Present,” during which she sat for three months during the MoMA’s hours of operation with minimal movement, at a seat in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium, mostly at a desk that was ultimately removed, across from whoever wanted to sit with her for any length of time. In discussing her career, Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator of the MoMA and ex-spouse of Abramovic, elucidated for the audience – in a manner that recalled insistent reiteration for his own benefit, that included a reminder of their status as divorced – that in seeing Abramovic perform, she is using her body as a sculptor uses clay, that the audience must not mistake the quality of the emotional transaction. Those mistakes formed “the Artist is Present” as much as Abramovic’s palate-cleansing deep breath and unveiling of her powerful eyes anew to each person who sat down.

A week before I heard the Artist is Present was to air I found the book published by the MoMA in commemoration of the Abramovic retrospective. The book contains an essay by Nancy Spector on the subject of Abramovic’s “Seven Easy Pieces,” a 2005 performance at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum wherein Abramovic recreated five historic performance art pieces by other artists of the sixties and seventies as well as one of her own classic pieces, plus a new one.  Spector’s essay is concerned with Abramovic’s recreation of the historic performances as a mode of documentation and the issues of documenting a temporal art form like performance art: when does making art turn into “performing the documentation?”

Without documentation, I would be aware of very few of the things – I would probably not be aware of any of the things, in fact – that have dramatically affected my life and my decision to write. This itself is frustrating because documents are subjective, even when they are transcriptive, and time enhances that: I have something documented on YouTube in HD versus I have something documented on deteriorating VHS. I have something laser printed versus I have something on pencil and notebook paper that’s been hugging another pencil-ridden piece of notebook paper so long you cannot see it. When I was a writing student there was definitely talk of publishing in the tone of “this is something you might consider,” but from the first assignment on, the visual arts students learned how to make their most minor tasks archival-quality, and I was fascinated by the concern for this, about modes of perpetuation. Unlike my professors, I like the Internet. I like publishing online and being able to tell anyone whether they have money or not that they can read my work, and unless the site is erased by the editor in a flourish of embarrassment and purged from the Wayback Machine, it is not going anywhere. Back issues notwithstanding, eventually the current edition of a print journal will be replaced by a new one, but writers my age and older still prefer to work in print for its tangibility, even though the temporal realities of those two mediums are really working in reverse. To say that work on the Internet never goes away is not necessarily true, but it is more difficult to bury it. Something you write might be bobbing on dashboards for decades.

Robert Crumb is an illustrator working in a more fixable medium. He has sustained himself financially on his art for virtually his entire adult life. He has done very little besides be an artist professionally, and even when he had a day job, he was an illustrator for Hallmark. This was not necessarily what compelled Terry Zwigoff, his friend, to make a documentary about him – Crumb – in 1995. Zwigoff was interested in how Crumb’s success as an artist figured into the narrative of his life, a major part of which was his older and younger brothers, both artists and significantly less functional people. Early in the documentary, Crumb draws himself paralyzed by Zwigoff’s cameras. He speaks at an art school bemusedly about his success, highlighting his most enduring comics, most of which endure against his will. His career – its robust quality and very existence – are what makes Crumb a captivating subject, to what extent it is amazing that he’s making art and free to make so much of it. Especially when all he wants is to be a head in a jar.

Crumb’s subject – relentlessly – is his desire, even when he’s drawing Bugs Bunny. In engaging those around him about his relationship to bodies, his past and current lovers describe what an externally focused person he is, whose focus comes so firmly from a place inside so fixed that everything he surrounds himself with is rigidly dictated by an internal shape, one that is all about him and nobody else.

When I listen to the people that I know approach the topic of success – approach and rarely arrive, because I know a lot of artists and many of them have invested such sums of money into studying their art that they feel the bloated dreams that people divulge when they hear of novelists and painters are tacky and off-limits, even after drinking for more than half the day – there is an impulse to professionalize that might be reactionary to the raw deal provided by our age and this time. This is not everyone I know, but ideal career paths delineated by my friends sound very similar to Crumb’s.

That tension between wanting to erase oneself, becoming only the work yielded by the process of erasure, to find oneself not only more there than anybody else but also the subject of scrutiny, makes compelling narrative. I would not be interested in any of this were it not for Fran Lebowitz. Lebowitz, an essayist, had a column in Interview in the 1970s until it became one book which begot another, at which point she was such an established writer that the sum she was offered for her forthcoming – as yet unwritten – book became the subject of a half-joke about the lucrative possibility of never writing again. Lebowitz avoided writing thereafter, and in 2010 was the subject of Martin Scorsese’s Public Speaking.

After arriving at a point that intoned financial success around which Lebowitz could not wrap her head – she describes in the documentary how she repeatedly turned down offers not as a tactic to negotiate greater offers, but out of absolute disbelief – she became too anxious to write. Unwilling to end her career as a voice, utilizing her status as “arrived,” Lebowitz became “the Willy Loman of literature” and started touring colleges. She characterizes public speaking as something completely separate from writing, something that comes to her with total ease and for which she feels equipped to take on all responsibility. She is a harsh and lucid judge and confident in what her words do when she is there to stand with them, but otherwise is ground to paralysis. The shift from working in a medium where one is present via consistent published works to a time-based form that has gone largely uncataloged is suggested as being as much the source of interest as Lebowitz’s captivating personality, particularly when she broaches the subject of AIDS. The erasure of those who she felt to be foremost in their artistic fields and – vitally – the audience that enjoyed them, the most discerning, vigorous fans, were ephemeral, and this culture has not been preserved. The urgency with which Lebowitz characterizes this phenomenon is not unlike the way Scorsese structures the film around long monologues offered by Lebowitz in lieu of being recognizably interviewed. Capturing her speaking is an urgent matter and must be preserved. While all film is on some level about editing, both the Artist is Present and Crumb are formed by their narrative trajectory – the course of Abramovic’s and Crumb’s careers – the rhythm of Public Speaking is dictated by Lebowitz.

I had this in my head on my way to speak on July 26th to speak to another audience: paralysis. Stopping to be looked at, stopping because I’m being looked at, being looked at because I’ve stopped. The talk I had prepared was about writing – it was witty and succinct and varied – and it turned in front of my audience into a rambling plea to write regardless of whether or not they received any notice or recognition but to recognize each other and promote each other. I showed them the Anobium website. My friend, the professor who asked me to speak, took me home. I only live a few minutes away from the college – a technical school in the middle of rural Pennsylvania, where there is no organized program for writing but where the writing club is more vibrant and committed than anything operating at the liberal arts school I attended. I slumped into her passenger’s seat and apologized to her. She said it was good, the students got something important from it. They do not have any evidence that artists exist – they have never seen them. She said, when you see that you have to take note of it. Without context, you get hung up on why you do what you do when so much of its power lies in the permission it gives to others to do that with all their anxieties and massive feelings. I learned, I agreed – I am a better student now.

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