Welcome Back, Kenner!

from the New York Press, 9 November 2005 

“Odd, dangerous speculations which no decent professor ought to propound,” was Anthony Burgess’s take on a book -- not this one -- by the late (d. 2003) Hugh Kenner. Let’s use it anyway as a fanfare riff heralding the autumn’s reissue of The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy from the Dalkey Archive. Funny, short, yet jaw-dropping in the scope of its subject matter, Kenner’s book originally appeared in 1968, and for some years thereafter drifted in and out of print without really finding the readers it deserved among English majors weaned, teethed and packed off to grad school under the influence of The Pound Era and Kenner’s other scholarly spadework into the rich loam of literary Modernism. Maybe this time around will be different.

If it is, it could be because enough time has gone by for us to realize how much the world we live has been conditioned by the phenomenon Kenner was alert enough to spot coiled up in the cultural crabgrass of the Vietnam era and poked at with his professorial pointer. Though his conclusions do not lend themselves to dogmatic reformulation or even paraphrase, they mainly have to do with the contention that, from the eighteenth century onwards, human artifacts loosely classified as works of art and literature are being created by their creators and contemplated and evaluated by their end-users “as stylish quotations, [so that] the environment they create is a cultural echo chamber, reverberant with scraps of dead languages. Things are utterances.”

His case histories include a good many “which the Dewey Decimal System (a Romantic artifact) prefers to keep in different parts of the building: the Enlightenment; Buster Keaton (stoic comedian); bad poetry, Albrecht Durer; Joyce, Swift, Pope; closed systems, mathematical and mechanical; Charles Babbage and his Calculating Engines…" They all illustrate of what happens when art becomes simulation (the posterization of Van Gogh’s sunflowers), impersonation (the memoirs of a non-existent Robinson Crusoe), satire, forgery or plagiarism (all of which involve appropriating a pre-existing creation or mannerism) reiteration (Duchamp's urinal transformed by curatorial label into a“fountain”), and allusion (Ulysses, of course, considered as a tapestry of allusion to Western culture).

Strange to think that Kenner was on to all this back in 1968, long before you could browse the Vatican Library on your computer screen, dial up one of the 30-odd Elvis impersonators working Vegas according to your“preferred incarnation” (Rockabilly Cat, 1968 Comeback Black Leathers, Majestic Vegas), or witness the ablation of critical values that allowed the Modernist masterworks Kenner examined with enthusiasm and insight to be trampled underfoot by tenured jackasses, or pick up a born-again alt weekly hyping a 40-year-old book under a heading that struggles to resonate with a long extinct eighties TV show.

In 1968, Andy Warhol was only just beginning to shed his reputation as a media zany and be taken seriously on the way to becoming --- as he must, with all due justice, be considered -- the most influential artist of the century. Kenner saw that it was not the soup cans silk-screened on canvas (imitation, representation) that would take Warhol far beyond famous. Nope, it was the soup cans he acquired for 17 cents at Safeway’s and resold for six bucks a pop after affixing his signature to them. As Kenner perceived, at that point the can ceased its existence as an object and became “a statement by Andy Warhol…transformed from a mere item of commerce into a slight but irreducible, complex, somewhat facetious utterance having to do with the status of the artist, the nature of art, the autism of a culture that buys what it eats unseen and then looks at nothing it buys, photolithographed abundance, conspicuous nonconsumption and the long history of artifact as counterfeit.“

Around that same time, in a book called Painting and Reality, Catholic intellectual Etienne Gilson was agonizing over the question of whether authenticity still had any residual meaning and Orson Welles, himself no stranger to connivance and duplicity, undertook an on-camera exploration of his lifelong fascination with the subversive potential of forgers, hoaxers, con artists, charlatans, quacks and shams. Though it could just as easily have been Kenner, it was Welles, in fact, who remarked in F for Fake that “Man cannot escape his destiny to create whatever it is we make -- jazz, a wooden spoon, or graffiti on the wall. All of these are expressions of man's creativity, proof that man has not yet been destroyed by technology. But are we making things for the people of our epoch or repeating what has been done before? And finally, is the question itself important?”

The same year Kenner’s book came out saw Charlton Heston don a loincloth (in Spanish known as a taparrabos, or weenie-wrapper) for his travels and adventures on the original, never-to-be forgotten Planet of the Apes. A liftetime or so later, the mailman delivers a lavish catalogue from an outfit known as Profiles in History that invites me to bid on a selection of prop house discards and high-end Hollywood collectibles including Dawn Wells’s (Mary Ann to you) hand-annotated scripts for Gilligan’s Island, but it is the Crucified Gorilla on Page 52 to which I am irresistibly drawn.

You know which one — in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the primate crucified upside down in a vision induced by post-Apocalyptic mutants endowed with psychic mojo. This“beautifully-crafted” artefact lashed to crossed poles, is in near-mint condition. It languished in a Minnesota car dealership for 30 years, until it was recognized as a work of art and (we may hope) given a thorough vacuuming. Going by the estimates, it could have been yours (or mine) for about $12,000.

But if I were the lucky owner of the life-size crucified ape, what should I tell people when I had them over for cocktails? What they would be seeing depends, as Kenner says, on the statement being made and that would depend on the Certificate of Authenticity that the auctioneers promise to supply.

So it might very well indeed be a prop once featured in a 1970s sci-fi classic. But it just as easily could be a present from a well-wisher in the Indian state of Assam where, Sir James Frazer tells us, crucified primates (Entellus monkeys) were at one time used by the Garos tribe in “certain ceremonies which are observed once a year by a whole community or village, and are intended to safeguard its members from dangers of the forest, and from sickness and mishap during the coming twelve months.” Or it could it even be an original work by Monika Steinhoff, the Santa Fe, New Mexico artist who put her crucified gorilla in a painting entitled “And God Gave Dominion” which was refused by the local community college she wanted to donate it to. Now, there’s real art for you and probably a hell of a lot more affordable than an original Andrés Serrano.

Any one of these pedigrees could validate the inverted ape as a work of art, as well as a conversation piece, but as Hugh Kenner points out, without a statement of intent from the artist, or the ape itself making its own contextualizing utterance, it’s hard to say what the subject of the conversation would be. This, however, would not be a problem, if you go instead for Charlton Heston’s taparrabos.


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