February 8, 2012

Mike Kelley "never lost his interest in the cut-rate products of American culture, work that for one reason or another ended up discounted and ignored."

"His art tried to make failure into the highest form of achievement," writes Richard B. Woodward in the Wall Street Journal about the artist "who died last week at the age of 57, reportedly a suicide."
His most identifiable body of work (late 1980s to early '90s) are the thrift-store stuffed animals that he placed on blankets in the middle of gallery floors. Their air of soiled hopes and cheerful failure became central to the critical movement of "pathetic" or "abject" art. But how should the icky pungency of these pieces be balanced against his later wish to distance himself from their popularity? "I was viewed as an infantilist, possibly a pedophile, or victim of abuse myself," he complained in a 1996 essay.
"Abject" is a great word. If you Google it, the first substantial hit — i.e., the first thing that's not just a definition of the word — is
"Introduction to Julia Kristeva, Module on the Abject":
According to to Julia Kristeva... the abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. The primary example for what causes such a reaction is the corpse (which traumatically reminds us of our own materiality); however, other items can elicit the same reaction: the open wound, shit, sewage, even the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk....

On the level of our individual psychosexual development, the abject marks the moment when we separated ourselves from the mother, when we began to recognize a boundary between "me" and other, between "me" and "(m)other."...The abject has to do with "what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules"... and, so, can also include crimes like Auschwitz. Such crimes are abject precisely because they draw attention to the "fragility of the law"...

A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being....

The abject for Kristeva is... closely tied both to religion and to art, which she sees as two ways of purifying the abject: "The various means of purifying the abject—the various catharses—make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion"....

26 comments:

Fen said...

Meh.

Our artists aren't suffering enough

Amexpat said...

There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all.

ricpic said...

Is icky pungency fungible?

Robert Cook said...

Mike Kelley's artwork doesn't do anything for me, but I like the work produced by his early experimental "rock" group, Destroy All Monsters.

New York said...

He should have stayed with Niagara and Ron Asheton in Destroy All Monsters.

Palladian said...

Years ago, Kelley did a video wherein a ghostly Sylvia Plath emerged from an oven. And now he's dead, suicide.

Depression is a cruel and terrible disease.

Ann Althouse said...

"There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all."

Thanks Amexpat. I nearly put that quote in the post but resisted because I predicted comments informing me for the nth time that Dylan's not all he's cracked up to be.

Ann Althouse said...

"Depression is a cruel and terrible disease."

And when an artist commits suicide it affects how we view the art. He showed us the pathetic... I would previously have thought: He's showing off and manipulating us. Now, I have to think: He was miserable and we maintained our distance.

Amexpat said...

I nearly put that quote in the post but resisted because I predicted comments informing me for the nth time that Dylan's not all he's cracked up to be.

"Well, they’ll stone ya when you’re trying to be so good
They’ll stone ya just a-like they said they would
They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to go home
Then they’ll stone ya when you’re there all alone
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned"

Peter Hoh said...

He showed us the pathetic... I would previously have thought: He's showing off and manipulating us. Now, I have to think: He was miserable and we maintained our distance.

Not waving, but drowning.

MayBee said...

Why are people drawn to the artistic products of people who are miserable? David Foster Wallace, Mike Kelley, Isabelle Blow-- the list is long. What does that say about the audience?

It's very interesting to me, especially when I compare it to how much the sophisticated crowd hates happy stuff like Disney movies.

wyo sis said...

What a pile of abject!

William said...

He truly embraced nihilism, and he didn't wait for death to kindly stop for him. Nihilism is the one religion whose followers achieve consumnation with their maker ...On the plus side, his collectors will see the value of his works appreciate considerably so you can't argue that his death was for nothing.

edutcher said...

Hate to say it, but the picture at the link reminds me of the Hale Bopp guy.

That he committed suicide is thus no surprise.

And Palladian's right, depression is Hell on earth.

gloogle said...

MayBee-

I think they are "drawn to the artistic products of people who are miserable" just as many people are drawn to car wrecks. However, I think some of these "art lovers" feel a need to justify to themselves their attraction to this art, so they wrap up the suffering in some mantle of nobility to delude themselves about their own true nature.

Dennis said...

All art recuperates something from the dark side. That something is a cultural, civilizational product, the method involves aesthetics. Whether it's literature, poetry, painting, movies, even blogposts... all art trades in the part of life that indicates death. All of art trades on bad behavior (from the Upanishad and Homer onward), and this especially includes history (including the Old Testament). Mike Kelly, only one of a significant portion of contemporary artists from Alfred Jarry onwards, was delving deeper and more baldly into the dark side. Artists go there in order to recuperate value from loss. Think of the function of ancient Greek drama. This might be a workable alternative definition of art: that which recuperates value from loss.

What artists should learn from this: that art is hazardous duty.

bgates said...

especially when I compare it to how much the sophisticated crowd hates happy stuff like Disney movies

Do we know that the artists responsible for the Disney movies weren't miserable?

I was drawn to "Infinite Jest" because it was so funny - so many unexpected ideas presented so smartly. I can't get more than 30 pages into "The Pale King" because it's the same talent deployed to evoke unrelenting dreariness.

Penny said...

The biggest difference between "artist" and "other" isn't talent. The critical difference is the willingness to expose your mind's eye to others, and for review and judgement, no less.

That's a mighty brave act that comes with a toll.

mtrobertsattorney said...

Given Dennis' theory of art, I wonder if a serial killer, with his carefully posed victims, is creating art.

Dennis said...

To mtrobertsattorney:

If an artist went so far as to murder and call the act art, then that moth has flown into the flame, and society would be just in executing him or her.

Easy, right?

Next example.

The point is the need to recognize the hazards involved.

Dennis said...

AA: "But how should the icky pungency of these pieces be balanced against his later wish to distance himself from their popularity?"

Actually, Kelly closed the distance between the object of his early art and his own subjectivity. Critical distance, I think is the word. He lost sight of himself, he lost the plot, he became that which he was once making art about. He committed the ultimate art crime: he took himself too seriously. He was successfully making art about failure and after a time, he must have felt he was himself a failure after all the cheer faded away for him, as cheer tends to do when we age.

Smilin' Jack said...

According to to Julia Kristeva...blah,blah,blah....

Hee. When art meets feminism, a perfect storm of blatherskite results.

kcom said...

Hey watch this:

Mystery of a Masterpiece

And then ask yourself who is going to be breathlessly pursuing Mike Kelley's store-bought stuffed animals five hundred years from now?

EK said...

From "Duck Soup":

Groucho Marx: “There he sits, an abject figure…”

Chico Marx: “I abject!”

Paco Wové said...

"He was miserable and we maintained our distance."

Occupational hazard.

MnMark said...

"His art tried to make failure into the highest form of achievement...(the artist) died last week at the age of 57, reportedly a suicide."

That sounds like a character right out of an Ayn Rand novel.