In work and love, people get boxed in, edged out, ruined; others find acceptance, win prizes and are vied for. A few are venerated, even adulated. True meritocracies are rare. Talent aside, whatever it is, human beings, like other animals, favour their own, cautiously adopting outsiders, especially those who will keep treasure close. A sociologist once told me that the only outcome your college statistically and reliably predicts is your marriage partner.
Our aggressive species has its survival methods, which usually relate to competition. Class, race, ethnicity, religion, sex: these categories for exclusion and inclusion were long ago transformed into naturalized or so-called civilized mechanisms. Snobbery persists based on these dubious categories. Self-described snobs, necessarily deluded, sit on top of this survivalist heap, priding themselves on their taste. ‘Taste’, in this instance, connotes ‘good’ but everyone has taste or preferences. ‘I prefer not to,’ declared Bartleby. He had no taste for copying anymore.
Calvin Tomkins’s new book, Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews (Badlands Unlimited, 2013), is my latest friend. Tomkins met Duchamp in 1959 to interview him for Newsweek magazine; over time, the art critic and artist became friends. Of Tomkins’s many books, two earlier publications are on Duchamp: The Bride and The Bachelors (1965) and Duchamp: A Biography (1996).
Duchamp talked to Tomkins about taste: ‘Taste is an experience that I try not to let into my life. Bad, good or indifferent, it doesn’t come in. I’m so against interior decorators … You don’t have to be happy or unhappy about it, you see? … Taste can’t help you understand what art can be.’
Taste is a five-letter word no one discusses. Mentioning it, I notice friends and colleagues look at their menus or their nails. Mumbling begins, then silence. I’m not kidding, completely. People like to believe their sensibilities, approaches or attitudes have been educated, nurtured or expanded beyond mere taste, ‘bad, good or indifferent’. It is also a matter of taste not to appreciate taste.
Duchamp distinguishes between the ‘onlooker’ and the artist. ‘The priority of the connoisseur or whatever you call him isn’t to speak the same language as the artist […] But don’t say the artist is a great thinker because he produces it. The artist produces nothing until the onlooker has said, “You have produced something marvelous.” The onlooker has the last word on it.’ Duchamp holds that these formations – artist and onlooker – perceive the same object differently, having very different aims. But the onlooker will determine the worth and fate of the art(ist).
Conversations among artists and writers about work often centre on ‘how to make it work’. Craft, materials and considerations of space regularly come into discussion – work talk. Periodontists see diseased gums, wherever they are, just as musicians and composers hear with other ears.
I regularly question my preferences. Why I like or dislike writing, a photograph. I don’t trust experience, even if it has shaped me; I don’t fervently trust what I think or believe, while I believe it still. A pox on absolutes! I could trace a genealogy of what I think and like, which is, to some extent, what I was exposed to, taught, made conscious of, and decided not to be or accept. Tendrils of difference and objections sprouting rebellions and self-discoveries – I could list them. But I couldn’t create an order for my character, and hold it/me to a neat line. (When I learned to write, I wrote fast, not on the lines, only below or above.)
My preferences change and change again. Once I believed, doing studio painting with Ron Gorchov and Doug Ohlson, that the figure would never return. Once, involved in showing and making experimental films, I believed Hollywood movies were uninteresting. One night, watching a structuralist-materialist black-and-white film of its celluloid grain, I asked myself: 'Why am I watching this?' Like Bartleby, I preferred not to, anymore. Whatever I’ve ‘renounced’ resides somewhere, pinging and ponging, because ideas live on, more or less alive in different moments. Being for or against something now is less interesting to me than understanding what it does, how it does it, and why it’s being done.
Which brings me to the art world’s obsession with decade-ism. The so-called literary world stores much less faith on periods of emergence. The new is treasured more in visual art than in writing; the literary world is backward in so many ways, and I will not count them. But a first book comes out in 1991, say, and the year stops being of interest, with the next book, whenever it comes out, which counts more, and then the next. A writer is thought to mature, even to write better and know more. The actual age of the writer matters today as a form of ‘branding’, but the brand becomes old, just as the writer will.
Artists get pinned to a decade. It’s as if time had stopped, the artist suspended in it. Artists think in and through their work, during all the decades after the one in which they debuted. If humans weren’t perverse, in Postmodernity the ‘post’ would become valuable.
People now live so long, many past 100. Extended middle and old-age pushes youth further and further back in time, making being young really a thing of the past. Something interesting could emerge from that.
Lynne Tillman lives in New York, USA. Her recent collection of essays, What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, was shortlisted for th 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. She is the recipient of a 2015 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Awards in Arts Writing.
First published in Issue 155