I have been wondering why there’s such an aversion to the middle aged. Most of my life, I have to admit, anything approaching middle age instantly set off my stink eye. I’m sure a few years on the couch will unwind this, but for now, I thought I’d discuss it publicly. As I approach my middle years I’ve been trying to look at myself through that very same stink eye in the hope that I might learn something beneficial about myself. The big question that keeps coming up is why do I see so many of the middle aged as douche bags and twats. I certainly don’t want to fall into either or both of those categories (hopefully I haven’t achieved those dubious distinctions already, or maybe, I’m just fooling myself.) Though in all honesty, anyone at any age can be either or both, a douche bag or a twat I mean. Nor do I want to see my aging friends and loved ones in that light either, though at times, I have and I do. But really, it seems in these middle years, there are so many of us that wind up shoving our heads up our arses. I have always wondered why ANYONE would want to become THAT kind of human being – I certainly don’t. Now, I bring this up for a few reasons, and if you are nowhere near middle age or you’re smugly comfortable with what you’ve become, then fuck off and do something daring. However, for the rest of us, well, we’re going to have a somewhat adult conversation about this.
The first thing that started me writing this post about the middle aged was a recent discussion on Jerry Saltz’s Facebook. The commenters had come up with a list of artists who should be shown at PS1 or some such (fuck all, what do I know I’m half asleep most of the time – I guess it’s the onslaught of dementia) and apparently they came up with a list of artists “over the age of 45-50 years old,” whatever that meant. Jerry then wanted a younger league table. I thought about this for a while and wondered what the difference would be aside from the age criteria. These days it’s getting more and more difficult to tell the older artists from the younger ones strictly by looking at their work. Case in point is the recent Jesus exhibit at the NUMU that promoted the fact that it was about YOUTH. Now to my eye a lot of the work in the show looked very much like work I’d seen throughout the last 10 or 15 years. I guess this is what Dave Hickey meant by style change – there has been none. We haven’t seen something “young” in that sense for quite a while. And maybe that’s part of the problem. We keep looking to the young to shape us, to change us and maybe, maybe, it should be the other way around. Maybe it’s up to us “get young.” Anyway, aside from a slightly fresher looking crowd, what would the grand difference really be to Jerry’s league table? The problem with “youth” in this sense, and for that matter, the middle aged, is the fact that Postmodernism is the only theoretical structure that anyone sees, and there are not many of us who seem willing to directly confront this issue in their work. It’s far easier to pretend that rebellion is built into the program, that freedom is already a done deal, that we are free to express ourselves just like everyone else. And who can blame them? To confront that monolith is not just throwing over theoretical or aesthetic issues. It’s also about the fact that money, corporate, institutional and academic keeps propping the system up and rewarding those that fall into line with the body politic. Now the simple solution would be to choke off the money, but even if this “solution” were possible, POMO goes deeper still. Postmodernism guides the way our society works. Its theoretics are built into the WAY programs work and programs run the world – business, politics and culture. Postmodernism is the ghost in the machine and a vicious, unforgiving poltergeist it is too. So back to my point -if the young are not making anything new, anything different than the middle aged, then who the fuck should care whether the artists are young or old?
Then I read an article by Charlie Finch promoting his middle aged artist friends – for Christ’s sake, it’s actually entitled that way. Now Charlie has always made a point of age and he has a preference for the young, female and fetching both in terms of art and artists. To my eye his aesthetic is a bit conservative, but always specific. He also has made a point about our physical, celebrity obsessed art business, and how in the last 3 decades the art world has become much more aligned to that sort of culture. Charlie understands the nature of this beast, and I don’t think he really likes it very much, but cest la vie. The thing about Charlie that I admire is he’s uncompromising about his truth. His writing over the last year has been exemplary, sharp and at times touching, and aside from the throw down with Hickey, Charlie has been right on point most of the time. I think he should start to put together (curate, I mean) some shows on his own, old and young, break free a bit, get physical. Now I say this because of something Dave Hickey (Charlie’s nemesis I think) said in his SVA speech that rang like a bell in my head. He said, at a certain point in the 90s, he decided to get young. Now this is something to hear from an old man. I took it to mean something deeper. Our culture now thinks like the middle aged, that we have let our minds atrophy and grown self-satisfied with our own tautologies. We’ve let our vision go blurry and we’ve let ourselves be convinced by our own voices – OK maybe I’m on a roll, but so what. In that sense we are all middle aged. Hell, don’t take my word for it, watch a Lady GaGa video and drown in the endless repetition of every Pop music business trope known to mankind – talk about the glorification of the sacrosanct.
It’s always the possibilities for change that seem to get limited as we age (look at all the hand wringing and lapel tearing being done today over the loss of a senate seat.) Maybe the middle years are those clichéd years of conservative ideas and the consolidation of power we all expect them to be. For example, this past weekend I went to see Eddie Izzard at Madison Square Garden thinking that I was in for a treat, a comedic tour-de-force. After the pretentious opening of laser lights and a video montage of his upcoming documentary (available for sale on the web) he appeared through a doorway in a fake stone wall like Jesus emerging from his tomb, the air throbbing with MOR rock and roll. The stage has 3 giant screens pumping his 5-foot-whatever-inch frame up to the size of Zeus himself, and he actually says in a Wizard of Oz kind of moment – you don’t have to look at me, look at the screen – or something to that effect. What we got after all that build up and blow up was a middle-aged poseur still doing the same act he had scripted in the early naughts – Wizard of Oz indeed. Later, I went to look at the trailer on the web to see what that was all about. It is the typical story of the ambitious outsider who suffers for his art trying to make it in the big time. The story ends with success and happily ever after. But the ever after, it seems, is this interminable middle period of regurgitation, consolidation and self satisfied repositioning, or as it’s known in ever day parlance, filling the form. Once in the club you become the club. All of the questioning, the pushing at boundaries, the testing of limits has now been set aside for the massaging of an ego, the power of adulation and the “rightness” of one’s success. What I left the show thinking was the original anger, the drive, the rebellion that drove Eddie to success was not about anything larger than a cry for acceptance rather than charge for change.
In George Carlin’s book Last Words he’s talking about the awards and honors that came his way later in life. He attended a gathering in Aspen, where he was being honored with some other comedians and SNL alums, when he began to realize something:
“It’s just movie talk, yuppie talk. Nothing stuff and still not a glance or word. And I’m realizing that this group of people, who were once considered radical and revolutionary, has become another fucking Hollywood celebrity club. The Lorne Club. That their chitchat is a modern version of the fraudulent showbiz crap I was expected to do forty years ago in Mike Douglas’s gazebo.” And later – “The larger the group, the more toxic, the more of your beauty as an individual you have to surrender for the sake of group thought. And when you suspend your individual beauty you also give up a lot of your humanity. You will do things in the name of a group that you would never do on your own. Injuring, hurting, killing, drinking are all a part of it, because you’ve lost your identity, because you now owe your allegiance to this thing that’s bigger than you are and that controls you.”
And I think you can take George’s quotes and use them to describe the Middle Aged Art World in a nutshell. Dave said in his speech “Care is Control” and the making of art is “controlled” like it has never been before. Today’s POMO art world is a fucking celebrity club of glad-handing, back patting bullshitters.
I have come to want a different experience, in fact, I expect a different experience both here online and in my studio. I have destroyed more work than I care to remember simply because it reminded me of something else, or something that wasn’t me. As for the larger, outward issues of shows and careers, the truth is I have a great deal of trouble reconciling what I believe with what is on offer. I don’t want to cozy up to the professional art world, I want a different art world. I only tell you this because I’ve turned away a few opportunities to show. I really do want something else and the “younger version” of myself would have found this ridiculous. In the end I’m going to have to do things my own way because I’m hoping to get young like Dave Hickey. I want to tell my truth like Charlie. I want to growl like George Carlin. But mostly I want to never experience that douche bag fear that most folks in their middle years wind up living with, and when I do have to come face to face with it, (because we all do) I want to have the courage to be uncompromising about my disdain for it, I want to always remember to “get young.” OK so this geezer rant is done and you can go about doing what it was that you were doing. But we’ll continue to chip away at the Postmodern Art world on Henri, and I will continue chipping away in my studio. I guess what I’m saying is that as I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that I don’t want to settle, to become part of the club. I don’t want acceptance, I want change. Whether that’s possible doesn’t matter, it’s my intention that matters. That’s my public resolution for the next decade as my “youth” slips away.