After S. Mallarmé, after Verlaine, after G. Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.
—William Butler Yeats

“Despite the late hour, I have just taken a shower.”

That was how one critic began his review of Ubu Roi—an evening of shock theater by the French enfant terrible Alfred Jarry that premiered in Paris on December 11, 1896. “There had been nothing like it since the wild première of Victor Hugo’s Hernani in 1830, when Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval carried the day for romanticism by highly organized demonstrations.” So Roger Shattuck described Jarry’s night in his 1958 classic, The Banquet Years. Bonnard, Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Sérusier all contributed to the set designs. On opening evening before the curtains went up, the diminutive Jarry made his announcement to the packed house of the Théatre Nouveau:

you will see doors open on fields of snow under blue skies, fireplaces furnished with clocks and swinging wide to serve as doors, and palm trees growing at the foot of a bed so that little elephants standing on bookshelves can browse on them.

As to the orchestra, there is none. Only its volume and timbre will be missed, for various pianos and percussion will execute Ubuesque themes from backstage. The action, which is about to begin, takes place in Poland, that is to say: Nowhere.

The curtains went up. An actor in a pear-shaped costume waddled on stage. He proclaimed one word:

Merdre.”

It took fifteen minutes to silence the house.

Up to 1896, this word—a version of merdre, the so-called mot de Cambronne after one of Napoleon’s defeated officers uttered it at the Battle of Waterloo (how French)—was an unmentionable. Yet, enraptured in the heady decade of the 1890s, Jarry knew history was on his side. W. B. Yeats, in the audience that night, later wrote: “feeling bound to support the most spirited party, we have shouted for the play, but that night at the Hotel Corneille I am very sad, for comedy, objectivity, has displayed its growing power once more.” With fin- de-siècle ennui, Jarry, like the ill-fated Cambronne, had seized upon a vision of defeat. The future of art was uncertain; art had become uncertain of itself; the Commune of one century was giving way to the Vichy of the next, and so, too, was art ready to capitulate, as it has often done in the last century.

Yet for the art of the last thirty years it is not so much artists who have uttered the mot de Cambronne with uniform alacrity so much as the institutions designed paradoxically to ensure art’s survival—the museums, galleries, collectors, and art schools. The important exceptions that exist are those very exceptions that prove the rule. Visit a museum and more times than not you will find a version of Jarry’s Ubu Roi played out somewhere inside.

If I have sounded a note in accord with this year’s series in The New Criterion I have the Whitney to thank, because few institutions (outside of the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum, the Barnes Foundation . . . ok, there are others) have behaved with such esprit de Cambronne as this museum. Even the Whitney’s own director, Maxwell L. Anderson, has recently had his Waterloo and will soon be out of a job.

The indolent Anderson, however, has left us with a parting shot, a mot d’Anderson: “The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990–2003.”1 It is a show I mention only because it exists—not because it displays any quote-unquote art. And guess what? In a show about “global perspectives on the United States,” the global perspectives here are with few exceptions negative. The world hates us. No, correction: the world kind-of-sort-of likes Americans but without doubt hates Bush. Should it come as a surprise that this show is made possible, in part, “by support from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy”? Merdre.

Of course the great irony of this latest version on the Ubuesque theme is that, rather than pronouncing an unmentionable, the Whitney has produced a show that follows right in line with the received wisdom of the art world—a form of defeated defeatism that through a decade of Whitney Biennials has become very familiar. Just as a thought experiment, imagine a similar show at the Whitney that was rabidly pro-American. “Global Perspectives on the United States, colon, how the world loves America and despises France.” Now there is a mot de Cambronne for the establishment.

Instead, we get a show grounded in the belief, for instance, that colonization equals the appropriation of foreign assets for a Western political interest. And in fact, with the work of forty-seven artists collected from thirty countries, the foreign assets here at the Whitney have been appropriated for a Western political interest.

Few of the artists are worth mentioning by name, but some of their works may be noteworthy. One of the first pieces in the exhibit is a large computer printout based on Rudolph Giuliani’s portrait from Time’s issue for 2001 Man of the Year. It is called LIBERATAS, DEI TE SERVENT! (2002). The Chinese artist who produced this work, in the words of the show’s curator, Lawrence Rinder, “draws on the ‘great leader’ archetype familiar to the genre of socialist realism . . . [and] substitutes for the more typical figure of Stalin, Lenin, or Mao the American mayor who since September 11 has become world-renowned.” You might imagine that connecting the Left’s least favorite mayor to three gentlemen who were collectively responsible for thirty million murders is enough to please the Whitney crowd. Yet there’s more: this artist “unexpectedly adds two balls of elephant dung beneath the canvas, a thinly veiled reference to Giuliani’s censure of artist Chris Ofili’s contribution to the Brooklyn Museum’s ‘Sensation’ exhibition in 1999.” Sanctum sanctorum of left-liberal New York piety: Forget Tiananmen; let us remember the Eastern Parkway massacre.

Few of the artists are worth mentioning by name, but some of their works may be noteworthy.

Moving along, there is a roomful of wax figures representing old superheros lounging in a nursing home. For a while I thought the “Superman” character resembled David Hockney in a jumpsuit, but I suppose this reading was off-message. Other highlights are two examples of video art (on view just past the room covering “distributive justice”) from a young German artist. In one piece, this fellow imagines himself (in drag, of course) as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. A second video displays a recording the artist shot of Midwestern highschool students dancing and singing a routine beside the Berlin Wall in 1990. The artist has re-edited the piece, mainly by zooming in on the most chubby of the singers, in a manner that can only be described as bitchy.

Another artist a few rooms down, this one from Japan, “turns the tables on America’s devastating bombing of Japanese cities in World War II,” writes Rinder. “In this striking image, a squadron of Japanese fighter planes, forming the infinity sign, flies above a horrific scene of contemporary midtown Manhattan in flames. . . . ‘I am not in favor of attacking America,’ says [the artist], ‘but this is an image that came into my mind.’”

The Prix de Cambronne, of course, must in the end go to Lawrence Rinder, who spent years traveling to twenty countries on the Whitney’s tab only to come up with these nonentities. I note that Rinder, the Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney, was the curator for “Bitstreams” and the critically panned 2002 Biennial Exhibition. Rinder knows defeat. Yet even the banality of the opening of Rinder’s catalogue essay may surprise:

Since the end of the Cold War, America has come to hold sway over a global empire.

Stop. Footnote one:

It should be acknowledged that the terms America and American are jointly claimed by the citizens of the United States of America and by the inhabitants of the whole Western Hemisphere. For some Latin Americans, Mexicans, and Canadians, the fact that citizens of the United States take for granted that “America” refers uniquely to us is ample evidence of our arrogant and hegemonic tendencies.

Folks, for a time in my life I was a teaching assistant at Brown University, one of the more politically correct institutions in this country. Yet never have I run across an opening sentence and footnote that were more PC than this example from Mr. Rinder.

Rinder’s catalogue, in fact, follows with essays by a Who’s-Who from the Pacifica Radio rushhour lineup, along with many “frequent contributors to The New York Review of Books.” There is Pramoedya Ananta Toer (“from 1965 until 1979, I was a political prisoner in a penal colony established by a man whose company McCarthy would surely have enjoyed: General and then president Suharto”). There is also Caryl Phillips (who teaches at “an institution as famously conservative [!] as Amherst College”), Nawal El Saadawi (“Every morning we open our eyes and see the bloody consequences of the Israeli occupation. . . . Unquestioning obedience is demanded by the military superpower seeking to dominate the world. But everywhere people are resisting”), and Edward Said:

In rage, Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor of New York (which has the largest Jewish population of any city in the world), returned the cheque [to Prince Walid Ibn Talal of Saudi Arabia], with an extreme, and I would say racist, contempt, meant to be insulting. On behalf of a certain image of New York, he was upholding its bravery and principled resistance to outside interference. And pleasing, rather than trying to educate, a purportedly unified Jewish constituency.

Say it, brother. And cue up the “Siegfried Idyll”; I might have a museum for you to run.

But alas, Leonard Jeffries, Rigoberta Menchú, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Tawana Brawley are already finalists for the job.

Notes
Go to the top of the document.


  1.   “The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990–2003” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, on July 3 and remains on view until October 12, 2003. A catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Lawrence Rinder, has been published by the Whitney Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams (216 pages, $45). Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 1, on page 45
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