Or, how Mathew Barney is guilty of the murder of Ana Mendieta.

“Maya, Maya, these are not the same things, Maya. Sex criminals and Matthew Barney and O. J. Simpson and Carl Andre and the Prophets — these are not the same thing.

But what I’m saying is that they’ve become the same thing to me.” ~ Maya Gurantz.

I’m responding to an article – “Carl Broke Something”: On Carl Andre, Ana Mendieta, and the Cult of the Male Genius – that equates being a male artist “genius” with torturing and murdering women.

For many people contemporary art is or should be synonymous with political activism and social justice. I don’t agree with this. I argue that art has its own purpose independent of politics, and proof of this is that if one doesn’t agree with the politics of political art, than the art is completely invalidated. I do believe in morality though, and if we are going to look at art through the single lens of morality, the least we can do is defer to what really is fair, open, just, and moral. I will argue why the thesis of the article in question ultimately is not.

I’ll get to analyzing that, and a few more choice ideas, but first I’d like to give a little background on the dramatic story the article revolves around, which I guarantee is worthy of your attention –

A Classic Tragedy/Mystery/thriller

Something so tragic happened in the art world that it is the stuff of blockbuster films. It was September 8th of 1985. A married couple, both artists, had a drunken competitive quarrel allegedly about their respective careers – she was the rising star, he the falling – and in the wee hours of the morning the woman plummeted from the bedroom window of their 34th story luxury apartment to her death atop a 24 hour diner. She was 36 years old, and he 50. The man, Carl Andre, is the epitome of cool, cerebral, conceptual, minimalist sculpture. His wife, Ana Mendieta, born in Cuba, and universally considered brilliant (and beautiful), was an early pioneer of performance art, body art, Earth work, ritual-based art, video, photography, and feminist art. The symbolism is enormous. This isn’t just husband vs. wife, patriarchy vs. feminism, American vs. immigrant, but also austere minimalism vs. a style of art that is much more personal, identity based, and political. Both artists are now credited with changing the course of art history, though in opposite directions. Two universes collided, and one was extinguished.

No, it’s not a Chessboard minus some rows. It’s Carl Andre, ‘Steel Zinc Plain’ 1969.

Those who knew Carl and Ana couldn’t imagine her jumping OR him pushing her. What a movie this would make, now that I think about it. It’s got everything, including mystery, because we don’t know for sure what happened that evening. Did Carl kill Ana, was it an accident, did she jump (as he originally told the police he witnessed her doing, only to later claim he was so drunk he had no memory of the incident)? There is the opportunity to explore their tumultuous relationship, the romance and success, and more importantly (for me, because it’s unique) both of their works, and to contrast them. I’d welcome a film for intelligent adults that also delves into contemporary art, as well as the unknown! And if it were left open whether it was a murder, suicide, or accident, as I would have it, the audience might come to their own conclusions or deal with the cognitive dissonance of not having an answer, of leaving a question floating unresolved.

Ana Mendieta, Blood and Feathers, 1974

Hollywood, don’t blow this. No schmaltz. No 2D characters. Make it psychologically probing. Build suspense. Have some gritty realism. Do the documentary research, especially about the art movements. Imagine the art-related arguments between the two. Dialogue should be a prime concern. I might go with unrecognized actors.

Murder or Suicide?

Ana Mendieta Sweating Blood, video still, 1973. Minus the blood her physical beauty is rather apparent here.

There were no witnesses but there was some evidence. Carl had scratches on his nose and forearm, and one person reported hearing a woman shout, “No, no, no” immediately before Ana fell to her death. It’s more damning if you have a foregone conclusion, in which case it’s obvious that she scratched him in the struggle to push her out the window, and this is while she was screaming “No”. It does seem the most likely scenario, and Andre’s claim that he scratched himself moving furniture is hardly persuasive, but when you don’t know, you don’t know.

There was talk that she was suspicious he’d had an affair while she was in Rome, and she was lovers with a professor at her school when she met Carl. Their art couldn’t be more opposite, and their relationship was tumultuous. They both liked to drink, and there were four empty Champaign bottles on the floor when the police arrived. They’d stayed in the night to have Chinese takeout and watch an old movie. The neighbors heard them argue. How can anyone know, decades later, what really happened, especially if Carl is being honest when he says that he doesn’t remember?

And If it was that easy to fall off of this 34th floor apartment, I wouldn’t live there. It’s like having a gun in the house. It’s risky with volatile personality types, because the chance you may use the gun goes up astronomically when you have one to use, including on yourself. If he killed her, was this something that happened in the fever pitch of a drunken argument that would never have occurred if they lived in a one-story house? [Note: don’t mix hard drinking with fierce arguments and easy access to murder/death/suicide.]

Despite nobody really knowing what happened, people took sides after the incident. Some swore by Carl, including women friends, saying that he wasn’t the type to murder his wife, while supporters and family of Ana claimed that she was happy, enthusiastic about her work and an upcoming show, and wouldn’t have killed herself.

People believed one story or the other, as opposed to just accepting not knowing, which is in itself interesting. Perhaps I am far too removed from the reality – the emotional attachment with one or both of the artists that their friends, family, and acquaintances had – to be able to pat myself on the back for being able to handle not knowing. It’s easy to be detached 32 years after an incident, and when none of the players are a part of your life.

Art Presages Future Tragedy

It’s strange how both Carl and especially Ana’s art foreshadows the tragic culmination of their relationship, and her life. Time, we know, moves in a linear fashion. And yet there are incidents and coincidences one encounters in a long enough life that sometimes make one wonder if we merely experience time as linear, and the future may be casting its shadow on the present.

Carl Andre, Fall, 1968.

In Andre’s piece above, titled “Fall”, the wall of flat steel pieces appears as if it could collapse forward onto the floor. The title reinforces that the sculpture is based on the tension of the risk of falling.

Ana’s death mirrors her “imprint” body works, which, if one didn’t know better, predicted her fatal landing. When she eventually impacted on the rooftop of the diner, only wearing blue bikini underwear, she hit so hard that her head left an imprint.

Ana Mendieta, “Silhueta” series, 1973-78.

You almost couldn’t make this up. Look at the image in the upper right. Incidentally, this is why some people believe Ana killed herself – as a final performance piece. That’s a bit of a stretch. One may have to acknowledge it as a possibility, but realize that if she were murdered it’s doubly offensive to accuse her of suicide, and triply to blame it on her art. We could surmise in the opposite direction as well, and entertain that it was a premeditated murder. I’d almost prefer to believe Ana’s art foreshadows her death, and that it survives to rebuke the murderer, not unlike one of the ghosts of Christmas past in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. That, however, goes against science and what her work is presumed to be about.

Ana’s older sister Raquelin argues, “Her death has really nothing to do with her work… Her work was about life and power and energy and not about death.”  It is entirely understandable that Raquelin would not want her sister to be defined by her death, by the very negation of her life, and to perpetually be remembered as dead and not as living, especially as Ana was known to be very dynamic, energetic, and vibrant.

Untitled, 1973.

Nevertheless the piece above, in which the artist lies on a blood-splattered rooftop, under a bloodied white sheet, with a cow heart placed on her chest, is hard for me to look at without associating it with her eventual death. And doesn’t a true understanding of life include the ever present prospect of its opposite? Note that for the first piece in the series she had herself photographed lying in an ancient Zapotec grave. Further, much of her college work was explicitly about violence towards woman, including a performance piece about a university student who was raped and murdered on her campus. Ana had herself tied to a table, bent over, naked, covered with blood, for two hours in order to approximate this murder. Therefor while it might be unfair to view the artist’s work through the gauze of her own death, we might also be circumscribing her scope by insisting death wasn’t present in her art, and it was instead about life, power, fertility, nature, the feminine, and so on.

Of course I know it sounds bananas to suggest that either artist’s work in any way presaged the incident of her death. We could just say that their art reflected their personalities, and their personalities were such that conflict was likely…

I also quite like this series of what are now images, admittedly much more than anything by Andre. Though she was a performance, video, and installation artist, I know her work primarily through still images, and they succeed on that level. But that’s not evidence he’s guilty.

I have no love of Carl Andre or his art, and it’s hard to not sympathize with Ana, whose art is never boring. If he did push her to her death, that is  a horrific atrocity. If I had to bet on it, ew, I think I’d have to refuse. I am more inclined to believe that he pushed her, but I don’t know, and I do know that, pardon the truism, fact is stranger than fiction. I am more comfortable NOT coming to a conclusion. The opening of not knowing contains a vast landscape of possibility.

thought Experiment

Ana Mendieta – Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), 1972.

This is heavy stuff, so perhaps a little break is at hand. Some people (definitely not me) believe that for each decision we make a new universe is created, and we go off into the universe dedicated to the decision we take. I think this is utter bullshit in scientific terms, but not in psychological ones.

First, imagine that there’s a split and two universes are created. Everyone who believes Carl killed Ana goes off into one, and those who think Ana killed herself go off in another. Each universe is going to be tailored by that decision. Utter hokum!

And yet, on an individual, psychological, metaphoric basis, there’s truth in it. The author of the article, for example, has a whole set of beliefs intertwined with her conviction that Carl killed Anna, and thus lives in a different universe than I do. I never made that decision and my universe was not split at that point.

It Was Murder!(?)

Maya Gurantz doesn’t say expressly that Carl Andre murdered Ana Mendieta, but makes an impassioned argument why Ana would not have committed suicide, which amounts to the same conclusion, that he must have murdered her:

He wants so desperately to believe it is more likely that Mendieta threw herself, her talent, her imagination, her burgeoning career, out of a window in a fit of pique rather than being pushed by her drunk husband in the middle of a violent fight.

The quote is her response to something an anonymous person wrote in a comments section online, but shows what she prefers to believe. She’s already reduced us to just two options, which should be a red flag. What if it was an accident? The only witness is Carl, and he doesn’t remember anything, so he says. [Dear Carl. If you did it, please, on your death-bed, tell us. We want to know. We will be the ones who have to live with the truth. If you didn’t do it. Never mind.] If Carl had scratches on his nose and forearm, did that happen during a “push”? Maybe they’d already engaged in violence before she went out the window. There’s a lot more to consider when you don’t assume you already know the answers.

The author’s main idea is that Carl was protected because of his “white male genius” stature in the art world, in the same way that OJ was protected by his being a legend in football. Both are presumed instances of men getting away with murdering their wives because of superstar status. She quotes Director Peter Hyams, a longtime friend of Simpson, to make her point: “He was Baryshnikov. When somebody is that great at something, when we see those people, they are special. They just can do stuff that other people can’t do.”

Poster by the Guerilla Girls comparing Andre to OJ Simpson.

Never mind for the moment that the majority black female jury decided the OJ case, and there could have been other reasons besides his fame as a footballer that swayed their decision (ex., compensating for cops being acquitted for the Rodney King beating), or that Carl Andre’s case was decided by a judge who may have had zero interest in contemporary, Minimalist art. The celebrity or genius status accrued to the suspects is in the eye of a selective, admiring section of the public, not the jury or judge.

It’s easy to understand how enervating this could be if you are sure Carl killed Ana, in which case he is not admitting to it, and is thus getting away with murder WHILE getting accolades as an artist. That’s a real pisser-offer. More than that, it’s an affront to humanity, if that’s what really happened, which it might be. Nobody has proved otherwise.

Ana Mendieta, Bird Transformation, 1972.

Can Geniuses Get Away With Murder?

One argument Gurantz makes is really solid, and I agree 100%. You don’t get to get away with murder because you’re famous, whether it’s in sports, music, art, or whatever. You don’t get to just carry on as before, while your audience still praises you. There’s an idea in there somewhere that Andre’s art is more important to humanity than that he pay the penalty for his crime. I think that may be true. And THAT is another stringing injustice.

[Note: While writing this OJ Simpson has been set free.]

It’s a double whammy. Not only does a celebrity artist get away with murder because his art is considered more important than his crime, or the life of his victim, but more important than her art. There are multiple fouls going on here. If Carl killed Ana, and the result is his continued career, accolades, and a retrospective while he extinguished both her and her art, than this is a grand injustice. It’s practically Biblical. If that’s what happened.

It’s as if John Lennon pushed Yoko Ono off a bridge, and got away with it, er, because he’s a genius.

Here, Gurantz and I may share the same sort of horror if her version of reality is accurate, but we come to different conclusions even in that case. Mine is that he pay the legal price for his crime. She never mentions this. But I don’t think it reflects on his art. Caravaggio killed someone, and this, for me, does not devalue his art as art.

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1601, oil on canvas. Does his allegedly killing a man change this painting?

She argues Carl’s art should be interpreted in light of the alleged killing:

“That is the position of Andre’s supporters, who weave together the belief in Andre’s innocence with the caveat that, even if he isn’t innocent, it doesn’t matter. Proper respect for his art-making has been darkened by this event, which had nothing whatsoever to do with his art-making. And that’s not fair. Because Carl Andre is a genius.”

What is she asking us to do? The opposite? Should we weave together the belief in Andre’s guilt and then, even if he is innocent, dismiss his art because of it? Should we draw a connection between this incident and his art-making, that they are somehow intertwined, in which case his art is most probably bad.

Further, she’s not quoting anyone, so this may be a strawman argument on her part, or a mere projection. It could be an insight into the situation, but, without a quote to substantiate it (and comments in comments sections by anonymous commenters don’t really count), it’s a theory.

There’s a lot of belief tucked into this. We have to believe that Carl killed Ana and we have to believe that he’s getting away with it because of his “genius” status. They are beliefs worth considering and which quite possibly are true. But Gurantz doesn’t stop her believing there, and I think goes too far in what she is trying to persuade us to believe next.

When it comes to whether or not Carl is responsible for Ana’s death, and how that impacts how we assess his art, it makes much more sense to judge his art separately. The information, either way, is extraneous to the art itself. We’d have to have a placard on the wall explaining that he was a murderer in order to color the way we perceived his sculptures.

This reminds me of the great baseball player Pete Rose getting banned from baseball, after he’d become a manager, for betting on games, including probably against his own team (which adds cheating to gambling). Because of this, and despite his record, Pete Rose is eliminated from being included in the Hall of Fame for baseball.

There is that easy temptation to view everything through a moral lens, which rather simplifies the universe, and I’m not sure at all that we want to use that cookie-cutter on art.

Is Andre A Genius or thick as a brick?

Andre is perhaps most famous for his sculptures which consisted of arranging bricks on the floor, and he insisted that there was no symbolism, that a brick is a brick is a brick. Honestly, I’d rather go outside the museum and look at walls and curbs and buildings then look at a neatly arranged row of bricks.

Equivalent VIII’, Carl Andre, 1966

Perhaps more than any other artist, Andre’s work is replicable. If you like the piece above, you could simply count the bricks (there are 120), buy the same variety (fire bricks), and if you have a place to put them, arrange them yourself in less than 20 minutes. Voila! For what it’s worth, I’d much rather have one of Ana’s sculptures than Andre’s.

Ana Mendieta with Untitled wood sculpture, 1984-85.

Here the author and I occupy similar territory. Her appraisal of his art is a juicy passage worth quoting in full:

Is Carl Andre a genius? When people ask me about Andre’s work, the briefest description I give is: “Minimalist. Stuff on the floor.” He’s the minimalist-stuff-on-the-floor guy. He creates environments by delineating space in elegantly arranged stacks and configurations of industrially fabricated objects. It purposefully does not speak or articulate. It just is. It just — be.

It’s kind of dumb, in a way. So dumb it’s brilliant? Perhaps.

Significantly, Gurantz asserts he’s not a genius and his “kind of dumb” work is “stuff on the floor”. Let’s face it, his art is crap and he’s an idiot. I wouldn’t go that far, myself. I know it’s clever, clever shit, and striving to be Zen (I prefer a raked rock garden). I like to say that minimalist art is “minimally art” and leave it at that. But who knows, someday I may take solace in a rectangle of bricks on the floor.

There are two pregnant ideas for us to unpack (I hate that term and am using it ironically) from her quote. One is that the “male genius” in question is a moron, and the other is that whether or not his work should be devalued because of the possible murder, she judges it inferior and “so dumb it’s brilliant?”.

Carl Andre, Tin Ribbon, 1969. She’s got a point about “stuff on the floor”.

The jury has spoken. Carl is a murdering, crappy artist, who is exonerated and propped up by the myth of male genius. She could be right about that. All of it. But what the F did Mathew Barney, or I, or you (if you are a male artist) ever do to her or Ana Mendieta? We are also guilty as charged.

The Cult of the [White] Male Genius

“Untitled,” a Basquiat painting from 1982, sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s

I’ve been wrestling with this notion of the male genius for years. I can’t get away from it. Around the time I had my first child, I made a series of videos and performances exploring the ways in which my own yearning for success has been defined by this construct into which I will never belong. ~ Maya Gurantz

I gather she wanted or wants to belong to this elusive “construct”.

Is this really even a thing? Usually “male genius” is bundled with “white”. Hrag Vartanian, the editor of the popular online art magazine Hyperallergic, wrote, for example:

“In Western culture we’ve built up this stereotype of the white male artist as unquestioned genius.”

What year are Maya and Hrag living in? 1945? 1965? How about that sale of a Basquiat for $110.5 million? And, when I was an undergrad, 26 years ago, in 1991, Rebecca Horn had a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. She does body art, performance, and installation. Below is her “Pencil Masks” performance from 1972:

Rebecca Horn, Pencil Mask, 1972.

If a female performance, body art, and installation artist could have a solo show at MOCA 26 years ago, what is the construct that Maya Gurantz can never belong to? If Rebecca Horn could make it 26 years ago why can Maya never make it now (working in the same genre)? That ground has long ago been broken. The door is open.

Hell, even Ana Mendieta has had at least three international solo museum retrospectives, some of which were at more than one museum, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshorn in DC, and the Whitney. That’s what I’d call massive success. I think any artist that gets a solo retrospective at a major art museum is considered a “genius” of sorts. One could argue that this happened only AFTER her death, but, she’d received an NEA and a Guggenheim grant, as well as a prestigious fellowship to the American Academy in Rome while alive. She’d had at least a few shows at important galleries.

Ana’s older sister Raquelin stated, “Her career was cut short by her death. She had all this encouragement; the art world was saying to her: you are accepted. Your work means something. It’s important.”

If Ana was succeeding in the 80’s despite the cult of male genius, why is success impossible for Gurantz now?

Gurantz narrowed the cliche from “white male genius” to “male genius”, perhaps to allow connections between OJ Simpson and Carl Andre without creating an inescapably obvious contradition. However, she connected the dots when she wrote the following [bolding is mine]:

And yet it is interesting to consider that these white male conceptual sculptors were killing the Author, making “identity” unimportant, at the exact cultural moment when women and people of color were asserting their own identities in their art-making.

Ah ha. There’s that all-too-familiar binary: women and people of color versus the opposite, the nemesis, the white male.

There’s some truth in her quote, but it’s cherry-picking, and that’s why it shows a bias. White and other men were also doing work in which their identity was important, and using their bodies in performance, video, and photography: Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden, Nam June Paik, and David Wojnarowicz come to mind. Mendieta was definitely familiar with Vito Acconci and Nam June Paik. When Chris Burden had himself crucified to a Volkswagen, it’s hard to say that he was not present in his art, that it wasn’t personal, that it wasn’t body art, and that identity was absent.

Chris Burden, Trans-fixed, 1974.

One might find more similarities between Chris Burden and Ana Mendieta than between most artists, irrespective of gender. For a comparison of the work of the two artists in relation to violence, see this article by Melissa Sesana: Violence and the Body in Ana Mendieta and Chris Burden.

Untitled, from The Tree of Life Series, Ana Mendieta, 1977

There were also female minimalists, including: Jo Baer, Agnes Martin, Charlotte Posenenske, and Carmen Herrera. The pieces below by Charlotte Posenenske look like a cross between Donald Judd and Carl Andre, and issue from the same era:

Charlotte Posenenske, 8 Reliefs, elements of series C, 1967

Personally, I can’t stand the idea of genius, and find anyone who thinks of himself or herself as a genius insufferable. It’s like royalty or someone bragging about their IQ or SAT score. Someone believes they are a unicorn among horses. Fuck that! This is why I also don’t believe in childhood art prodigies, who are conveniently always abstract expressionists who never make imagery. It IS, as everyone knows, hard to tell the sheer genius of the more conceptual end of even painting from utter bullshit. It’s easier to pass off abstract expressionist painting by a 6 year old as genius than to pass off their cornball paintings of Oprah and Jesus.

But in the context of art genius has another meaning, which is that an artwork itself is “brilliant”, which just means it’s very clever and works well. And, humility aside for the second, wouldn’t we kinda’ want art to be brilliant? To say, “it was a brilliant novel” isn’t offensive.

A big problem with Gurantz’ argument is that it brands people who are guilty of producing brilliant work as self-proclaimed fake geniuses (in a cult), and thus frauds. If you strive to take your art to the next level you risk being dismissed by the likes of Gurantz and Vartanian as an evil genius.

This can be a form of trial by ordeal not unlike the infamous witch trials in which if you drowned you were innocent, but if you floated you were a witch. You’re fucked either way. So, if you are a male artist and your work isn’t brilliant, who is going to show it? You suck. If through hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and understanding you get your work up to the level where it will be taken seriously, than you are condemned as being guilty of genius. You’re fucked again, except if you made it in the art world, like Carl Andre, you can probably just brush that off. If you are among 99% of male artists who are struggling, and your art gets sophisticated, complex, polished, insightful or original enough to be worthy of an audience, but you aren’t established in the art world, you are doubly fucked. You get accused of all the sins of genius and with none of the benefit.

This idea of “the cult of the white male genius” gets thrown around a lot in art school and art publications, but, I don’t really know what they are taking about. It’s not that they are white and male that makes the old masters great, most white male artists didn’t make the cut. It’s just that they were the best (unless there’s some art stored away that we haven’t seen yet).

You can’t say that the Old Masters, Impressionists, and artists prior to the last hundred or so years were great BECAUSE they were white. This is like saying the great Japanese woodblock artists were great BECAUSE they were Japanese, and as compared to exclusively other Japanese artists.

When Impressionism is taught, in my experience, Mary Cassatt and Berth Morisot are taught along with the dudes. It’s not really surprising that the French Impressionists were white, either. That’s more about geography than anything else. I doubt there were any Asian Impressionist painters practicing in France at the time.

I remember learning about the painting below, by Mary Cassatt, from an art history class I took roughly 30 years ago:

The Child’s Bath (The Bath) by Mary Cassatt, 1893

It’s really just “the cult of the genius”. The “white” and “male” parts are extraneous. Let’s conduct an experiment to find out if white artists are more connected to the idea of genius than are women and POC… I propose we do a Google search for the name of the artist, in quotes, plus the word “genius” and see how many hits we get. What do you suppose we will discover? It’s not the best test, but might give us a vague idea. If Gurantz and Vartanian are correct, we should see that the term genius gets significantly more hits when pared with white male artists. [You can skim the list and see my summation if you like.]

“Ana Mendieta” genius = 34,400

“Carl Andre” genius = 367,000

“Frida Kahlo” genius = 803,000

“Diego Rivera” genius = 395,000

“Jackson Pollock” genius = 379,000

“Marina Abramović” genius = 257,000

“Mark Bradford” genius = 257,000

“Eric Fischl” genius = 97,000

“Basquiat” genius = 392,000

“Jenny Holzer” genius = 152,000

“Barbara Kruger” genius = 160,000

“David Salle” genius = 154,000

“Cindy Sherman” genius = 236,000

“Marcel Duchamp” genius = 360,000

“Jeff Koons” genius = 344,000

“Damien Hirst” genius = 356,000

“Matthew Barney” genius = 61,000

“Picasso” genius = 590,000

“Tracey Emin” genius = 230,000

I just used some obvious artists off the top of my head. Ana is the big loser here, because the least known, no doubt (my hypothetical movie treatment would change THAT!). But the biggest winner is Frida Kahlo, with 803,000 hits, and she’s a Mexican woman. She even beat Picasso. Oh, you say, well, there was a movie made about her. There was also a movie made about Jackson Pollock, perhaps the Marlborough Man of the cult of white male genius himself, and he only garnered 379,000 hits. Not even half of Kahlo. Contemporary artists who are well known are fairly closely aligned irrespective of gender or race. Basquiat beat out Koons and Hirst (and Carl Andre).

Frida Kahlo, Without Hope, 1945. She gets the most hits for “artist” + “genius” searches on Google.

Mathew Barney, who Maya calls “the ne plus ultra male genius artist of our time” only scored better than Ana Mendieta, but less well than Jenny Holzer, Bargara Kreuger, Tracey Emin, or any of the other women.

There doesn’t really appear to be a popular association of “white male” and “genius” above and beyond any other biological identity and “genius”. I rather think the phrase “white male genius” with or without “the cult of” before it is used for the ulterior purpose of invalidating:

1) white male artists (by implying they delude themselves into thinking they are geniuses, and their art depends on that).

2) Skill/technique used in the execution of the art (especially painting).

If you can knock down white male artists AND skill/technique in one blow, you elevate non-white-male art that does not possess conspicuously advanced technique or skills. It’s a competitive thing. It’s called eliminating the competition. I say that if you are that competitive just make your own art better and don’t waste your spirit on chopping down the competition.

In my art education through the graduate level I never encountered any notion of the necessity of genius to be an artist, nor equating it with white males. I only heard the phrase white male genius as a pejorative, issued by non white males, in order to conveniently sideline art created by people who happen to be white and male. In short, the idea of “the white male genius” never really existed to prop up white male artists, but rather was invented to shoot them down.

If you are a white male artist, and your work shows some signs of skill, well, then, you are part of the cult of the white male genius even if the idea makes you puke, in which case your work is irrelevant, sight unseen. Ironically, while it’s being projected on you that you are such an arrogant ass that you think you are a genius, all the hard work you did over years and years to develop your skills is ironically credited to your faux genius, in which case you don’t get credit for working as hard as anyone else. Cheers, mate. You had a good run. Or the old masters did, anyway. Either way you’ve had your turn, or your epidermis and gonads have, or someone with a similar looking naked body did hundreds of years ago. And now it’s time for someone different to have a chance. Not you, buddy. F U and your nads! We don’t want you.

But it gets worse. Not only are you an irrelevant cult member who persuades yourself of your own genius, you are also on par with OJ Simpson and ritual sex torturers. I shit you not.

Sex criminals anD Mathew Barney are the Same Thing Because…

This is where the article gets weird, dark, hypocritical, and dangerous. The section is titled, “Mathew Barney”, who has nothing whatsoever to do with whatever happened on that night in September of 1985, and leads off with a list of Silence of the Lambs worthy cases of abduction, imprisonment, and sexual torture. It’s worth quoting the paragraph in full to get a taste of how sadistic the crimes are before Gurantz starts connecting the dots.

“I was then struck by what seemed like an endless parade of bizarrely complex sex crimes then being reported in the news media: Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who kept his daughter trapped in a secret basement for 24 years, fathering seven children by her so that she would be unappealing to other men; Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping by Brian Mitchell as part of a detailed Fundamentalist Mormon religious ritual having to do with his own status as a prophet; Jaycee Dugard’s kidnapping by Philip Garrido, who would go on 48-hour meth-fueled sexual “runs,” during which he would rape her repeatedly “so he wouldn’t do it to other girls”; Ariel Castro’s home prison, in which he kept the kidnapped Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina “Gina” DeJesus chained to walls, subjecting them to an endless cycle of sexual abuse and torture.”

Here we’ve established a cruel and sadistic rock bottom of humanity. Are there much more deplorable samples of human beings than the perpetrators of these acts? And now for the coup de grâce: Gurantz will connect the most vile sex criminals with male artists such as Mathew Barney, as well as millions of other male genius artists (am I included? I think I am.). Remember, being a male genius lis like being a witch, you don’t say it about yourself, it tends to be something someone else says about you to get rid of you.

Gurantz argues that because the perpetrators “required a complicated set of actions to derive sexual satisfaction” there is a parallel with the elaborate artworks of Mathew Barney: “It made me think of nothing else as much as the art work of Matthew Barney.”

I have to object here. I’m not a fan of Barney. I tried to watch some of his Cremaster film/performance spectacles, but couldn’t get into it, or wasn’t in the mood. I don’t know much about him, but I know enough to see that you can’t say that because keeping someone as a sex slave in your basement requires an elaborate set-up, and making performance videos requires an elaborate setup, that the psychology of the latter is somehow the same as that of the former.

Still from Mathew Barney’s Cremaster series.

Ah, fuck. We are each incomplete pictures, so to speak, and have gaps in our knowledge. OK, I’m really just talking about me here. I looked up Mathew Barney in Wikipedia to see if there was any indication of what kind of person he is – is he a family man? – and discovered he was married to, drumroll please … … … … Bjork! (you can learn a lot doing research for your articles). I don’t know how this reflects on him. It kinda’ hurts my head the way celebrities marry celebrities. They have a daughter, too. What’s it like to grow up with Mathew Barney and Bjork as your (separated) parents? Well, there’s nothing obvious about his life to connect him with the likes of the sadistic crew Gurantz mentions.

It gets worse. It’s not just taking pot shots at an overinflated white male artist who is probably immune to such criticism, or at least can afford to be. Gurantz uses a wide sweeping net to ensnare scores of unknown artists and brand them with being indistinguishable from sexual deviant torturers. She calls these people, “the prophets”, which is the same thing as “male genius”:

In my young days as an artist, as a human, I encountered multiple men who, inspired by Barney and convinced of their own genius (perhaps by having done enough of the right kind of psychotropic drugs), went: My cells! My hand! The planet! A tree! All one! They felt they had cracked the code to all Systems of Ancient Human Knowledge — through their art work. I called them the Prophets. I was always envious of their profound psychic entitlement.

Perhaps, as a human, she could have taken the same psychotropic drugs (if she didn’t) and had the same typical sort of spiritual insight that she mentions. Since when did tripping balls make you a genius? I guess Maya is too young to remember the 60’s, never read Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception”, and isn’t familiar with any of the extensive body of work comparing the psychedelic and spiritual experience. If it seems odd that she stressed “as a human” – it struck me as odd – it’s because she’s trying to say that those guys thought they were fucking special, like the unicorn I mentioned earlier. [Dear Maya. Go on an ayahuasca retreat. Have the grand mystical experience. Get it out of your system. It’s just waiting for you if you want it.]

Alex Gray is famous for his LSD inspired art which, yeah, pretty much does say that all is one, and gets a bit literalist about Buddhism. Should we connect Alex Grey with Mathew Barney and then with sex criminals?

Oversoul, by Alex Grey.

Surely Grey belongs to the prophet sort of artist if anyone does, and thus he is connected to the sex criminals as follows:

Sex criminals and Matthew Barney and O. J. Simpson and Carl Andre and the Prophets — these are not the same thing.

But what I’m saying is that they’ve become the same thing to me.

Here Gurantz has connected dots that don’t belong together, and I’m not sure what the significance is of saying that they are the same “to me”. Does that mean that the reader should also see them as the same? I think so, or at least consider it plausible. We could also read that the author has been so scarred by recent history, circumstances, incidents like the death of Ana Mendieta, and so on to the point where these things all seem to her to converge, and that is sad, but it is not reality. There is some room there for interpretation, but I doubt she intends to undermine her own conclusions and connecting of the dots. More likely, she is saying that even though the truth is evident, it seems audacious to articulate it, which is why she had pause.

This is clearly wrongheaded. The logic goes something like this: brilliant male artists are related to Carl Andre + Carl Andre murdered his wife and is thus related to OJ and sadistic torturers of women = brilliant artists are necessarily the same as sex criminals.

We could, if we wanted, draw parallels between feminist writers/creators and Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol, and then conclude that all writers such as Maya Gurantz are murderers of male artist geniuses. That’s obviously ridiculous and probably vicious.

There is something the author missed in her research that undermines these conclusions, and that is an artist’s statement by Ana Mendieta:

“My art is grounded on the belief in one universal energy which runs though everything … from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy.”

By Gad Ana Mendieta is a textbook prophet who espoused the same basic rhetoric as the nameless artists the author accused of being in league with murderers and sex criminals. Now we have to put Ana Mendieta in the same category as Carl Andre himself.

Gurantz’ argument has collapsed. We can’t place scores of male artists who share the same beliefs as Ana Mendieta in the same category as violent sex murderers because of their beliefs. When we cast the net that wide, we even sweep Ana Mendieta into it.

The article appears at first to be defending Ana Mendieta and female artists against an entrenched belief in the importance and superiority granted to males in the art world, which to the degree it were true would be a worthwhile endeavor, but ultimately serves to discredit and demonize [white] male artists and their art by connecting them with the most vile and repugnant members of society.

I have to reject that because it applies to me directly. I am NOT the bad guy. Who wants to be IT? I would rather argue that we determine people’s character on an individual basis. I’ve always thought of myself as the good guy. So, if you also consider yourself the good guy, how does it feel to be branded the bad guy? The undeserving, the guilty, the privileged, the sex murderer? You get to have that which you find abhorrent projected on you, and you are invalidated because of it. You should not have a career in art. You should disappear. Because you are bad.

We can see this as an insight into reality or a projection upon it, and I’m confident it’s the latter, and not productive.

I come away from this feeling some sympathy for the author. If that’s what she believes, than she lives in a rather dark universe populated with evil genius male artists who get away with murder (metaphorically when not literally), and where she can never belong. Perhaps her personal experience reflects or substantiates this. A woman could easily fall into situations where she is unjustly subordinated to men, and I value anecdotal, empirical evidence, as it often blasts potholes in overarching narratives.

On the other hand, being a white male artist myself, with some demonstrable skill (I’d be pretty bad if I hadn’t accumulated any by this point), I know that I have nothing the F to do with sex criminals, murderers, cults of genius or cults of anything else. I also know that there are a lot of [white] males (including myself) struggling to get any acknowledgement in the art world, and to make enough money to pay for coffee.

And there’s something curious about who is complaining that they don’t have a chance in hell because of white male geniuses and all. They are already established in the art world and have positions of some power. I went to the author’s website and she’s a teacher at a UC school. She’s having shows and received grants. In fact, she and I went to the same graduate school, though more than a decade apart. When I went it was a very radical, politically correct, identity politics centered art school, and I needn’t have applied there, though I was let in. I only had two choices as a white male. One was to deconstruct my own white male privilege, which is not really my passion when it comes to why I started making art as a child. My other choice, which is the one I ultimately ended up with, was to step aside and allow inherently more deserving, authentic, and human women and people of color to take my place.

Imagine, for a moment, instead of this kind of graduate education being in “art” that it were in “music”. You arrive at your grad school and you may know very well how to play some instruments. Well, you’ll need to set those aside. And music. You will make another form of art entirely expressly NOT using those genius skills. On top of this, whatever you make must be in the service of a political movement, and it will be judged entirely on how well it functions in that regard. Further, while your instruments are now irrelevant, the most relevant thing is your biology. How you can participate in the sociopolitical movement is entirely dependent on your biological identity. Whether your role is to empower or deconstruct yourself, whether you deserve to be heard or be silenced, depends on your physical appearance. This, they tell you, is music. This is what my grad school experience was. I had to throw away my instruments and make non-music, as music, that nevertheless didn’t deserve to be heard. I merely survived. It’s safe to say it did far more harm, short and long term, than any good.

Going into grad school I had been the most promising artist as a senior at UCLA, at least one of them since I got the $10k fellowship. By the time I graduated with my MFA I was basically excommunicated from the art world and ended up worked temp jobs in order to survive. Gurantz was nurtured, empowered, and seems to have moved on rather directly into an academic position as well as shows and whatnot. Hrag Vartanian is the editor of a popular online art magazine and likes to showcase himself in email updates so anyone who follows the magazine knows who he is. At the same time I was disqualified from having a career in art, I must accept that I am the reason people who are able to survive in the art world can’t. The reason they have spouses, cars, homes, positions of some power, shows, medical insurance and so on, and I don’t, is because I am preventing them from doing so, because I am inherently evil, from birth, and riches and accolades are showered upon me unquestioningly and undeservedly…

Of course I’m being hyperbolic.

This is 2017, as people like to say in social media “the current year”. Who represented America in the Venice Biennale this year? Mark Bradford, who I am a big fan of, incidentally. Last I checked he’s a gay, black male. But we must ask ourselves honestly if he will ever be given a chance in the art world. Perhaps if we keep fighting for social justice, someone like Mark Bradford will get a break in the distant future. And one day we might have a Whitney Biennial that showcases women, people of color, and revolves around social issues. It’s not impossible to imagine such a scenario, and before something happens we need to at least acknowledge the possibility. And even if it has already happened, this year, we still need to fight for even the possibility of it in the future.

There is a very strong tendency in the art world right now for the biology of the artist to be the most important criterion when discussing art. Identity politics are in fashion. As I mentioned in the intro, for very many people social justice and political activism are synonymous with art. Art is subordinate to the cause. If the cause weren’t ostensible social justice, which people believe these days religiously, it would be more conspicuously preposterous to insist that art must serve any specific sociopolitical agenda. Those that buy into it aren’t even aware of the phenomenon, because they believe the narrative in question IS reality. And there’s a lot of confirmation bias going on within the art world echochamber. Within that framework, in reality, it is not an advantage to be male or white, especially if you are working class or poor, in which case your education is shooting yourself in both feet before resuming your working class life with major debt plus a limp.

I think it would be better to not know or care so much about the body of the artist, when possible, and instead focus on the mind, and as manifested in her or his art. If we are going to judge the person at all, we should judge the artist by the art, and not the other way around.

The “cult of the [white] male genius” to the degree it exists, if it does, does not deserve to. But we can’t replace it with branding [white] male artists as morally inferior at best, and at worse inseparable from the muck out of which the most vile and sadistic murderers are nurtured.

Branding a broad spectrum of male artists as evil does not combat the mentality of someone who would justify harming an innocent person: it feeds it. As to why the author wrote the article, other than her genuine feeling, Cuban-American writer, performance artist, and curator Coco Fusco may give a clue:

I have not continued to participate in the canonization of Ana because I don’t think that it is about her work. I think she’s become a symbol used by many people to address sexism in the art world through personal attacks directed at Carl Andre. Many younger artists exploit the memory of Ana for their own professional advancement.

That could be part of it, I suppose. I’d like to give the author more credit, and assume she’s had a blend of personal experiences that makes these conclusions seem realistic to her. I think she probably really is a devotee of Ana Mendieta, as well. But sometimes what we believe is reality at a remove is easily not reality from another person’s direct experience. I will end with an anecdote.

At one point in my life I couldn’t get a job and I was running out of time and money. This is despite my MFA , computer skills, job experience, and so on. I was staying in the home of married friends and their cats. I couldn’t impose any longer. A friend in China said he could get me a job “tomorrow” teaching English in China. I accepted the offer.

In the time before I moved to China (the paper work took weeks) I taught myself as much of the language as I could, and I watched documentaries about China and otherwise researched it. I watched Chinese cinema. All this quality information gave me a picture of China in my head that was based on facts. I’d already been to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, so I knew what Asia was like. I knew all about China’s revolutions, Tiananmen Square, infanticide of baby girls, apocalyptic pollution, corruption, daily life, sweat shops …

And when I arrived in China the reality of it was something different, and my former knowledge became so much fluff. It’s as different as is Chinese food in China from Chinese food in America. I can hardly think of a dish that overlapped. The real China was much broader, and nothing like I’d imagined it to be. My first night I was shocked to see, when I went to an internet cafe, teenagers drinking, smoking, and playing videos games and whatever else they were doing online.

I think in America we imagine China something a bit like we imagine North Korea. It’s almost as if it’s in B&W.

In this same way when we write about something that happened long ago, or about a group of people we don’t belong to, the experience at the actual time or of the actual people trumps what we think from the outside. I imagined China wrong just as I think the author is imagining male artists incorrectly.

I do enjoy the sort of rant she wrote, an almost stream of conscious unfolding of her impressions and insights. I do think it’s valuable. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to be one of her students. The ideology she espouses is indistinguishable from that of my grad school a quarter century ago. It’s as if nothing has changed. People are today quoting the same texts written in the 80’s and 90’s, and complaining that they don’t see themselves in the art world, even when they are themselves in positions of power. Try looking in the mirror.

Of course, I’m a work in progress, and catch myself making mistakes all the time.

~ Ends

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3 replies on “Carl & Ana: Art, Suicide, Murder, Belief

  1. I was at art-school the year when Ana Mendieta fell to her death. Important as Carl Andre was in the sculpture schools’ view nobody there felt urges one way or the other to dissect the reports, nor opinion blame. It was simply viewed (from afar) sadly as “Shit happens”!

    “Logic at best is a technique for arriving at a potentially erroneous answer with confidence. For unless you are omniscient (all-knowing) {so thus by definitional necessity also omnipotent (all powerful) and omnipresent (everywhere)} you can never know with certainty that the basis for your conclusion are actually eternally accurate facts.
    But the ever present greater risk (of not being omniscient) is that you will have a dangerous useless answer to what is in the final analysis the wrong question to be asked or entertained in the first instance.”
    Keeping my bit of knowledge engineer pontification in mind, let us go to some of the assertions in your analysis “It’s strange how both Carl and especially Ana’s art foreshadows the tragic culmination of their relationship, and her life. Time, we know, moves in a linear fashion.” then again “Of course I know it sounds bananas to suggest that either artist’s work in any way presaged the incident of her death” you really think so, then you definitely would have a strange life if your family (as mine maternal grandmother’s is) was cursed by precognition (enough said). Your line “fact is stranger than fiction. I am more comfortable NOT coming to a conclusion. The opening of not knowing contains a vast landscape of possibility” is closer to my personal view on this incident having glimpsed snatches in other lives of that insane vastness.
    What is the point of noting “[Note: While writing this OJ Simpson has been set free.]” as you have made not mention of why OJ was doing time in jail over football memorabilia??
    Also there are what to this outsider read as howlers “White men were also doing work in which their identity was important, ………., Nam June Paik” how is the epitome of an oriental gentleman flagged as a “White men”??
    Brilliant work debunking the “white male genius” false critique.
    The rest of your quotation of Maya Gurantz poisoned pen make me very glad to live in a country with Deformation Laws that free us of such baseless vitriol carelessly of joining the dots together.
    But Eric after wade through all this with the light of your experience you still manage to get the conclusion wrong, hitting the nail on the head stating “The ideology she espouses is indistinguishable from that of my grad school a quarter century ago. It’s as if nothing has changed.” but missing your own giving them wiggle room where none is deserved. The ideology is indistinguishable from that of your grad school, because that corpse was dead when you went to grad school and these kids are still fixated with the putrid spell.


    1. “White men were also doing work in which their identity was important, ………., Nam June Paik” how is the epitome of an oriental gentleman flagged as a “White men”?” Thanks for pointing out the typo. Fixed it.

      My suggesting the artists’ work presaged their fate, but qualifying that I know this goes against science, raised the possibility of it, but acknowledges I’m not completely loopy. Then I gat the reader the third option as well. I’m raising something to contemplate here, but not making a conclusion, which I can’t, which is a part of the whole argument of article, which is not being sure we are right.

      I’m not sure how I get the conclusion wrong. I guess you are saying that I’m saying this identity politics… is stale now because it was new when I was in college, in which case you are letting me know it was dead when I was in college. Dead, alive, moribund, whatever, I had very serious issues with it back then as well. It’s always harder to believe in the evil other, or the monster under the bed, when you are supposed to be (((it))) yourself, and you know you aren’t. If you thought my conclusions was too gentle, than, thank you. I’m trying not to be too much of an overbearing, ass. I don’t wanna’ come off as mean when I am trying to show someone else being mean.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Also, you wrote: “OJ Simpson has been set free.]” as you have made not mention of why OJ was doing time in jail over football memorabilia?”

      Because it’s an aside, I didn’t want to go into too much detail. Gurantz is arguing that male geniuses get away with murder, and while I’m responding to this OJ is set free on charges unrelated to the murder of Nicole and Ron, but, part of the reason he was released is he had not prior conviction. Um, hum. This loose application to exacting letter of the law substantiates her contention. But since it’s a hot topic and not the subject of my article, I didn’t feel the need to elaborate, as it is also a caveat to her side of the debate, and hence I’d expect those on that side would know what the hey I was talking about.

      If it’s still not obvious what I was on about, well, we pretty much know OJ was guilty becuase of the overwhelming physical evidence, and, yeah, he got away with a double murder, and it doesn’t even count as a “prior conviction”.

      However, he may have gotten away with it not because he’s a male genius, but for some other essentializing reason, and thus, I also stitched in a counter argument, if one were looking closely.

      Liked by 1 person

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