gall and gumption

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Terminally Hip

I had never heard of either of these people, Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, until I read about their deaths, but that’s not surprising: she was a video game designer (and her most famous game does sound kind of cool) and aspiring filmmaker and he was a creator of abstract video art.

Their deaths (a week apart) have attracted a lot of press and discussion. The Washington Post had a piece, and so did the LA Times. The story has all the elements – you know that a couple years hence someone will write a cheesy book and someone will make a cheesy movie: an attractive pair of trendy artists right on that boundary between the entertainment and advertising industry and contemporary “high” culture.

Andy Warhol was the pioneer into this terrain but it’s terribly well-traveled now. There’s been a sort of gold rush there for some time, and that insouciant remote deadpan irony that Warhol left as his legacy ensures that his successors never have to explain what they’re doing hanging around on that busy commercial strip wearing leather hot pants and thigh-high boots in the middle of the night. It’s probably some sort of statement about being a commodity. Or maybe it’s just, you know, being a commodity with no statement. To be serious about being a commodity is highly serious.

Styles come and go, movements briefly coalesce (or fail to, more likely), but there has been one huge and dominant reality overshadowing Anglo-Euro-American art in the past 25 years, and The Shock of the New came out too early to take account of its full effects. This is the growing and tyrannous power of the market itself, which has its ups and downs but has so hugely distorted nearly everyone's relationship with aesthetics. That's why we decided to put Jeff Koons in the new programme: not because his work is beautiful or means anything much, but because it is such an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he's Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can't imagine America's singularly depraved culture without him. He fits into Bush's America the way Warhol fitted into Reagan's. …. Koons is the perfect product of an art system in which the market controls nearly everything, including much of what gets said about art.

The art world in which Blake and Duncan lived is not the artist's bohemia, though they apparently needed to believe so. The world they lived in is continually tracked through by people from entertainment, real estate, the universities, public relations, marketing, miscellaneous other functionaries (e.g., caterers, artwork installers) and, last of all, eleventy-fourteen zillion wannabes. And what is amazing is they could move three thousand miles across a continent and find themselves in the exact same world. Blake had made it big time there, Duncan was working on her break as an independent maker of intellectual films, a process in which you have to sell the thing before it is made, and market yourself to do that. She and Blake were drawn to the Bohemian life (a life by the way which the art world itself had rendered impossible when they were still in grade school). On her blog, you can’t tell whether this is some sort of schtick or whether Duncan sincerely believes in this vision of herself. There are entries where this fantasy starts to look like a preoccupation with her looks, though not to the gallant Ron Rosenbaum, who read her blog and looked at all the pictures and was moved by the presence of Beauty.

He has been on the story, wearing not his journalism hat, but his blogger hat.

So I’m reading The Times at Starbucks this morning when I come upon a story that stops me dead. The headline Two Artists, One Suicide The Other Missing.

I knew one of them. Well I didn’t know her, personally, but I felt I knew her from two years of reading her blog The Wit of the Staircase.

Her name was Theresa Duncan and she was the intellectual glamour girl of the web. Brilliant, erudite, beautiful (she looked like Kate Moss who was, unsurprisingly one of her obsessions). I loved her blog I knew when my brain was weary with the conventionalities of news and politics on the Web, tired of immersion in my own work I could always find new intellectual and sensual stimulation in The Wit of the Staircase. And by sensual I don’t mean the glamour shots of Theresa, which she understandably had a weakness for, but that she was devoted to articulating her passions for sensual pleasures—her posts on perfumes for instance were sublime renderings of the wordless in words.

Judge for yourself.

The summer night, as we know, wears a smile of light, and sits on a sapphire throne. But how many know that the long blue space which curves like a scimitar between day and night--the place called sunset--is a liminal one?

Limen means door, and twilight-time dissolves the ink on any known map, heaves even the cemetery gates wide open. This hour is prone to ghosts, and in late June this fetching, this flattering light called Wit forth at the height of all her neither/nor states too. Here comes the tipsy, the ever ready for her close up, the not quite woman, the Teenage Theresa.

This is copywriting. This is the language of fashion magazines. This is the poetry of perfume and handbags and leather jackets. The “as we know” trick establishes intimacy between her and her readers: “As we know, Br’er Rabbit was one smart rabbit.” The introduction of this obscure word “liminal” (it’s not really that obscure) with these late-Edwardian mannerisms that Max Max Beerbohm made fun of in about 1922 (Twilight ”heaves even the cemetery gates wide open” – does it? I always thought that’s when they closed them.) Amidst all these images she yet manages to note that the light is “fetching” and “flattering,” two of the most arch and well-worn fashion-copy phrases. “The diagonal stripes are more flattering to Diane’s fuller waist.” “Grab yourself a pair of Spoingo heels to wear with this fetching little cocktail dress…” S.J. Perelman was making fun of this stuff 60 years ago. There’s nothing wrong with it as such, you know, it’s honest work. And you can make quite decent money writing it for ad agencies.

After all this stage-setting we get – what subject? “The tipsy, the ever ready for her close up
, the not quite woman, the Teenage Theresa,” who is enthroned (sorry, it’s catching) in all this liminal wonderfulness doing what? Watching Twilight Zone reruns, and while it’s not uncommon for kids to take the show’s campy portentousness seriously, everybody gets the joke after about 19 or so. Is she kidding? Ah. She is simply… an enigma.

You remember the sci-fi T.V. show The Twilight Zone? Broadcast via who knows what magic to our Michigan home at the tres liminal rerun hour of midnight, the man's deep voice eased us in the audience toward a space between "science and superstition, between light and shade."

This hypnotic hero counted down to let me know all the old signposts were moot. Like a gateway drug, I carried this first forward enticement ever onward into an increasingly wild world from which weirdo Wit still refuses to trace her footsteps backward no matter how many other voices warn Retreat!

Well, I suppose there could be some more Warhol-style or other pop-style irony lurking there, that special kind of new irony that takes itself very seriously. Who can tell?

One of Rosenbaum’s readers makes particular note, rightly, of this quote from Duncan’s blog:

“‘Younger people were indeed born to kick my pigtailed ass, and if our terminally ailing democratic culture is swept along on their own sexy, slender thighed demands for freedom and money and sex and art and music that are all their own, then whoopeee!’”

The lifespan of a professional ballet dancer is maybe about 15 years, except in the case of a rare few. The lifespan of the New Hot Fey Enigmatic Young Cutting Edge Wild Child Who Will Reveal The Tensions and Ironies of Her Time But Hasn’t Actually Done the Work Yet is possibly even shorter. Especially for a woman. Youth cultures stay young by weeding out the old and replacing them with new young people.

Theresa Duncan had passed her “sell-by” date. It was a self-imposed sell-by date. Looks are part of a woman’s worldly capital, and her capital was dwindling. Other people may not have seen it, but she saw it every day. At 40 you begin to realize that one day not too far off you will wake up invisible, like a character out of The Twilight Zone. Invisible and possibly unheard too. Duncan completely identified with the idea of being a desirable commodity, artistically, intellectually, physically. Desirability is power. Desirability makes artists marketable. But at a certain point the question does arise: What are you selling, your art or your assets, the things you made or the idea of you as a creative type? Which is getting over into Kate Moss territory.

Moss, the glamour girl with whom Duncan was so preoccupied (or was it the product?), has it easier. Moss has no intellectual pretensions, and she knows perfectly well that she is a commodity. You get the maximum financial mileage out of it, and you try not to die of boredom, and you escape at every opportunity and live your life, just as you would at any other job. You don’t actually need much in the way of brains to figure this out. The reason Duncan couldn’t figure it out was not that she was stupid but that she was going quietly crazy.

This New York magazine piece by David Amsden about the couple’s last months is unintentionally funny. I keep picturing the writer’s battered and much-annotated copies of early-to-middle-period Joan Didion. Cliches shift at glacial speed in the world of journalism. The innovations of New Journalism are now safely entrenched as “literary journalism” and reduced to an indulgence in mannerism. Didion used her style to penetrate the terra incognita of the counterculture, Republican party operatives, and other strange worlds. Amsden writer adopts her manner as if he believes that the milieu in which Duncan and Blake lived is some remote cultural outpost and not dead smack in the teeming and mercenary center.

All night long they kept coming, pouring in through the great old iron gates of St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue. Inside, under the vaulted ceiling, people were sweating and swaying to excellently named bands—the Young Lords, the Virgins—the music so loud you could feel it, like a fist, thumping in the middle of your chest. Outside in the garden they huddled around the grill or lined up at the bar for four-dollar cans of Bud Light, everyone drinking a bit more than usual, perhaps, because it was July 3, 2007, and all anyone had to do tomorrow was sleep until the headache subsided and get out of bed in time for the fireworks. St. Mark’s was where Andy Warhol screened his early films, where W. H. Auden and Allen Ginsberg held readings, where Sam Shepard staged his first two plays, and here was an evening dedicated to celebrating and preserving this tradition: everyone out to get a little lost and loose and in the process raise money to restore the church’s chipping façade…

Who were these people? Are they the same set of people referred to as “they” in the first sentence? If not, who are “they” and why don’t you just tell us? Did they, I mean, “they” and the other people, know one another? How many people were there altogether, would you say? 40? 100? 200? What do you normally pay for Bud Light on a night on the town in New York, now that you mention it? Why were they selling Bud Light of all things? Is “music so loud you could feel it, like a fist, thumping in the middle of your chest” really in the tradition of Auden and Ginsberg and Warhol? If not, what tradition is it in? Are those really excellent band names? What was the music like, other than loud? No, seriously, Bud Light? What is that, some sort of postmodern irony thing?

The thing about Didion is that she will have answered all these questions by the end of such a piece. But this is written under the same hipster inscrutability license (Title XII, Sect. A) and no answers ever come.

Well, I ask these questions, because I am not in the know. Perhaps that’s why what seems strange to me in the story of this party is not so much that the hosts were upstairs having some kind of psychotic episode, but that the party went right on swingin’ anyhow.

Duncan and Blake had been found in the rectory, seated by the window, looking down at the party—their party—below. Without apology they explained that they could not come down, no, they were experiencing a “collective vision” that the grill was going to explode, somehow harming Duncan. It would have been a more troubling exchange were it not, by this point, almost expected. During their moments of clarity there were few people as thrilling to be around as these two—the banter was invigorating, the exchange of ideas fervent—but an incident like this was a reminder that moments of clarity were increasingly rare.


In time everyone had a theory, a hypothesis, an eagerness to impose his own story line onto what had happened. To some the “double suicide,” as the newspapers called it, reinforced the quixotic fantasy that artists are somehow too pure for the harshness of the world. To others it was a Shakespearean tale of a love so tragic and potent that one person could not live, literally, without the other. According to the blog Dream’s End, the deaths were not suicides but murders connected to an “alternate reality game.” As more details emerged—about their troubles in Hollywood, their claims of harassment by Scientologists, and how many people they had thoroughly alienated in recent years—the narrative grew harsher. Now their deaths became a story of wrathful envy, of toxic ambition, of fame obsession, of a woman spurned by success, of a terrible conspiracy, of madness. People so quickly grew fixated on trying to define what Duncan and Blake represented in death that it became increasingly difficult to understand and remember who they had been when they were alive.

None of it, I admit, very flattering to the human race. I mean, maybe they're gone to hook up with Elvis. None of these sources are named, their relationship to the deceased is a complete mystery. So, by the way, is Amsden’s relationship to them. He seems awfully well acquainted with their living room.

There [Where?!!! Oh, never mind. -- ed.]is a photograph, two years old, from September 2005. In it Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake are seated on the vintage couch in their Venice Beach cottage. Behind them is a bookshelf crammed with fiction and philosophy and the political polemics that Duncan, if you let her, would talk about for hours. Do they have a fire going? You can’t see from this angle, though they so often did in the fall and winter that you can imagine the snap of burning logs and the sweet soot smell mixing with one of Blake’s Nat Sherman cigarettes. His left arm is extended along the back of the couch, as if about to embrace Duncan, who is perched back on her heels, holding a stethoscope to Blake’s heart. Her eyes are closed. She is listening. His eyes are half open, a lazy grin on his face. The photo is almost uncomfortably intimate. It was taken by the artist Dario Robleto, part of a project to collect the heartbeats of 50 lovers. “Hearing Jeremy’s heart like this was amazing,” Duncan wrote on her blog, “like staring through a telescope at a vast and previously undiscovered world. The beats sounded so powerful, and yet so temporary. We are just another damn song…”

They might have seemed like the “It” couple of their rather large circle of acquaintances, but when two people who don’t have a very strong inner sense of self begin to mirror each other in the way Blake and Duncan did, it’s not a good thing.

It was by coincidence that both Duncan and Blake moved to New York in the same year, 1995. One autumn night they ran into each other backstage at the old Knitting Factory, and this time the attraction was immediate. Within a few weeks it seemed to friends that Duncan and Blake had been together for years—two people connected by an almost compulsive fascination with the idea of the artist: the fantasies, the mythologies, the clichés.

Naturally, then, when they moved to Los Angeles, they settled in a cottage on Venice Beach. Well, Venice looks like the fantasy of the artist’s neighborhood, and it even actually was an artists’ neightborhood once, which is why one-bedroom apartments there rent for $2500 a month. They were paying for the cottage in Venice, who knows what sums, and a rather grand workspace for him, though why he needed a big warehouse with a skylight to produce drawings with a Wacom tablet-like device and a computer is unclear. I suppose it provided inspiration. But things started to go wrong in Los Angeles, the paranoia was setting in even deeper, a spreading and all-consuming conviction that they were being spied on by Scientologists. They gave up the cottage and the splendid studio and Drake kept only a single studio space. Duncan’s attempt to break into the film industry as an auteur,on the strength of her video game designs, her one short animated film, and her brilliance and looks was not making headway. This failure of a perfectly reasonable proposition, she came to believe, was a conspiracy too.

If New York can be a hostile but ultimately rewarding environment for an artist, Los Angeles is often the opposite: easy and glittering until you begin to suspect that it is all maybe a cruel illusion. It was Nathanael West, himself a New Yorker who settled in Hollywood, who perhaps best understood the potentially grim effects this can have on the mind of an ambitious optimist. “Once there, they discover the sunshine isn’t enough,” he wrote in The Day of the Locust of those who seek a specific paradise in Los Angeles. “Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time … The boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment.”

There are a couple of things to know about West. One is that The Day of the Locust was written in 1939, set in Hollywood at a point when the Depression must have felt like it was going to last forever. Another thing to know about West is that his sister, Laura, was the wife of S.J. Perelman. All three of them were urbane, cosmopolitan, talented, cultured East Coasters who made their real money as screenwriters. They loathed LA, especially the film industry. For the Perelmans and West it was a backwater, a company town, population populated by misfits, eccentrics, posers, and lost souls, in the midst of which loomed the film industry, a highly lucrative salt mine managed by goons and vulgarians. They loathed it, and they made out there like bandits. Perelman reserves his most vitriolic wit for Los Angeles. He makes West seem like Gandhi. And in Los Angeles, in 1939, there wasn’t much else but the film industry, besides oil derricks dotting its still quite empty landscape. Film noir and the novels of Raymond Chandler discovered a certain louche charm in LA life, which quickly became a cliché too, another myth. But in the nearly 70 years since The Day of the Locust Los Angeles has changed a bit. It’s simply not the place that Nathanael West wrote about. You can get all the art and culture you want there, but not necessarily in the places where Duncan and Blake thought they were.

Geography and real estate weren’t the problem. The film industry wasn't the problem. Naivete is desirable, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish from cluelessness.

Nevertheless, they returned to New York early this year and moved into even more incredible digs, an apartment in the rectory of St. Mark’s church. There they lived the Boho life of their fantasies, while Blake went out and lived the actual life of the successful art-world artist-as-commodity. A little consulting, a little marketing, a little “playing artist” --

In January, Blake was a featured guest at a screening of Factory Girl at the headquarters of William Morris – a small, informal event organized by the Whitney to cultivate younger patrons. Blake was always skilled in those environments, understanding of his role, adept at charming potential donors…

-- his ability to perform in this other fantasy only slightly impaired by the crazy. The couple seemed at first to have left a lot of the crazy back in Los Angeles, but enough of it appeared in New York to have been worrisome – at least in retrospect.

…you could, in a sense, rationalize their occasional erratic behavior. They were artists, after all, and artists are allowed a degree of lunacy.

I love that sentence.


At 3:26 PM, Anonymous shadow51 said...

It was just another bubble. They thought it was the bubble but it was a bubble.

At 5:09 AM, Anonymous Andrew said...

That "liminal" quote could've been written by Peggy Noonan and a Vicodin.

At 12:00 AM, Anonymous tom said...

Arboretum is the essence of a walk in the wood, immersing us in the magical mystery of autumn, when aromas of moss, leaves, bark and heathers are revealed in all their beauty. This woody fragrance harmonises the fresh notes of pines and firs wiht warm untertones of oakmoss. Top note of coriander, heart note of pine and basenote of oakmoss

Too heady for proofreading I guess? Was there quid?

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