Genese Grill

A Vermont Manifesto

December 4, 2019

Painting and sculpture are now free, inasmuch as anyone may produce all sorts of creations and subsequently display them. In architecture, however, this fundamental freedom, which must be regarded as a precondition for any art, does not exist, for a person must first have a diploma in order to build. Why?

Everyone should be able to build, and as long as this freedom to build does not exist, contemporary predetermined architecture cannot be considered art at all. Our architecture has succumbed to the same censorship as painting in the Soviet Union.

– Friedensreich Hundertwasser, The Mold Manifesto Against Rationalism in Architecture

 

I.

It is different to say that everyone should be an artist and that everyone is an artist. While considerable inroads to undermine the art establishment —the arbiter of who’s in and who’s out— have been made by every stripe of democratic agitator; Art and Architecture, as well as Literature, have suffered at least as much from the ministrations of these purveyors of prizes, contracts, development and publication deals, exhibitions, and popularity contests. The damage is compounded by these purveyors being, more often than not, bureaucrats, profiteers, or academic “experts”; the guardians of a limited, prescriptive doxa, rather than philosopher kings.

This has driven serious artists to samizdat, i.e., the clandestine proliferation of banned (or in our case, improper or unpopular) literature within petites coteries, self- or small-publishing, printing broadsides or chapbooks, using technology to spread marginal or subversive words or images. Though usually ill-funded, this work is just as frequently inventive and conducive to innovation.

But should we invariably link all non-conscripted creation to a proletarian art brut or arte povera sensibility that is implicitly or explicitly at odds with Great Art? Should all art be political or polemical? Is it necessary for us to tear down the mansions and collectivise the estates, to turn the flower gardens into potato fields?

I think not. All outsiders are not alike, and working on the margins does not place one fatally against “high art” or all of its related values. We are not all Dadaists, attempting to de-sacralise Art; nor are we all Social Realists, peddling rigid political ideologies. For free, some of us might gladly inhabit the drafty halls of an abandoned castle, where we would reverently polish the elaborate brass and dust the ancestral portraits.

Moreover, if we are, indeed, socially alienated —and who isn’t, to some extent— we could do worse than have Herbert Marcuse remind us that excising the aesthetic from art to render art more lifelike, as it were, is to divest it of its revolutionary potential. “Art,” he writes in The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics, “is committed to that perception of the world which alienates individuals from their functional existence and performance in society—it is committed to an emancipation of sensibility, imagination, and reason in all spheres of subjectivity and objectivity”. Alienation from a deadening society being, to Marcuse, a good thing, the most emancipating art will, ergo, be: ideologically non-conscripted, concerned with form and committed to “Eros, the deep affirmation of Life Instincts in their fight against instinctual and social oppression”. Alack, for Eros is as besieged —from above and below— as Aesthetics itself.

Thus, all-too often, the drive to work outside the confines of “the system” results in an anti-art aesthetic championing the rough, the casual, the demotic and the cheap, as if, in rejecting the stupidity and corruption of the powers that be, one should also reject artistry, with all its “antiquated, discredited, aristocratic baggage”. Though marginal movements are necessary counterforces to the mainstream, it is important not to throw the baby—of artistic discrimination, formal arrangement, individual genius, beauty, mystery and history— out with the bathwater of commodification, simulation, utilitarianism, profit-mongering, sterility, conformity, and convenience.

The careful reader will appreciate this essay will not line up on a clear ideological divide. Individualism, for example, is often pitted against tradition, and conformity might be a synonym for communalism, which can be wielded as a weapon against the commodifiers. But am I then suggesting something could be getting lost in Art’s democratisation, or that one could be beholden to traditions and and a creative innovator all at once? Was I not railing against the purveyors of success, whilst now I seem to be implying art is somehow sacred? Yet Hundertwasser, that most radical of artists and ecological pioneer, criticised the Soviet Union, and Marcuse —at least a partial Marxist himself— came to the defence of aesthetic culture and artistic hierarchies.

The following will be an effort to tease out, sans over-simplifying, the family resemblances —and feuds— between different strands of artistic and utopian thought and praxis.

II.

In the 1960’s, many a disgruntled conceptual artist tried to de-materialise the art object, hoping thereby to save it from the creep of commodification. This de-materialisation was accompanied by equally misguided attempts at collapsing the distance between Art and Life, and between the Artist and the Average Person. The idea that anything could be Art and anyone an Artist would be enchanting if it actually resulted in a world where beauty, innovation and expression were everyday life. Alas, instead of Life becoming more Artistic, Art more usually became more like the dreary and pedestrian parts of Life. While Life is thick with patterns and startling deviations from them; one doesn’t usually see them. An artist can help point them out, and the special realm of art-experiencing (pedestal, frame, proscenium) sheds light on life’s more artful qualities. By removing all distance between the work and its surroundings, severing the sorcery of formal choice and  trivialising art-making; we found ourselves with Art as Brillo-box. What’s more, instead of breaking down the hierarchy of the artworld, the anti-high-art agitators were coopted by it, and became —to a large, though not total extent— the new Establishment.

But what if everyone could be an artist, enmeshed in the manifestation of their desires, fears and hallucinations? Hundertwasser, whose fantastical structures in Vienna are inhabited by regular people and whose paintings did illuminate the world in ways that made its magic visible to those who wouldn’t necessarily have noticed it, wrote the Mold Manifesto against the architectural regulations that forbade laypersons from building their own dwellings, and called for a revolt of the masses against their “confinement in cubical constructions like chicken or rabbits in cages, a confinement which is alien to human nature.” He thought each person should build their own house after the dictates of their vision (provided it did not include straight lines, which were anathema to him). He took the infinitely regenerative nature of mold itself as inspiration, for what is human is persistently developing and changing. His manifesto was a reaction against conformity and sterility not dissimilar from that espoused by e.e. cummings in his introduction to New Poems:

The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople—it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone.

You and I are human beings; mostpeople are snobs.

Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution. The cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultravoluptuous superpalazzo, and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesirable organism. Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they’d improbably call it dying—

cummings, whom mostpeople take to be most democratically-minded, was not just fiercely critical of American democracy and its levelling, utilitarian tendencies; he was, following an exploratory visit, appalled by the anti-individualistic totalitarianism he observed in Soviet Russia. Like Hundertwasser —who belittled the dangers of self-construction by suggesting that 1) the freedom would merit the casualties, and that 2) buildings generally creak before they fall, thus giving their inhabitants time to escape— cummings celebrated danger and repudiated social control. They both insisted on the human need for more than just bread, workers’ housing with good plumbing and protection from harm or offence. (See also cummings’s rollicking, politically incorrect essay “What About It” for a sweeping proto-cancellation of moral prissiness. Dare cancel cummings!).

But let’s return to Vienna, where —like cummings— Hundertwasser was to be found lauding Beauty, Wildness and Individual Expression vis-à-vis the Western, capitalist model of development —though in opposition to progressive-democratic low-income housing and to Soviet totalitarianism, both of which were meant to be correctives to it. He railed against the conformist tendencies of capitalism and its disastrous effects on the environment, but he was not a Marxist insofar as he did not measure the relative freedom and happiness of people economically, but in relation to aesthetic individualism. He found the slums and certain rag-tag, hand-made houses far more beautiful —and thus better for human life— than middle or upper-class dwellings. Nota bene, this was not an invitation to level art to the quotidian. Hundertwasser expressly referred to “the comfort-craving, brainless intoxicated and unformed masses” and “the conformist herd”. He understood that the removal of hierarchic regulations didn’t necessarily result in the removal of (artistic) hierarchy itself. The summons to make our dwellings more expressive of our selves suggests some measure of allegiance to the notion of making our lives more like art, which doesn’t mean making art inartistic, minimal, or more like the drearier aspects of everyday life.

It also follows that removing regulations as to who can build what where might not result in any manner of immediate architectural utopia. Particularly in the United States, where property rights are king, eliminating regulations could result in more utilitarian, motley eyesores. If people have the “right” to use the cheapest, most indifferent and most ecologically-unfriendly materials —as they all-too-often already do— the result would likely be a far cry from Hundertwasser’s vision. To arrive at a social situation where deregulation would incite alluring experimentation, we might have to foster ways of thinking that are, in some respects, antithetical to democratic egalitarian principles, i.e., ways of thinking that honour something as undemocratic as beauty often is.

III.

In Vermont, where I live, the old New England farm tradition combines with a 1960’s radical ethos brought by scores of back-to-the-land drop-outs experimenting with communal life. It is a curious admixture of practical rawness and creative re-use, which can translate into a disregard of surface as often as a celebration of craftsmanship and pride in doing thing’s oneself, or at least with one’s neighbours. We can admire the fine work of a journeyman; and some almost moral precepts about how to do things “well” —the hard way, the long way, the way our grandfathers would have— remain. Even so, when one’s barn is collapsing and there’s no money to cover the expert’s expenses; when one is way the heck-out in the middle of nowhere with a gun and no care for what anyone says, one will more often than not devise new and expedient ways to do what needs doing: “retro-fitting,” using what’s at hand, be it cardboard, rags, hay, whatever. Hundertwasser might have objected to these being matters of practical necessity that don’t yet answer to the human need for beauty and fancy. He might have encouraged us, like William Morris, to “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

Vermont is one of those places where people go to step off the grid. It is —or until recently, was— relatively inexpensive; abundantly spacious; far off-Broadway;  and it gets so cold for so long that one has little left to do but work. It has a tradition of maverick eccentricity, and no billboards to tell us what to desire. It is host to many instances of artistic and architectural movements exalting the glories of living and creating on the sidelines. The Design/Build movement —pulling together and naming already extant strands of organic, improvisational, hands-on methods for communal building in harmony with nature— started here in the mid-sixties, and the Yestermorrow Design/Build school purposes, even today, to teach people about “land and community, whole structure design/build, building systems and building science, woodworking and craft”. But despite great enthusiasm for alternative, DIY practices such as straw-bale houses, these movements are more a response to the economic and environmental problems posed by the architectural establishment, and not so much by its aesthetic limitations. They can hardly be considered avant-garde in terms of formal innovation —and yet, individual builders and artists of building have certainly created dwellings tucked away up long dirt roads and in the mountains that would be after Hundertwasser’s heart.

In his Mold Manifesto, he lists a number of exceptions to the mainstream he derides, and these includes “illegally-built American self-made houses,” together with the work of Gaudí, the Watts Tower in Los Angeles, and the “homes of peasants and primitives, whenever still handmade, as in the past”. One can see pictures of the kinds of magical, experimental —indeed beautiful— American houses he is probably referring to in books such as the classic Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art (1973). These are houses like “extended phenotypes”, emerging —like a snail’s shell— from a person’s needs and idiosyncrasies, as extensions of their individual being; total works of ever-developing life-art. They are off-grid, off-Broadway, off-market, off-kilter —just miraculously, marvelously, off.

Some of these dwellings can be found in the woods surrounding the Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, in the “North East Kingdom” of Vermont. The Theater is a radical utopian experiment that has been in residence for over 50 years, and which has influenced artists and entire chapters of the counter-culture at home and abroad. Charming little shacks, rusty air-stream trailers, converted buses, lean-to’s and exotic-looking tents pop-up like mushrooms as one wanders through the pine forests that lend the compound shade and mystery. Under the leadership of Peter Schumann, who hails from Germany, the Bread and Puppet Theater makes gigantic puppets out of papier mâché and conducts elaborate puppet-cabarets against the backdrop of the Vermont countryside or in their own “Papier Mâché Cathedral”. With the simplicity of abstraction, these performances sketch out the forms of sheep and cows, of birds and houses, of global corporations, deadly missiles and international treaties, suggesting anything that’s needed to tell their agitprop tales. Peopled by dancers on stilts, and usually accompanied by live, unamplified music, the shows routinely celebrate mass peasant and worker uprisings and excoriate the enemy: the “suits,” or evil businessmen, who —provided the performance is held outdoors— end up as sacrificial victims in a ritual auto da fé. Sparks and burning scraps fly into the seemingly unending Vermont sky, as crowds of righteous spectators clap at the black-and-white reduction of the world’s complexity. In a Brechtian twist on the imperial “give them bread and circuses,” these revolutionary artists aim to activate, rather than pacify, their audiences to engagement in changing the world.

But the aesthetic of the puppet shows has as much to say about what sort of world is wanted as the overly simplistic plots. If the cardboard and papier mâché props aren’t clear enough, there is the “Why Cheap Art Manifesto,” which can be found, postcard-sized, under a magnet on refrigerators of most Vermont kitchens (we ourselves have certainly displayed one or two over the years). The manifesto contagiously rallies for an art that is like good bread, trees, and fresh air; art that is freed from museums and taken off pedestals; art to soothe pain and to shake up sleepers; art to wage war against war and art to belt out hallelujah! And who would want or dare to speak against such sentiments? I wouldn’t, really, and in many ways I am in sympathy and awe of it. I love to visit their old barn and see the puppets. I love the thought of making something out of nothing, the powerful agency that is inherent in what they do. I love their herds of deer, doughy faces painted white with sweet branches for antlers, bodies made of makeshift sawhorses covered in fabric. I love the flowing white sheets decorated with folk-art flowers flying up from the wooden frames of the gigantic puppets like sails against the sky. And there is, of course, an undeniable attraction to the edgy, anarchist airs of the handsome accordionists wearing patched vests, and the beautiful clarinetists with their jaunty and befeathered pirate hats; dancers in frilly costume closet petticoats, and children running about in more or less sustained formation, cutely falling out of line from time to time, holding up puppets and singing.

Nevertheless, I always end up feeling like I’m being hit over the head with an ideological hammer; and, more importantly —more subtly— it all smells of something troubling.  Just as Heine heard the sound of Church bells, i.e., the ideology of Catholicism itself, in between every line of German Romantic poetry, I smell the utilitarian excesses of anti-humanist, anti-art totalitarian Marxism. The catch is in the holier-than-thou piety of the entire enterprise, in its implicit rejection of any beauty that is not rough, casual, cheap or communal. It’s in the persistent celebration of the mass at the expense of the individual, of the common over the unique, of the inartistic over the artistic; in the political and the polemical over the nuanced and aesthetic; in the absolute lionisation of the simple over the complex. And to this, Marcuse would say what he said to all overtly ideological art: “The more immediately political the work of art, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical, transcendent goals of change”.

IV.

On the way to the Bread and Puppet compound in Glover, there is a smaller institution, The Museum of Everyday Life, lodged in a barn next to an old farmhouse. One enters, turns on the lights oneself, and takes a self-guided tour of whatever exhibit is on offer, be it a history of pencils, dust, of toothbrushes or scissors. It is clever, and witty, and very much in the Bread and Puppet milieu, with hand-painted signs on cardboard, re-used rusty cans for donation receptacles, and a sort of half-mocking, half-reverential poetical gaiety. There is a easy joy in putting things together out of cheap and found materials, in the freedom of the readymade and in being able to leave everything unlocked at all times. One can be rich in irony and creative energy without having to sell one’s soul. But is there really no cost to such unbridled irreverence?

The last time I was there, I sat in an old barber’s chair and trimmed my own hair, adding the cut-off ends to a collection in the making. Not exactly sublime, but “fun”. Like the Bread and Puppet and their “Why Cheap Art Manifesto,” the Museum of Everyday Life is impressive. Yet —in both cases— to enjoy the aesthetic experience without engaging its polemical intent would be to miss the very pointed point. The Museum of Everyday Life means to be a mote in the eye of all the museums of not-everyday life: those that pay guards to protect the valuables and keep the people’s hands from smudging them; those whose nod to public participation comes down to screens that one can touch and manipulate to “learn more about the exhibit”; those that charge visitors with sometimes exorbitant fees. We are to suppose that the creators of this more democratic and pedestrian museum would hope that the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art would crumble —together with capitalism and the “possession-is-theft” ethos that supported them— leaving only museums such as their own, sort-of standing. Despite my chagrin at the use of the museum as tourist trap and at the impenetrable institutionalisation of art, I cannot follow these iconoclasts to their conclusions. For one of the basic reasons why they need not use locks or hire guards is that no one would want to steal any of their exhibits. No one would long to have one of their charming little displays in the way one could dream of taking home, say, a Rodin, to caress and admire. Being mostly conceptual, their works lack the allure of the sensual.

Again, when the artworld is exclusive and corrupt in ways that prohibit involvement by people who are creating good work; then real, living artists —should they still exist— must find new ways to show and share their work, and to support themselves within a system that does not value serious art-making. But just because we reject the contemporary artworld —as long as it rejects us and our ilk, at least!— it should not follow that the art that we make —on the fringes, shared in small, but widening circles, and disseminated in novel ways— should be deliberately un or anti-artistic. Autonomous, yes; but not counter-aesthetic.

V.

Another Vermont utopian movement, inaugurated by my friend, the late, great Marc Awodey, struggled mightily, in its own David-vs-Goliath way, against the behemoth of the “MACHINE” —Awodey’s term for the institutions that frequently stultify, rather than foster, artistic autonomy. He initiated The Minimal Press, which issued tiny books made with an ingenious fold of just one piece of paper per tome. Easily and cheaply reproduced on a copy machine —preferably one owned and serviced by the bosses of one’s day job or the local university—, anyone who had something to say (and even those who did not) could make and distribute their own booklet. Marc took the whole enterprise up (or down) a level with an implicit commentary on consumer culture and its encroachment on the world of publishing by purchasing used cigarette-machines and turning them into poetry-vendors. A Minimal Press book would be attached with a rubber band to a small cigarette-package-sized block of wood and could be purchased by sliding some coins into the slot.  (He also made gumball machines with haiku folded up in little plastic capsules). Marc, who was a painter as well as a poet and a cultural conspirator, was also known to hold sales of his paintings where the price of each work was determined by its weight —as measured on a meat scale, no less.

In his 95 Theses: Art and the Machine manifesto, first published in 2000, he encouraged us to anoint ourselves as artists rather than wait for MACHINE validation. “While nefarious Elites herd the Artistically insecure into red and gilded slaughter pens,” we should, he admonished, “seek a new path into the eye of the CULTURAL CONTINUUM,” becoming “our own publishers, curators, garbage men, and critics,” reading our books “aloud on the streets”. We should “actuate our epiphanies”…“by spaghetti cans, lottery tickets, love notes, broadsides,” and “attest to the veracity of our own hallucinations with whatever tools are at hand, without seeking permission from the muse, the government, history, or the MACHINE itself”. “Work with what [we] have. Find cheaper, more efficient methodologies for producing works of ART. Then let the exuberance of aesthetic controversy bloom and stink like an amaryllis.”  (Shades of Hundertwasser’s mold flowers!)

Though Awodey’s polemical stance pitted him necessarily against the artworld, he always maintained a discerning perspective to individual works of art and art-making itself, insisting upon honestly assessing their quality or lack thereof. His work was art, not art-politics or art-resistance. So while, like Hundertwasser, he championed the act of creation outside the constraints of the artworld, he was decidedly not arguing for either anti-art crudeness or anything-goes, everybody-is-an-artist populism. As the art critic for the local rag, he was known for writing a distinctly negative review when he felt it was warranted. He was a free thinker, a curmudgeon, a teacher, an important link in the CULTURAL CONTINUUM, a good and noble man who is sorely missed.

VI.

I am even more closely associated with another utopian response in Vermont. It is called Aesthesia, and hopes to make aesthetic experience a value as central as Ecology or the older Americana desiderata of Life, Liberty and Happiness. Aesthesia insists on the importance of beauty for human life, on the basic need for an aesthetic environment, in the fostering of individual creative expression, in protection from exclusively utilitarian encroachments on our lives. It advocates for a society in which aesthetic considerations are a factor in social, political, and practical decision-making. And, naturally, Aesthesia has something to say about the relationship of art to life, encouraging people to make their everyday existences as beautiful as possible, whilst ensuring that art-making be held as sacred and distinct from the utilitarian.

The Aesthesia Manifesto, written by Stephen Callahan, begins with a basic set of aphoristic principles, including:

The aesthetic factor must be included in every formula of life, for a definitive reason: in order to arrive at the right answer—one that takes into account the inevitable power of the senses, the undeniable desires of human beings—and thus prevents the hypocrisy of morality.

The Manifesto then proceeds to a presentation of “Aesthetic Acts,” including sections on “Valuing, Judging, and Discriminating,” “Dressing,” “Establishing One’s Own Customs,” “Passing the Bounds,” “Dwelling,” “Maximalizing,” and “Creating Art,” among many others. It then moves on to a free-thinking, challenging collection of “Aesthetic Conflicts,” including “Technology and Electronic Mediation,” “Motley,” “Advertising,” “Democracy,” “Equality,” “Academia,” “Monoculturalism,” “Rectilinearity,” “Simulation,” and so on; and concludes with an author’s afterword and reading list.

The Aesthesia Manifesto, which used to be a few pages in an envelope —complete with a gold card, letter-press-printed with the original principles— has since grown to the size of a small booklet, with a letter-pressed cover and a reproduction of a hand-drawn emblem or escutcheon depicting a congeries of beautiful objects —antiquities and curiosities, feathers, books, jewelry, lanterns, statuary, all carefully arranged and exquisitely rendered by the artist Angela Rose Chaffee. In its celebration of external, material reality, it has also grown more controversial as the world itself has become more suspicious of the sensual surface, and so more inclined to disregard the visible as not just insignificant, but treacherous.

Much as one can smell the ideology behind the artifacts on display at the Bread and Puppet barn or the Museum of Everyday Life, one can smell other manners of subversive thinking here: elitism, perhaps; nobility, aristocracy, an aestheticism that’s distinctly out of step with contemporary mores. Still, Aesthesia persists wherever people dare to care about what they see, taste, smell, hear and touch. Small books and printed cards are passed from hand to hand; invitations to parties are slipped into the pockets of budding dandies or the velvet purses of anyone who looks as if they might be open to a different way of living in the world. It is wherever surfaces communicate meaning(s) between persons, cultures, times, and places; wherever amateurs of beauty take the time to make something, with love, with care, with ritual intent and magical artistry, and to ensure that it is set in just the right place.

In the Manifesto, we read: “Building one’s own house, or designing additions to it, is the grandest approach to domesticity. Any effort of individualizing and beautifying one’s home, however, like one’s person, does presuppose some affirmative conceptions, perhaps informed by an acquaintance with some edifying works on the possibilities of decoration.” And: “It is lovely to think of one’s living space as a representation of one’s life, reflecting as fully as possible one’s personal past and one’s own taste, like a museum; or alternatively, as an exposition of one’s present activities and fancies”. Further, after more specific suggestions about materials and forms, one is encouraged, to “Have a home where you can live after your own ideal desires, and also graciously entertain and accommodate visitors. For an alternative lifestyle, make your dwelling in a tree house, cave, or tent, or in some sort of gypsy caravan; and make it nonetheless as stylish as practicable”. Like Hundertwasser, Callahan insists upon the personalisation of one’s dwelling: “Again, your house is your sanctuary, your perfect artificial world where everything is preternaturally according to your tastes. It can also be your own most flattering background—as if for your portrait—making yourself appear as beautiful as possible”.

As to the artistic creation itself, alongside or within an artistic living environment or artistic life, Aesthesia has this contretemps perspective: “To speak tautologically, the most artistic creation is that into which the artist has put the most art: the fullest resources of conception and execution, the most time and effort. Lesser degrees of art may amuse; but we are likely to be most moved, most transformed beyond our former natural state, by the artist who has most moved and transformed himself and his materials. Technique is paramount. Form is at least as important as matter”. While Aesthesia allows for the possibility that “hyperprofitable businesses” could contribute to the fostering of art-making (like all good bohemians, we will take your money), it cautions that there should be no obtrusive advertising of any contributions that might interrupt the sacredness of the experience and, notably, that “free artistic expression in itself must also remain completely uncompromised” by such philanthropy. No commercial or ideological strings attached.

Aesthesia positions itself clearly in opposition to certain aspects of the aforementioned fringe movements —by standing for painstaking artistry, maximalisation over minimalism, tradition alongside innovation, individuality over conformity and equality, care over casualness, beauty over utility —or morality— and so forth. And while the Manifesto has extremes with which one may well moderately disagree, its essentially cultural vision is a direly-needed corrective. “Culture,” Callahan quips, “is the new counter-culture”—and as long as both mainstream and alternative movements continue to denigrate and endanger the beautiful things that we love, to deny the force and significance of the physical world, to belittle and blaspheme sensuality, artistry, magic and the oscillating synergies between tradition and innovation that have obtained in all rich and creative times, I will side with the devilish aesthetic angels.

Despite important differences, there are also some palpable likenesses to be found between these different fringe movements, operating in the interstices between bourgeois consumerism and the artworld. These margins are a realm of bohemian interplay and practice, in which non-conscripted artists thrive. It is not only that few of us “enjoy” the sanction and accompanying ideological constraints of belonging to institutions or “benefiting” from their financial support, but rather that we do enjoy the essential human happiness that’s found in making our realities, our microcosms, our communities, our homes, our publishing ventures and performance venues, our ways of learning and teaching, of building and dressing, of making love, thinking and seeing —without having to pay consultants and design teams who would only ensure that our productions were compliant with their codes.

Whether in the interest of commonality or individuality, of democratic or aristocratic tastes, we all embody the agency to manifest our dreams in some material form, for others to behold and to consider. Being out here, beyond the pale of prevailing popularity, in small, decentralised groups, we are not even asked to relinquish our power to the fatal MACHINE that Marc Awodey designates as the enemy of Art. With Hundertwasser, we proclaim that “Man has to regain the critical, creative function he has lost and without which he ceases to exist as a human being!” With Marcuse, we understand that to exercise this critical stance, we must become autonomous, and that, if we want to create and recreate a nuanced, pluralistic and complex society, our art must mirror and perpetuate that same complexity and contradiction.

 


Genese Grill is a German scholar, essayist, translator, and visual artist living in rural Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s Der Man ohne Eigenschaften: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), and translator of a collection of Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015), Unions: Two Stories (also by Musil; Contra Mundum Press, 2019), and Theater Symptoms: Robert Musil’s Plays and Writings on Theater (forthcoming, Contra Mundum Press, 2020). She has written a collection of essays on the fruitful confluence of spirit and matter, a celebration and defence of the meaning to be found in the material world, many of which have been published in various journals.