Zach Phillips with Felix Bernstein

Zach Philips and Felix Bernstein
Zach Philips and Felix Bernstein

Felix Bernstein’s Notes On Post-Conceptualism (Insert Blanc Press, LA 2015) documents the fiery transit of the young writer’s inborn need to “overwhelmingly refuse valorization” as he declaims a host of critically celebrated discursive renovations on its ideological horizon. This unusual book, which could and should be read as a TKO of that ersatz aesthetic “radicalism” characteristically comprising the rhetorical center of every constellation of contemporary art stars, seems to me despite all that a deeply unpolemical piece of writing: Felix’s parrying serves more to narrate his arrival at the resulting dead end of his negative path of engagement than it does to play at any authority-ingratiating critical respectability or to prescribe a one-size-fits-all teleology for the lived art practices that constitute his hidden subject. To put my own gloss on it, Notes contributes vital evidence to the indictment of those illusionary makeovers of oligarchic power that belie the naked facts: namely that the same old normalizing institutions, elite ideologies, and exclusive canonical lineages continue to hold court over the aristo-aesthetic rituals of capitalistic privilege and secular idolatry that have come to be termed “contemporary art.” What’s next?

—Zach Phillips

Zach Phillips: Your chapter on the New Museum Triennial is refreshingly merciless in its criticisms of one salient example of the generally disingenuous tactics of contemporary art’s attempts to lend capitalization regimes a political fragrance. To someone more invested than I in the machinations of the (in my estimation, ethically and even “aesthetically” bankrupt by design) elite artworld, it might be tempting to present you with a line of questioning about the nepotism that no doubt has inflected and structured your own nascent upward mobility. But I’d rather ask you about a problematization you fail to make as you repeatedly reference an undefined collectivity:

“How long will we insist that these poets are cutting edge;” “we have to start realizing that Vice is the new New Yorker;” “we don’t look to O’Hara 2.0 style for theoretical breakthrough and sharp critique;” “we are granting special privilege to artists just because they are queer, young, or good-looking;” “doesn’t mean we have to heart them back.”

The last “we” is the only one to be contextualized, as you count yourself as one of the queer artists courted by contemporary museum culture; the rest are oblique. Who are “we” in these instances? Or, to pose a much more interesting and exigent question, isn’t this undefined collectivity precisely what is centrally constructed and continually invoked by museum culture via the legerdemain by which it presents the private networking habits of elites as some kind of intelligibility with universal import for a “public?” If this alchemy is a primary target of your criticism, and I do believe it is, then why reenact it?

Felix Bernstein: I think the best critiques are autobiographical: being hangman and hung at the same time. And for me the best works of critique were performed by Otto Dix, whose drawing showed the grotesque nature of war, bankers, himself but also Weimar queers: no one was exempt. Self-abnegation can help sweeten a critique, as can fostering a “we.” It’s delusional but as Cecilia Corrigan said to me, after reading the essay, critique is still dream work, even if it has elements of reality-checks, pointing to structures and capital, it still always has this utopian role-playing LARPing bent. One of the characters that I’m playing is “we,” sometimes with absolute irony and criticality, other times becomes I’m swept up in the fury of my convictions.

Otto Dix, “Salon,” (1927)

 ZP: Are small art distribution entities like my record label OSR, like your publisher Insert Blanc Press — i.e. the ostensible underground — generatively different from more profitable businesses and institutions? Without recourse to any extrinsic value system that would differentiate our practices from those with a politically “neutral” aesthetic program or profit motive, isn’t the difference between the underground and recognized/profitable entities really a matter of economic scale?

FB: Even if everything is simulacrum, and everyone secretly wants their indie label to go big, there can still be differentiations that count: you can count difference at the level of finance or you can count difference at the level of aesthetic. The gap between inside and outside the culture barely exists in New York, hence the prison house. That doesn’t mean that such cynical knowledge needs to be used as an excuse to be a bad artist or a sloppy curator. In the end, gut level differentiations—subtle gradations are incredibly important, even if aesthetic qualitative distinctions appear to be an Imaginary constructs that burble up at the expense of seeing the Symbolic reality of capital. I think that having a bad feeling about an artwork is just as important to a critic as knowing that it is Symbolically corrupt. No matter how narrow the difference between underground and mainstream might be, some people have a relentless aesthetic commitment to an uncompromised aesthetic sensibility, and they don’t waver from it. These exceptions disprove the idea of the all-encompassing simulacrum. Even when these people “make it big,” they remain fixated on something else.

ZP: What I hear you saying is that values still exist, they’re just maybe harder to read because the processes of valorization are —

FB: They should always be hard to read. It is cognitively inbuilt that humans will resist really great artists (whatever that might mean). It’s a charade because each generation of curators and critics thinks they are getting it right (righting past wrongs) but inevitably they will be wrong. Still that modest transfer of cash from governments and museums to poets and artists is important, as a form of petty charity. And we all say thank you, when it’s our turn.

ZP: Can we give a name to this thing that is not the dance of valorization? Is it commitment, singularity? I know that giving it a name has been one of the projects of all these valorized theoretical discourses that are precisely the ones under suspicion.

FB: If I gave you my name for it, I’d have to kill you, because whenever one names the ineffable quality of the artist, it always sells.

ZP: That’s the brand?

FB: Yes. I have names for that thing, but I won’t divulge them yet.

ZP: Speaking of brands, there’s this new movement called #brandcore. It’s the perfect marriage of the DIY ethos with established corporate brands: taking patches — Google, BP, Exxon, Chevron, Camel, logos from shirts and hats — and sewing them on to a jacket painstakingly, sourcing this stuff from the second-hand market, etc. Not a knockoff or a readymade, but the perfect assemblage everyone who’s anyone is craving this season: a homemade, DIY Nascar jacket, original and handmade but relevant and, significantly, sincere about its corruption: “I’m sponsored.” Those small-scale players in the ostensible “underground” mimicking the signification tactics of their economic big brothers are arguably practicing #brandcore already, albeit on an only semi-developed, semi-conscious level.

FB: I don’t think that sounds interesting. America was founded on branding an iconoclastic break with the British Royal Brand. America itself is the codification of revolution. Every revolution comes with a flag and a nation-state: every indie record label will have a Twitter or at least an email: if they want to tattoo the Twitter bird on their face that is only because it makes them feel less moronic and habitual.

GCDS, “Lookbook,” (Autumn/Winter 2014)
GCDS, “Lookbook,” (Autumn/Winter 2014)

ZP:  Still, you’ve spoken of artworld pragmatism as an inescapable corruption. When you talk about corruption, is that a proxy for availability to valorization? Or for insincerity?

FB:  I think corruption has its own ontology. We’re all discriminant: every second is made up of a million micro-discriminations. So the concept of being in a nondiscriminatory playing field, without corruption doesn’t make sense. Being apart from the system and being a part of the system are sometimes very close. All of our decisions are corrupt in that they have ulterior motives. We have motives that go a­gainst what we claim. This is more specific than saying we have unconscious and repressed desires: we have corrupt and ulterior motives in almost everything we do. This shouldn’t serve as an excuse for corruption: it’s merely a reminder.

ZP: Sure. And to reference one’s corruption has become a popular artistic strategy, and it’s easy to see why: you get your cake (by signifying an ostensibly provocative self-criticism, you appear “politically aware” to the deluded) and get to eat it, too (the operative pragmatism of the gesture gives deference to power). But it seems that elliptically connecting the threads of complicity and sincerity in this way is nothing more than a defensive gesture, a cute sidestepping of certain important questions that actually need to be posed again and again, rather than becoming currency in a coddled discourse. For me, that’s a dead end. I am sympathetic to the idea that if you’re self-critical of your imbrication in certain processes, that’s good and potentially interesting. But if that’s all there is…

FB: I agree: If everything’s a simulacrum, why do you eat this versus that? Why do you buy this artwork about the simulacrum and not that artwork? Why not just be consistently evil, not just in art but also in life. ‘80s art criticism didn’t really figure any of this out. It just sucked the dick of theory. This continues. But, in my opinion, saying everything is corrupt doesn’t change the fact that there is still singularity and distinction. And I don’t think it’s necessarily good for an artist to be self-critical. I just think it’s rare to be self-critical in a way that is different from the basic self-criticality that everyone on the left has.

ZP: But wouldn’t then what you just described, this rare exacerbation in self-criticality, reach its ultimate form in the whole question of pragmatism vis-à-vis opportunism glitching entirely, excising pragmatism altogether?

FB:  No, you have to acknowledge pragmatism. I used to think that it was great if you just crush out the pragmatic and do a radical “whatever,” visionary separatism, these sorts of things. I’m compelled by it, I think it’s beautiful, but I don’t think it’s fully “there.” Since it often forsakes acknowledging the rules and values that are established post-revolution. If I were Sabrina the Teenage Witch, I would cast a spell that would reveal the porn everyone on Facebook looks at: because it would reveal that most good natured people probably watch sick degrading porn. We probably all want what we say we don’t want. This does not invalidate all of our convictions. Just because I might secretly want to be raped by a Nazi, doesn’t mean I like fascism. But it might mean that my art, my sexuality, and my unconscious don’t always align with my politics. Being aware that I find Nazis cute, and recognizing the self-hatred, and jerking off to this fantasy, is better than denying it and unconsciously trying to foster Nazism.

ZP:  The beginning of my own obsessive productivity with respect to “art” coincided with the beginning of my involvement in anti-prison/pro-prisoners’ rights work and the confusing friction between these two domains has been instructive beyond anything else. The goal for me became to develop a way to frame and live my activities with reference to some kind of positive values that actually can be meaningfully and legibly differentiated from the art mess, so my creative activities aren’t just a haute-bourgeois joke dancing on top of the important stuff: I would just really like a serviceable ethos that can get me and whoever else to point A & point B without breaking down. But a central question emerged, one you also pose with your book: how can I immunize myself against the ideology of valorization without completely desocializing myself? If we all “check” our contexts, can we honestly admit that the parameters of our practices are governed by the processes of valorization in currency? Or maybe to look at it less deterministically, maybe this is the danger, but our practices always necessarily exceed this danger, and that would explain the mediocrity of what is rewarded in whatever discourse: what gets lionized is always the perfect compromise between the iconoclasm of intuitive practice and the fulfillment of valorizable criteria. How do you get out of that framework?

FB: There’s an artist I know from the Jack Smith era, he’s not living a glamorous life, but every year he says MoMA comes to check in. They’re waiting to see when he’ll die. These are real-life, fascinating questions, and they appear less and less because these figures are killed off. The homeless are killed off. Psychotics are killed off. Or they move somewhere else. You won’t need to ask me what you’re asking soon because you won’t live here if you don’t have a trust fund. But you can still ask these questions now to some degree: what was it like, being around Andy Warhol, when you were just scum? And some of them are still alive and can tell you what that’s like. That’s fascinating, but right now this figure of the 70s/80s downtown scum is incredibly fetishized. It’s a relic of a New York when people could still afford to barely live here.

Jack Smith, “Untitled (from ‘I Danced with a Penguin’),” (c. 1983)
Jack Smith, “Untitled (from ‘I Danced with a Penguin’),” (c. 1983)

ZP: But you’re talking about the phenomenon of these liminal figures who are around the art world but not a part of it, and then the art world might catch up to them. And part of why their work lends itself so well to the art world’s valorization procedures is that it’s just barely “outside.” It’s close, but it’s outside. But what I thought you were talking about when you wrote of artists who wanted nothing to do with the art world was something else: could we hypothesize a community of effective artists who don’t participate in these discourses and don’t want to?

FB: I don’t think it’s resolvable. Rewards and valorization are always offered at the expense of someone else. You can’t reward everyone. No museum can or ever will. If they get it right and find the Emily Dickinson of today then this is only by mistake. And it will still cover over another artist. Yet people convince themselves that they do get it right. I don’t know why they #believe. They don’t need to #believe to get paid. So money isn’t the reason. It’s about guilt and self-righteousness.

ZP: So this unarticulated guilt provides the impetus for that facile rationalization of the “role of the critic” in “society” that critics always invoke when they’re backed into a corner?

FB: The critic, at best, is like the death drive. There needs to be the death drive, it needs to disrupt our search for pleasure and unity. Or whether it’s necessary or not, it is there. Great artists and critics hook up to the death drive in a way that’s not just nihilistic and fashionable. Fascism is about creating a system where people function: the better critic cannot be fascist since he cannot be so committed. That said: it is impossible to do pure death driven criticism since that would mean to fulfill a maxim and hence to be locked into a command chain and thus would cease being death driven.

ZP: So again, then, why the constant “we” coming from the critic? Why do you think invocations of an undefined collectivity are such a feature of accolades in poetry culture?

FB: We’re all students, with students. All of us. I think it’s that Sadean thing where your transgressions need to be witnessed by some student, or rather that Socratic thing. Plenty of poets are not academic but they still have acolytes. Transgressive groups still have controlling forms kinship, obviously, like the family in Pink Flamingos. That’s a loving family. They’re wicked and horrible to everybody, not really to each other, but there’s still a pecking order, obviously. Even in the Kibbutz, the strongest peer becomes the father.

ZP: Instead of positing possible “disruptive” modes that are quote-unquote “revolutionary,” what if everyone just dropped the discourse?

FB: The problem I have with what you say here is that it’s prescriptive. People can only do the right thing in their singularity. So everybody’s going to have a different relationship to art discourse and approach it differently, even if they don’t know about it. Dropping out is a discourse: it’s a kind of register and sensibility, and it can be done in lots of different ways; it’s very fashionable right now to “disappear.” Could say that Buddhism is kind of a remedy to the problems of the Western ego, but Siddhartha was a prince, he started out rich and became poor, it was always a kind of appropriation of the other’s suffering and he gets the glory.

ZP: I cannot seem to find a position that does not feel in some central way disgustingly disingenuous.

FB: This is what these new hipster fathers have to say. How are you not going to be the bad father? My girlfriends are going to be fine parents, but they’re worried about the men they’re with. I think they’re right. But they wanna be with these guys. The kid’s probably gonna like backslash hate him. We live with bad people and we are bad people but we wanna have children. So if you’re going to have children, you’re going to have to expose them to your badness because if you try to shield them from it, that’s also really bad. So it’s a bind. Being a father is a terrible bind. Though, having a father is much worse.

Zach Phillips is a nonidiomatic songwriter, recordist, writer, and piano teacher living in New York. He’s the anti-curator of the currently offline-only OSR label, plays bass for CE Schneider Topical and helms the mysterious Martyr Group. An album of his guitar music, The Closest Exit May Be Behind You, is newly available from Beautiful Music CDs, and his books Chomo Analects and Ashley’s Jacket were recently published by Gauss PDF and OSR respectively.

Felix Bernstein debuted on YouTube with his satirically real high-school coming-out video in 2008; going on to play Amy Winehouse, Leopold Brant, and Lamb Chop. Bernstein’s critical and uncritical writings have appeared in BOMB, the Believer, Hyperallergic, the Awl, and Poetry Magazine. He makes music and films with Gabe Rubin. His book of essays, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, was published by Insert Blanc Press and his musical Adonais or Bieber Bathos Elegy, will premiere in January 2016 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

  1. After all is said and done, this conversation is completely hypocritical.
    You both talk anti-branding and repeatedly use the term “valorization” of art (like you both aren’t adding to the controlled enhancing and status of the art world through this very piece) and although one could say” hey this is a discourse on these issues when it comes to artwork and the art world,” this is between two individuals stuck in their own principles trying to satisfy their need for recognition, attention, and a fan base through the veil of ‘highbrow’ discourse.

    One of you owns a record LABEL (brand? dare I say it?) and the other dropped on YOUTUBE…. let’s not get carried away with throwing around big words and thinking we’re above what everyone else trying to produce and create their own artistic expression is after – success.

    1. you’re not totally wrong , & I can’t speak for felix , but I think you’re misunderstanding my intentions , which are more genuine than you give me credit for . you also overestimate what “ownership” of my label entails — namely , nothing at all : I control zero rights and consequently have zero financial stakes in anything but losing the excess income I make at my dayjob . the slippage of all cultural processes into ones of branding & valorization is exactly what I wanted to talk to felix about . in fact , I’m not an academic and I’m not on any upwardly-mobile ladder that has anything to do with art . I do civil rights work and I do my art thing , and I’ve been trying to put it out there via the label etc. but have just made myself sick , and so have been trying to conceptualize whether withdrawal is possible / how I can effectuate that withdrawal without winding up in the same spin cycle I am trying to leave . with respect to the psychological desire for attention and recognition , I won’t argue for my purity there — we all want attention and recognition in our own ways — but I will say that my line of questioning for felix arises from an incredible discomfort I have with my own social strivings . so anyway , that is the defense & contextualization I would offer in response to your claims . I’m sorry the interview pissed you off , it wasn’t coming from a place of ego stroking for me , more like “what’s next” . now that I’ve apologized , though , I also have to say I don’t really think you deserve the apology . I think you didn’t do a good job of reading this interview , of which the inherent hypocrisy of art discourse that seeks to ‘radically’ differentiate itself is the obvious & definitive subject .

    2. shorter response : re: your comment , “like you both aren’t adding to the controlled enhancing and status of the art world through this very piece”

      the subject of this interview = precisely how is it possible to NOT do that , while saying anything at all ?

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