Medium Cool: The Case for Serrano's Hot Shitby Robert C. Morgan
Shit may be the closest we come to death in life, or for that matter, the meeting ground between Eros and Thanatos. It is most often the detritus we choose to ignore, the packaging we rip from the simulacrum and tear apart. It is the notion that, if what is brand-new is an escape from consciousness, then shit is the end of it all, the waste we hasten to cover-up and bury in the dark forest of the psyche, sooner rather than later. A major impulse over the past century has been the longing for something else—another brand name—to overwhelm us like a torrent, an emotional force we cannot resist. It is the desire to encapsulate and possess—Koons over Warhol, Hirst over Duchamp—the desire not to be alone (in art as in death), but to surreptitiously master a world of easy effects, the simulated universe of signs and signals, protons and electrons, and thereby to regain the lost continent of ourselves, which rarely comes into focus. But the wrong questions are posed, and the wrong cards are turned on the table. Shit is a pervasive reality that takes possession of our language, our thoughts, and our actions. Shit is the final metaphor of both material and psychic accumulation, the very example of all we hope to deny—a form of extended kitsch, the embodiment of sentiment, lassitude, a dissolution of the senses, wallowing in fakery and narcissism.
Here I am reminded of a phrase from Milan Kundera that “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, both in the literal and figurative sense of the word.” But what is shit, really, other than a human physiological manifestation? The exhibition at Yvon Lambert of various fecal extrusions, represented in color photographs, exudes a certain vacuity, as when something has been emptied out and has nowhere else to go. On another level, this may be a phenomenon that exists intentionally in the mediation between art and literature: the photographs of Andres Serrano and the catalog text by Helene Cixous. The confluence between the two suggests a kind of Buddhist paradox where nothingness is less the end of existence than the beginning of another. Instead of theory compensating for what is not there, Serrano and Cixous transplant reality in different terms. We are somehow suspended from the predictable. What we expect to feel and what we do feel may not coincide. Instead we may realize that these distant photo-memories of fecal matter are also distant to us. The only hint of repulsion we feel is not in the visual encounter but in the contrived captions—“holy shit,” “chicken shit,” or “bull shit”—given to the various samplings by the photographer. Without these captions, there is a kind of classical aesthetic purity about these heavenly turds. The captions, instead, channel them toward aesthetics, pushing the Freudian signifier beyond the reach of snap judgment or psychic recapitulation into a celebration of Catholic pageantry and kitsch sentimentality. By the end of viewing this eschato-scatological exhibition and the precisely written meditations that accompany it, one might begin to contemplate the neo-metaphysical poetics that reign over the repetition of quotations so common to the linguistic peregrinations of academic solipsism in recent years. That is to say, both Serrano and Cixous have truly done their job at the service of art. This particular matching of art and literature has proven a kind of masterpiece, like few that we have experienced in recent decades. As in my critique of Serrano’s captions, which distract from his originary aesthetic, I blame Cixous for concentrating her viewing efforts more on the form of the shit than the maudlin hues that surround it. It is the space/light signifiers decorating Serrano’s precious feces that give them away. As with the Surrealist Magritte, we might say: “Ceci n’est pas le merde.” After all, the shit is not really there, only the pleasure of the text, only the bliss of the photograph as art.
Recalling the film version of Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha by the British film director, Conrad Rooks, in the early seventies, I remember sitting through fifteen minutes of black leader at the outset while the audience listened to Indian raga music. The point was to acculturate the viewer to the narrative that was to follow, where the princely Brahmin rejects the material world in order to find happiness and perhaps Nirvana. What succeeded for Rooks was acculturation by way of distance; and what succeeds for Serrano is a similar distance—that, in spite of pushing our faces into feces, we are rather quite removed from it all. This happens not through the cute captions but through the lighting effects that give the turds their aura. One might say, in contrast to Milan Kundera, that Serrano’s shit is not the opposite of kitsch, but the epitome of what kitsch represents. The desire to express becomes the desire to release, as suggested by Cixous; but the desire is held in check by the impulse to fetishize the waste, thus to regenerate its afterlife, not so dissimilar from the cherubs that encircle Bouguereau’s Virgin. We are in the realm of “medium cool,” as the media analyst Marshall McLuhan predicted for the TV age in the early 1960s. Similarly, we stare at Serrano’s shit with relative detachment, the same relative detachment we find in Bouguereau, well aware that the heat of these divine cherubs has subsided. Our fear of apocalypse has subsided, yet somehow the ontology sticks with the image.
As with Gilbert and George, or Piero Manzoni more than a decade before them, modern day shit-meisters offer another kind of ontology, one mixed with irony and social protest. It is irony that keeps the kitsch at a distance, but it is also irony that may preclude art from being felt on the level of significance. Over the years, Andres Serrano’s work has struggled to uncover the hidden psyche and to determine what is tolerable in a photograph. I have always taken his ambition seriously, though I have equivocated about the significance of his work. I think this series comes about as close as anything I have seen to making irony appear significant. These photographs weaken the barrier between the aesthetic and the anti-aesthetic, not over the duration of time, as in the case of the Dadas, but very much in the present. Serrano’s photographs may shock, but only in a limited way. They are essentially products of the TV age that have been sublimated into something personal: Serrano’s persuasive illusion that “hot shit” is best when it plays cool.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.