The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 13-JAN 14

All Issues
DEC 13-JAN 14 Issue

Life Imitating Art

Alexandra Chasin
(Jaded Ibis Books, 2013)

We look at art in context, but what about people? 

Of course, during a trial, we hear about the childhood, the hours alone, and the alcoholic step-parent, etc. And maybe that mediates our decision-making in the sentencing phase. Or maybe not. Regardless, we don’t look at history; we don't say—we were invading such-and-such a country at that moment, or we were dropping bombs on so-many innocent civilians that morning so talking about the theft of, let's say, a television, is beyond absurd. That, oh monstrosity, would be the Charlie Manson argument. Defense by hypocrisy.  American culture cannot allow the “you are hypocrites” justification of crime—it would make for the end of criminal liability. Whether you’re talking about the crimes of the I.R.S., the crimes of the A.T.F., the crimes of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the crimes of the U.S. military, we’re societally too guilty, if innocence is the prerequisite for judgment, to judge anyone.

And art? Oddly enough, the context of art is historical, not personal. Nobody says, “This is a black painting because so-and-so was three months behind in his rent when he made it.” Or rather, the argument is much more likely to be, “so-and-so’s black series of paintings are directly related to the the U.S. military mining of orphan playgrounds in such-and-such-a-country.”

And what if we were honest, consistent with our own arguments? Well, one of two results: we concede there is no crime, or we concede that the value of art is inflated and the value of people is deflated.

In Brief (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013), Alexandra Chasin explores these two dire ramifications.  Taking on the first-person voice of an art vandal, Chasin gives historical context to a human life—much in the same way that the culture of criticism looks at the life of a work of art. Chasin’s plea for clemency (or is it more of a harried explanation?) is at times mournful, at times tragic, and always deftly articulated. 

“When the journalists came during visiting hours to interview me, they left me perplexed.  I don’t fit the profile: polite, church-going, quiet, secretive. I don’t reveal a troubled past. I don’t reveal at all, however freely I speak of my influences, or should I say symptoms?  But which is the symptom, which is the disease? Which is the vomit, which the museum? Why art, they kept asking: if I wanted to vandalize, why not do it to cars or people or other institutions? Is it random? Hell “no.” Because art, that’s why, the art of all of the above. And I never meant to hurt anyone. It looks like journalists can write, but can they read…the signs? What must they forget in order not to know? Ship of Fools was published, but I could not read. Nonetheless, I could grok The Gutenberg Galaxy, which explained everything.”

Chasin’s task is to move fluidly from the personal to the impersonal; it is the application of artspeak to the individual. The inapplicability of the criteria to a human being produces a farcical personal narrative, but it is also a soliloquy rife with pathos. If the individual person is irrefutably more complicated, more miraculous, more political, more important, nevertheless, only the art has historical value.

Brief, in its original format as an iPad application, integrated images from a selection pool of 600 samples. The text wrapped around the spot inclusions, producing a singular experience for every reader (which is to say, we are all of us our own history). In the print edition, a snapshot of one reader’s experience is captured—and we all share in that experience. The distinction between the e-book and the p-book makes for a fitting commentary, and perhaps a hopeful capstone to Chasin’s bold performative novel; in a future that’s already partly here, we are each of us a history of our own.


John Reed

JOHN REED lives in New York City. More at


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 13-JAN 14

All Issues