Space to Freak Out:
On the risk of the subject and the deferral of Philip Guston
Mat Keel and Liz Lessner
Consumer capitalism … has destroyed the libidinal economy and, through that, has installed a ‘new kind of barbarism’. It is now trying to compensate for the extreme disenchantment to which exhaustion of the social systems has given rise by radicalizing itself – by becoming purely, simply and absolutely computational, imposing automated understanding on every kind of activity via the algorithms of social reticulation, which outstrips and overtakes every critique of reason (Stiegler 2019).
Philip K. Dick was certainly onto something when he formulated his notion that the Empire never ended. Not only has it not ended, it has gotten more and more efficient over the years at being able to cover itself up in such a manner that not only do we have difficulty seeing how the Empire still exists today, but we also help pay for its perpetuation and maintenance. It is a subtle and vicious empire indeed, if we are unable to even recognize its hand gripped firmly around our throats (Hydomako 2002).
In late September 2020, representatives from four prominent U.S. and European art institutions, the joint curators of a retrospective entitled Philip Guston Now, quietly released a statement announcing that the show, scheduled for this year, would be delayed until 2024.
The curators explained as follows:
We are postponing the exhibition until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted (The National Gallery of Art 2020).
Philip Guston was among the most prominent and notable painters of the twentieth century. The reasoning behind his temporary censure centered on the irrevocable significance of his iconic cartoon-like paintings of Klansman within his larger body of work. Guston described these pieces as a kind of experimental self-portraiture – a process in which he imagined himself as the embodiment of “evil,” yet notably in a subject position fairly close to his own as a middle-aged white man.
We recognize that, at first glance, the curators’ decision might seem like an innocent admixture of abundant caution and impoverished imagination, as if protecting the poor audience who is so stupefied by the shock of seeing a KKK hood that it is suddenly devoid of critical faculties. Of course, it is also hard to imagine a less believable formulation of the audience – one so lacking in pliable imagination as to be puzzled dumb into mistaking Guston’s paintings of Klansmen for hagiography. For that matter, it is equally hard to imagine a viewer so devoid of associational faculty as to overlook those other bits of refuse which Guston also obsessively rendered, likely another form of self-portraiture inspired by his father’s role as an immigrant trash collector. This association is especially apparent in his signature piece “Painting, Smoking, Eating” (1972) where Guston’s own pathos is quite clearly aesthetically allied with the pathos of the risible Klansmen.
Thus, alongside many other artists, we were deeply troubled by last fall’s turn of events and especially disturbed by the obfuscation of these particular paintings during an era that is characterized by a heightened and ostensibly broader and more open discussion of dismantling white supremacy.
In this paper we explore a fundamental tension between the securitization and flattening of both unpredictable cultural encounter and subjectivity and the contrasting paradigm of Freak Space within which we locate our own organization, Yes We Cannibal.
An Open Letter
Our first response to the news was to pen this open letter which we posted to the website of our experimental art and social research space, Yes We Cannibal:
Re: Open invitation to host the postponed Phillip Guston retrospective
October 12, 2020
Kaywin Feldman, Director, National Gallery of Art
Frances Morris, Director, Tate Modern
Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Gary Tinterow, Director, The Margaret Alkek Williams Chair, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
We are saddened by your recent decision to delay Philip Guston’s retrospective.
We do understand how troubling and uncomfortable it might be for the citizens of cosmopolitan cities like those which you serve to risk exposure to the artist’s signature cosmic-cartoon renderings of KKK hoods.
Thankfully, as an experimental art and culture space based in a city and state where the KKK is not only still active but also a thinly veiled and only semi-covert political force, where prison labor is still openly used for grounds maintenance at our flagship state university, and where many of our citizens still operate largely within a polite but pervasive sense of veiled racial threat, we are confident that we may be in a unique position to help you.
Given those realities which we live with in this enduring plantation city, we have absolutely no concern that “unclear” interpretation of Guston’s masterful work will cause harm. Indeed, we are working quite hard here to protect all forms of art and experimentation against totalitarian encroachment and the assault on new forms of thought including abstraction and taboo.
Rather than being concerned that Guston’s work might somehow be wrongly allied with “plantation consciousness,” (as we call it) we see him as part of the project of dismantling it. Indeed Guston’s work, and its associative mapping of mid-siècle white consciousness (in all its permeability and contradiction) may even reinvigorate and sanctify that most unique responsibility with which Art has historically been tasked – to hold and protect space for forms of experimentation. These fertile spaces nurture possible futures precisely because various codes for policing the sacred and profane are held at bay, doctrinaire critical notions of culturally correct interpretation are always taken with salt grains, and programmatic socio-political agendas are contra-indicated.
In this manner, new forms, ideas, and conversations – those encounters which Gilles Deleuze proclaimed were more real and more important than culture– may emerge.
In sum, this is simply a perfect fit for our space and our city.
To this end, we humbly offer our burgeoning institution as an alternative venue to host the retrospective without delay. Admittedly, it’s a financial stretch for us, but perhaps with your various endowments, something mutually beneficial could be arranged. Please respond at your soonest expedition.
With highest regard,
Mat Keel and Liz Lessner
Yes We Cannibal
Though our offer would never be entertained, the critique that animates it is deadly serious. We see Guston’s experimental identification with the pathos of the hooded figure as equally empathic and profane, as well as cementing his determined personal exodus from a world of abstraction with which he had become violently disenchanted, claiming that:
American Abstract art is a lie … to cover up how bad one can be… it is an escape from the true feelings we have, from the ‘raw’, primitive feelings—about the world, and us in it. In America. (Baker 2020)
Unpredictable Encounters: The Risk of the Subject
As William De Kooning repeatedly proclaimed, the real subject of Guston’s work was freedom. If Guston sought freedom, he did so by this most intimate experimental encounter with the reviled other, entering and inhabiting the unconscious depths of white supremacist subjectivity. We believe that censuring such an encounter at this time is a profound and dystopian proclamation, presaging an ominous future relevant to far more than racial discourses.
Indeed, we would go so far as to say that the curators’ implicit invocation of risk and “[un]clear interpretation” marks a significant emergence of new strictures in the programming of art and culture which may then relate to the entire social field. This emergence, we argue, can be traced to modes which were developed in the financial securities industry but are now being applied to subjectivity itself.
To clarify the relevance of finance here, there is obviously nothing new or inherently remarkable about the storied influence of wealth on the institutional programming of culture. Proximal relations between art and wealth are not our focus here at all. Specifically, what we are concerned with is the adoption of risk management strategies in the curatorial process as a prefigurative act for the social world at large. This decision represents a historical and pernicious development; it engenders a violent constriction of space – a preemptive contraction at the horizon of possibility that forecloses on artists’ freedom to invent new worlds where new encounters may occur and where new subjectivities may manifest.
On the surface, Guston’s work itself has only been deferred, not cancelled, yet we recognize the curatorial logic at work here as an opening salvo in a precedent assault on any experimental artistic praxis of consequence. What we are observing is the troubling and complex reshaping of subjectivity itself as a site of risk management. This move is made manifest through an infantilization – the obliteration of the subject’s agency to engage difference or to aspire to become other than oneself. As we have noted, it was paradoxically this kind of encounter with difference and becoming-other in a bid for freedom, which Guston experimented with in these paintings, that led to his deferral.
It would be a tragic mistake for radical social movements to ignore this development or to abandon experimental art or to condescendingly diminish it as if “the art world” were nothing more than an incidental vehicle through which wealth is produced and consolidated. Art spaces around the world are complex and relationally diverse. For all they are indeed connected in various ways to mega institutions like those implicated here, they are also imperative to the preservation of experimentation with unpredictable encounters and the production of lines of flight. To simply dismiss the significance of the Guston episode due to a distaste for “the art world” would be to further obscure its potentially much further-reaching implications.
In essence, the appropriation of risk management and securitization strategies, which were developed through the algorithmic practices of the financial industry, into the sphere of art and culture programming produces a diminishing effect on the possible depth which new and complex subjectivities may take. This flattening is the result of both strictures imposed on profane and non-doctrinaire explorations of subjectivity as well as of the preventive infantilization of those who would risk entry into such spaces.
We are observing the emerging contours of a new form wherein unpredictable encounters with experimental art and culture are assessed in terms of risk, and thus producing a receding horizon of possible worlds. The unpredictability of an encounter with difference, which we closely ally with experimentalism, when codified as risk reframes art and culture as something like a field of predation. This justifies the intervention of the curator – a social programmer – who now must intervene as something like a game warden tasked with mediating between the artist/predator and the viewer/prey.
Thus, what truly marks the Guston episode as important is not the overworked specters of elitism, corporatism, censorship or some naive concern about “identity politics.” Instead, it marks the prefiguration of an entire social field in which our subjectivities are shaped based on algorithmic calculations of the risk of encounter with others. What we are witnessing is these museums transmuting the potentialities of unpredictable social encounters into a variable quantity of risk which can be assessed by algorithmic logics. The late Bernard Stiegler’s thought affords a helpful framework here:
psychic and collective protentions are being replaced by purely computational automatic protentions – eliminating the unhoped for, essentially destroying every expectation of the unexpected, and thereby attenuating every form of desire (Stiegler 2019 p. 20)
The processes which Stiegler suggests, shaped by the algorithmic mapping of response and counter-response, now spill into curation. They deny the viewer agency to anticipate their becoming, their desire to become other. A permanent deferral begets the never-ending empire.
Guston’s decision to abandon abstraction and his invention of a new and obsessive visual language of human refuse (which included renderings of his own body) initiated a schizoid passage through the topology of mid-siècle white subjectivity.
We interpret his Klan paintings as something like a shamanic quest for exorcism which we ally with Oswald De Andrade’s Cannibalist Manifesto:
The use of the cannibal metaphor permits the Brazilian subject to forge his specular colonial identity into an autonomous and original (as opposed to dependent, derivative) national culture. (De Andrade 1928)
De Andrade challenged conventional notions of resistance, “[refusing] any form of stable cultural self-identity and [celebrating] instead the constant incorporation through ritualized eating of the other for social reproduction” (Saraiva 2019 p. 92). Following him here bolsters our reading of Guston’s decision to include himself first as refuse and second as Klansman, in a quest for freedom in an attempt to realize the forging of an autonomous and original position.
Guston’s paintings traverse a world of refuse from which he is inseparable and force his audience to engage him in this uncomfortable process of encounter. As Suely Rolniks suggests, if we are to “decoloniz[e] the unconscious,” we must “[de-anesthetize] our vulnerability to the forces of the world in their variable diagrams; such vulnerability is the potency of subjectivity in its outside-of-the-subject experience” (Rolnik 2017).
Similar to unlikely contemporaries, like William Burroughs and Philip K Dick in their paranoia of control, Guston appears to have been seeking encounters through which to exorcise his whiteness. His deferral then forecloses on encountering the discomfort accompanying the historical voyage of the possessed.
The Guston episode is clearly influenced by the controversy around Dana Schutz, a white female artist who was widely criticized for her abstract rendering of Emmett Till in his open casket in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Schutz was accused of commodifying black suffering, a line of argument that aligns neatly with those on the radical left who understand art praxis as a simple vehicle for wealth accumulation and consolidation. However, this argument is again compromised by its absence of consideration of the role of encounter in her process.
Like Guston, Schutz seemed to be engaged in an alchemical act, as if attempting to dismantle and remap her own white subjectivity – to become other – through a deeply intimate encounter with the evil of white supremacy. Despite the intimacy of this encounter, Schutz was especially criticized for her style of abstraction which, some argued, diminished the horrific violent disfiguration of Till’s body. While Guston and Schutz’s respective difference in relating to abstraction are notable, they are also historically contingent. When Guston took aim at abstract expressionism, for instance, it was because it had evolved into a style of giant color fields that was allied with the para-militarized halls of finance. Ironically, Guston’s exodus from abstraction was also motivated by a desire to make paintings he famously conceived of as ones that would be difficult “to count money in front of” (Baker 2020).
In sum, the Guston episode seems to demonstrate a chilling securitization of cultural experimentation and unpredictable encounters, prefiguring a world where aesthetic play-with-difference becomes profane. It paradoxically revivifies a fascist logic by atrophying desire as it circulates within the social world in the name of preventive concern and deferral out of consideration for “[un]clear interpretation.”
In this stultified era of a capitalism that is no longer “late” – no longer even asked to locate itself chronologically – we are then left with a critical polarization between mega institutions and small scrappy salons de refuses, like Yes We Cannibal.
We welcome this polarization enthusiastically.
We name it Freak Space and find its precursors in the dead-serious quixotica of the Levitate the Pentagon (1967) action, the Viennese Actionists, and the White Panther Party with their demands for free energy and widespread abolition and their uncomplicated single line declaration of total solidarity with all aspects of the Black Panthers 10 Point Program.
Freak Space now is a radical response to any and all fixity of identity that will be used against us in the encroaching algorithmia characterized by the securitization and prevention of unpredictable encounters we have explored here.
Freak Space comes into being specifically as a habitat for such encounters. It innately privileges the non-networked contact encounter. It feeds on the volatility inherent to mixing aesthetics, ideologies, theses, and lifestyles without regard for property or taboo.
Freak Space intensifies these differences to orgasm; it proliferates unpredictable encounters not to drolly “imagine other worlds”, but to particle accelerate them – smashing differences into a wall to see what happens, but wholly confident.
Yes We Cannibal in particular draws inspiration from De Andrade to foreground and embolden the possibility of forging new still-colonial identities that are autonomous and original and capable of neutralizing power. De Andrade’s synthesis was “an act of devouring that implied a nonhierarchical relation between self and other, south and north, merging both, and producing something new” (Saraiva 2019 p. 91). He provides an antidote to endlessly diminishing appeals to indignancy around cultural appropriation, revivifying the possibility of unpredictable play without programmatic outcomes.
Historical notions of the Avant Garde were fundamentally based on a notion of future time and acts of prefiguration. Alternatively, Freak Space always takes place at and enacts the end of the world. It appropriates antiquated notion of the overworked Avant Garde, replacing its us/future with us/them. Its quest is not for how to enter the future but how to be other, how to perpetually end worlds and how to enter new ones.
Freak Space is then also inalienably a space of predation – a space for meat – but one without game warden. Further, it is insistently profane in its empathic disregard for cultural appropriation, metaphysically immune to any semblance of respect for cultural property.
Freak Space is, in the end (of the world), the imagining of the other, in the presence of the other, and in the encounter with them, wherein and so that desire begins to circulate again.
We write this piece to encourage readers to consider the emergent practices of foreclosure suggested by Guston’s deferral. How is it now possible to channel energy into fissures that nullify it through the proliferation of unpredictable encounters? We also write to counter a troubling political inattention to art, whether it is understood solely as a bereft vehicle for wealth consolidation or, equally toothlessly, as best used as propaganda for a social cause. Finally, we write to inspire you to resist. It’s time to exit your identity and cannibalize the powers that be, to forge your own subjectivity and take back your protentions.
Simply put, it’s time to freak out.
Let’s make some space for it.
Let’s get it on.
de Andrade, Oswald. Cannibalist Manifesto. 1928. http://writing.upenn.edu/library/Andrade_Cannibalistic_Manifesto.pdf
Baker, Kenneth. “New Biography Highlights How Philip Guston Risked His Art-World Standing and Livelihood.” The Art Newspaper, The Art Newspaper, 10 Sept. 2020, www.theartnewspaper.com/review/philip-guston-break-new-york-school-conventions.
Hydomako, BE. “The Empire Never Ended: A Day at the Rodeo.” The Voice, The Voice, 24 July 2002. https://www.voicemagazine.org/2002/07/24/the-empire-never-ended/
National Gallery of Art. “Philip Guston Now: Statement from the Directors.” National Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, 21 Sept. 2020. https://www.nga.gov/press/exh/5235.html
Rolnik, Suely. “The Spheres of Insurrection: Suggestions for Combating the Pimping of Life.” e-Flux #86, e-Flux, Nov. 2017, www.e-flux.com/journal/86/163107/the-spheres-of-insurrection-suggestions-for-combating-the-pimping-of-life/.
Saraiva, Tiago. “Anthropophagy and sadness: cloning citrus in São Paulo in the Plantationocene era,” History and Technology, 2018, 34:1, 89-99, DOI: 10.1080/07341512.2018.1516877Stiegler, Bernard, et al. The Age of Disruption Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism. Polity Press, 2019.
Liz Lessner (email@example.com) is a sculptor who creates new sensory experiences and encounters that reframe common occurrences and routine happenings. She was the recipient of a 2019 Fulbright Research Award to Brazil and is the founder of Sensory Engagement Lab, a community-based research platform that fosters collaborations between artists, technologists, and other thinkers which began in Washington DC and is now based at Yes We Cannibal.
Mat Keel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a DC native currently completing a PhD in Anthropology and Philosophy at Louisiana State University. He previously studied at Bristol University and holds an MA in Cultural Geography from UCLA. Before returning to academia, he studied meditation and maintained a studio art practice.
Yes We Cannibal is an anti-profit space for experimental art and social practice. We are located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana but part of an internationally networked community of care built around non-hierarchical social experimentation. Founded in 2020 by Liz Lessner and Mat Keel, Yes We Cannibal offers an open home for unrestricted and non-hierarchical experimentation with art, music, performance and all aspects of daily life. All of our events are free whenever possible. Anyone local or remote is invited to propose to lead a class, workshop or event.