Art / Books

Gary Indiana’s “Vile Days” Makes Me Want To Continue Being An Art Critic

Gary Indiana’s art column in The Village Voice, which ran from 1985 to 1988, is unthinkable from today’s standards of art criticism. And this just isn’t because The Voice doesn’t exist anymore (or, actually, it does in the form of a zombie Twitter account blasting out old articles into the void). More than just the disappearance of local alternative papers, as well as forums for cultural criticism more generally, most of what is designated as art criticism in mainstream art publications and newspapers is tepid pabulum directed at pleasing galleries and institutions, making sure nobody fucks up their invitation to the after-party. Sure, there are a couple of critics known for their indiscriminate bashing (you know who they are), but this isn’t the type of criticism to which I’m referring.

In contrast to 2019’s reworded press release labeled as arts journalism, Indiana’s columns, collected in the recent volume Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985-1988, edited by Bruce Hainley and published by Semiotext(e), are thoughtful, biting, seething, searing, and above all, absolutely cackling-on-the-subway-level hysterical. It’s hard to image an editor today being as permissive as the Voice’s Jeff Weinstein, who allowed Indiana to begin a column describing a man jacking off in a Rolls Royce Silver Bullet in the East Village, staring at the legs of a sex worker chatting to him on the payphone (other than Filthy Dreams, of course. Note to anyone who wants to pitch).

But, it’s not just reveling in Downtown depravity that makes Indiana’s art columns impossible today; it’s also his unwavering criticism of the cringe-inducing, nauseatingly noxious commercialism of the art world and those who would cozy up to any and all power. Take, for example, his righteous slam directed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s willingness to art-wash and launder donors’ money:

“Although all museums are endowed by the very people who despoil the general quality of life outside the museum, the Met has an inflexible policy of accepting money from almost anywhere. Even certain bordellos in the Patpong district of Bangkok are more fastidious. As a result, the Met has become a public relations servant for Mobil, Exxon, and the other corporate entities whose logos proudly flap above the museum’s entrance during special exhibitions, welcoming the shills.”

Not only would this indictment of indiscriminate institutional greed of one of the city’s most cherished institutions never grace the pages of widely circulated papers or magazines, but it’s hard to imagine any publication writing something so incredibly witty about it. Indiana’s take on the Met is also completely relevant to the art world’s continued grift–one just has to walk by the Met’s Koch plaza for a not-so-subtle reminder.

And Indiana knows his former freewheeling and incisive style of criticism doesn’t gel with today’s demanding desperation for clicks. As he writes in his “Prelude to a Preface,” “But the technological acceleration of our lives, especially in the way information travels, and the way published material is received, has had plenty of baleful, degenerative effects, foremost the monetisation and algorhythmisation of every human activity–in this context, the value of content, in many publications, is increasingly measured by the volume of audience reaction, which really is getting things arse-backwards.” He’s not wrong, which renders the columns in Vile Days an essential glimpse at the possibilities when we ignore the urge to churn out dumbed-down clickbait toss-offs.

Clocking in at around 600 pages, Vile Days, admittedly, could have been a slog. Collections of past art criticism aren’t exactly known for being the most engaging. Even though I write criticism myself, I find reading most books of art criticism like being tortured by boredom, even from writers whose work I admire. Art criticism dates quickly, particularly with more traditional forms of criticism that pretend they don’t see the systemic issues running rampant through the economic shitshow, and socially batshit community we call the art world. Luckily, this isn’t a problem for Indiana who gleefully speaks out about most of the most unseemly and distasteful parts of the New York art world.

Those familiar with Indiana’s work shouldn’t be surprised. From his fictional novels like Horse Crazy and Rent Boy to his scripts such as the teleplay A Coupla White Faggots Sitting Around Talking, Indiana has cleverly pushed the boundaries in whatever medium he writes. As Dennis Cooper described in “Burden of Urban Dreams,” a review of Indiana’s novel Gone Tomorrow republished in Cooper’s own nonfiction collection Smothered In Hugs, “Even Indiana’s detractors concede he’s a treasure, although the more conservative among them can’t get past the force of his personality, and the more airheaded can’t see his analytical brilliance for the pleasures afforded by his wit.”

His art columns are no different, spanning solo exhibitions, group shows, a deliciously brutal takedown of a New Yorker piece on Ingrid Sischy’s influence on Artforum and much more. There’s even a few random pieces tossed in, including an article on sumo wrestling and a lovely, fitting tribute to the late Jackie Curtis (“No irony was too horrid for Jackie Curtis to wrap it up in a daydream of spaghetti heels and studio lighting”). Truthfully, some of the more traditionally penned columns are some of the weakest. Though marquee names appear throughout the book, some columns focus on artists who have fallen by the wayside in history. Though a lovely detail that makes me excited to discover what narcissistic monsters of this generation might go forgotten (I have a list of hopefuls), it doesn’t necessarily age well. However, these are few and far between, and the strength of Indiana’s writing comes as he contextualizes exhibitions in terms of larger social criticisms, whether taking stabs at the art world or the world at large.

Plus, his writing is just downright hilarious. From the beginning, Indiana launched his first column with the pathetic fable of Gaston Porcile Vitrine, a has-been artist who walks into swanky Il Cantinore on East 10th Street and “tried to ignore the incredulous and contemptuous stares that were trained upon him throughout his grim vigil by diners who had, not so long ago, felt honored to toot a few grams of coke with Vitrine in any toilet in town.” What an image! But, Indiana’s humor is not just reserved to skewering the fickle and flakey art set. Some of his descriptions had me screaming, from East Village kitsch (“fun-colored knickknacks and smile-covered gewgaws that make cute noises and wiggle back and forth and make you think: Gee! What a happy planet the little asshole who made this stuff lives on”), Mike Bidlo (“Gunk is gunk, even when it looks like Jackson Pollock and issues interesting press releases), or my personal favorite, Sigmar Polke at the Venice Biennale (“They look like artful smears of light maple syrup on the walls of well-scrubbed trench urinals”).

Overall, Vile Days is significant both as a record of its era in the 1980s and as a chilling realization that the mid-1980s weirdly foretold the late capitalist horror show of the present. Starting with the former, Vile Days not only traces the rise of and exhaustion with Neo-expressionism, postmodernism and the absolute obsession with using the term simulacra, but it also reveals current superstar artists during their rise. Many of the artists lauded by Indiana have become household names, including Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and more. It’s a look back at these icons before they became institutional favorites. The book even renders an account of a time when Jeff Koons’s art was more than just a facile punchline.

Not only does Vile Days exist as a document of the art world during the mid to late-1980s, it is also unsurprisingly influenced by the growing HIV/AIDS pandemic that would decimate the arts community. AIDS looms large throughout the publication–at times, directly referenced, while in others, haunting Indiana’s words tangentially with mentions of loss, health crises and death. And when Indiana does mention HIV/AIDS, he typically does so in a way to skewer those taking advantage of the crises (“There are people in New York so desperate to be anything at all that they will exploit other people’s suffering as a matter of routine, and convince themselves they’re being noble. This is certainly true of one decidedly straight male currently involved in putting together a panel on ‘the effect of AIDS on the arts’ as if he cared about it except as an abstract topic he can stick his name on. Just what we need right now, a panel”) or those divorcing HIV/AIDS from its bodily realities (“One of the reasons I’m blocked about dealing with AIDS, at least in a nonfiction context, is that so much concerning this very real, fatal malady has been displaced from the bodies suffering from it into the realm of the symbolic. Symbolism poisoning is the true plague of American society”).

In particular, Indiana’s final column in 1988, titled the same as the book, left off on an ominously damning note to those that would ignore the pandemic. In “Vile Days,” a review of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s exhibition at Rastovski Gallery, he writes, referring to a fellow critic who accused Indiana of being “obsessed with AIDS,” “Perhaps if you’re on a career roll, organizing the Venice Biennale and knocking out catalogues for the Saatchi Collection, you can convince yourself that art, and maybe your own HIV-negative status, is enough to give you a happy life, and it’s just too bad about the others. But somehow I think that attitude is not going to play too much longer, even in Peoria.” Given the art world’s continued haphazard engagement with HIV/AIDS, I’d say this was a pretty prescient statement.

It’s also not the only one. The experience of reading Vile Days in 2019 is eerily uncanny. In fact, it seems as if everything that makes anyone with a conscious and a brain uncomfortable about the art world in 2019 can be traced back to Ronnie Reagan’s harebrained “trickle-down economics” and the art market explosion in the mid-1980s. Hell, it’s not just the art world. Even Trump makes an appearance in a column due to the release of his godawful memoir. From banks showing their collections to rich bores snatching up all the artworks to artists and gallerists hungry for any and all attention, Indiana’s snide observations of the art world’s insatiable thirst for rich folks’ approval made me struck by the realization that nothing ever really changes.

Thankfully, Indiana has a similarly strong and unwavering disgust for both the wealthy and those willing to sell their souls for proximity to wealth. This is perhaps best exemplified by his repeated quoting of Dorothy Parker: “If you want to know what God thinks about money, just look at the people he gives it to.” However, Indiana’s own descriptions are just as scathing. As he states in the article “New York Commonplaces,” on the art market’s ideal artiste: “The artist should be a bright boy–white, comely, well-mannered, sportif. He must be eager to part with his products to send them flying to whatever capital-intensive walls beckon. His best shot at immortality: his works will be purchased en masse by the head of a giant advertising firm, who will then reproduce them in authoritative-looking catalogues. Another member of the firm will describe the creative ferment of the artist’s lifestyle in expensive magazines. The artist’s skiff is well and securely launched on the sea of ordure. Next come the summer place in Montauk, the German and Italian retrospectives, the Manhattan building purchase.” If you don’t find this chilling, you haven’t been paying attention to the contemporary art world. It’s exactly the same!

Throughout Vile Days, the reader can feel Indiana become increasingly fed-up with the neediness of the art world, which seems to be why he finally quit in 1988. I can relate. It should be said that Indiana avoided publishing these columns for years, only acquiescing due to the persuasiveness of editor Bruce Hainley. Writing criticism, particularly art criticism, could wear on anybody, and it certainly does on Indiana who in his 1988 column “Blood and Guts” admits: “If I made a record based on my experiences as an art critic I would call it I Don’t Care If You Never Forgive Me, b/w Fuck You If You Can’t Take A Joke (Yourself).” Who hasn’t wanted to record that? Same.

His ambiguity about his role as an art critic–and his fearlessness in admitting it–ultimately did more to sustain my interest in Vile Days than just his witty prose. As someone who tends to waffle back and forth about how much I hate certain Velvet Buzzsaw-esque sections of what-we-call “the art world,” as well as the bores that populate it, threatening numerous times to abandon it completely, I found Indiana’s complete honesty not only relatable but inspiring. Ironically, Vile Days ends up as a  career-affirming read for those of us who want to pursue art criticism beyond merely getting pats on the head at VIP dinners.

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