I will not interpret Jack Smith. I will not interpret Jack Smith. I will not interpret Jack …

— Felix Bernstein

© Jack Smith Archives, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

© Jack Smith Archives, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Shark vs Octopus

There are many tactics of mimesis and subterfuge used under the sea by prey-evading predators that artists can learn from. For instance, the octopus avoids the shark by covering himself in a clamshell dress. When the shark sniffs him out, the octopus flees, leaving behind an empty shell, much to the shark’s chagrin. For the oceanographer, the discarded shells are evidence of a spontaneous ritual. The oceanographer hails the shell as a remainder of permanent elusiveness, a hardened trace left by an uncollectible trail, since the octopus will never stop fleeing, much like the artist, who is always on the run from medium specificity, including the medium called “Multimedia Art.” Oceanographers have to decide what should be collected since relics aren’t intended to be retained after the ritual but may be of scientific value precisely for that reason. But the chase does not end when the shells are framed and named, the octopus must be caught. Eventually, all moving targets are exposed, found by their conspicuous repetitions. Artists can escape the shark-world since they are not an edible part of the food chain but their leftover and waste will be elevated. The skilled curator dutifully stitches together the phantom threads left by the artist so that their relevance can be judged by the critic. In this way, the artwork is deemed a timeless classic, a historical artifact, or a rotten egg. But this categorization is beside the point. What is more important is whether or not the crustacean is becoming crusty—how fresh are the hermit crab’s ideas?[1] To answer this requires attunement to micro-aesthetic distinctions that do not align 1:1 with Kantian categories, identities, or themes.

Artist Jack Smith was always making minor distinctions between Good & Bad versions of Bathos, Trash, Boredom, Pastiness, Superstars, Moldiness.[2] Today, aesthetic preferences like those given by Smith are deemed neo­liberal symptoms and have been sacrificed for Pay-to-Pride Design Centers for Beautiful Souls to Chat with Always Already Artificial Intelligence Bots in Unglamorous Magazines of Automated Institutional Critique Praising Totally Administered Trash Aesthetics like the Queer Sanitation Department’s VR 2019 Met Fashion Show On Camp Featuring Plaster Starbucks Goddess Gaga.

Unlike the recoverable paradise of visionary cinematic queer virtual utopianism, Smith’s Atlantis was fragmented and destroyed to its core. Beneath layers of crust are more crusts—not an authentic, beautiful soul or archeological treasure but permanent elusion and infinite veils, words as masks, and masks as truths. Artists Space’s 2018 Smith retrospective, “Art Crust of Spiritual Oasis,” curated by Jay Sanders and Jamie Stevens, kept Smith as he was, neither formless nor formal, but rather deformed. Instead of revealing, the retrospective reveled in the horizontal scrappiness that was Smith’s always already posthumous tomb—roping off, suffocating interpreters and one-track allegorists.

An Artist Talk From a Non-Talking Anti-Artist

The screening series at the Metrograph theater in New York, which accompanied Artists Space’s Smith retrospective, “Art Crust of Spiritual Oasis,” concluded with the premiere of a 100 min. video documenting Smith’s performance at the University of Colorado Boulder on October 27, 1980. The video was a newly exhumed companion to Smith’s more familiar Flaming CreaturesNormal LoveScotch Tape, and I Was A Male Yvonne de Carlo. Screening this performance in a prestigious film theater was a bit of a coup, given that Smith made cinema his life by refusing to produce finished films. Recorded hapha-zardly by a student, the documentation was incredibly uncinematic—a not-so-steady camera badly tracked the action, and the footage appeared overexposed but without the lush, gauzy blur of Flaming Creatures. Moreover, Smith’s presentation was gruelingly uneventful, giving a strong taste of his late performance style, which few have had the stomach to sit through. It is poetic justice that Stan Brakhage invited Smith and presided over the event. Brakhage also made his life into cinema but by opposite means: the overproduction of completed films up to his death.[3]

In a university room full of students led by Brakhage, Smith did not cater to any expectation of didacticism. On the contrary, he delivered a sputtering, inchoate, version of an artist talk. Donning a leopard-print jacket, he took to the speaker’s podium and slowly mumbled a statement on art, but could barely get out more than a few sentences before fidgeting, pausing, then bolting; leaving music, belly dancers, and bright lights to carry the remaining show. There was no evidence of the arch-control of the frame found in Warhol’s efforts at ambient destabilization, nor was there the overt reflexivity on illusion found in Hollis Frampton’s structuralist film performance, A Lecture. Despite the lack of explicit dogma, Smith was religiously anti-illusionistic—his Christian Science beliefs involved denying all sensory data as materialistic illusion via an American version of Bishop Berkeley’s idealism. He often employed deliberate meta-structural signaling such as when he writes “This is an essay” at the end of a free-form art review. But in a never-ending game of chicken with his audience, he never backed down from flaunting fanciful illusions. Thus, Smith created the effect of being spectacular and alienating, but without Brechtian determinacy, Cagean indeterminacy, or Warholian ambience. That is why many characterizations of Smith depend upon what has been called binary fluffing, an overplayed trope that was an attempt to grasp Smith’s stylistic singularity and unprecedented sexual politics. For instance, J. Hoberman’s introduction to Wait for Me At the Bottom of the Pool proposes that his writings are “Unclassifiable and all of a piece,” that Smith exhibits “Somnolence and hysteria,” is “a-literate” and mystical, esoteric and exoteric, visual and verbal, etc.[4] Dual readings of Smith also transpired in his audience at Boulder, according to Mary Jordan—

They said he was a menace to deal with, he was totally insane, he requested all these things they couldn’t deliver. He even wrote them a hate letter after he left. They told me it took them years to figure out that this guy had actually blown their minds and forever changed the way they look at art.[5]

There is a parallax between initial and belated views of the Boulder presentation. First, he’s seen as a megalomaniac mindlessly grasping at straws; retrospectively, he’s seen as offering an inspirational, intentional opus. While it’s easy to praise Smith’s photographic talent at staging baroque tableaus, it is hard to find evaluations of his equally baroque use and abuse of rhetorical and allegorical tropes in writing and speech. This is because ba-roque rhetoric has all but disappeared from art discourse. By now, “artists’ writing” has become mass-assembled institutional critique in a homogenous tone, and any deviation is nipped by editors or deemed psychotic. But Smith’s writing, while anti-academic, did not show a disgust with language. Indeed, he was against conceptual techniques such as cut-ups, due to his trust in an artist’s capacity to use words as potent gestures.[6] Instead, his writing shows an excessive overuse of rhetorical conventions (which is its own convention, hyperbole). A good illustration is his opening statement at Boulder:

Aloha from the glamorous world of socialistic art. I know what you’re thinking, this is capitalistic art, besides glamour is for the movies. I don’t think so. People have always been glamorous, look at ancient architecture—Maria Montez has proved that. Will someone please help me with this lapel?[7]

He starts by mockingly using the classical rhetorical device of anamnesis, an appeal to the past greatness of ancient architecture, to bolster his taste in glamour and Maria Montez, and to initiate us into his esoteric mystery cult by appealing to exoteric icons. What follows is a conjectural questioning aimed at dismantling the divide between socialistic and capitalistic art, under the pretense that his work is on trial for flouting normative de-finitional limits and appearing to be capitalist despite his contrary claims. His own glamorousness is meant to disturb the false antinomy between either/or interpretations. His constant return to Maria Montez is a figure of commoratio (repeated crucial point), energia (vivid depiction), and ironic bathos (contradictory anti-climax) that runs counter to the expected culmination of arguments around a universally sacred symbol—Mother Maria. As usual, Smith refuses to give a diegetic narrative account of facts and proof, instead deferring to his charismatic intuitions. Finally, he condenses his syllogisms into a single enthymeme (a classical prototype for the meme), “Just look at Maria Montez!”[8]

Glamourous Grammars

After his initial statement, the rest of the presentation becomes a pantomimed elaboration that emerges with an autotelic force. The thesis that evolves and devolves is that glamorousness destabilizes categorical distinctions. Glamorous gestures can directly communicate the unspeakable, occult, esoteric, and obscene while eluding any specific, illicit, or illegal referent. Despite the elusiveness, Smith’s glamorous allegories served to convince and inspire across cultural differences, as evidenced by Smith’s transmission of ideas in his small circle and popular culture. His gestural vitality exceeded the force of his hermeticism. Whether this transfixing glamour was an impediment, cause, object, or repellent of his desire is a question that haunts interpretations of Smith. Poet Diane di Prima, a background actor in Normal Love and a founder of the New York Poet’s Theater, wrote that during Smith’s editing of Normal Love “he was bedazzled by speed and the glamour of the footage. It literally cast a spell on him from which the artist never emerged to shape or name his work.”[9] In retrospect, this shapeless and nameless work is what we see as his influential corpus—a surplus rather than a deficit of poses, personae, and forms.

The artist-lecturer is intruded upon by the destabilizing archaic force of glamour that has “always” existed, as ruins which were never intact, the un­-idyllic space that Joyelle McSweeney calls Smith’s “Necropastoral.” There are also other interruptions—the lapel and other “material transmission failures” interfere in any moment of absorption. But he always kept idyllic glamour operative since he firmly regarded communicative gestures as the atomic core of his art, famously stating—“How can you not … understand the movements and the gestures?”[10]

Smith’s delivery of gestural aporias is improvised rather than scripted, but not unstruc-tured. Every theatrical element contributes to his dramatic method of “thinking on stage,” which is meant to defer any potential crustiness.[11] In this way, Smith is like a campy David Antin, and there is certainly a weighty mock-classicism to his pontificating—his baritone bellowing commands attention and the warped timing builds suspense. However, the major difference between this and an Antin talk poem is that for Smith the gesture is the primary unit unfolding in real time, surpassing the verbal-visual, mental-physical domains. Because of this, his coming into and out of tableaus, including the pose of “The Thinker,” (madman, prophet, angel …) is as important as his coming into and out of a thesis. Smith has more theses and arguments than he can ever be given credit for because the division of interpretive labor among academics, archivists, and artists makes it impossible for us to “read” his performances without superimposing an aesthetic gestalt onto the work through a leap of faith.

Not-Not Autonomous Art

Smith is both more conventional than is admitted by those who claim he is uncollectible, wholly indeterminate, or psychotic (due to his borrowings from theater and an auteurist conception of cinema) but also less conventional than the journalistic approach to him as founder of queer politics (due to his sinister, macabre, theatricality). Interpretations along the lines of queer affective transmission are especially fraught since Smith’s archival revitalization has endless roadblocks, which aren’t exclusively determined by the market, but are rather inherent to his method. There is a lack of Smithian repertoire and techniques to be represented, thus the superficial bathos that arises in attempting the feat. Patent experts like Tino Sehgal have bypassed this hermeticism by making their work trademarkable and reperformable for the highest bidder; to say nothing of the purchasable performances from the allegedly anti-camp/spectacle dance companies. Moreover, his canonical works lack officiation from Smith in their form as cycled through Essential Cinema at Anthology Film Archives. It appears that he wanted to avoid any crusty canonization, but it’s more likely he wanted a special kind of canonization where experts reconstruct his work—just as Duchamp, in his self-imposed “exile” from art worlds, was tirelessly constructing posthumous riddles for future museum audiences.

Smith did not, as is often claimed, reject the privileging of the autonomous artwork. Instead, he culminated and fulfilled the Romantic aspiration for the artist’s autonomy vis-à-vis Goethe’s maxim, “all my works are fragments of a great confession.” The self-directed transparent presence of the auteur became the new locus of the artwork’s totality—all the other parts assembled around the auteur-star-monad-prime-mover. Smith’s need for a precise location and perfect timing to manifest the artist’s presence became a postmodern version of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which brought together music, visuals, and poetry in sacred architecture for seamless communion, as with Wagner’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus (and for Smith’s late performances, his apartment[12]). As a result, Smith prophesied not only today’s monstrous culture of corporate drag fandom, but also the post-postmodern dominance of immersive experience that grants unprecedented sacredness to the presence of the artist/celebrity. This has become a giant market through the sale of knick-knacks and merchandise corresponding to live events in mainstream pop music and the blue-chip art market; coupled with contacting and funding artist-model-stars “without mediation” via corporate social media accounts. As Smith put it, in Lobotomy in Lobster Land, “These are times when even a masochist must cry out.”[13]

  1. [1] Jerry Tartaglia’s note on crust, “Crustaceous – adj. 1. (Zoology) of or relating to a large group of mainly aquatic arthropods, including crabs, lobsters, shrimps, woodlice, and barnacles. 2. (Smithian aesthetics) a quality evidenced in a work of art in which the essential connection between the momentary presence of life and the work itself is obscured or lost, resulting in the commodification of the work by art collectors, dealers, critics, exploiters, and human fishhooks … In a talk with art students in Toronto in 1985, Smith expounded his theory of artistic crustaceousness. Art that has lost its connection to life has fallen into the grip of the lobster. It exists outside of the present moment, swirling in its own galaxy of monetization, commodified by the collusion of dealers, critics, and collectors.” Jerry Tartaglia, “The Interminable Examination of the Work of Jack Smith,” Fleeting Realism, 2018, jerrytartaglia.wordpress.com/the-interminable-examination-of-the-work-of-jack-smith/.
  2. [2] Case in point, Smith ridiculed the camp travesty of Samuel Barber’s lavish Antony and Cleopatra, the 1966 premiere showcase for the new Metropolitan Opera House, which arose from the Lincoln Center ruins where Ken Jacobs had filmed Smith in Star Spangled to Death in the late ’50s. In contrast, he favored the anti-plaster works of Walter De Maria—in a review that Smith claims was unpub­lishable probably because of the copious attacks on the art market; he also expounded on his theory of art world “Knick Knacks,” which he saw De Maria’s work challenging. Jack Smith, “Ammonia Pits of Atlantis: Evil in the Art World, or Walter Versus the Giant Knick Knacks,” in Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool: The Writings of Jack Smith, ed. J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell (New York, High Risk, 1997), 97–102.
  3. [3] One-year Smith’s junior, Brakhage would live until 2003; Smith died in 1989, only nine years after this event.
  4. [4] J. Hoberman, “Jack Smith: Bagdada and Lobsterrealism,” in Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool, 14–23.
  5. [5] Steve Gallagher, “You Don’t Know Jack,” interview with Mary Jordan on her documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006), Filmmaker Magazine (Spring 2007), www.filmmaker­magazine.com/archives/issues/spring2007/features/jack_smith.php.
  6. [6] In the famous interview with Sylvère Lotringer, Smith claims that William Burroughs’ methods are unnecessary. In the course of recommending that Lotringer stop fearing language, Smith coined the title “Hatred of Capitalism,” which Lotringer used for the later Semiotext(e) collection with that name. Smith: “Listen, you are a creature, artistic I can tell, that somehow got hung up on the issue of language. Forget it. It’s thinking. If you can think of a thought in a most pathetic language …. If you can think of something, the language will fall into place in the most fantastic way, but the thought is what’s going to do it.” (Smith, “Uncle Fishook and the Sacred Poo Poo of Art,” interview with Sylvère Lotringer, in Wait For Me at the Bottom of the Pool, 114).
  7. [7] My transcription.
  8. [8] Ibid.
  9. [9] Di Prima qtd. in Joyelle McSweeney, The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2014), 22. McSweeney goes on to note that “Smith’s inability to finish the film” was “a kind of entrancement by the occult force of the film itself …” The occult aspects of glamour are part of its etymological history. “Glamour” derives from a specialized medieval use of “Grammar” to mean occult learning and incantation. Walter Scott popularized the word in 1805, as a synonym for “uncanny.” By the late 1930s, “glamour” referred to alluring high-fashion Hollywood celebrities. The multivalent definitions of “glamour” are used by Smith, di Prima, and McSweeney. Stephen Gundle’s Glamour: A History, shows how “glamour” has also referred to the democratization of royal and aristocratic style, “The most glamorous figures of the past 200 years have not been the hereditary rich or legitimate holders of power. They have been outsiders, upstarts, social climbers, and parvenus.” This version of “glamour” fits Smith’s (and later Warhol’s) use of the term “Superstar.”
  10. [10] J. Hoberman, “Jack Smith: Bagdada and Lobsterrealism,” in Wait For Me at the Bottom of the Pool, 15.
  11. [11] Smith’s “reptilian” theory of acting developed in the 1970s, applied to his production of Ghosts and Hamlet, has a great deal in common with the 1960s work of dramaturge Herbert Blau and his Hamletic ideal of blooded thought and acting as thinking and “dying on the stage.” Blau’s technique of “ghosting” involves taking a canonical text and ditching the script, and repeating half-remembered lines until they disintegrate. Both Smith and Blau take from Artaud’s anti-text physicality, but neither is as willing as Artaud to sacrifice canonical gestures and texts. Jack Smith quotes himself in a press release that describes his application of the Reptilian method to Hamlet: “We do have revolutionary ideas about acting and we are testing them on the world’s most abused play [Hamlet] … if an actor just stands on stage and thinks, the audience knows what he’s thinking and it is more direct and clear than memorized lines. Ultimately, memorized speech is possibly the least dramatic thing that can happen on the stage or anywhere.” “ACTAVISTIC, ACTION PACKED, ACTION ACTING …,” in Wait For Me at the Bottom of the Pool, 165. For more on “ghosting,” see Herbert Blau, Reality Principles: from the Absurd to the Virtual (Ann Harbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2011).
  12. [12] The idea of keeping his apartment as a shrine was expressed by his friend Penny Arcade.
  13. [13] Jack Smith, “Lobotomy in Lobster Land,” in Wait For Me at the Bottom of the Pool, 81–89.