new york times

Political Poetry Is Hot Again. The Poet Laureate Explores Why, and How. (The New York Times)

Political Poetry Is Hot Again. The Poet Laureate Explores Why, and How. (The New York Times)

In the mid-1990s, when I was a student of creative writing, there prevailed a quiet but firm admonition to avoid composing political poems. It was too dangerous an undertaking, one likely to result in didacticism and slackened craft. No, in American poetry, politics was the domain of the few and the fearless, poets like Adrienne Rich or Denise Levertov, whose outsize conscience justified such risky behavior. Even so, theirs weren’t the voices being discussed in workshops and craft seminars.

Black Male Writers for our Time (New York Times)

Black Male Writers for our Time (New York Times)

Through the institutional cultural cache garnered during these many moments, our literary ancestors carved pathways to success. Harlem Renaissance writers parlayed white patronage to create inroads to the apparatus of publishing. The Black Arts Movement brought about radical changes in university curriculums. New institutions were founded, including New York City’s Medgar Evers College, providing black writers with access to the support and stability of academia. The poet Gregory Pardlo points to the rise of the New York and Chicago slam poetry scenes in the ’80s as a conduit for many writers, including the novelist Paul Beatty. Jacobs-Jenkins discusses ’90s-era evolutions in black writing that produced “an incredible sea change of influence,” when writers like August Wilson and Toni Morrison “achieved black arts excellence and major status in the same breath.”

A Haitian Slave Turned Emperor Brings Celebration and Controversy to Brooklyn

A Haitian Slave Turned Emperor Brings Celebration and Controversy to Brooklyn

Stephania Casimir, a first-generation Haitian-American, remembers her parents talking about Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave who became one of Haiti’s founding fathers, but not all of the details.

Some thoughts on the NY Times Notable French Novel of the Year by Stuart Krusee

Even before the events of Friday, Nov 13, and the declarations of state of emergency and war cast the suspicion that a large portion of France’s population were potential terrorists, ‘Submission’ was a special book. Strangers -invariably men- seeing it read in a café would smile and engage you in conversation. One could almost believe, chez Houellebecq, in a culture that had for so long privileged the book, the novel rather than twitter or television was still the essential medium by which our reality is communicated. It needs to be added though, the ‘essential medium’ in its fully assumed decadence and auto-derision. « France’s most famous writer », Michel Houellebecq over the last twenty years has managed to impose himself on the media landscape. Ubiquitous, even in his physical absence - he lived for years as a tax exile in Ireland, and later in Spain- his assumed role is that of a ‘provocateur’, simultaneously condemning the modern world while hailing science-fiction as the 20th century’s only major art form, and presenting his physical body’s decrepitude as both a living spectacle and evidence for his age’s degradation. In an age in which even minor newspaper columnists show their smiling photo before their words, Houellebecq has created a persona for the screen, ‘the image of the writer as drunk cynic’, also called ‘Michel Houellebecq’, a persona whom he masochistically presents as misanthropic and pathetic, a hip and despicable cartoon caricature of himself. On television fans vie to complete his unfinished sentences while noting the migration of sores on his emaciated face, his missing teeth observable though the unsmiling slurred sibylline sentence fragments. Houellebecq has gone to the point of putting his persona in a novel where he is gratuitously tortured and assassinated. More recently, he played himself in a film in which, during a book tour, he is kidnapped, beaten, held for ransom, caressed, and fêted. Thus in a manner similar to Serge Gainsbourg, or, closer to home, Woody Allen or Phillip Roth, Houellebecq has created a personage who is both a mouth-piece for and a caricature of the author’s world-view. A character incapable - too pathetic, too undisciplined - to have created the oeuvre although he incarnates the author’s world-view. Need it be stressed Houellebecq is a slippery character?

In his latest novel, Submission, Houellebecq takes a different tactic. The style is sober, uniform, and the events as narrated, oddly uneventful. Oddly, because the novel recounts an historical world-altering event occurring only ten years in the future, not an environmental or military catastrophe, but nothing less than the beginning restoration of the Roman Empire’s Geographical boarders under an Islamic-Socialist government.

Submission is less a novel of ideas than it is a nouvelle of an idea. The hero is yet another Houellebecqian lonely guy, a misanthropic stand-in for the author, though in a minor key; a type of Everyman, named François. Specifically he is an updated version of Camus’ Stranger. Only now Meursault happens to be a full professor at the Sorbonne, a specialist in the decadent Catholic fin de siècle writer Karl-Joris Huysmans, thus a curator of Classical French culture, going about his miserable daily life without significant attachments. Like a successful sex story (aka pornography; which, not coincidentally, plays a large part in these pages), the plot merely dissolves at the end of its ineluctable unfolding. The only tension is the temporary threat of tension during the political uncertainty in the beginning, which quickly dissipates with the new political order installed at the end. In-between, descriptions of our recognizably mediocre everyday world and ennui are hung like ornaments on this narrative tree, with only a slight fictional ‘décalage’ allowed by 10 more years of decline.

Whereas the great traditional novel put into play multiple subjectivities free - more or less - of one’s domination of another, ‘Submission’ has only one fully depicted character, and only one subjectivity. As for ideas, although it fits in the genre of ‘novel of ideas, this ‘subjectivity’, expressed in diary entrees in a generic professional language, rather than a personal voice, doesn’t engage ideas so much as it refuses them. So despite a number of odd ideas floated, lighted mused-over, some of them resurrected from non-Marxist 19th century social theories, they quickly disappear in the rise of the hero’s passive social ascension and complacency, leaving for the novel’s sole arching idea summed up by the novel’s title.

The question left hanging by this po-faced, if jaundiced, narrative is: how ironic is it? And at whose expense? Houellebecq’s art is the mixing of ironical and direct statements, some movingly banal and others outrageous, without giving the reader cues as to how to separate them. Better: neither the author nor his protagonists hesitate to mix large existential statements that elevate bathos as profundity. To take an example amongst many, what are we to make of the hero’s assertion concerning his latest jewish-student girlfriend: « As for her blowjobs, I’d never encountered anything like them. She approached each one as if it were her first, and would be her last. Any single one of them would have been enough to justify a man’s existence » Fair enough, even if in his story he neglects her, and after she immigrates to Israel, this life’s justification is then left hanging. It is a justification of a man’s life, which religion, notably Christianity, in a later chapter fails to give the narrator. But how are we to situate this cocktail of existential irony and bathos? Is it a joke, and if so what kind? At whose expense is it? And what if it is not a joke?

In Houellebecq’s novels there are so many such non-jokes that his modus operandi can be said to lie in making it difficult for the reader to separate irony from an over-earnestly harangue. Yet it is necessary to try, because Houellebecq, neither in his own name nor through his characters’ embittered world-view, is a stranger to diatribes. That he often chooses to present them in novel-form, rather than directly as pamphlets or Facebook screeds, automatically relativizes their message, making them seem ‘ironical’. This is a strategy of confusion typical of Houellebecq: he takes ideas he genuinely holds, often passionately, that he has published in polemical interventions, and places them in the context of a novel which makes them auto-derisive, ridiculous and earnestly all encompassing. This might seem to make his work and thought another ‘blague’ in the French tradition, like those of Duchamp, Jarry, and others at the birth of modernism. Alas, Houellebecq is not a provocateur engaged in provocation as an ‘art for art’, like the rIght-wing libertarian anarchist Serge Gainsbourg, who for three decades managed to infuriate the Right, something Houellebecq has yet to do. Yet, as his public pronouncements make clear Houellebecq’s provocations desire to effect a political change in the world. With such an agenda, the arching-narrative in Submission of a coming Islamic-Leftist domination of France is the opposite of innocent. This is particularly apparent as neither the Houellebecqian novel, nor the Houellebecqian man can be considered successful aesthetic creations standing on their own as works of ‘art’ (not a failing, they aren’t meant to be examined aesthetically). Neither can they be considered as political, engagé works, in the traditional sense. Although there are frequent denunciations of the established Left and Right, this does not mean that Houellebecq is apolitical. Rather that his novel is a type of arm imagining a ‘post-political’ world, in which there is a complete resolution, personally and socially, for both its hero and for society. If ‘Politics’ is damned it is because it belongs to the past, with its discredited notions of ‘parliamentary democracy’, that is: differing interests, parties, each with their ‘special interests’, which they fight for or make compromises to achieve. The entire comedy of life embodied in the misery of competition that the Houellebecqian hero will have none of, but regards passively with the disdain of a dandy, observes it all and despising.

Luckily for our hero, he needn’t assert himself: he can passively witness his social assent, based on an unpublished doctoral thesis written twenty years earlier, once the new régime kicks in. This odd absence in Submission of conflict between the hero and the world he despises is not incidental to the story. There might be the threat of a civil war and rumors of a bloody mass conflict, but it is quietly muted and off-stage. Normalcy quickly returns. Even if François has to step over a dead body at a gas station to fill his pump during his flight from Paris, none of it risks affecting the lonely hero’s life, or the novel’s story. He might lose his Jewish student girlfriend when her family flees to Israel, but little percolates to touch him, or enjoin him in any struggle. Relieved of his job at the newly Islamized-Sorbonne, François is simply awarded a generous pension, and he becomes bored. At the novel’s end, re-united with his profession and content with his social ascension, the moral is clear: only once politics are over -after the tug and pull with other’s wills have finished- can our hero’s ‘new life’ begin. Only when the dissensions of ‘politics’ have ceased and he be effortlessly rewarded by society, can our hero begin to feel ‘love’.

How ironical is this? On the level of realism Submission asks to be taken fairly seriously, with its finely woven, vaguely plausible political machinations meticulously thought out - how the parties position themselves in relation to the others, which events could tilt the electoral tables, etc. There are, however, some very odd omissions. As in a paranoiac’s endlessly connecting visions, where a thousand little details fit almost seamlessly, uncannily together- if only a small omission is allowed to pass which only happens to be the size of the Pacific Ocean. In Houellebecq’s dystopic story, there is more than one such omission. When the university, one day to the next, simply excludes women from their teaching positions, the narrator notes blandly, as always, that although there was some ‘teeth-gnashing’ ‘on the left’, they quickly got over it once the economic lift-off caused by women’s exclusion from the workforce kicked in, and the women appreciated the generous stay-at-home welfare plan. No fight, no protests; people, women, patriots, leftists, simply get over it. This problem solved, the flat language of Houellebecq’s ‘realism’ continues on its way.

If this is ironic, the irony is rigged. As Houellebecq ‘ironically’ exposes the Left’s fundamentally craven impotence, or exposes women’s real desire to be at home (points he has made innumerable times in his public pronouncements), he carefully merges them with wish-fulfillment. In a better world, for example, where society’s tensions could be resolved by putting women in their place, in veils, out of the work-force.

The details of this Islamic-Leftist take-over of France are, for a realistic novel, even more provocative, not to say absurd, particularly in light of the recent election. French political life the past 30 years has been dominated by a continuing rightward sweep. Over the frontiers between the extreme (some might say Fascist) Right and the traditional conservative Right of de Gaulle, has been suspended a heavily traveled footbridge, while the decadent Left has merely rushed to occupy the space recently abandoned by the Right. Following the evidence of this slope, it would be not difficult to imagine France in ten years run by ultra-right nationalists, with perhaps a Catholic twist, for traditions’ sake. In Houellebecq’s vision, against this actual slope, the happy winner is a Muslim party that doesn’t even presently exist, an event no more likely in France than it would be in the USA. But why entertain this ‘caprice’? What does this vision of the near future do for the reader, even in it relativized in a novel? Are we to take this new political order as a threat, an irony, a promise ?

This non-conflictual view of French behavior and history, ironical or not, is not only radically implausible, it is also extraordinarily familiar. The narrator and novelist wholeheartedly accept the worst of collaborationist caricatures of the French: that they are innately weak, complacent, German soldier champagne serving (in Submission, Saudi serving) ‘Surrender Monkeys’, without honor or conviction. If the Nazis occupy their country, or if the Saudis turn the Sorbonne into a Madrasa, so long as they are allowed their private ‘jouissances’, the French will be content, the novel insinuates. If the government tells women to go home and wear veils, in this novel the people will shrug and obey. The French are just like this. The people want a master. What can one do? This old story, recounted by Pétain and supported by the Nazis, blamed the republic and parliamentary democracy with its ‘factions’ , rather than the failure of authoritarian Generals for the German victory. Clearly, Pétain implied, France had got what it deserved. This is the story that has been the one warmed-over by Le Pen and the French Right these past thirty years. Eerily, Houellebecq recounts the same myth of France’s impotence with the same result for the 21st century, in his bland and matter-of-fact way Only now France is invaded and subdued by the stronger, more masculine force of Islam which is no outside, but is already within her boarders.

Non-native readers, submerged by the exoticism of the many named public figures presiding over the political machinations, risk missing many of the overtones. The naming of so many contemporary public figures might appear as a type of ‘branding’ in political fiction, as it is in consumer fiction, as simply a mark merely denoting ‘realism’. But its import is not cosmetic but reaches directly back to the far-right literature of the 1930s and 40s. For in the literature of denunciation it is essential that public figures be exposed, named, and shamed for their hateful compromises, real or imagined; these traitorous beings shown for what they truly are. This ethic of denunciation is undiluted in Houellebecq, with the only irony added that the ‘politicians’ are named and denounced are not done so for actions that have already occurred in their actual political career, but for assertions of fictional base actions said to occur in the future. (The name of François Hollande, given two ‘calamitous’ terms, will be easily recognizable to foreigners; but that it is François Bayrou, an innocuous figure from France’s sticks, famous for overcoming a speech impediment and forever claiming to represent the political ‘center’ in his own imagination, who accepts the position of token prime minister facilitating the new Islamic state, will go over the heads of non-natives). The importance of this name-dropping is in the desire for political vengeance, a tradition shared with the 1930s extreme right, and its targets are those figures implicated in parliamentary compromises. This is not quite satire, but a form of denunciation of real people based on humiliations they are imputed to be willing to make in a fictional future, and it is essential to the novel’s damning moral center.

There has been a long and noble traditional of French conservatism that seeks France’s solace in its rootedness in the soil, its castes, in its identity as ‘the oldest daughter of the Church’. France’s abandonment of Catholic and aristocratic values in the face of modernity and Laïcité are seen as the reason for its decline. Houellebecq in his private life and public opinions refuses this form of conservatism. The option in Submission though is examined. François fleeing the political instability in Paris, follows in the footsteps of his idol, Huysmans, to visit the ancient and impressive monastery at the site where the ‘Muslims’ were ‘defeated’ by Charlemagne’s nephew Roland, in 778 AD, thereby saving Christianity in France for a millennium. (Irony, encore.) Wasted effort for François. Despite the highly competent and attractive monks there lies a problem at the heart of Christianity for Houellebecq: its desire to change the ‘inner man’, particularly the mandate to ‘love thy neighbor’. Neither Houellebecq nor his hero have the desire or wish to love. Above all else, they want their inner-self left untouched. François leaves the Monastery running. Within Islam, on the other hand, Houellebecq’s hero will find it cares nothing for the ‘inner-man’, only for social conformism. Buttressed by a single citation of Khomeini, Islam’s superiority is asserted for leaving the inner-man unmolested, with all his vices intact which is a program the hero can adhere to.

In François’ failed conversion flight there is an undramatic, yet curious, psychological moment. On a train, he observes with interest an over-burdened middle-aged businessman texting, one of the new Muslim executives who now run the country, and his two young veiled teenage-wives reading gossip magazines. He observes their infantile behavior with fascination. Ignoring the obvious example of the harried and pre-occupied Muslim executive, François envies them and marvels that it is ‘Islam’ which allows them to spend their entire lives in such perpetual childish state : François wishes to be a young Muslim wife. It is at precisely this moment, after the failure in the monastery, that François’s gravitation toward conversion begins.

The crucial conversion scene in this novel, or nouvelle, of ideas follows with intellectual seduction between the new head of the Islamic Sorbonne and François. A former right-wing nativist himself converted to Islam, he explains the reasons behind his intellectual journey, while flouting his worldly success to the blasé but intrigued former professor. François only needs to ‘convert’ in order to get his position back. After stumbling into a flustered unveiled newest wife in the hallway of the rector’s private mansion, ‘who had just turned 15’ (blandly insinuating in passing that Islam is also a legalized excuse for pedophilia), and after being flattered by having his dusty 20 year old thesis pulled out and admired, they drink a glass of ‘Meursault wine’ in the very ‘hôtel particulière’ in which the famous novel of masochist submission, ‘The Story of O’ , was written. The abounding ironies and logic of the conversion are best left to the reader to discover. Let us point out though, that this is not a world in which Catholic or conservative values are honored, while other political values that were popular in the 1930s and 40s are: a tabula rasa of morality, contempt for social forms and democratic government, a liberated sexuality at the service of power, and a hierarchy of force are seen as indicative of the world’s natural order. Nietzsche’s name is bandied about by the rector, and he flatteringly compares François’ thesis favorably with ‘The Birth of Tragedy, while making a snide remark about the absurdity of ‘left-wing Nietzscheism.’

How to explain Houellebecq’s success? In part it is owing to the peculiarly compelling quality of his prose. In contrast to his idiosyncratic media persona, his style calmly and seemingly ‘objectively’ reports the world, rather than questioning it. In the endless sea of published prose, where one navigates amidst so many personalized and poetic positions, Houellebecq’s style leans toward impersonal descriptions of the social and materially abject world we see daily. It seems to be a precise and impersonal description of our fallen world, as ‘it is’, if our banal life were stripped of any concern we might have for it. It was unsurprising that Houellebecq, in a previous novel, was discovered to have simply cut and pasted certain place-descriptions from Wikipedia.

I had an insight into Houllebecq’s force as a writer returning from work on November 13, in the afternoon before the assassinations. Attempting to enter the metro, a row of soldiers in camouflage and armed with machine guns were blocking the entrance. (Wouldn’t grey suits would work better in a gray city as camouflage, I thought, but didn’t offer my opinion.) All pedestrians were being turned back; the Gare de Lyon was in the process of being evacuated Everyone, myself included, shuffled silently along the decaying formally modern now dilapidated corridors, thinking how best to go his or her own way, by bus? Another metro? Transfer where? Walk? No one asked questions, nor did anyone look at one another. Later on hearing of the assassinations, I assumed the events were connected but I couldn’t find a trace in the papers. It is this type of scene that is captured perfectly in Submission: amidst the banality of quotidian sordidness, an anonymous and drab ambience of horror that is both spectacular and accepted in silence, passively. With only a couple of obscene and cynical sexual fantasies added to this decor of commuting, crumbing infrastructure, I would not have doubted I was walking in the pages of Houellebecq’s novel: that he is describing a reality.

Of course Houellebecq’s ‘reality’ is voided of human affection, hope for the future, identification with other people, or genuine politics that might include the recognition of another’s will or point of view. Stripped of anything but mechanical love - as always, chez Houellebecq, pornography hovers over the prose like a guardian angel - what is left is the external horror seen in the dandy’s passive fascination and self-pity: his imagination sucked dry, believing in nothing, he can watch himself being washed along with cynical and perverse pleasure. Submission is a message in the form of a novel that is part prosecution witness to the debasement of contemporary life, part cry not to be helped, and part program for a neo-fascist ‘post-political’ social renewal, which he both yearns for and fills him with disgust. Although too intelligent, or cynical, to accept society’s values or believe they have any meaning in themselves, the Houellebecqian hero perversely accepts society’s capacity to define him negatively, statistically: by age, income, race, class. Lamenting himself and detesting the world, he refuses to create or search for alternative values to live by. Houellebecq is justly famous for his profound sympathy for the ‘little man’, the losers in society, invariably white men (‘de souche’), who sense themselves being uprooted in their own country by so many things. But fight? Never. His heroes’ clutch onto their 'misérabilisme' as a rattle. Luckily for François in Submission, his refusal to contest society is rewarded by an effortless social ascension, which he can enjoy with all the cynical passivity of soft pornography. That Houellebecq’s ideas and public proclamations often seem the embodiment of Nietzsche’s ‘Man of Resentment’, and his public persona that of a degenerate clown, doesn’t mean he isn’t a clown bearing an urgent message for us- a message he delivers…ironically.

Did I mention that Submission, unlike Camus’ rather tiresome moralistic tales, is an extraordinarily funny novel? I couldn’t help breaking into a mad jaundiced laugher every few pages. The question remains though: funny at whose expense, exactly? Enjoy.

Black Artists and the March Into the Museum

After decades of spotty acquisitions and token
exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the
history of 20th-century art to include black artists.

The painter Norman Lewis rarely complained in public about the singular struggles of being a black artist in America. But in 1979, dying of cancer, he made a prediction to his family. “He said to us, ‘I think it’s going to take about 30 years, maybe 40, before people stop caring whether I’m black and just pay attention to the work,’ ” Lewis’s daughter, Tarin Fuller, recalled recently.

Lewis was just about right. In the last few years alone, his work has been acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. This month the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened the first extensive survey of Lewis, an important but overlooked figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement — and a man who might well have been predicting history’s arc for several generations of African-American artists in overcoming institutional neglect.


An untitled oil on canvas, from 1949, by Norman Lewis.Credit Estate of Norman W. Lewis, Courtesy of Iandor Fine Arts, New Jersey. After decades of spotty acquisitions, undernourished scholarship and token exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists in a more visible and meaningful way than ever before, playing historical catch-up at full tilt, followed by collectors who are rushing to find the most significant works before they are out of reach.


An undated portrait of the artist Norman Lewis, who died in 1979. Credit Willard Gallery Archives “There was a joke for a long time that if you went into a museum, you’d think America had only two black artists — Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden — and even then, you wouldn’t see very much,” said Lowery Stokes Sims, the first African-American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later the president of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “I think there is a sea change finally happening. It’s not happening everywhere, and there’s still a long way to go, but there’s momentum.”

The reasons go beyond the ebbing of overt racism. The shift is part of a broader revolution underway in museums and academia to move the canon past a narrow, Eurocentric, predominantly male version of Modernism, bringing in work from around the world and more work by women. But the change is also a result of sustained efforts over decades by black curators, artist-activists, colleges and collectors, who saw periods during the 1970s and the 1990s when heightened awareness of art by African-Americans failed to gain widespread traction.

In 2000, when Elliot Bostwick Davis arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as chairwoman of its Art of the Americas department, there were only three oil paintings by African-American artists in the wing, she said, and not many more paintings by African-Americans in the rest of the museum’s collection. “I had to deal with a lot of blank faces on the collections committee, because they just didn’t know these artists or this work,” said Ms. Davis, whose museum has transformed its holdings in the last several years.

Over just the last year, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., have hosted solo exhibitions devoted to underrecognized black artists. Within the last two years, the Metropolitan Museum has acquired a major collection of work by black Southern artists, and the Museum of Modern Art has hired a curator whose mission is to help fill the wide gaps in its African-American holdings and exhibitions.


A More Even Playing Field

In interviews with more than two dozen artists, curators, historians, collectors and dealers, a picture emerges of a contemporary art world where the playing field is becoming much more even for young black artists, who are increasingly gaining museum presence and market clout. But artists who began working just a generation ago — and ones in a long line stretching back to the late 19th century — are only now receiving the kind of recognition many felt they deserved.

Like Norman Lewis, most of these artists showing up for the first time in permanent-collection galleries — including the painters Beauford Delaney, Alma Thomas, Bob Thompson, Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson — did not live to see the change. But others, like the Los Angeles assemblage sculptor Betye Saar, 89, and the Washington-based abstract painter Sam Gilliam, 81, are witnessing it firsthand. The Chicago painter and printmaker Eldzier Cortor, who worked in New York for many years and died at 99 on Thanksgiving Day, lived to see his work featured in the inaugural show of the new downtown Whitney Museum. Mr. Cortor had been fielding curators’ inquiries with increasing frequency and donating pieces he still owned because the market had ignored them for much of his life.

“It’s a little late now, I’d say,” he observed dryly during an interview last month in his Lower East Side studio. “But better than never.”


Eldzier Cortor's 1982 work “Still Life: Souvenir No. IV.” Credit Eldzier Cortor, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery


Betye Saar’s “Dat Ol’ Black Magic” (1981). Credit Corcoran Collection, The Evans-Tibbs Collection, National Gallery of Art And while it was bad enough for male artists, black women faced even steeper obstacles. “We were invisible to museums and the gallery scene,” Ms. Saar said.

Through the rise of Modernist formalism and, especially, as abstraction took hold, black artists were often at a disadvantage because their work was perceived by the white establishment as formally “lesser” — too often figurative and too narrowly expressive of the black experience.

But even abstract artists like Lewis, who resisted pressure from within the black art world to be more overtly political, were eclipsed — in part, paradoxically, because when curators did seek out black artists’ work, figuration helped them check off a box. “Up until about five years ago, when curators came to us, they were really only interested in narrative works that showed the black experience so they could demonstrate in no uncertain terms to their visitors that they were committed to representing black America,” said the New York dealer Michael Rosenfeld, who has shown work from black artists and their estates for decades. One indication that serious change is afoot, he said, is that more and more museums are seeking prime abstract works by black artists.

Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, said that even within MoMA’s strict vision of Modernism, there were black artists — like the abstractionist Alma Thomas — “who would have absolutely, comfortably fit into the narrative.” But the museum bought its first Thomas works only this year.


“It’s pretty hard to explain by any other means than to say there was an actual, pretty systemic overlooking of this kind of work — with some truly wonderful exceptions, but exceptions that prove the rule,” she said, adding that the way the museum was making up for lost time was by actively buying works, “putting our money where our mouth is.” untitled5

Lowery Stokes Sims, the first African-American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later the president of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times Museums Make Up Ground

A handful of institutions — among them the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Newark Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art (now closed) — have been regarded as ahead of the curve. As others make up ground with gathering speed, said Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston, “I think what we’re seeing now is the aggregation of forces that have been in motion for at least the last half-century.”

He points to black collectors and historically black colleges, like Howard University and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), which were buying work when few others were. Another force was the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1968 and pioneering exhibitions that began to change the conversation, like one Mr. Gaither organized at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1970, “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston”; and “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” curated by the scholar David C. Driskell in 1976 for the Los Angeles County Museum.

The shows pushed “curators and historians to admit there was a whole body of art out there they hadn’t known,” Mr. Gaither said. “They showed how a discussion about African-American art is inseparable from a discussion of American art. One can’t exist without the other.” And slowly — far too slowly, he added — the seeds that were sown changed academia and curators, of all races, who are now in charge of permanent collections and exhibitions.

Gavin Delahunty, a Dallas Museum of Art curator who recently organized a show devoted to Frank Bowling, a Guyanese-born abstract painter who has long worked in New York, said a growing number of curators emerging from graduate programs since the late 1990s felt “like we were educated to address an imbalance in representation.”

Museums are expanding their collections of 20th-century artworks by overlooked African-Americans. What artists do you think they should include and why?

“And it’s very natural to me that it’s what we should be doing now in our positions,” he said, adding, “I think there’s a real sense that the doors are pretty wide-open now.”


Mr. Axelrod, who donated and sold most of his American collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2011, added: “As we became exposed to it, more collectors came to the same conclusion: There are great pieces out there. These are great artists. Why haven’t I seen them before? And I’d better get them now before they’re all gone.”


A basketball hoop as light fixture by David Hammons sold for $8 million in 2013, putting him among the most expensive living artists. Credit David Hammons, via Phillips

While the market is catching on, it is doing so slowly and unevenly. Auction prices for the most sought-after contemporary black artists are very strong now when compared with their peers. A David Hammons basketball hoop as chandelier sold for $8 million in 2013, putting him among the most expensive living artists. Paintings by Glenn Ligon and Mark Bradford have recently sold for more than $3 million, and Kara Walker, whose pieces exploring the horror of slavery are tough sells for collectors’ homes, has approached the half-million-dollar mark. But prices for critically successful artists who came of age earlier, even as recently as the 1960s and ’70s, still lag behind what many dealers think they should be. Mr. Gilliam, who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1972 and whose draped canvases have had a strong influence on younger painters trying to rethink the medium, has only recently broken $300,000 at auction, though works by Mr. Gilliam on view recently at the Frieze Masters art fair in London were priced at up to $500,000.

“I’m sorry, but I really believe that if he were a white artist, you wouldn’t be able to afford him now; you wouldn’t be able to touch him unless you had several million,” said Darrell Walker, the former professional basketball player and coach, who has collected works by Mr. Gilliam, Norman Lewis and other black artists for more than 30 years.

Untitled7Sam Gilliam’s “Empty” (1972). Credit via Christie's A Rush for the Best Works

As the gauge begins to move toward correction, more collectors and museums are scrambling to find the best works. “The prices are now well beyond what I could do without major financial sacrifices to buy just a single painting,” said James Sellman, who, along with his wife, Barbara, has been collecting work by self-taught black artists like Thornton Dial for decades.

Mr. Sellman is on the board of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, which last year donated a major collection of 57 pieces by African-American artists from the South to the Metropolitan Museum, a gift Thomas P. Campbell, the Met’s director, called “a landmark moment” in the museum’s evolution. (It came 45 years after a widely derided Met exhibition, “Harlem on My Mind,” which was intended to celebrate the cultural history of black Americans but contained no work by painters and sculptors with flourishing careers in Harlem.)


Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (Studio)" (2014). Credit 2015 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Kerry James Marshall

A show organized around the Souls Grown Deep donation is being planned by the Met, and next fall, at its new Met Breuer building, the museum will host a retrospective of the work of the highly sought-after contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall, making for perhaps the most concentrated focus on work by African-Americans in the museum’s history.

But Ms. Sims has been around long enough to know that the art world does not always move in a consistent direction, and warned that such progress in many ways remains fragile. “The canon is like a rubber band,” she said. “You can stretch it, but there’s always the danger it’s going to snap back.”

Thelma Golden, the current director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, said, “Yes, things are better.” But, she added: “What we need to continue to understand is that the exhibition and collection of this work is not a special initiative, or a fad, but a fundamental part of museums’ missions — and that progress is not simply about numbers, but understanding this work, in the context of art history and museum practice, as essential.”

Link to full article with videos


The Guerrilla Girls, After 3 Decades, Still Rattling Art World Cages

When you’ve spent 30 years wearing a gorilla mask, as the women known by the aliases Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz have, certain behavior becomes second nature. So there were Kahlo and Kollwitz, two of the pseudonymous founding members of the Guerrilla Girls, the activist, feminist art collective, preening and posing at their 30th anniversary party and retrospective in May. They sipped prosecco through straws (their gorilla lips wouldn’t allow much more) at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, while guests gazed at walls lined with the posters protesting elitism and bias that first shook the art world in the 1980s. “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met Museum?” one provocatively asked. The Guerrillas’ name tags identified them as pioneering dead female artists (like Alice Neel, the portraitist, or Zubeida Agha, the Pakistani modernist) whose legacies they hope to continue.

After three decades as masked crusaders for gender and racial equality in the art world — and increasingly, everywhere else — the Guerrilla Girls have lately been enjoying a victory lap. Last year, the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired the group’s portfolio of 88 posters and ephemera from 1985 to 2012, documenting the number of women and minorities represented in galleries and institutions, including the Whitney itself.


The 30th birthday party for the Guerrilla Girls at the Abrons Art Center in Manhattan in May.CreditBenjamin Norman for The New York Times

“To me, they are art world royalty,” said David Kiehl, the Whitney’s curator for prints, who helped persuade the museum to acquire their work.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis also bought the Guerrilla Girls’ entire collection of posters, in numbered prints, which were originally plastered on walls, phone booths and galleries in SoHo. And the posters still pop up in gallery districts, calling attention to disproportionate representation in the art world and wage inequality. The Walker is planning a Guerrilla Girls exhibition for January.

Olga Viso, the Walker’s director, discovered the group as an art history student in the 1980s. “I remember feeling such pride that there were female artists out there giving voice to these concerns that we were sensing and feeling,” she said, adding that coming of age with the Guerrilla Girls “totally shaped who I am and the artists I worked with.”

Gloria Steinem, too, is a longtime fan. “I think they’re the perfect protest group,” she said, “because they have humor.” One poster cataloged the advantages to being a woman artist: “Working without the pressure of success; knowing your career might pick up after you’re 80; getting your picture in the art magazines wearing a gorilla suit.”

Membership has fluctuated over the years, from a high of about 30 art-world women to a few handfuls of active members now. Some women left the suit behind, seeking recognition under their own names. Others became professors or real estate agents. But most have remained committed to anonymity, filtering in and out of the crew and fretting about what it meant to be part of the world they were lampooning. “Some of us wanted a piece of the pie, and some of us wanted to blow the whole pie up,” Kahlo said. “We agreed to disagree.”

They still exhibit and share work in places like Reykjavik, Iceland, London and Sarajevo — their next appearance will be in September at the Printed Matter’s N.Y. Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 — and lecture at colleges, where their campaigns are part of women’s studies and art history classes.

Today they seem prescient: They long ago took aim at issues that are flash points now, like gender bias in Hollywood, and racism in the gallery world (“Guerrilla Girls’ definition of a hypocrite?” read one poster. “An art collector who buys white male art at benefits for liberal causes, but never buys art by women or artists of color.”) Co-opting the look and feel of advertising, they were social media-friendly and selfie-ready before those terms existed. Though other activist groups, like the newly formed anonymous collective Pussy Galore, have taken up the cause, the Guerrilla Girls say their mission is far from over. “They’re as valid today, and needed today, as they were 30 years ago,” Mr. Kiehl said, “because what they’re talking about is still going on.” The June issue of Art News, edited by Maura Reilly, founding curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and current chief curator at National Academy Museum, took stock of the state of women in the art world. It found that, despite some gains, the majority of celebrated artists are still white and male, and that discrimination exists from the top down in cultural institutions.


An anniversary recount sticker showing numbers from 1985 and 2015. CreditGuerrilla Girls

What follows is an oral history of the Guerrilla Girls and their big-footed leaps across the cultural world, recounted by the Girls themselves, their art-world contemporaries and younger artists they inspired, as well as curators, dealers and museum directors who were witness to their insurrection. These are excerpts from the conversations.

Dawn of the Apes

The Guerrilla Girls galvanized into action in response to a 1984 survey exhibition of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Of 165 artists represented, fewer than 10 percent were women or minorities, they found.

KäTHE KOLLWITZ [NAMED AFTER THE GERMAN PAINTER WHO DIED IN 1945] The Women’s Caucus for Art, I think, called a demonstration. A couple of us went and we walked around the picket line, and no one stopped. No one cared. Everyone went right into the museum.

FRIDA KAHLO At that time, I think a lot of women and a lot of artists of color were taking their situation personally, thinking that they lacked something that the system wanted, not realizing that there was a systemic problem. The system did not want us.

ALICE NEEL We just knew that there was something terribly wrong, in our gut. Art in America had these annual reports [a national listing of gallery and museum rosters], and we sat and we counted. It was worse than we thought.

KOLLWITZ Suddenly we realized, people think whatever’s in the museum is the best stuff, and if you’re outside the museum complaining, you’re just a bunch of untalented people. And at that moment came this other realization: There’s got to be a better way, a more contemporary way, an in-your-face way, of breaking through people’s preconceived notions and changing their minds.


A poster from 1989. CreditGuerrilla Girls

KAHLO Käthe and I would sit in bars, and we realized that the more we laughed and made fun of the art world, the better we felt. And then we realized that maybe we should take this sensibility and start investigating the art world, just calling people out for discrimination. The first meetings were so empowering. They still are.

In April 1985, the Guerrilla Girls hung their first poster, naming (and shaming) the major artists who showed at male-dominated galleries; they were quickly branded rabble-rousers. In “Guerrillas in Our Midst,” a 1992 documentary by Amy Harrison, prominent artists and dealers decried the group as talentless, careerist victims. But they soon found a loyal audience and gained supporters, including the New York Times critic Roberta Smith, who was among the list of critics singled out in one poster for not covering more female artists, a failure Ms. Smith acknowledged. “The Guerrilla Girls are not art critics; they’re social critics,” she wrote in The Times in 1990, commenting on the group’s emphasis on numbers and disinterest in issues of quality.

KAHLO How can you really tell the story of a culture when you don’t include all the voices within the culture? Otherwise, it’s just the history, and the story, of power.

By the Numbers

The Guerrilla Girls arrived at a moment when the art scene was embracing a new theatricality and becoming more pointedly political, globally. Performance and street art were going mainstream. The Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher eras witnessed cuts in funding for public projects, including support for artists. The economic strategies contributed to the art-as-investment-and-speculation boom. Dissent was brewing.

As evocative as their animal faces and sticker crusades were, the Guerrilla Girls’ greatest contribution may have been in something simpler: the act of counting. They were not the first artists to employ data in their work, but they were among the most visible, and direct.

KAHLO One Sunday morning [in 1989], a group of us went to the Metropolitan Museum with little notebooks. We were going to count naked bodies and female artists. It was only when we hit the 19th century, that early modern period, when sex replaced religion as the major preoccupation of European artists, did we get our statistic: Only 5 percent of the artists were women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.


A Guggenheim demonstration in 1992. CreditTeri Slotkin

They repeated the count in the modern wings at the Met in 2005 and 2012, and the numbers were hardly different. Other posters enumerated the number of women in solo shows in the city’s major museums (zero or one each in 1985; 1 to 2 in 2015) and blue-chip galleries.

MAURA REILLY, CURATOR They’ve greatly influenced the way that I think, in particular the idea that counting, the literal counting of male versus female, is a feminist strategy. And I know it’s much more complicated than simple statistics, but it’s a great way to open the conversation.

Has Anything Changed?

DAVID KIEHL, CURATORIAL STAFF AT THE MET FROM 1973-1992 [At that institution,] I don’t think these issues [of gender and racial parity] came up a lot. When I got to the Whitney [in 1993], the curatorial staff was heavily women; we would have meetings where they would talk about things like, oh, we need to do more African-American this or women that. The system has changed. The Met, that world has changed. Artists that I could never get into the collection they’ve gotten into the collection, younger artists.

KAHLO We go back to the Met because we expect that it’s going to get better. And the progress that we’ve discovered is that now, there are fewer women artists, but more naked males. [Laughs]

This summer, Pussy Galore, inspired by the Guerrilla Girls, reprised the group’s original gallery report card, finding that the Mary Boone Gallery, for example, which showed zero women artists in 1985, had upgraded slightly, to 13 percent women.

RON WARREN, DIRECTOR AND PARTNER, MARY BOONE GALLERY However they tallied up these percentages, it really doesn’t look at the full picture of what the gallery is doing. We’ve had a lot of women in group shows; our entire spring season this year has been female artists. To simplify it into percentages is really doing a disservice to the cause. We actually show a Guerrilla Girl [under her own name].


A projection on the new Whitney Museum shortly after it opened this year. CreditGuerrilla Girls

CINDY SHERMAN, ARTIST I remember all their posters, in SoHo, seeing them everywhere. It just opened my eyes more and more to being aware of how museums show less women. I definitely see that they’ve had an influence in the art world, but it still has a ways to go.

ZUBEIDA AGHA, GUERRILLA GIRL I think a lot of people think that this issue was solved. A lot of galleries have almost an equal distribution on their roster. But their one-person or two-person shows, they’re mostly male. All the women get stuck in group shows. So what artists really need to sell their work, to help their career, that is still going to the men.

Follow the Money

The Guerrilla Girls’ notoriety helped fuel debate but didn’t translate to financial success. Their work is in 60 cultural institutions, but even the full portfolios were priced at only a few thousand dollars. Most of their income comes from speaking engagements.

ROMAINE BROOKS, GUERRILLA GIRL Whenever we went on gigs, our expenses would be covered and we’d sell posters and sometimes we’d take poster money and have a nice meal. But nobody did it for money. We did it for the camaraderie and the thrill of it.

MS. REILLY Their work is essentially free. You can pay $20 and get a Guerrilla Girls poster [online]. There is no limited edition, which is antithetical to a museum collection. I had to propose [buying the posters] in an acquisition committee meeting at the Sackler Center and they were like, well, why does this have value? I had to make an argument as to why we had to have this work in the collection.

KOLLWITZ Now we’re the darling of so many museums, and it’s totally bizarre. Should we be happy and excited? Annoyed that it took them so long? I don’t know. We care more about the street stuff, but museums have a great audience.


A Guerrilla Girl poses in front of a billboard in 2002 that criticizes the Academy Awards not far from where they are presented in Hollywood. CreditGuerrilla Girls

In the spring, the Guerrilla Girls were invited to the opening of the Whitney at its new building in the meatpacking district, and they came, en mask. Not long after, they projected a message about income inequality on the outside of the building: “Dear Art Collector/art is sooo expensive!/even for billionaires/we totally get why/you can’t pay all your employees/a living wage.” (The museum had been tipped off to this act.)

KOLLWITZ We want our work to be preserved as an antidote to all the market-driven art that museums collect to make their trustees happy.

KAHLO We would always talk about whether what we were doing was politics or art. A lot of museums would ask that question, and we could never agree on it. We realized that 20th-century art has always been about politics. We didn’t want to take the place of individual, named women artists, but on the other hand, if they were willing to admit the problem and maybe even asked us to do something why shouldn’t we do it? We don’t accept every invitation that comes our way. We have to not feel compromised.

Behind the Mask

Membership in the Guerrilla Girls continues to be by invitation only; new members come in as others cycle out. But all must adjust to life as an ape.

ROSALBA CARRIERA, RETIRED GUERRILLA GIRL [NAMED FOR THE VENETIAN ROCOCO PAINTER] I’m the one who thought of giving Guerrilla Girls names [of dead artists]. I stepped back because my life got very complicated. I felt that the first years were most important, because that’s when we broke ground. When I started the Guerrilla Girls I had an infant son and I put the mask on and my son went, ‘Where’s Mommy?’ I’ve always felt like I was a spy. What I did as a Guerrilla Girl, I did as a Guerrilla Girl, not as myself.

OLGA VISO, WALKER ART CENTER They’ve figured out how to productively disagree, in ways that sometimes feel uncomfortable but can always be turned into something. Because after all those years they still challenge each other, and they obviously feed off that.

SADIE BARNETTE, ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE, STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM I was basically born at the same time as the Guerrilla Girls. I think it’s a really interesting time to be a woman artist and a woman of color, and what they did was a first step – just for them to point their fingers at the situation is a revolutionary step. It’s not a level playing field, but I don’t think of it as closed doors, because I think there’s a subversive power in making new doors.

KAHLO You know, wearing this mask gives you a certain kind of freedom to say whatever you want. I completely recommend it. If you’re in a situation where you’re a little afraid to speak up, put a mask on. You won’t believe what comes out of your mouth.

Amiri Baraka's Play about W.E.B Du Bois, via Woodie King Jr.



The director and producer Woodie King Jr. at a rehearsal of “Most Dangerous Man in America.”CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times


Even a relentlessly adventurous producer and director like Woodie King Jr. was bound to reach a breaking point when it came to Amiri Baraka.

For a half century, ever since Mr. King had his theater shut down and was nearly arrested in 1964 for presenting Mr. Baraka’s “The Toilet” in Detroit, the two men had brought to the stage a barrage of incendiary characters and themes. A middle-aged Tarzan, a Faustian Sidney Poitier, a slave ship, what Mr. Baraka called a “coon show”: These and many other theatrical Molotov cocktails found their way into works at Mr. King’s New Federal Theater and elsewhere.

But the last script that Mr. Baraka, who died in January 2014, handed Mr. King, “Most Dangerous Man in America (W. E. B. Du Bois),” was another matter altogether. The subject matter was no surprise: the revered African-American scholar and civil rights activist Du Bois, whose evolution from black nationalism to Marxism closely paralleled Mr. Baraka’s own.

Its size, however, was.


Amiri Baraka, who wrote the play. He died in 2014.CreditChester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

“This thing was 250 pages long,” said Mr. King, whose theater has provided an early theatrical home for notables like Ed Bullins, Ntozake Shange and David Henry Hwang. “Ossie Davis was doing the initial reading, and he and Baraka just got into it: ‘Look, you can’t give an actor no 250-page play!’ “ (Going by the page-a-minute rule, it would have run over four hours.)

That first reading was roughly a decade ago. Mr. Baraka came back a year later with a 90-page draft, having jettisoned reams of courtroom material and several characters, including Paul Robeson. Finally, at a 2013 arts festival in Atlanta, he gave Mr. King a lean but no less wide-ranging 50-page version.

This final iteration — or one very close to it — begins previews on May 28 at the Castillo Theater, the New Federal’s most recent home. It comes on the heels of a New Federal revival of “Dutchman,” the 1964 play that vaulted Mr. Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) to stardom.

Despite Mr. Baraka’s success as a playwright, Mr. King said the two men had bonded over music rather than theater. “We mostly talked about what clothes the jazz musicians wore,” he said. Having mutual friends like Langston Hughes also paved the way for a long-lasting friendship that would include collaborating on literary anthologies and documentaries.

“Most Dangerous Man” focuses on a period in Du Bois’s life with particular resonance for Mr. Baraka. Just as his Sept. 11-themed poem “Somebody Blew Up America” turned a fairly comfortable late-career job into a political firestorm, Du Bois, at 82, found his status as America’s leading black intellectual threatened in 1950 when he became chairman of a nuclear disarmament group and was accused of being an agent of a foreign state.

The ensuing indictment led to the confiscation of Du Bois’s passport and the rejection of many of his colleagues at the N.A.A.C.P. (a group he helped found). Mr. Baraka’s play, which still has a cast of 18 despite the trims, bounces between Du Bois’s trial and groups of working-class African-Americans reacting to the news of the trial on television and in newspapers.

Du Bois also steps forward on occasion to speak words from his speeches and writings. It was these rather sizable chunks of material that gave Mr. King pause. “In all of my conversations with Baraka, the hardest thing in the world was to find a Du Bois,” he said. “No 80-year-old can do that part.”


Art McFarland stars in “Most Dangerous Man in America,” as W. E. B. Du Bois.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

By the time he had raised the funding (in part through a Kickstarter campaign) to present “Most Dangerous Man,” a new Du Bois had surfaced in Art McFarland, who had retired from his decades-long newscaster position at WABC in 2014 and soon joined the New Federal’s board.

“My plan was to gradually ease my way back into acting,” said Mr. McFarland, who had trained as an actor before entering journalism and who had caught Mr. King’s eye during at least one of those early productions. “When Woodie called me about playing Du Bois for my first show, I spent the rest of the weekend with my jaw hanging open.”

Mr. Baraka converted to Marxism in the early 1970s, decades after he had inaccurately but presciently received a dishonorable discharge from the Air Force on suspicions of being a Communist. This conversion, Mr. King said, had everything to do with exposure to Du Bois’s writing.

And when Mr. Baraka was sold on something, he set out to convert friends as well as audiences. “Every once in a while,” Mr. King said, “Baraka would call you at 3 a.m. and say, ‘Hey, man, pick up “The Souls of Black Folk” and call me back.’ ”

This history reverberates through “Most Dangerous Man,” particularly as an elderly Du Bois looks back on his life. “I have been despised for so long for being black,” he says in the play, “that to tell me you will despise me because now I declare myself officially Red, does not faze me in the least.” (“I like to think Baraka had some fun sticking that line in there,” Mr. McFarland said.)

A continued commitment to Mr. Baraka’s work signals that the New Federal Theater, in its 46th year, hasn’t abandoned the hunger for experimentation and political inquiry that paved the way for works like “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” and “The Taking of Miss Janie.”

In fact, “Dutchman” has been the subject of periodic radical suggestions from Mr. King, including the proposed casting of the drag performer Neil Flanagan as the female lead in the 1970s, something its author never let him forget. “Amiri would stand up places and introduce me, ‘Here’s the man wants to mess up my play,’ “ Mr. King said.

Forty years after looking to take some liberties with Mr. Baraka’s first play, Mr. King is toeing the line with his last one. “These are the words that Du Bois gave, and these are the words that Baraka wrote,” he said. “This is real stuff.”

Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex via NYT

January 17, 2014

A new year. A new New York mayor. Old problems with art in New York. I have a collection of complaints and a few (very few) ideas for change.

Money — the grotesque amounts spent, the inequitable distribution — has dominated talk about art in the 21st century so far. It’s a basic fact of art history. Emperors, popes and robber barons set the model for the billionaire buyers of today. Of course, it is today that matters to the thousands of artists who live and work in this punitively expensive city, where the art industry is often confused with the art world.

The distinction between the two, though porous, is real. The art industry is the nexus of high-price galleries, auction houses and collectors who control an art market renowned for its funny-money practices. In numbers of personnel, the industry is a mere subset of the circle of artists, teachers, students, writers, curators and middle-range dealers spread out over five boroughs. But in terms of power, the proportions are reversed, to the degree that the art world basically functions as a labor source, supplying the industry with product, services and exotic color but, with the age of apprenticeships long gone, only uncertainly sharing in its wealth.

Do I exaggerate? A bit. The argument can be made that labor is benefiting from its ties to management, in a high-tide-floats-all-boats way. Visit art schools or galleries, and you get the impression that a substantial portion of the art world is content to serve as support staff to a global ruling class.

The scene at Christie’s during the sale of Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.”


The reality is that, directly or indirectly, in large ways and small, the current market system is shaping every aspect of art in the city: not just how artists live, but also what kind of art is made, and how art is presented in the media and in museums.

I got tired of money talk a while back. Rather than just sputter with indignation, I figured it would be more useful to turn in another direction, toward art that the industry wasn’t looking at, which is a whole lot of art. But reminders keep pulling you back to the bottom line. With every visit to the gallery-packed Lower East Side, I see fewer of the working-class Latinos who once called the neighborhood home. In what feels like overnight, I’ve watched Dumbo in Brooklyn go from an artist’s refuge to an economically gated community.

Recently, my attention was drawn to a controversy surrounding a large and much praised group exhibition installed at a complex of converted warehouses called Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The show, “Come Together: Surviving Sandy,” was conceived as a benefit for artists who had suffered losses in the 2012 hurricane and was promoted as evidence of art-world solidarity. Yet a widely read blog, Art F City, reported that the owners of the complex, which had for some years provided low-rent studios for artists, were now raising rents dramatically, forcing many artists to vacate. (Landlords say 25 percent of Industry City tenants are artists). The new residents seem to be an upscale clientele drawn by the artsy atmosphere.

Whatever the full facts, money is the winner, and with that comes caution and conservatism. This is almost absurdly obvious on the high-end of the market. Sales of retrograde “masterworks” can be relied on to jack up the auction charts at regular intervals; the most recent record was set last fall by a $142.4 million Francis Bacon painting of Lucian Freud, a monument to two overpraised painters for the price of one. Meanwhile, big, hugely pricey tchotchkes — new whatevers by Jeff Koons, say — roll out of fabrication shops and into personal museums being assembled by members of the international power elite.

Part of the exhibition “Come Together: Surviving Sandy” at Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.


Outside auctions, the marketing mechanics buzz on. Roughly since the end of the multicultural, postmodern 1990s, we’ve watched new art being re-Modernized and domesticated, with painting the medium of choice, abstraction the mode of preference. Together they offer significant advantages. Paintings can be assembly-line produced but still carry the aura of being hand-touched. They can be tailored to small spaces, such as fair booths. Abstraction, especially if color is involved, can establish instant eye contact from afar. If, in addition, the work’s graphic impact translates well online, where stock can be moved eBay style, so much the better.

Other traditional forms — drawing, photography, some sculpture — similarly work well in this marketing context. But an enormous range of art does not, beginning with film, performance and installation, and extending into rich realms of creative activity that defy classification as art at all. To note this dynamic is not to dismiss painting or object making, but to point to the restrictive range of art that the market supports, that dealers are encouraged to sell, and that artists are encouraged to make.

The narrowing of the market has been successful in attracting a wave of neophyte buyers who have made art shopping chic. It has also produced an epidemic of copycat collecting. To judge by the amounts of money piled up on a tiny handful of reputations, few of these collectors have the guts, or the eye or the interest, to venture far from blue-chip boilerplate. They let galleries, art advisers and the media do the choosing, and the media doesn’t particularly include art critics. What, after all, does thumbs up, thumbs down matter when winners are preselected before the critical votes are in? In this economy, it can appear that the critic’s job is to broadcast names and contribute to fame.

Conservative art can encourage conservative criticism. We’re seeing a revival — some would say a disinterment — of a describe-the-strokes style of writing popular in the formalist 1950s and again in the 1970s: basically, glorified advertising copy. Evaluative approaches that developed in the 1980s and 1990s, based on the assumption that art inevitably comments on the social and political realities that produce it, tend to be met with disparagement now, in part because they’re often couched in academic jargon, which has become yet another form of sales-speak.

The Silent Barn art space in Brooklyn’s thriving Bushwick neighborhood.


There’s no question that we need — art needs — an influx of new commentators who don’t mistake attitude for ideas, who move easily between cultures and geographies. Regular gigs in mainstream print journalism have all but dried up, but the Internet offers ambitious options in a growing number of blogazines including Art F City (edited by Paddy Johnson) and Hyperallergic (edited by Hrag Vartanian), which combine criticism, reporting, political activism and gossip on an almost-24-hour news cycle.

And although both are based in New York, they include national coverage and in a feisty mix of voices, a welcome alternative to the one-personality blog of yore. That mix would probably be even more varied, and transcultural, if a few forward-thinking, art-minded investors would infuse some serious capital into such enterprises so they could pay writers a living wage and make online freelance writing a viable way of life.

I don’t know what it would take to get a global mix of voices into some of New York’s big, rich art museums. If archaeologists of the future unearthed the Museum of Modern Art as it exists today, they would have to assume that Modernism was a purely European and North American invention. They would be wrong. Modernism was, and is, an international phenomenon, happening in different ways, on different timetables, for different reasons in Africa, Asia, Australia and South America.

Why aren’t museums telling that story? Because it doesn’t sell. Why doesn’t it sell? Because it’s unfamiliar. Why is it unfamiliar? Because museums, with their eyes glued to box office, aren’t telling the story.

Truong Tan’s “What Do We Want,” part of “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia” at the Guggenheim Museum.


Yes, MoMA and the Guggenheim have recently organized a few “non-Western” shows. MoMA’s 2012 “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde,” packed to the ceiling with art we’ve rarely if ever seen, was a revelation. But they need to take actions far more fundamental and committed. International Modernism should be fully integrated into the permanent collection, regularly, consistently.

Their job as public institutions is to change our habits of thinking and seeing. One way to do this is by bringing disparate cultures together in the same room, on the same wall, side by side. This sends two vital, accurate messages: that all these cultures are different but equally valuable; and all these cultures are also alike in essential ways, as becomes clear with exposure.

With its recently announced plans for an expansion, MoMA has an ideal chance to expand its horizons organically. The new spaces, which should certainly be devoted to the permanent collection, won’t be ready for several years, but the museum has no excuse for waiting for its long-overdue integration process to begin.

And on the subject of integration, why, in one of the most ethnically diverse cities, does the art world continue to be a bastion of whiteness? Why are African-American curators and administrators, and especially directors, all but absent from our big museums? Why are there still so few black — and Latino, and Asian-American — critics and editors?

“The Shadows Took Shape,” an exhibition of Afrofuturist works at the Studio Museum in Harlem.


Not long ago, these questions — of policy but also political and ethical questions — seemed to be out there on institutional tables, demanding discussion. Technically, they may be there still, but museums seem to be most interested in talking about real estate, assiduously courting oligarchs for collections, and anxiously scouting for the next “Rain Room.” Political questions, about which cultures get represented in museums and who gets to make the decisions, and how, are buried.

Political art brings me back to where I started, with artists, and one final, baffled complaint, this one about art schools, which seem, in their present form, designed to accommodate the general art economy and its competitive, caste-system values. Programs are increasingly specialized, jamming students into ever narrower and flakier disciplinary tracks. Tuitions are prodigious, leaving artists indentured to creditors for years.

How experimental can artists be under such circumstances? How confidently can they take risks in an environment that acknowledges only dollar-value success? How can they contemplate sustaining — to me this is crucial to New York’s future as an art center — long and evolving creative careers? The temptation for many artists, after a postgraduate spurt of confidence, is to look around, see what’s selling, and consider riffing on that. We’re seeing a depressing number of such riffs these days.

Again, do I exaggerate? And, again, sure, to some degree. By no means is all the news bad. Start-up galleries are opening; middle-tier galleries are holding their own, or doing better than that. Artist-intensive neighborhoods like Bushwick and Ridgewood are still affordable, companionable and fun.

But when the rents get too high, or the economy fails, or art buying falls out of fashion, and the art industry decides to liquidate its overvalued assets and leave? Artists, the first and last stakeholders, will have themselves to fall back on. They’ll learn to organize and agitate for what they need, to let City Hall know, in no uncertain terms, that they’re there. They’ll learn to share, not just on special occasions, but all the time. They’ll learn that art and politics are inseparable, and both can be anything and everything. They’ll learn to bring art back from the brink of inconsequence.

As someone long on questions and short on answers, let me ask: Why not start now?

Carl Watson reviews Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge

Clicking into the abyss

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge


Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel,Bleeding Edge, could be described as a mixture of cyberpunk, yenta detective fiction,New York self-admiration/mockery, and good old Pynchonesque conspiracy/paranoia.Set between the 90s dotcom collapse and the September 11 aftermath, the novel portrays a kind of privileged hyper-connected Upper West Side life; it’s a techno-noir complete with ambiguous bad guys, compromised good guys, numerous facilitators and walk-ons with various agendas and a general air of what the hell is going on and who is in control?The answer to the last question may well be nobody at all. The number of characters is just large enough to make it difficult to keep track of.*  Significant people keep reappearing to re-establish their place in the plot, but due to the story’s length and complexity you often can’t remember what their role originally was. That’s okay though because what’s important may only be this confusion, that and the fact that you, the reader, remain caught up in the flowof ramifying possibilities.Pynchon piles on layers of possible meanings and branching narrative lines as the plot moves forward, promising intrigue, laughs, critical insight, etc., most of which is delivered in abundance.

It might be said that many of the characters confirm a criticism that is often leveled at Pynchon: that his novels are peopled byrather shallow cartoons,twisted stereotypesin extremis.  We might also say his characters are merelyhyper-real, overdone on the surface, even if psychologically underdone.This is not to say that Pynchon’s people don’t have real-life problems, peccadillos, fetishes, etc., but that such indications of depthoften seem to serve only as markers of authenticity in an increasingly inauthentic mediatedmilieu. It’s also true that whether you believe in them or not is probably unimportant. In Pynchon’s universe they are merely signsof the post-modern human condition, where late capitalism’s vaunted “individuals” (read “consumers”) have basically evolved into a form of the very media they have created and within which they thrive. Allthis goes along with the author’s general tendency to privilege surface over depth, i.e., there isn’t anything but surface, and depth is an illusion, a human construction, a matter of computation, either of the computational brain or some other machine, say the machine of the media brain.  All those complexities of character that people value so much inold-time literature are really nothing more than the reactions of biological bags of chemicals reacting to their chemical environment. This may seem a mordantnote, but from this reviewerit’s meant as a compliment.

That said, a partial list of important characters in Bleeding Edge goes like this:

Maxine Tarnoff is a late30ish-40ish something protagonist, living on the Upper West Side where she runs a fraud-hunting agency, called “Tail ‘em and Nail ‘em,” that often has dealings with the various overblown tech companies of the era. Maxinemight be considered a kind of Jewish Marlowe, if Marlowe knoshed at a Broadway Deli and had to escort kids to their liberal private Montessori-like school, Kugelblitz.Yes, Maxine has two sons,with the appropriate hipster names of Ziggy and Otis, and they, like all New York kids from the Upper West Side, are wise beyond their years. She also has an ex-husband Horst Loeffler, who is not exactly out of her life. Horst is a Midwestern transplant, a cliché that is used as relief to show off the cleverness and sophistication of the New Yorkers around him.He moves slower, or at least more deliberately, is less frantic than the others, and apparently likes sports and the outdoors. Described as“A fourth generation product of the US Midwest, emotional as a grain elevator, fatally alluring as a Harley knucklehead, indispensible (God help her) as an authentic Maid-rite when hunger sets in.” That last comment lets you know thatHorst also serves as practical ballast to Maxine’s frenetic life.Maxine’s sister, Brooke, is married to the LikudnikAviDeschler, who if not directly involved in the current plot of the novel may well be involved in some other bit of international intrigue.

March Kelleher, Maxine’s friend, is often an aid in her investigations, but also seems to be caught up in clichéd 20th century forms of conspiracy theory that are inadequate to her era, mostly because they depend on agents who actually have agency, and many people in this book seem to be more like puppets to a technological or capitalist mind that operates far beyond their ability to understand it. March’s daughter Tallis, happens to be in a southbound marriage to one Gabriel Ice, a Bond-like villain/mogul and the brains behind hashslingerz, a super-powerful and somewhat secretive internet company. Hashslingerz’s actual activities are foggy at best, but there is no doubt that through his corporate vehicle Ice is making a bid for internet and telecommunications dominance, both via plain thuggery and by buying up all the bandwidth and infrastructure that he can get, as hereadies his profit margins for the coming techno surge of humanity. Gabriel Ice may be apossible government fixer, but he is also an untouchable Oz, as we know about him only by rumor and hearsay. When he does show up in person, he’s kind of an arrogant dork.

There are other entertaining characters such as Igor, Misha and Grisha, a triumvirate of Russian gangsters who seem to be unallied in terms of the various competing powers. They can be dangerous and bumbling at the same time, and they are both allies and enemies of Maxine; she’s never sure which, and she may even be working for them. There is the foot fetishist, Eric Jeffrey Outfield, a super computer nerd,who Maxine masturbates with her feet after picking him up in a Queens strip bar, where she has posed as a dancer specifically to find him. Eric will be first to take her into the Deep Web. There is Conkling Speedwell, a professional nose who has built an olfactory smell detector of some small importance. Justin and Lucas are California techno-geeks who have invented the webspace called DeepArcher which lives in the Deep Web, and which plays a significant role that will be discussed later in the review. These are just some of the players in this rolling serious farcical who-dun-what.

Given the cast and temperament of the characters, there is much to suggest conspiracy, in the best Pynchon fashion. Things grow increasingly sinister as the threads seem to tighten around an actual plot or revelation. This plot, or rather Maxine’s part in it, begins with the discovery that someone has been syphoning a lot of money out of the hashslingerz revenue stream and Mr. Ice does not take kindly to such actions. A certain Lester Traipse ends up dead gazing up from beneath the pool floor of The Deseret, a ritzy, if sinister,west-side apartment building where Maxine and others take recreational swims. Maxine is sort of hired, or not, to unravel all this.Ice of course is a suspect, but he would never pull a trigger himself and one possible finger-man is Nicholas (Dust in the Wind) Windust, agovernment hit man or fixer who remains rather mysterious throughout, in fact mysterious enough to arouse Maxine’s libido, so that she ends up doing him doggie style in a ratty, west-side safe house, where they conduct a supposedly info-sharing rendezvous.Of course this leads to further intrigues, part of which have to do with a secret DVD video of anonymous individuals manipulating rocket launchers on top of that same building. The DVD is delivered by Marvin, the mystical Rastafarian messenger, who always has very significant deliveries to make to Maxine and which seem to come only from anonymous sources.


All this culprit-chasingplays out in the landscape of New York City, and Bleeding Edge is definitely a targeted NYC-centric novel. Everyone goes to therapists. Maxine goes to an emo-therapist named Shawn, who himself goes to a therapist that specializes in therapist therapy. Everyone in the book is also quite quick on the conversational draw,barely waiting for the end of a sentence before they fire back a knowing and pertinent response, often so larded with cultural references that you might miss the wit, were you not as clued in as they are.Indeed we all know people who do speak or attempt to speak in this way, tying themselves into the pop-cultural universe as a means of self-validation. In Bleeding Edge, people toss such references back and forth as if creating a language of exclusion against those not entranced with the product and entertainment world in which they are ensconced. It’s also true that everyone seems to know way too much for their own good, as they say, and whether or not Pynchon means this as irony, comedy, criticism, or sarcasm even,is for the reader to decide.But this again is a typical Pynchonesque surface affectation posing as depth.

I like to think the knowing banter is meant to indicate a hyper-sophistication reminiscent of those wisecracking old George Cukor movies such as The Philadelphia Story orHis Girl Friday. If you took a Cukor script and updated it to include a great deal of techno-speak and contemporary cultural/product references you would be approaching Pynchon’s style here. With lines like “I thought you loved me for my psychosexual profile,” or “Enough dress code violation to get thrown off the L train,” it makes for great reading if not necessarily realistic human portraits.It might be said that one problem with this type of dialogue is that everyone sort of sounds the same and because Pynchon often fails to provide speaker attribution in the long pages of dialogue it is easy to get lost and discover you don’t know who is talking to whom. Again, this may well be on purpose. It is worthwhile noting here, that Pynchon sometimes tries to write in dialect, or street, generally to poor effect.

While I have been claiming that New York is in some sense a character in this book (in reality no other place exists, except California—another nod to the NYC mindset), it is also important to reiterate that this is a particular New York, that of the turn of the millennium with its attendant events, includingthe dubious Wall Street machinations, the dotcom bubble and bust and the looming shadow of the yet-to-occur September 11. Silicon Alley has crashed and most of these characters are rooting around in the detritus, remembering the elaborate parties and the various highs of money, drugs and sex. Indeed, the glory days of Silicon Alley before the downfall is one of the running themes throughout the conversations of Maxine’s crowd, who were all caught up in the flow of positive futures and the endless web-based possibilities for making huge quantities of money. Web moguls and telecommunications entrepreneurs like Gabriel Ice are the kingpins of this circle, drinking and coking in the clubs with seemingly few consequences while utterly failing to see the collapse right around the corner.What accompanies this period of decline is a sinister sense of foreboding, of things being out of control. Not that the dotcom bust was engineered by mysterious powers, but that there was never any control to begin with. But there’s more to this air of menace than mere economic chaos or social decadence, and this brings us to the looming event that shadows the entire novel—9/11.

Given the time setting of autumn 2001, the reader has a particular advantage over the characters, anticipating something, which the characters can’t see. Thus so much of the suspicion/conspiracy atmosphere that surrounds the doings of Gabriel Ice, Windust, the Russians, and even to a degree the program Deep Archer plays directly to the reader’s special knowledge. To say this is a book about 9/11 though would be misleading. The actual event is emphasized less than the way it affects everyone’s life. Pynchon captures well the eeriness of the following days and weeks: the seeming distortions of time and other physical laws, along withthe disorientation many of us felt in our normal environments. 9/11 also allows the author to tie the dubious dealings of these numerous characters, the various ideas and paranoid theories into larger geo-political issues. Maxine and her friends immediately assume, of course, that there is more to know about the attack than is being told, as they circle through many of the now common conspiracy theories, all of which are put forward only to fall into a blasé pool of maybe, maybe-not, and maybe-it-doesn’t-matter.  Remember the rockets launchers on the roof of the safe house?  Is Ari, with his Mossad connections, somehow involved?The information economy is often questioned—is there just too much of it, so that the significance of every message unit is depleted and nothing means anything? Is that how this happened? At one point even 90s-style irony is blamed, Heidi, Maxine’s friend, writes in the Journal of Memespace Cartography, “As if somehow irony, as practiced by a giggling mincing fifth column, actually brought on the events of 11 September, by keeping the country insufficiently serious—weakening its grip upon ‘reality.’”


Critics have made note of two important pervasive qualities of Pynchon’s fiction:1) a ludic or humorous undertone that serves as a kind of reflection on, or manifestation of, the great joke of the universe, and 2) the elevation of paranoia to a creative, indeed, almost spiritual state of mind.Both are offered as solutions or perhaps palliatives to the post-modern human condition. Faced with the inscrutable complexity of the world, we humans may have no other alternative but to adopt a vaudevillian comic ethos that grants us parity with the grand laughter;we might as well join the joke, so to speak.Pynchon’s books also revolve around paranoia as a creative force, or as Reg Despard says, “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen.” It is something capable of both intensely focusing the mind as well as providing the cutting edge by which we might endlessly divide certainty from itself or reality from desire. In that sense paranoia produces ever-increasing fragmented sub-realities thus actually enlarging our world. We can think of it as a psycho-socialprocess of atomization, and that leads us to the book’s title and underlying theme—that of the Bleeding Edge.The phrase “bleeding edge,” according to Lucas, one of the designers of Deep Archer, refers to technology that has, “No proven use, high risk, something only early adoption addicts feel comfortable with.” The bleeding edge may call into question the purpose of human endeavors, a pertinent theme within Pynchon’s oeuvre, but in this book the author is using the term in a much larger metaphysical sense, something like an infection of quotidian life and communication where information can be manipulated to mean anything, which is the same as nothing at all, which may well be liberating in the end. So I will end this review with some of the possible ways we can read the “bleeding edge” of the text.


One manifestation of the bleeding edge is that of social uncertainty and moral compromise. Every character of consequence has some ambiguity attached to their actions. If there appears to be a general acceptance that things are not what they seem in the event world, it is also true in the world of personality, as most of the characters are not who they seem. We never really learn who they actually are, perhaps half physical agent and half rumor self-assembled out of gossip and media. Their roles are ultimately difficult to pin down.Who works for whom? What is anyone’s real job? Their marriages are all in some state of dissolving or reforming. Their companies and jobs are all in a state of flux. Take Maxine, for instance, who may or may not still be with her husband; unlike her hard-boiled fictional brethren, who often adhered to individualistic moral codes, she is no such knight.It’s hard to say she’s in the business for money because she never seems to actually receive any. She doesn’t solicit the jobs she gets in the novel, and she is never actually contracted to do them, she just sort of ends up as everybody’s agent of discovery. While middle-class, she is definitely attracted to the bad element, especially sexually, but also intellectually. She doesn’t seem to mind humiliating herself for an alliance. She wields a gun to excellent effect when she needs to, despite seeming to have little experience with it. She knows how to be where she needs to be even though it often seems like an accident that she gets there. Gabriel Ice is another example—an internet mogul who may be working with the government or may be working against it. He is either being investigated or he is running the investigation.

The characters are all in some wayindeterminate because their environment is. Part of this is undoubtedly something to do with obscene wealth and its manipulation of public and private morality. And while money affects business and personal morals it also changes the landscape itself, as March Kelleher says: “Between the scumbag landlords and the scumbag developers, nothing in this city will ever stand at the same address for even five years, name me a building you love, someday soon it will either be a stack of high end chain stores or condos for yups with more money than brains.” Another environmental cause of indeterminacy has to do with the nature of mediated existence as it ruthlessly fragments and reproduces infinitely iterated forms of information.Bleeding Edge may be a detective novel, but for all the leads or evidence that come Maxine’s way, or anybody’s for that matter, it’s impossible to pin anything down. Facts move around like electrons through cyberspace, they can be steered into accounts of the truth or into false scenarios, just as money is steered into various bank accounts.The line between puppetry and agency is increasingly blurred. Eventually most of the characters are contentto just go home, if they can determine where that is. One is reminded of what Jack Ruby said in the aftermath of the Oswald shooting: “The world will never know the true facts of what occurred.”


Another of the obvious bleeding edges is the frontierthat lies between physical meatspace life and virtual webspace.Webspace, the new, superior reality, is fluid and hallucinogenic, to a degree that seems somewhat prescientgiven the time setting of 2001.Maxine is introduced at some point to what is called the Deep Web, the web under the surface web that most user/novices know. One might see the Deep Web as a possible stand-in for thesubconscious but it’s not really, although it can be quite dreamlike. Within the Deep Web runs the program or webspace or game known as Deep Archer, which can be accessed by those in the know(or ultimately by hackers). Deep Archer is a mystery wrapped in an enigma: it seems to have no goal or point to it. It’s designers claim it is a sanctuary and possibly a landscape for spiritual quest, but if it is, it is also a space subsumed to late capitalism and its unstoppable insidious crawl. After agonizing over whether to go full-blown capitalist and sell for billions, the creators, Justin and Lucas, take the nobler path of going open source, only to find that Deep Archer, once out of their control, sadly capitalizes itself, becoming a kind of Times Square buried deep in the Deep Web like a virtual Atlantis. Certainly it is the “place” where meatspace bodies become avatars and where they can interrelate in disembodied way. But it is also the location of the final bleeding edge, where even the avatars eventually find themselves standing at the lip of a digital abyss that does not, nor cannot, resolve itself into a meaningful goal, where form gives way to chaos and reality leaks out into endless plurality—either that or nothing.

Maxine goes to the Archer for answers but also for sanctuary.Out there (or rather in there) she converses with an avatar, who claims to be on a mission to the edge of the universe, but who is also pissed off about the commercialization overtaking the space:

All these know-nothings coming in, putting in, it’s as bad as the surface Web. They drive you deeper, into the deep unlighted.  Beyond anyplace they’d be comfortable.  And that’s where the origin is. The way a powerful telescope will bring you further out in physical space, closer to the moment of the big bang, so here, going deeper, you approach the border country, the edge of the un-navigable, the region of no information.


What she’s talking about is the fact of being driven out and to the furthest edges of her digital Eden, driven out of her sanctuary by the craven masses and that there may be some positive result to such a flight. The idea, that one can plumb the digital depths, or as one character puts it, “douse the Void,” until you reach the end of information is repeated numerous times in the novel when the subject of Deep Archer comes up. Indeed, the object of the Archer may be precisely to arrive at this ambiguous frontier of space/time. As one avatar puts it: “the edge of the great abyss . . . far from an absence, it is a darkness pulsating with whatever light was before light was invented.”  Maxine, in one of her explorations, finds herself watching, “the unfolding flow of the starscape, Kabalistic vessels smashed at the creation into all these bright drops of light, rushing out from the singular point that gave them birth, known elsewhere as the expanding universe.”It is interesting here how Pynchon has linked light to information and that there is in fact an information horizon that we can (hope to?) reach, be it via outer or inner space, a frontier where we can look over and find peace from all the enmity that definition and categorization brings.  This light could be said to be literally nothing but pure potential, but it is also a place to escape to, which is why so many of the characters seem to find themselves searching for it.  As one avatar asks herself, “how long I can stay just at the edge of the beginning before the Word, see how long I can gaze in till I get vertigo—lovesick, nauseous, whatever—and fall in.”

Pynchon seems to be saying that what awaits us is not necessarily the apocalypse of terrorism, but a kind of existential wasteland of ambiguous meanings, where we will each eventually find ourselves as if we arrived at the furthermost regions of the codeable universe, gazing into a void of reality. This may be a good thing if we arrive there by choice.  Or it may be forced upon us as a form of annihilation, because the wasteland will eventually impose itself on surface reality.  This is probably the most pertinent and possibly frightening message the book has to offer.




* For a guide to the characters see: