les presses du réel

Mining for GoldSelected Writings (1976-2002)

Introduction (p. 7-15)

THOMAS LAWSON MOVED FROM EDINBURGH TO NEW YORK IN 1975. IN “WE MUST EMBRACE OUR JOYS AND SORROWS,” PUBLISHED IN 1981 IN ZG, A LONDON-BASED MAGAZINE, HE RECOUNTS THE EFFERVESCENCE OF THE CITY IN THE LATE 1970S, WHICH SAW THE RISE OF A YOUNG GENERATION OF ARTISTS INVOLVED IN A NEW “CUT-AND-PASTE,” DO-IT-YOURSELF RELATIONSHIP WITH CULTURE. Lawson chronicles a period of convergence between a downtown scene of bars, clubs, and art-house cinemas, and the practices of artists involved in a critical reprocessing of the “propaganda industry—the mass media of television, movies, and advertising, with their devastating mixture of news, nostalgia, and special effects;” a network of artist-run, not-for-profit venues, alternative performance spaces, and screening rooms which, for a moment, flourished alongside the burgeoning punk and no-wave subcultures. At the time that his essay was published, the essentially “private affairs” of these cultural dealings were becoming public. As a painter, Lawson himself had just joined Metro Pictures, a recently opened gallery that provided a highly visible commercial platform for most of the artists discussed in his essay, while the music, fashion, and lifestyle associated with bands such as the Ramones or Talking Heads was beginning to receive broad media attention. As such, “We Must Embrace our Joys and Sorrows” bears witness to a specific juncture, a concerted move to the forefront of public debate, away from the socio-cultural conditions of the emergence of an alternative discourse, toward the very center of a fast expanding and freshly professionalized, market-driven art world. This claim to centrality is anything but triumphant. Describing downtown New York in the late 1970s, Lawson noted that “the city … was nearing bankruptcy, its physical structures rapidly deteriorating—one highway had collapsed, the bridges were declared in danger, the subways were more and more likely to break down. In poor parts of town, buildings were abandoned by their owners, while in others, real-estate speculation was rampant.” The fact that at this point in time the art market was itself becoming a force within this process of real-estate speculation, was a reality of which Lawson was well aware. The potential of recuperation by a (repressive) dominant order is stated at every turn. Albeit optimistic, sometimes even buoyant, the outcome of Lawson's positions are never certain—a strategic occupation of an eminently precarious terrain.
The texts in this anthology thus read like nonprogrammatic, open-ended manifestos. Lawson never ceases to reposition himself, to uncomfortably align himself with an ever-displaced center while maintaining his ground. Unlike Craig Owens or Douglas Crimp, whose seminal theoretical writings on the artists of that era take a synthetic, historicizing approach to the issues at hand, Lawson always writes in the first person, from the vantage point of someone who is as much an artist, publisher, and occasional curator as he is a writer. His writings prolong the movements of an active, ongoing effort that is conducted from the ground up. The necessity to dialectically engage the mainstream on both the production and reception ends of the market is constitutive of his critical agenda. Substituting the role of the artist/writer for that of the producer, he is not a machine but a medium. As a case in point, “We Must Embrace Our Joys and Sorrows” is illustrated with a painting by the artist (Don't hit her again, 1981) and a reproduction of the cover of Real Life, no. 1, a magazine he published from 1978 to 1991 with Susan Morgan. As he announces near the end of the article, Real Life's aim was to “collect written and visual material which reflects the actual concerns of the artists I associate with, a clearing house for ideas as free as possible from the strictures of self-promotion and commodity fetishism.” To accuse Lawson, as many did at the time, to be nevertheless involved in an exercise of selfpromotion, is at best naïve, at worse cynical, and is to entirely miss the complexity of a position that claims for itself the simultaneous responsibilities of producer and consumer at the heart of a cultural economy that, to this day, strives to keep these functions apart. More than any artist/writer of his generation, Lawson has the make up of a true journalist. He is an embedded correspondent, a polemical editorialist, sending his dispatches from an inward frontline to an independent media that happens to be his own (or that he makes his own). The address is public, and draws whomever it can in its wake. Eminently polyphonic, he not only includes himself while discussing other artists' work, but also quotes them at great length when talking about his own. Organized in a simple, quasichronological order, the texts in this anthology thus provide a comprehensive narrative of some of the 1980s most trenchant ideological quarrels to have surfaced from within the art world.
The first chapter, “The Uses of Representation,” which gathers together texts from 1979 to 1984, focuses on the emergence of appropriationist practices. It begins with “The Uses of Representation: Making Some Distinctions,” a self-proclaimed, signed and dated manifesto published in Flash Art, that highlights artists in all media who investigate the symbolic substitution of “real presence” and its representation. A direct reaction to the ambient hegemony of late modernism, Lawson's position is informed by such various strands of thought as French structuralism and British cultural studies, and regularly invokes not only Pop and Conceptual art, but the “Symbolist/Surrealist enterprise” as a distant forerunner of a series of practices that formulate a critical disclosure of ideologically bound psychic mechanisms. Throughout these writings, Lawson continually sets himself against the plethora of contemporary figurative practices which either claim to be the product of an unmediated subjectivity or, conversely, develop a historically grounded “mytho-poesis” (such as, for example, certain avatars of Berlin's Neue Wilden painting or the Italian Transavantgarde). While the battle lines are sharply drawn, Lawson recognizes that these antagonistic positions nevertheless emerge from a similar historical situation, share a rising institutional terrain, and make use of a formal apparatus that could often be mistaken for another. He thus evaluates the pros and cons of each body of work on a case-by-case basis, always positioning himself at the extreme limit of what might be considered comfortable. For example, in “Last Exit: Painting,” published in Artforum in 1981, Lawson argues for the case of appropriationist painting over photography, the latter in the process receiving considerable critical attention through Octobermagazine (and which Lawson dismisses as “idealist” for believing that at this juncture it was possible to assert with certainty that these artists would actually succeed in changing the ideological course of culture (1)): “More compelling, because more perverse, is the idea of tackling the problem with what appears to be the least suitable vehicle available, painting.” To make matters even more untenable for himself, Lawson's main argument is predicated on a detailed analysis of the inherent limitations of David Salle, a highly successful painter who seemed to simultaneously attract the approval and rejection of both sides of the dividing line between (reactionary) Neo-Expressionism and (progressive) appropriation art. It is hard not to see a kind of Situationist black humor involved in his case for painting: the “last exit” in question is clearly described as a corner in which Lawson paints himself, albeit one that, at the time of publication, presented an as yet unclaimed, individual oppositional dividend.
The second chapter, “The Dark Side of the Bright Light,” which contains texts written between 1979 and 1988, focuses on the profound structural transformations undergone by the art world during that era from the perspective of downtown New York. It includes Lawson's relentless public assault on the then-dominant authorities of the city's art world, be they famous artists like Julian Schnabel, the influential conservative New York Timescritic Hilton Kramer, or even Artforum, for which Lawson was working at the time, and which had published an editorial note alongside “Last Exit: Painting” warning the readers that the author of the essay was also a painter, and that he was in the same gallery as many of the artists illustrated in the article. More importantly, it chronicles the activities of a host of alternative, mostly artist-run, spaces and events that seemed to dominate the downtown scene in 1979 and that, one by one, had vanished by the end of the following decade. Among the countless reviews, editorials, catalogue essays, and interviews documenting these activities, we have selected four texts: “New York,” a 1979 Real Life fall tour of the then-thriving network of independent venues (“ … anyone looking for innovating work had better stay clear of the commercial galleries, for in the current recession, most dealers are playing an extremely safe game”); a 1980 interview with Fashion Moda, an artists collective whose historical importance is still grossly under-recognized; a 1981 review published in Artforum of Group Material's seminal The People's Choiceexhibition; and “Nature Morte,” a 1985 catalogue essay featuring the work of artists represented by the eponymous commercial East Village gallery run by two artists, Peter Nagy and Alan Belcher, whose program for a while held a promise of renewal among the most radicalminded artists in the second part of decade. The last two texts of this chapter, published in Artforum in 1986 and 1988 respectively, mark the closing of an era. “Toward Another Laocoon” passes a final verdict on a now fully professionalized art world where galleries, institutions, and art magazines have become mere parts of an integrated system producing luxury goods for the global market—a social service for the aspiring rich and famous. Lawson concludes: “These are difficult times for artists with the ambition of reformulating the cultural identity of the society. The idea of an avant-garde of any kind is clearly no longer useful, with even the black humor of pseudo avant-garde turning to ashes. There is a need to rethink the purpose of art, its value in noncash terms. Old definitions are worn thin, new definitions not yet formulated. Do we want art simply to become décor for junk-bond capitalism, or a more useful response to a new age in which capitalism seems ever more aggressively defensive as it becomes more deeply indebted?” Even more ominous, the final text of this chapter, “Time Bandits/Space Vampires,” is an allegorical tale prompted by ABC's Nightline coverage of the sale of Van Gogh's Irises at auction for $53.9 million. Lawson takes the reader on a journey that starts with the development of historical cycloramas in the nineteenth century, which became the most sought after mass-entertainment vehicle of the pre-industrial age; the foundation of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was originally conceived as a universal collection of cast replicas; the market of ancient African tribal art; and, finally, the Aboriginal Australian desert, the last territory to be naturalized by the Western art world. There, he searches for the Panorama Guth, named after its maker, Henk Guth, a Dutch artist who immigrated to Australia in the 1960s in an attempt to rethink his relationship to Western culture. (2) His “masterwork” is a naively painted cyclorama of the desert, and is built on Aboriginal land; Lawson likens it to Judd's Marfa Foundation, “boot camp turned art bunker in the Texas plains.” Blind panopticons of the desert, in front of which we stand “in the artist's place, proudly surveying, and possessing the land as far as the eye can see, which is as far as the curtain of the stretched canvas.” The circle is closed.
The third chapter, “Going Public,” serves as a postscript to the story thus far. Unsurprisingly, the author emerges on the other side of the decade unscathed. “It is sad,” he writes in the anthology Cultural Economies, “to read in the news reports included in this publication of the slow fade out of many of the original artist-run organizations. But it is inspiring to realize that the new initiatives are always taking shape, redefining the problem, rethinking possible solutions. At this moment … the struggle continues.” (3) At this new juncture, the indepth reformulation of Lawson's positions serve as a particularly well-defined point of articulation between the image-based, post-Conceptual procedures of the 1980s, and the more straightforwardly public and politically confrontational practices that came to the forefront of the art world in the wake of the AIDS crisis. (4) In Lawson's case, as always, this shift is simultaneously a practical and a theoretical one. By 1987, his artwork had begun to expand outside of the constraints of the canvas proper, and his images were displayed as large-scale, walk-in installations (The Party's Over, Metro Pictures). A year later he undertook his first public project, Civic Virtue/Civil Rights, commissioned by New York's Public Art Fund, a strategy he would pursue until the mid-1990s. (5) Concurrently, in writings of this period, Lawson focused on a different set artists, which included practitioners of his own generation such as Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Group Material, as well as a slightly younger ones, such as Gran Fury, Kryzstof Wodiczko, Jessica Diamond, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Mere cursory indications of the developments to follow—Lawson continues to be active both as an artist and a writer to this day—these few texts underscore the essentially arbitrary cut-off point of this anthology.
By the mid-1990s, with the return of a relative prosperity, the art world tired of politically engaged practices, and Lawson's presence receded from the forefront of public debate. To evaluate the significance of his past achievements by measuring the lasting effects that his positions might have left on the mainstream is a waste of time. Whether or not, as Scott Rothkopf wrote in a recent issue of Artforum devoted to the 1980s, the criteria established over twenty years ago by “Last Exit: Painting” are applicable to the glut of media-based paintings that have overrun every corner of the market at the turn of this millennium, is besides the point. While fully participating in the rhetorical consummation of a break with modernism and its avant-garde myths, Lawson nevertheless managed to uphold a real oppositional modus operandi, a determination to take sides, to make critical distinctions, attempting along the way to enunciate a progressive position from the very heart of an increasingly reactionary milieu. If Lawson's focal point is the diffused, entropic center of the mainstream, he runs desiring force lines across it, beckoning real possibilities of social change. Eminently materialistic, this position embodies the paradoxical limits of what art wishes it could accomplish. If by definition, such a position cannot become dominant, it is nevertheless a sobering and necessary political lesson for anyone involved in the “quixotic attempts to rethink the purposes and methods of artmaking in this culture.” (6)

Lionel Bovier & Fabrice Stroun

1 Although Lawson's judgment on, for example, Douglas Crimp or Hal Foster's critical project may seem, in retrospect, a bit hurried, it is important to consider, beyond the strictly theoretical framework of this essay, the fact that Lawson's position is always governed by his specific involvement with particular situations, whether as an artist, critic, or publisher. In this case, “Last Exit: Painting” should be read as a direct answer to the uncomfortable and particularly successful articulation between a selfproclaimed critical “moment” and the burgeoning downtown art market. For a general appraisal of Douglas Crimp and Hal Foster's seminal theoretical achievement in the early years of the decade, see our introduction to the critical anthology on Jack Goldstein in the exhibition catalogue of the artist's retrospective published by Le Magasin, Grenoble, 2002.
2. There is a strong Ballardian streak to Lawson's developing rhetoric. If the processes of conceptual distancing and allegorical substitutions induced by the spectacle of late capitalism, which Lawson accounts for in texts such as “Switching Channels” (1980) or “Long Distance Information” (1981), are reminiscent of some of Ballard's early dystopic novels such as The Atrocity Exhibition or High-Rise, “Time Bandits/Space Vampires” (1988) is closer to the surrealist post-colonial vision of The Day of Creation, published in the United States that same year.
3. Thomas Lawson, “Attempting Community,” in Cultural Economies. History from the Alternative Arts Movement, NYC, The Drawing Center and Real Life Magazine, New York, 1996, republished in this anthology.
4. For an overview of the theoretical debates that accompanied the rise of this generation of artists, see AIDS RIOT. Artist Collectives against AIDS, New York, 1987–1994, edited by the 12th Session of the Ecole du Magasin, and supervised by Lionel Bovier and Fabrice Stroun, Le Magasin, Grenoble, 2003.
5. For an in-depth analysis of Thomas Lawson's work as an artist, see Jeanne Silverthorne's “The Impulse to Rescue,” in Thomas Lawson, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, 1990.
6. Lawson, Cultural Economies, 1996.

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