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Matthew Barney's Blarney: Sartoriasis and Self-Spectacle in Contemporary Art

Matthew Barney's work has always been earmarked by an obsession with the excruciating ambivalence of half-way points between semioticized hieroglyphs and actual beings.
Mark Van Proyen

Issue #38, May 1998

Dandyism is, after all, one of the decorative arts.
— Max Beerbohm, 1896

During the first three weeks of April, visitors to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will have had the opportunity to see a screening of Cremaster 5, a film by artist Matthew Barney that is the most recent installment of a larger post-modern project that has sparked a good deal of critical controversy for its blending of the exotically beautiful and the ominously macabre. Like its predecessor Cremaster 4, this film features both filmic and videographic sequences of a cast of gargoyle-like characters flouncing about in strange architectonic environments that are themselves both structures of and signifiers for impersonal and absurd confinement. The difference is that in the more recent film, those structures are the filigreed baroque fantasies of old Budapest, with its perfect blending of Slavic, Greco-Roman and modern influences, almost always shot in very low, misty light. This is a departure from the sunnier and more visually scorching Cremaster 4, which evoked the look of institutional post-modernism, with rigidly color-coded costumes and architecture making the characters portrayed in that film seem at the half-way point between semioticized hieroglyphs and actual beings.

Barney's work has always been earmarked by an obsession with the excruciating ambivalence of such half-way states. The fact that he has titled his series "Cremaster" attests to this: the cremaster is the name for the clot of muscles that involuntarily retract male testicles into the body cavity when external temperatures go too low for the well-being of those vestigially reptilian organs. Could Barney be in some way indicating that the psychic temperature of post-modern identity has also gone too low for the survival of anything except a highly perverse and over-objectified maleness? Is the space between the self as subject and the self as narcissistic object a heretofore unbridgable chasm calling for extreme feats of absurd — that is, artistic — athleticism? I think that there is much to be gained by examining Barney's work in the light of these questions, which reveal it to be a complicated acting out of a kind of psychic confusion that is particular to our post-modern culture, even though a lingering Puritanism insures that it remains underdiscussed.

Since his west coast debut exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1991 (the recent showing of Cremaster 5 there can be viewed as a kind of pay-back for the earlier Big Break), Barney has explored a phenomenon that I would call "the sentimentalization of maleness." His work reflects on the impossibility of being truly male in our culture. He shows how the doing of male things functions as a ritual prelude to a state of being male that is never attained. Barney explored this paradox in a staggering number of early artistic projects. An early sculptural work presented in the 1991 exhibition was a barbell and weight-lifter's bench made of carefully sculpted Vaseline, a work that must exist in an eternal state of refrigeration to hold its perplexing form as well as its fusion of athletic and homoerotic associations. Another work taken from a series titled "Drawing Restraint" (also 1991) is a bright yellow wrestling mat that sustains a gaping orifice-like gash by way of a combination of several techno-medical looking restraints. In another incarnation the same work was a prop for one of Barney's athletic performance pieces, which featured the artist clothed only in a clutch of rappelling paraphernalia, dangling precariously while trying in vain to make a mark "just out of reach" on the gallery's ceiling.

big ears The erotic and perverse sub-currents of Barney's oeuvre have drawn much comment. One well-known article by Neville Wakefield was portentously titled "Matthew Barney's Fornication with Space and Time". This alone is enough to make this artist's work a fitting subject for Bad Subjects' special issue on "Men, Women and Everyone Else". Certainly, the "everyone else" is evidenced in the Cremaster films by characters that either have no genitalia or have oddly sculpted genitals which, both as shapes and what appear to be organs, are something completely and freakishly different from the standard male or female packages. But there is a problem with this seductive and tellingly selective view of Barney's project, one that I expect is true of the entire discourse about real and mythical gender mutation. When most people interpret the psychological implications and significance of Barney's fascinations, they sacrifice their potential for uncanny revelation in favor of a new kind of spectacle-for-the-sake-of-spectacle, which in Wakefield's words, "...offer us the chance of overcoming the ego, perhaps of inhabiting that curious psychological space of unbounded desire." In other words, they exalt a radically heterotopian state of grace made possible by prosthetics, "advances" in elective surgery and, of course, the fact that technology is closing the gap between the simulated and the real.

Looking at Barney's work from this perspective, we can feel comforted that we are somehow in the presence of "issues" and perhaps even a "radically transgressive practice," when in fact we are only witnessing a mannerist exercise in elaborate and perhaps extreme decoration. Granted, it is grotesque and sometimes even shocking decoration. But it is really only the latest example in a long line of self-conscious appeals to the para-aristocratic deity of dandyism that was advanced in the 19th century by Beau Brummel, Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire. Barney's work presents the decoration of self-as-decoration, yet another calculated and ingratiating appeal for "special" attention from the parents of the world, carrying with it a refusal to act in reality or fantasy as a parent of the world. Like other variants of the narcissistic position, dandyism, whether in the form of modernist elegance or post-modern freak show, is essentially a display of the dandy's investment in his own infantilism and his eager availability for cynical, administrative manipulation and exploitation.

Wakefield's oxymoronic playing with the words "psychological" and "unbounded" reveals the naiveté that underlies the artworld's epidemic of Barney-mania, and it speaks well of the suspension of disbelief that Barney's work achieves. Who could actually believe that desire could be unbounded — that is, unframed by the objects of desire as well as the uncontrollable motives of those objects and the complex conditions in which they are encountered? Only one whose object choice was limited to him or herself, for that is the only object that knows itself well enough to trust itself even as it experiences itself in a state of self-inflicted isolation. The fact that many of Barney's narratives involve themes of combat and escape attests to this dandified drama of self-desire, and in this Barney is not alone among contemporary artists. From Marcel Duchamp to Cindy Sherman, and from Andy Warhol to Orlan, contemporary art is rife with images of self-spectacle, all parading under the conveniently vague banner of "identity." Essentially, they overdress themselves to compensate for the inner dread of their own emptiness and their potential for social absence — "the living death of common anonymity" as a character in J.K. Huysmans' novel A Rebours puts it.

This living death is the real condition that dandies past and present have rebelled against. It is an omnipresent fact of living in the crowd of modern urban life — a situation, incidentally, that cannot be improved by any transformation in ideology or political philosophy. No doubt, the popular fascination with these artists' images attests to a vicarious identification with the position of the aristocrat manqué, which is the shadow side of that other great modernist caricature, the enfant terrible. Either way, the figure of the artist demands indulgence as compensation for our own sins of social accommodation, and we render up our attention to that figure as an attribute for our guilty self-sacrifice. Like working-class supporters of an exploitative monarchy, we seem to be glad that, even though we ourselves cannot live in a world of sumptuous self-spectacle, we are comforted by the thought of somebody else being able to do so.

Yet, there is another way, the way of the Vivian Girl. Here, I refer to the perky female protagonists in a well-known cycle of watercolors painted by an emotionally disturbed outsider artist from Chicago named Henry Darger. In innumerable paintings that effect the style and technique of a precocious pre-teen, the Vivian Girls evade, thwart and occasionally combat a gang of "glandurolian" thugs dressed in 18th century military uniforms, not always with great success. They are occasionally pictured in a state of bloody dismemberment, but always with a the kind of balanced style and unflagging optimism that would do Shirley Temple proud. Occasionally aided by winged serpents, the "Vivs" were no doubt the apples, no — the cherries! — of Darger's gentle pedophilic eyes. Like a schizophrenic Botticelli, Darger paid passionate homage to his little miss muses, each in her own way the venus figure of an erotic ambition that was and is well beyond the wall of social taboo that now accepts spectacles of self-abuse and self-display as routine parts of a common visual culture. The Vivs are also well beyond the walls of narcissistic self-objectification that is the beau ideal of the institutional avant-garde, and because of this, we have cause to rejoice.

Mark Van Proyen is an artist, writer and bon vivant who lives in Bolinas, CA. He can be reached by e-mail at

Copyright © 1998 by Mark Van Proyen. All rights reserved.