The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, or “I only paid for it!”, thoughts on a recent performance
After the performance ended I went to get a glass of wine with a friend. As we stood in line, a man, sporting the magnetically attached name tag and real wine glass that signified his position as a member of the donor preview group, stepped in front of us. I politely informed him that we were in line. My friend admonished me for my frankness, “It’s OK,” the gentleman replied to her, “I only paid for it.”
But let’s back up. Moments earlier, by occupying the space between the public and the private, an artist had physically manifested a socioeconomic boundary that, as art patrons, we tend to quite readily ignore. Moreover, by denying the formalities of performance art and the exhibition space, the artist had reframed the context of his work and the show at large. He refused to accept the supposed objectivity of the space around him and, recalcitrantly, he insisted on a specific context for the display of his piece.
The piece effectively created two audiences, two contexts, two performances. One was placed on a stage of warmly glowing halogen light, for a group of art donors, MFA students, faculty and staff while they enjoyed hors d’oeuvres and speeches; the other was foregrounded by a dimly lit patio occupied primarily by undergraduate students, miscellaneous Los Angeles artists and otherwise interested passersby.
I came that evening to UCLA with Adam Feldmeth, and as we drove across town Adam told me of his recent visit to artists’ studios at the University of Houston; he had been invited by a colleague currently teaching at the school to bring his curious, expansive practice of conversation to share with them. The visits were quite a success, and Adam was assured that “we want you to come back! If you take some time to meet with collectors here (in Houston) and explain to them your project you are certain to get funding for a return trip.” People in Houston have an almost quaint sense of civic responsibility, it’s not exactly selfless (a state probably reserved for saints) but it is effective in supporting the community of artists and museums. We talked for quite a while about patronage that evening, without realizing how our conversation set the scene for our later experience. As it happened, we both misunderstood the time of the opening event to be 5:00 PM. At 6:20 we crossed the lawn to the door, despite each of us having the promptness gene that states “to be early is on-time” we arrived – as Adam put it – fashionably late.
Surprised to find a pair of tables blocking our entry, we were given to understand that a private function was underway, which would conclude at 7:00. I asked about press access, and I mentioned Notes on Looking. The woman behind the table kindly went out of her way to locate the event manager and this man assured me we could gain access at 6:45 – 15 minutes before the general public.
As we waited in place, it became awkward when several artist friends came from inside the private party to greet us and expressed their personal embarrassment at our position. One grad offered to intercede on our behalf and we asked her not to, as it would make more difficult the jobs of people who ultimately had no say.
Our concern – and Adam and I discussed this – was to not miss EJ Hill’s performance. We had each been waiting, we understood that performances were scheduled at 6:30, and that they – or it – would take place inside.
Sometime in this waiting period, EJ came out to say hello. Adam hugged him in greeting and commented on his new shirt.
I think, Ari that at this point you came up and we decided to visit a nearby undergrad painting show where we met more friends and hung out for a while. As it neared 6:30 we returned to our place by the tables, and joined a now growing crowd as the private function guests made their way inside the gallery for what we later learned were the usual dedicatory speeches. At the time all we heard was polite applause from inside the gallery.
At about ten minutes to seven EJ appeared from inside the gallery to pull the exit doors closed. Through the glazed storefront and swinging glass doors I saw him set his feet, grasp the push bar panic hardware and lean back, thus engaging the outside lock as well as blocking any exit. I do not recall people inside swarming him or anything, I could see a few guests inside come and speak with him, but I could not hear their words. They looked curious more than upset, although shortly their exasperation at being separated from the outside bar became apparent. The divide which previously had been manifested by decorated tables and polite staff was now enforced and reinforced by a young artist, an artist whose face was set in single-minded focus on his chosen task. EJ’s demeanor seemed to say, “…I don’t understand much about tonight (it’s a show of work by grad students, it’s a donor event, it’s an opportunity to show the community my work, it’s the culmination of two years of work, it’s a lot of pressure to succeed, it’s my life, no it’s not, etc.) and I’m conflicted by some of it but I do recognize this structure of ‘us and them’ and I do not know where I fit and I can’t think why anyone does, and I am going to focus on it and bring attention to it until I have to stop.”
Several things happened quickly in sequence – you, Ari, were taking pictures, Adam and I stayed close enough to observe and moved once to gain better access; I watched as Adam checked his watch and I saw what he was thinking – what would happen at 7:00, the time for the public to enter? Guests inside began to struggle with EJ to open the doors, and by pushing on the panic hardware their efforts offered those outside (any of us) the chance to pull one of the doors open. In the struggle, some donor guests were able to come out to get wine, and a few from the public used the opportunity of each exit to enter the gallery; this border was permeable, but to cross had to be uncomfortable and confrontational.
I felt the tension physically and emotionally. After fifteen fraught minutes a roughly-dressed young man carrying a glass of wine and wearing a cast/boot on one foot wedged himself in one side of the doorway just as one of the privileged guests forced their way past EJ; once in place, he used the inertia of his body to brace this door open easily while EJ struggled to regain his hold, leaning at the waist and pulling hard, and all the while attempting to maintain his grip on the other of the two swinging doors. There came a particularly grotesque moment when this human door stop sipped his white wine over EJ’s head and smiled with satisfaction, as though proud of some feat. EJ, with his eyes closed and sweat running down his neck, could not see him and the scene resembled a tableau vivant of a Daumier cartoon with some yokel royalist running dog toasting his supremacy over… something. Meanwhile, at several points faculty had urged us on the outside to wait until the 7:00 public opening, and now, a few minutes after seven, the door that EJ had released in his struggle was held open by a faculty member, and we were invited inside. I think only one person entered, and in my mind we in the public square were unified in not breaking EJ’s line, then words were exchanged between EJ and the faculty member who held the door, and EJ released his own hold and left the scene.
For fifteen minutes Adam and I watched the door – out of respect for EJ’s performance, out of curiosity and to converse in place about what we had just seen. We, and others, were still strongly under the spell of recent events. Slowly the natural waves of the party washed away any remaining intent about the twice previous barrier, and conversation and looking at art took over.
It was at this point, Ari, or near it, that you returned from gathering photographic documentation and told me of your experience with the entitled man in the wine line. Is it crazy that as you related this story I thought of an obituary I read that morning of Letitia Baldridge, a famous etiquette expert? Writer Rebecca Trounson gave a great quote where Baldridge summed up her thinking on social interactions, “More than any hard and fast rules, kindness and consideration are at the heart of good manners. It’s thinking about somebody other than yourself. It’s being aware of other people and helping them out and not doing anything to offend them and just being nice,” she went on, “And it hasn’t anything to do with money. It has everything to do with character.”1
With greater distance from the event, I wonder if your gentleman’s experience with EJ’s performance was as emotionally charged as ours, but perhaps from the other side? Maybe he felt accused by EJ’s underlining of the separation and was on the defensive? I spoke after the performance with a person who was on the inside of the gallery space, inside EJ’s performance, and (this person) characterized the artist’s performance as hostile, as “a takeover” (of our party.) “It made most of us angry. He didn’t do any good for himself.” There is a lot present in these comments: that art can make one angry, art can be inconvenient, and that unwilling participants are, well, unwilling. It also seems that the border that EJ was emphasizing, the structure of exclusion, was all but invisible to the privileged side of the party, or was a natural feature of their landscape.
The idea of etiquette as the foundation of social interactions is certainly interesting, and I agree that empathy and compassion (kindness and consideration) are cornerstones of civil and respectful human relations; but I disagree that it is necessarily a bad thing, a character flaw even, to offend someone or make them feel uncomfortable. This idea implies complacency and a lack of accountability from person to person. It suggests that the actions of others are not your business and that it is impolite to take issue with those actions when they strike you as socially insensitive, even destructive.
The fact that EJ’s performance “made most of [the people inside the gallery] angry” might be equated in the minds of those people with unsuccessful distasteful art, but to jump to this conclusion is to deny the potential of art to incite discomfort and disagreement. It is to beg complacency from producers, especially those who are being supported by institutional powers. It is to deny artists the right to critique the systems they operate within, and to deny this right is to deny one of arts most powerful introspective and self-critical tools.
Or not. I agree with the gist of your argument, Ari, but I fear we are putting words in people’s mouths so we can argue with them. Indeed, artists must be able to critique the systems in which they operate, and I think it always is a struggle. Systems and institutions do not like challenges. I don’t find in the quote any suggestion that to cause another person discomfort is a character flaw, merely that to be nice is usually better. In any case, by calling it art we have moved EJ’s interactions out of the social space and into something else, where other rules reign. (Thank god.)
I do wonder, though, about his continuing to enforce the structure after the 7 PM public opening. In the moment, I was all with him – I had tears in my eyes and longed for… something, I wasn’t sure what. In retrospect I think the performance became aimless after 7.
You mean the exercise began to feel futile? I guess I wonder about the difference or common ground between EJ’s performance and political activism. I’ve spoken to a few 90’s anarchists who say that the moment when they chose to stop any given protest was the moment when further participation necessarily precluded a future protest: this way of thinking assumes that people are more useful to the movement on the streets than they are in jail. Do you think that EJ continued his performance to the point that it became directly detrimental to his agency as an artist? Or was your point more of a formal one, that the work dragged on to the point that your viewing experience was negatively affected as a result?
What does it mean that EJ’s performance lasted exactly as long as the reality of the situation allowed? You wrote (remember I was in the back when the performance ended) “ the door that EJ had released in his struggle was held open” and “EJ released his hold and left the scene.” Did EJ begin to realize that his efforts were physically futile? That he could not recover from the bait and switch he had stepped into? The performance was not planned beyond a few primary intentions and the ending was always up in the air. At Parkfield, EJ told me that he would continue the performance until it felt “insincere”. I was not sure what this meant when he said it, and now I find it even more ambiguous. Did EJ feel insincere? Did he feel those around him were insincere? The gentleman propping the door open? If there was an impetus for the end of the performance, what could it have been?
Tell me Ari, what does it mean to you that the “performance lasted as long as the reality of the situation allowed”?
It is an interesting point to consider as EJ really did relinquish a sizeable amount of control over his work. There was not a narrative trajectory that the piece intended to follow other than it will last as long as it will last. This comes in stark contrast to more formal performance art which often defines for itself a start time, an end time, and often an expected duration. All of which are formalities that make it easier for viewers to consume the work and plan ahead. EJ offered none of this pragmatic information. It was not even clear to most people that a performance was going to occur, and thus when the work began there was a great deal of confusion. Was this person just being totally socially awkward? Were they having a nervous breakdown in a most formal and inappropriate location? I think that by asking viewers to parse through the potential origins or definitions of what they are witnessing artists can disrupt conventional ways of understanding art. This work was not prefaced by the rapidly hushing crowd, brief remarks or other common formalities that tend to introduce performance art while simultaneously framing it in the alternate reality of art. Viewers were not primed with the suspended reality of “an art viewing experience” that often allows us critical distance in deciphering meaning but rather were thrown head first into an unlikely scenario that is framed not by the supposed objectivity of a gallery but by the insistent subjectivity of our shared present.
But then, was his a fight for “the people”? This, which was my emotional understanding of the performance in the moment of it, seems inaccurate now.
It seems to me that the performance was never a fight for anyone in particular but just a call to notice the structure we were/are participating in. It is so easy to take for granted the way things work, the social barriers that have and will forever exist, but EJ did not let anyone off that easy. If he was fighting for anything it was recognition of a social reality.
Aah, indeed. Yet I still feel a lack to his effort, or to the success of it as art. By not completing his response to the structure, the border, the division between us and them, EJ’s action might be relying upon the sensational nature of his act. (And this moment is where in conversation with David while editing an earlier version of this document, I talked myself closer and closer to and inexorably smack into the recognition that what really bugged me about EJ’s performance might be, probably is, that after 7:00 he made me feel like one of the people on the inside. My commonality with them was as one inconvenienced. I became crabby about my loss of agency. I begin to understand really that the focus of EJ’s performance was the border itself, and not the people on either side of it; therefore continuing his performance was necessary, his actions did not judge the border, they drew attention to it. The division might be said to have remained despite the border being made permeable. Nahr. Thanks EJ.)
In the days after the performance, as I related my experience to David and we discussed it again and again, he brought up Luis Bunuel’s film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in which wealthy, entitled characters suffer a series of denials to what they see as their right: pleasure, social ease, food, access, etc., do you know it? It provides a remarkable parable for EJ’s enigmatic performance at the Broad Center last weekend.
You are right, the film seems to be invested in a very similar critique, and is totally bizarre, funny and great. I guess the difference for me is that EJ is directly implicated in the group he is “denying”. He would not be able to perform this piece at all were it not for the event and this complicates the story for me. This complication raises questions about support in a slightly different regard. The people who come to this preview event are potentially supporting EJ’s practice with direct economic funding but they are also necessitating a specific context for his work (although it is initiative on the part of EJ that realizes it as such). This poses a more tangled web of interdependency. I wonder then how the people at this event benefit from their involvement if at all. Is it possible that other forms of currency are being exchanged from artist to donor? What cultural or social value is gained by participating in such an event?
In The Discrete Charm, in the dream sequence nested within another dream sequence which culminates in the Colonel’s dinner party, the ambassador to the (fictitious) country of Miranda is questioned by several guests regarding social issues in the country, questions regarding poverty, unrest, homicide, etc…After each question the ambassador assures the questioner that the allegation is false and excuses himself, only to be approached by another guest with another question. The ambassador rapidly determines that he does not belong at this dinner party.
Woman: “You have some student unrest.”
Ambassador: “Students are young. They need to have some fun.”
Woman: “What is your government’s policy?
Ambassador: “We’re not anti-student, you know. On the contrary. But what do you do if your room is swarming with flies?”
The ambassador’s attitude indicates a kind of administrative denial of turbulence. He assures everyone that there are no issues yet he keeps receiving questions of concern. It is in the ambassador’s best interests to pretend that everything is running smoothly to deny reality and insist that there are no problems for anyone.
We haven’t really touched on the greater political and economic climate that this performance occurred in, days before the election in which Proposition 30 would be voted on, the first major move in California to reform taxation since the 1978 Proposition 13 slowly but surely drained the state of property taxes. Proposition 30 is a huge accomplishment for education in this state; had it not passed the tuition at UCLA (I cannot speak surely of any other UC) would have gone up by 15% this Spring with another increase of 10% this coming Fall. Does this performance draw attention to the increasing privatization of the supposedly still public education system in CA? I should be clear, I am not taking a jab at the faculty or administration for bringing in private donors, I am pointing to a somewhat frightening impetus for increasing private support of a public institution and to the potentially related shift in value structures of this country as a whole.
Hmm. And so we come to policy, the place where, like love, money and religion, no person seems reasonable to another. You mention specifically Props 30 and 13: Prop 30 is the first time I have voted to directly raise a tax, and given that it passed pretty easily, I think other fiscally conservative Californians joined me. Let’s leave Prop 13 aside, as it is history. I mention my vote only to indicate how dire I find the situation of our schools, not to indicate that I am particularly in favor of singling out wealthy people for higher taxes. I also voted for Prop 38. I offer this as my opinion, and I have no interest in debating the subject here, where it bears little on the matter at hand.
I don’t expect that passage of 30 will resolve anything much, but it buys breathing room, and this breathing room may allow serious people in the legislature (my fingers are crossed), in neighborhoods and school districts and at dinner tables to talk and debate and to work; because I do think we all want a relatively inexpensive post K-12 education which is open to everyone. (Rant alert: And I do mean everyone. Every person who wishes, any immigrant, any queer, any religious person – no matter how they dress; sluts, virgins, whatever. Learning is good for everybody.) This access is the standard I think we seek, and is the presumed past to which we wish to return.
But, there is much to get clear, and I risk straying further outside our conversation. I will be brief then, and not tarry much longer. Among many subjects to be discussed is one that several writers, in The New Yorker and elsewhere, have documented: the exponential rise in administrative costs at private and at public colleges and universities – wtf?; also deserving of discussion is whether high schools should be priming and encouraging every student to undertake a college education, there are many alternatives and I don’t know that college is always preferable, it may even frustrate the ambitions of a person who would rather pursue another form of study – apprenticeship and technical training are two alternatives. There is also in recent history the practice of guaranteeing loans to college students. It seems that this has simply enslaved now two generations of students to increasingly overwhelming debts, and it has probably led to the growth of administrative costs mentioned above, with resulting increases in student and taxpayer costs. Whither the sad students? I suspect educational institutions know that while people will argue with them about spending money for new classes and teachers, nobody will ever question the need for more bureaucrats.
Returning to our thread: the debate, or struggle, between public and private is the American story, or the story we’re engaged in now, and I think what I am hearing from you, Ari, is your expression of a fear – which I share – that private dollars will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, and on freedom of research. EJ’s performance certainly pushed buttons with the faculty at the event, I was witness to this; and this is the problem, isn’t it? Schools are places where one should be allowed to be wrong, to make mistakes, and to offend – one should even be encouraged to do so! College is a place where the free spirit of a child is matched with the intelligence of growing adulthood. Without open space for expression and in which to learn, one might just as well be out in the “real world,” punching the clock and paying the piper. Current trends toward professionalization notwithstanding, education is for learning about the world, and growing into it, education is not about a career. Unless you want a really sad life where you only know one thing and you lack critical thinking. Hah. And then you’re just fodder.
A Closing Word
At UCLA, in the New Wight Gallery, the MFA 2013 Exhibition continues through Saturday, November 17. In this exhibition you will find the work of 17 soon-to-be grads, these include Jonathan Apgar, Leon Benn, Lucas Blalock, A’alia Marilyn Brown, Martin Elder, Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly, EJ Hill, Janna Ireland, Michael John Kelly, Devin Kenny, Hans Kuzmich, Dylan Mira, Gerardo Monterrubio, Katie Sinnot, Christine Wang and David Fisk Whitaker. At the back of the gallery, and to the left, hang, or were hanging, two empty white picture frames, these have glass or plexi in them to protect future photographs which will document EJ Hill’s performance at the exhibition’s Thursday, November 1 opening reception. I’m guessing that the frames will be filled by the time I visit later this week, and I encourage you also to visit the gallery, to see the work of each of these artists, these students. It’s a trip worth making.
The gallery is at 1100 Broad Art Center on the UCLA campus, and parking is close by – just south of Sunset on the west side of Hilgard. The New Wight Gallery is open Monday through Friday, 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM and on Saturday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM.
1Rebecca Trounson, Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2012