On the night of Friday, December 9, 1983, I attended the first of three scheduled performances of Eleanor Antin's ”El Desdichado" (The Unlucky One) at the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts gallery in New York City. Antin, in one of her familiar roles, this time as the dispossessed picaro King, rescues an "innocent" after witnessing a series of hangings, combats a White Knight, woos a Princess (Figure 1), and embarks aboard a Ship of Fools in quest of a mythical White City. "An allegorical spectacle," as the program announced, the performance raised a number of questions for me, all of which boiled down to the fact that, although I had liked it a good deal, very few others, apparently, had felt the same way. A famous dealer, who shall remain nameless, sitting directly in front of me, had slipped out the back in disgust not half way through, and with him any number of others. A couple of people had been more audacious about their exits, standing up and wandering out through the installation itself as Antin performed. Those who remained at the end – and by and large, it should be said, most people stayed the course – were, to put it nicely, unenergetic in their appreciation and, after a desultory bow or two, Antin herself had retreated glumly to the back rooms.
The performance had been plagued, of course, by the usual array of troubles – awful acoustics which often swallowed Antin's words and which were exacerbated by a late-arriving lout who, after Antin's performance had begun, beat at the front door of the gallery until someone opened up and then, out of sight but well within ear shot, vigorously insisted that "Ron" would "hear about it" if he wasn't seated (he was turned away); uncomfortable seating, consisting largely of the floor and a few scattered pillows, complicated by a capacity (or over-capacity) crowd wedged into close quarters in winter dress, which in turn helped to contribute to a general restlessness and inattention throughout Antin's performance; and, finally, the seemingly unavoidable feel of amateur theatrical production that accompanies most performance in galleries, where there is almost never time to rehearse, and a certain aesthetic anathema to rehearsal anyway.
But the performance audience is used to such goings-on, even expects them.
It is all part and parcel of being what Richard Schechner has called performance art's "integral audience." As distinct from the "accidental audience," which is" a group of people who individually or in small clusters, go to the theatre," the integral audience consists of:
people who come because they have to or because the event is of special significance... Avant-garde performers who send out mailings or who by word of mouth gather people who've attended previous performances and are in the process of creating an integral audience for their work, a supportive audience.Every "artistic community" develops an integral audience: people who know each other, are involved with each other, support each other.(1)
Furthermore, as Schechner points out, the behavior of the two types of audiences differs drastically, and the irony is that "the accidental audience pays closer attention than does an integral audience... An integral audience often knows what's going on – not paying attention to it all the way is a way of showing off that knowledge." Antin expressed her own dissatisfaction with such an audience in her book Being Antinova, a highly ironical journal kept by Antin as she assumed the role of Eleanor Antinova, the once celebrated but now retired Black Ballerina of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, for three weeks in New York in October 1980:
This performance is not open to the public. Invited guests think a lot of themselves... Why did we keep the performance secret? Why didn't we advertise? Because the gallery is small, because the salon atmosphere would be ruined by crowds, because Antinova needs an intimate atmosphere. I know, I know, but fuck Antinova. | – Antin – can't perform before a small group. It's humiliating. And I blame the ones who come for those who didn't. I'm always counting the house.(2)
The reviews would later confirm that El Desdichado had been received less than favorably. Thomas McEvilley's in Artforum, which didn't appear until April, served as a kind of nasty summation: "This performance was juvenile hour, a high school assembly show, a skit for a civics class or a Renaissance fair...Few performance artists seem equipped to produce long texts, and Antin is not one of them...The narrative was a relentless string of cliches – The Seventh Seal – warmed over and censored for morning TV." But his displeasure with the performance itself aside, McEvilley's most interesting observation concluded his review: "What intrigued me," he wrote, "was the number of important critics who attended – and not necessarily critics who have written about performance.
I counted five or six, and I don't recognize many. In recent months I have seen performance art ten – a hundred – times better in dark grungy places where one never sees such people. "(3) I had sensed the same thing – that, for whatever reason, perhaps the pre-performance hype in the Voice, El Desdichado had been the artworld place to be that particular weekend in December – and, until McEvilley's review, I had been tempted to attribute the general dissatisfaction with the evening to an unknowledgeable audience, one which didn't understand the aesthetics of performance, however much it might have understood about art generally. That is, indulging in a kind of critical hubris, I was willing to believe that there had been a small "integral" audience in attendance, consisting of people like myself (and the likes of McEvilley), more or less self-styled performance aficionados who had enjoyed themselves, but there had been an "accidental" audience as well, who hadn't enjoyed themselves, people who might or might not know something about art but didn't know much about performance.
Such a point of view had been reinforced throughout the winter in Cambridge where Frank Stella had been delivering the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. Many of the same faces who had been at Antin's performance in December appeared once a month in Cambridge at Stella's. They may not have liked Antin, but they adored Stella. He had entitled his lectures "Working Space," and his project, as he put it, was to outline what it would take to "make painting real" again – "real like the painting which flourished in sixteenth-century Italy."(4) Caravaggio became the hero of inquiry because, Stella claimed, "he speaks directly to us today about fullness, roundness, and volume." He creates a space in his painting – a "backside" – that overcomes the predominance of silhouetted figuration in the Renaissance. Thus Caravaggio's art is a "private, living theater, Which possesses by virtue of its "pictorial coherence" and "Togetherness in absolutely convincing "pictorial drama", "Here we feel the true liberation offer by art." After Caravaggio "real" painting can never again "defer to architectures that is, both literally and Figuratively, it cannot submit to forces outside itself: Real freedom for painting can only be discovered in the creation of its own space."
Now clearly, in a move which is most likely indebted to the example by Michael Fried's Absorption and Theatricality: Painting & Beholder in the Age of Diderot, such an argument is designed to support Stella's notion about the direction contemporary art ought to be headed.(5) In front of painting today. ave are splattered by wheels spinning in a rut of pigment." Or else it seems to lie inertly on the canvas "like a dead dog." But most importantly for Stella, painting in the '80s is spatially impoverished: "By 1970 modern abstract painting had lost the ability to create space... We have illustrated space which we can read what we have lost is created space which we can feel." Given such definition about what art ought to be – and given that almost everyone in Cambridge seemed to agree – the difficulties Antin's performance presented to her audience seemed obvious. In the broadest terms, her "working space" was simply different. Stella offered up a profoundly formalist definition of art as a self-contained, self-reflexive and coherent whole most especially concerned with discovering. or, perhaps better, "re-inventing" – what Clement Greenberg called "the effects peculiar and exclusive to itself," the essential and irreducible characteristics of the medium.(6) (It should perhaps be made clear that a crucial issue distinguishes Greenberg's formalism from Stella's. For Greenberg, painting rendered itself "pure" when it rid itself of the necessity, in modern abstraction, of representing three-dimensional space which is, Greenberg says, more properly "the province of sculpture."(7) Stella feels, rightly or not, that he has discovered in Caravaggio a "basic quality" which "could still be used – in the sense that all that activity, of both the painting and the figuration, exists in live space. There is space all around the figures, and it's that space around and behind things – that feeling of things not being pasted on top of each other but really having room behind them – that I think it's possible to get in abstraction."(8) But the point is that Stella is still after a pictorial "space" which remains "peculiar and exclusive" to his medium.)
El Desdichado, by contrast, seems "mediumless," in the manner of most performance art operating in some zone between theater and painting, text and tableau. Like the episodic picaresque tales upon which it is modeled, it lacks formal narrative coherence, and its self-proclaimed allegorical intentions deny any pretension toward self-reflexivity or containment. It defers consistently to architecture, specifically to the cramped confines of the gallery, but also in its refusal to create, in Stella's words, "its own space." It is, especially by virtue of its status as an ephemeral event, wholly anti-formalist.
Still, what gave me pause when McEvilley's review appeared in April was that here was a critic who understood these things, whom I suppose understood and even endorsed the anti-formalist direction of Antin's work, and still didn't like it. To write off the negative reaction to El Desdichado to the predominantly formalist tastes of the artworld (however real they are) seemed suddenly as inadequate as explaining its reception away by invoking the vagaries of behavior Schechner attributes to the "integral audience." The difficulty lay elsewhere – or partially elsewhere, as I will explain, in a kind of unexamined, formalist pocket of counter-insurgence in the avant-garde camp – and the only clue I had was McEvilley's questioning of Antin's ability as a writer, with which I disagreed. In both Being Antinova and its companion piece, the ongoing Recollections of My Life With Diaghilev by Eleanora Antinova, selections from which were awarded a Pushcart prize in 1982, Antin had surely demonstrated that she was equipped to produce long texts, McEvilley's protestations to the contrary. The more I thought about it the more convinced I became that it was text of El Desdichado – that body of talk, partially garbled by the exigencies of place, misheard and misunderstood – which had alienated her audience from her work.
At base, Antin's audience was reacting against the literary pull of her work, its emphasis on the word, or at least its understanding of the literary nature of her work. Almost everything about El Desdichado (and, I am beginning to think, almost everything about Antin's work as a whole) is designed to draw attention to the fabric of its language, but not in a formalist sense. That is, to borrow a distinction from Fredric Jameson, she draws attention to the rhetoric of her work as opposed to its style. Jameson sees rhetoric as addressed to a "relatively homogeneous public or class" (Schechner's integral audience, for instance), while style represents "the sapping of the collective vitality of language itself" and "emerges, not from the social life of the group, but from the silence of the isolated individual: hence its rigorously personal, quasi-physical or physiological content, the very materiality of it verbal components.... What was hitherto a cultural institution – the storytelling situation itself, with its narrator and class public – now fades into the silence and solitude of the individual writer."(9) The analytic practices of literary formalism, of course, depend upon just such an individual style, the absence of the collective rhetoric to which Antin's language draws attention.
Antin, naturally, understands that most of us still approach literature – and the literary elements of art – in terms of style, and she constructs a kind of performance in which style and rhetoric interact – in which, to be more precise, a seemingly stylized language emerges as, or reveals itself to be, a rhetoric. El Desdichado (again, like most of Antin's work) is a kind of puppet theater, overtly so near its end when five consecutive dialogues are performed as puppet shows (Figure 2). Such theater oscillates between theatrical and figurative art, and Antin's particular kind of puppetry blurs the boundaries even more – for her puppets cannot move. They are two-dimensional cut-outs, at once sculpture and drawing, masks for Antin's voice which recall paperdolls – and play with paperdolls – as much as puppetry. They constitute a kind of theater, then, that is perhaps as gender-determined as any. It does not seem to me that very many men, myself included, can fully appreciate the kind of play transpiring here, the levels of psychic involvement such play at paperdolls can generate. We are unable to recognize, that is, its rhetorical dimension, its collective as opposed to individual voice. Perhaps the way boys play "war," the complexities of which are probably equally unappreciated by the opposite sex, is a comparably charged arena of play in male culture. If so, I would imagine – and Antin's thematic concerns support such a notion – that what gets worked out in paperdolls is something of a feminist rhetoric, the narrative structures of the social formation (who does the cooking, who calls whom for a date, Ken or Barbie?), and by extension, the questions of power, aggression, and submission that inform and impinge upon our (gender-determined) lives. Antin has admitted as much in a conversation with Kim Levin about the videotapes in which she first used paperdolls in the mid-seventies, "Adventures of a Nurse" and "The Nurse and the Hijackers": "If something pains me too much I tear the doll up, which I used to do as a child by the way."(10)
But one aspect of the obvious differences in social values which playing at paperdolls and playing at war culturally instill goes to the very heart of Antin's work in El Desdichado – that is, the one role is physically passive and verbally active while the other is physically active and verbally passive. This amounts, in the broadest aesthetic terms, to a conflict between narrative and image, the temporal and the spatial, the verbal and visual sides of performance art. Roland Barthes has pointed out that today, in an important historical reversal, the text "enlivens" the image: "In the past, the image used to illustrate the text (made it clearer); today the text burdens the image, loads it with a culture, a morality, an imagination; there used to be a reduction from text to image; today there is an amplification from one to the other."(11) And, even more to the point, in Antin this text defines the plastic side of things as culturally encoded by predominantly "male" values.
Now, this is news to no one who grew up in the shadow of the Abstract Expressionists (as almost all contemporary American artists have), and it explains in large measure, I think, the number of women working in performance today, but it is especially useful to remember in connection with Antin because she so consistently manipulates and undermines her visual imagery through her language.
From the time of her earliest videotapes, the strangest thing about Antin's pieces has been the contrast between the animation of her voice and the frozen perpetual smiles – the inanimate quality – of her characters' painted faces, and the way the voice transforms and informs those faces. In El Desdichado, the tension is brought to the fore immediately in the dialogues between the King and his talking horse. "Let's rest, boss, I'm tired," the horse says (or, that is, Antin says in her role as horse) to the King as the performance begins. (12) I am reminded of Jane Belo's description of a Balinese horse dance:
The player would start out riding the hobbyhorse, being, so to speak the horseman. But in his trance activity he would soon become identified with the horse – he would prance, gallop about, stamp and kick as a horse – or perhaps it would be fairer to say that he would be the horse and rider in one. For though he would sit on the hobbyhorse, his legs had to serve from the beginning as the legs of the beast.(13)
As Richard Schechner has pointed out, this is "an example of the performer's double identity" in which "the portrayal" is a transformation of the performer's body/mind" and "the 'canvas' or 'material' is the performer."(14) And yet, what Antin's text always does is remind one just who's "boss." Even as Antin "becomes" the horse, she simultaneously rides it. She controls the scene, as it were, and the price of this perhaps inevitable exercise of artistic power is Antin's true subject.
That is, every image, every puppet figure on Antin's stage, is polysemous before arrival of the text. Roland Barthes has interrogated the consequences of this polysemy as thoroughly as anyone: "Polysemy questions meaning... Hence, in every society a certain number of techniques are developed in order to fix the floating chain of signifieds, to combat the terror of uncertain signs: the linguistic message is one of these techniques...The linguistic message...constitutes a kind of vise which keeps the connoted meanings from proliferating."(15) El Desdichado begins by addressing this "terror of uncertain signs." No sooner does the horse ask his boss for a rest than this exchange takes place:
King: This may not be a good place [to rest]. Last night a spotted dog crapped under my window.
Horse: So what?
K: He had only three legs.
H: So what does that mean?
K: By itself probably nothing. But this morning the innkeeper told me that last week a merchant passed by on his way to the city to sell monkeys and a woman sat down on a hill of termites and now she's pregnant. The man who learns to read signs is master of the future.
H: But you don't know how to read them.
K: I'm learning. I know one when I see one. That's the first step. Rome wasn't
The King's announced project, then, is to learn to read images, to "master" as he says, the future by determining the meaning of things. Barthes continues:
(Such anchoring can be ideological; this is even, no doubt, its main Junction; the text directs the reader among the various signifieds of the image, causes him to avoid some and to accept others...Anchoring is a means of control, it bears a responsibility, confronting the projective power of the figures, as to the use of the message; in relation to the freedom of the image's signifieds, the text has a repressive value, and we can see that a society's ideology and morality are principally invested on this level.(16)
As the King and his horse subsequently witness a series of hangings, they construct narratives to explain the crimes each of the victims must have committed. They are based on nothing other than a cursory examination of the victims' physiognomies:
H: [That one's] a rapist.
K: How do you know?
H: Shifty eyes. And look at those thumbs.
However arbitrary, what is clear is that these narratives – or narratives like them, which no doubt transpired at the trial – constitute the morality and ideology of the society in its most repressive mode. They justify the hanging.
As is hinted by the horse's arbitrary reading of the rapist's eyes, the"meaning" of any given sign is, furthermore, never determinant in El Desdichado. If the horse thinks that a Baker is guilty of having mixed sawdust with his flour, thereby killing any number of innocent peasants, the King explains that it is just as likely that the Baker is innocent, the victim himself of a Miller who owns both a flour mill and a sawmill and who uses the waste products of one to increase the profits of the other. Similarly, the "White City" may be a Utopian paradise which the King seeks, or it may be a city of bones, a great Hospital where people
"generally die." But the point is nevertheless clear: what determines – however arbitrarily – the meaning of the image is the text, the narrative which the image generates.
The success of Antin's performance depends on our understanding this narrative process – how it functions both structurally and aesthetically. Barbara Herrnstein Smith has defined narrative, in a way that seems particularly useful in this context, as a verbal act "consisting of someone telling someone else that something happened." That is, narrative is a "social transaction," – a rhetoric, in Jameson's terms – which not only suggests that every narrative "is produced and experienced under certain social conditions and constraints and that it always involves two parties, an audience as well as a narrator, but also that, as in any social transaction, each party must be individually motivated to participate in it: in other words, that each party must have some interest in telling or listening to that narrative."(17) Such a definition allows us to understand that narrative is the primary action of Antin's work, and that this verbal activity draws out of the performance a certain sense of ritual deriving from the fact that telling or listening to a narrative establishes a more or less implicit contract between narrator and audience which in turn establishes a sense of communitas. It is perhaps worth saying as well that this sense of communitas depends, in large part, on the presence of Schechner's "integral audience" and the intimacy of the gallery space. Schechner has pointed out that what distinguishes ritual from "entertainment" is not so much "fundamental structure" (there are a great many narratives, for instance, which are entertainments not rituals), but context, in the case of performance the context of a small, knowledgeable, supportive and interested audience.(18)
The only mistake Antin makes, it seems to me, is in assuming that her audience is necessarily interested in or even understands the collective or rhetorical nature of her narrative. For instance, El Desdichado is anything but a worn-out, Soho version of The Seventh Seal. Its sense of allegory is, rather, fully postmodern
- that is, whereas in Bergman the image more or less veils some deeper, hidden, but finally recoverable meaning, in Antin meaning disseminates from the image in the form of more or less indeterminant and arbitrary narratives. (19) Meaning exists in Antin's work en abyme, suspended over the abyss of this indeterminacy, the inherent contingency of social transactions, social address and response. Not that meaning is, to quote Jacques Derrida, "out of reach, like a phenomenological horizon of perception, but that, in the act of inscribing itself on itself indefinitely. mark upon mark, it multiplies and complicates its text, a text within a text...the one indefinitely repeated with the other, an abyss."(20)
In the place of (instead of the text), there is, for Antin, the performance, which occupies the place of the text, above this abyss. The performance is the literal act of narrating, the text's very coming into being, its “enlivening." It embodies what the text only represents – those narrative transactions out of which meanings are generated and communitas is established – but still en abyme. The power, finally, of Antin's particular brand of performance is that such an enlivening is always double-edged, always remains so precariously "ungrounded." Just as in The Angel of Mercy, Antin's Eleanor Nightingale must contemplate the horrible truth that each life she "saves" will in all probability return to the front to take two others, the great paradox of El Desdichado is that narrative itself is both a positive and negative force – it kills (at the hangings, for instance) by authorizing, as it were, the rule of meaning, and yet simultaneously it establishes itself as the basis of communitas. It enlivens the image – and burdens it. Antin's performance helps us to see (or should help us to see, if we are awake to narrative's possibilities) both sides – the promise of meaning and its cost.