VIOLENCE - Art & the American Way!

Protesters outside the entrance to the Destruction In Art Seminar in London, in September, 1966

Protesters outside the entrance to the Destruction In Art Seminar in London, in September, 1966

SPRING, 1968

Every new year in America begins with a ritual inundation of violence. The medium of television transmits the epiphanies of conflict in the national folk religion of football to millions of the faithful. In the favored West Coast the mass of games on New Year's Day begins in mid-morning and continues until near-dark. America's (the world's?) culture is based upon an economy of affluence - hence the traditional days off, the Saturday and Sunday weekends, are the sacred days in a week (a year, a lifetime) of jobs without joy and leisure without love.

On the previous day, the Sunday end of 1967, the ritual celebration took place in ascetic temperatures of 13 degrees below zero, attracting over fifty thousand sado-masochistic suppliants. The significance of victory for the Green Bay Packers is enhanced by a news item appearing some weeks before, in which Packer coach Vince Lombardi's act and ex­planation stimulated much intriguingly naive response. Headline: "'Madman' Lombardi Admits Hitting Own Player." And quoting Lombardi, the act: "We were out on the field and suddenly I was rushing at one of my players and flailing away at him with my fists." The explanation: "I guess I was trying to get him to hate me enough to take it out on the opposition, because to play this game, you must have that fire in you, and there is nothing that stokes fire like hate."

It would be a severe error of critical historical judgement to regard this, and related cultural phenomena, as mere sport or as only metaphorically religious. TV sporting events are ambitious, complex, expensive and deeply symbolic folk popular expressions. For a nation in which the primary functional concerns are power and control, violence has become the dominant mode of social action - especially by the Establishment and by those who act to support it. Totalitarian repression, violence and terror - the constant and pervasive threat of violence - lie immediately under the surface of American political (social, cultur­al, artistic) life, rising to the surface whenever someone in a power control position deems it necessary.

It is important for Canadians and for the rest of the world to realize that almost every major act of violence in America has been either directly perpetrated by forces of the Establishment, or if not originated by them, swiftly taken over by them, and subsumed under the aegis of official action mythologized as "maintaining law and order." For one thing, the State has a virtual monopoly on firearms and other instruments of destruction and death. The sporadic maniacs who appear like shooting stars in the dark nights of our news media are the real psychic culture heroes of out time. The Richard Specks and Charles Whitmans should have statues in the capitol, if statues should be made at all. They have done it for the rest of us, so that we don't have to, though some among us still may, and others among us certainly will. They are the madmen who play the game and lose. Artists like Ralph Ortiz, Ed (Big Daddy) Roth, Neuman Boggs or Vince Lombardi play the game and win.

You may feel that the men who control this game of violence, physical destruction and human suffering - not necessarily those who play it, win or lose, but men like Lyndon Baines Johnson, every police chief and military officer, most bankers, insurance company executives, industrial­ists and judges on the bench - are evil and/or insane. That is making a nice distinction between those who are truly insane and those who are merely mad. This is important because it is only among the madmen we are likely to find artists, however much we may (in order to preserve our own sanity) regard the actions and ideas of the former from an aesthetic point of view.

An aesthetic approach to the generic problem of violence common to both types, suggests several levels on which it may be encountered. Violent acts can become regularized into ritual, formalized into art, or mythologized into a metaphysics. Violence is a question of style.

There is no necessary connection between violence and questions of purpose or effect. Violence should be distinguished from destruction and human suffering, although it is often incidentally and sometimes quite closely related to them. The Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS held in London, September 9-11, 1966) nevertheless provided some excellent examples of violence as more directly related to the fine arts than those we have so far considered.

The Dada master Richard Hulsenbeck, writing about the work of Ralph Ortiz earlier in 1966: "The artist has to fight his way through the jungle of his existence."

In one of Ortiz', more renowned pieces, Piano Destruction Concert, he reduced a piano to rubble in short order, armed only with an axe (without the aid of a single hammer). In another destruction theatre presentation he first violently tore off his clothes, patted baby powder all over his body, diapered himself and played for a while with a toy duck, before gulping down five pints of milk together with ecstatic cries for Mommy. As a culmination of this essay in symbolic self-destruction, he finally vomited all the milk on stage, and completely broken, crawled off.

Many of the pieces conceived and performed by Ortiz are intensely lyrical, autobiographically symbolic actualizations of unconscious arche­typal realities. Their violent content is very much within the tradit­ional dimensions of art. It would be difficult to misread them, especially in the context of a symposium, as not being aesthetic state­ments. Part of their unsettling power almost certainly derives from the dedicated seriousness and the almost complete lack of humor.

Another piece, Chicken Destruction Realization, was performed in New York a year ago. A pretty, demure young girl, draped with a checker­ed blanket, under which Ortiz wriggled, so that his head was between her legs - a microphone amplified a bicycle pump, operated by Ortiz, which gradually inflated a large balloon to the dimensions of full pregnancy - finally her stomach loudly burst, Ortiz emerging from under the blan­ket with a live white chicken - the bird was tied by its feet to a rope suspended from the ceiling, and swung back and forth - after several swipes at it with a pair of hedge clippers, he snipped off its head - amid the spattering blood, the feathers and the whirring wings, Ortiz unzipped his fly, placing the severed chicked head inside - untying the chicken, he grabbed its legs and, using it like a hammer, proceeded to demolish a guitar. Someone then announced there would be refreshments punch and potato chips (and dancing), as Ortiz, heavily perspiring, receded behind his glazed eyes.

Performance artist Ralph Ortiz destroys a mattress at the Destruction In Art Symposium in London, 1966

Performance artist Ralph Ortiz destroys a mattress at the Destruction In Art Symposium in London, 1966

In another Dias event, John Latham employed violence as abstracted to a level of purity traditionally associated with apotheosis: fire. Starting from a different point than Yves Klein (in his fire paintings of 1961-1962), Latham ignited "skoob (books spelled backward) towers." Latham's possibly ironic explanation was that "books are associated with ways of thinking that are repressive, mixed with pseudo-Christian term­ inology." The London Sunday Times reported that the first skoob to be ignited was the National Encyclopaedia, Vols A-ASI to TRI-Z; it took hours to burn. "Durable stuff, knowledge," said an onlooker.

Independently of Latham, and only a few months later, a similar book burning event was performed at the Festival of Experimental Arts held at UCLA in Los Angeles. Entitled Auto Da Fe, the piece was con­ceived by Jose Que, who at that time was reported to be actively engaged in guerrilla activities near Hermosillo, Mexico. Both Latham and Que could be seen as demonic agents of a post-McLuhan generation's revolution against the tyranny of the printed word as a medium, no matter what that word says. Here is a list of the titles that formed Que's flaming pagoda: Allan Kaprow, Assemblage, Environments and Happenings on the bottom; H. W. Janson, A History of Art; D. T. Suzuki, Zen in Japanese Culture; Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis; Marcel Duchamp, Catalogue, Retro­spective Exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum; John Cage, Silence; Robert Welch (founder of the John Birch Society) The Politician; Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf; Mao Tse Tung, The Red Book; Marshall McLuhan, Under­standing Media. It is interesting to speculate upon how many, and which of these authors would have understood the piece involving their own works. Underneath the pyre, which was drenched with kerosene and loaded with powdered magnesium, was a serigraph by the Vancouver artist, Michael Morris; and crowning the structure was a copy of the Bible, bound in white leather. Whatever it may mean, at precisely the moment when the last flame died out, it began to rain very gently.

In other events at the UCLA festival, two of the organizers, Joseph Byrd (a well-known electronic music composer, who has since formed an electronic rock and roll band, "The United States of America") and Mike Angnelo (founder of L.A. Provo, and formerly organist with Byrd's band, but now in seclusion near Mt. Shasta, California) staged a vicious wres­tling match with each other. What made this piece palatable was the art context of a festival - the strictly amateur character of both wrestlers meant it was far more dangerous and real than any televised exhibition by professionals.

Ralph Ortiz, writing in the New York underground newspaper the East Village Other (Dec. 1-15, 1966), cites McLuhan, Groddeck and Freud as recognizing that "sports, play and especially art are the essential cultural framework within which our emotional life is realized, educated and secured - where our urges, especially the maladaptive ones, get their play." TV wrestling fails as an effective sport because its violence has become almost pure art; the sporting page editors no longer even report results as news items. If and how it may fail as art is another question. Art fails when it does not come to terms with violence, thus (according to Ortiz) "Avoiding its crucial role as mediator between symbolic life and symbolic death." Here Ortiz is writing not only about conventional art, but also about his own, with the brutal intensity that is its hallmark.

"The First International Destruction in Art Symposium failed be­cause there weren't enough destroyers doing enough destroying; there were too many clinging to the constructive past; too many holding back, confusing the REAL rape with the SYMBOLIC rape, the real murder with the symbolic murder, the real suicide with the symbolic suicide."

One of the unperformed UCLA pieces called for violence in that anti­cipated, but not formally scheduled sense that attends drinking bouts. In a roped-off area, either inside the Student Center Grand Ballroom, or outside on the lawn, half a dozen kegs of beer were to be set up (Friday afternoon). All of the outlaw motorcycle clubs in the Los Angeles area were to be invited to partake of free beer. An outside scene would per­mit them the securities of their respective machines (considerable works of art in themselves - kinetic sculpture, and instruments of art - agents of choreographed movements, and musical instruments, tearing up the grass in graphic gestures). All the members of Hell's Angels, Satan's Slaves, and similar organizations would be told the beer was theirs alone and the roped-off area their temporary sanctuary. Casual invitation for free beer would also be distributed to the various campus fraternities.

One of the first great modern "runs" was held at Hollister, Calif­ornia, almost twenty years ago. As an example of how swiftly we turned this into art and mythology, Marlon Brando cleaned up and formalized the leader's role of that very incident, by 1951, in The Wild One.

Since then, an entire subculture has grown up around the motorcycle, in which Kenneth Anger's film Scorpio Rising was only one of the more self-conscious and arty manifestations (1962). At the core of this outcast phenomenon is the desperate violence of a 19th Century romantic manque: a psychopathic anarchic aggression (tribal expressions of extreme and irrational violence) in response to society's psychopathic total­itarian repression.

Closely in tune with these rebellious, last-ditch and even somewhat sentimental reactions against the mechanistic brutalizations of Estab­lishment "law and order," is one of the most prolific and ingenious creative mentalities of contemporary American art, Ed (Big Daddy) Roth. He is a big man, intelligent, articulate and honest, with both a deep and subtle understanding of what this modern ritualization of the outlaw image really means. His art extends to designing radical motorcycles. Baroque beach-buggies, German Army-derived, chrome-plated helmets, the dragster's/surfer's version of the Iron Cross, T-shirts, decals and other items decorated with "Weirdo" figures - all changing and condition­ing the aesthetic worlds of millions of American kids on an insistent and powerful (if not officially recognized) level of cultural existence. Roth has a whole "studio" of artists working on a variety of projects. Two examples of this bona fide folk art are suggested by his paintings and kinetic sculpture. The paintings aspire to "fine art" representat­ions of outlaw motorcycle life, but also seem to function as manifestoes, replete with all the naughty, corny, simple-minded iconography that might appeal to primitive, bad-boy mentalities. Not that Roth himself fits into this category by any means - on the contrary, he manifests a certain genius in isolating all those graphic and conceptual symbols so full of low-level punch. Having thought up the paintings, he has some member of the studio proceed with the execution, paralleling, in certain ways, 

Warhol, Moholy-Nagy in the early 1920s (who got the idea of telephoning instructions for execution of a piece from Malevich), or Rubens before them. Roth's paintings would be the Worst kitsch, were it not for their barbaric aptness - just the quality that makes them interesting as folk art. By comparison Roth's drawings come much closer to projecting a truly demonic sensibility - possibly because they lack the fine art pretensions of the paintings. Roth's sculpture, such as the Wishbone or the new Rat Fink extends automotive design to radical extremes. The latter piece, nearing completion, is a full-scale, three-dimensional sculptured Rat Fink character on wheels, and should blow a few minds.

That the cultural context in which such projects are conceived and realized is worthy of study (imperative?) was illustrated by an inter­view on TV recently, featuring guest psychiatrists and Sonny Barger, president of the Oakland, California chapter, Hell's Angels. Particul­arly Barger's attitude toward violence and the conditions under which it might be employed tended to relate his Weltanschaaung to that of another president, L.B.J. "What would you do if I walked over there and took that cup of coffee away from you?" he asked successively, the psy­chiatrists - or one clinical psychologist, perhaps - and Les Crane. Gentle, reasonable and even kind responses, were offered in return. Then, larger: "Well I'll tell you what I'd do - I'd kick the (bleep) out of any one who took my cup." (Hell? Crap? Shit? Piss? Bejesus?) All of which sustains extrapolation to Vietnam, if not in terms of the simplicity of issue, at least with a view to the psychology of style. Of course the mind-professionals have long recognized a high degree of functional sympathy between storm troopers in or out of uniform, and no matter what style helmet they wear. In an extraordinary statement of unconscious revelation, the sheriff of one county was quoted: "They're all alike, these rebels. The Hell's Angels, the surfers, the teen-age hot rodders, the Minutemen, the American Nazis, and the John Birchers. We protect them too much in this country. If they were in Russia they'd know what to do with them." (Bob Grant, The Real Story Behind the Hell's Angels and Other Outlaw Motorcycle Groups. Angels Publishing Co.,. Sherman Oaks, Calif., 1966, p. 54). Of course there is a revolution going on, And the rebel forces always do number some strange bedfellows, as Castro discovered, and Trotsky before him. Not that the sheriff had got it straight, however.

To the more conscious and radical artists, such as Ortiz and some other participants in the DIAS, or Mike Agnelo and other members of symposia at UCLA or at Simon Fraser University (organized last fall by Michael Morris, having as guests Agnelo, Peter Berg, Barry Lord and myself), there seems to be truly violent and revolutionary gestures in both art and life, often obscured by the more obvious and the more superficial ones. As Ortiz writes, "Many naughty images have been created, but very few artists employ daemonic acts as a means to their art."

As that line we were taught to believe separates art from life itself begins to thin and to fade, if it has not already disappeared, an aesthetic approach to violence permits us to extend these considerations beyond the still conventional realm of art-in-festivals, or the ill-structured, smouldering, semi-conscious violence common to outlaw gangs, true-believers and officers of so-called law enforcement. Between these over - and under-structured extremes there are still ample fields of formalized, ritualized, mythologized violence. This should come as little surprise to those who believe, with Ortiz, that destruction is the one act civilization both abhors and holds in awe - then what more powerful medium in which to present statements of either art or religion? The gods of most primitive peoples, together with that One (Three?) in the Old Testament (Two?) certainly do (did?). Ortiz, in a letter to Art and Artists, June 1966:

"Think of all the ritual, religion and sport that spring from and have at their core the act of destruction. Here in the United States we have a destruction stock car derby. Cars crash into each other until all but one are demolished; the surviving car wins. It's an unbelievable sight. Buddhist immolations in Vietnam are the most religious destruct­ions to have occurred in recent history. I feel that underlying Destruc­tivist Art there is the aesthetic of both the destruction derby and the immolation."

Since that was written, there have been immolations by non-Buddhists in America, even in the seldom holy city of Los Angeles, which must be at least as religious an act as that by a partisan on the scene. But the destruction derby lends itself more readily if less passionately to aesthetic consideration.

By honest coincidence (one of the kind that are always happening!) the minute I sat down to write this article, even before I had dug up the Ortiz quotation mentioned above, there appeared on the TV set ABC's "Wide World of Sports" featuring the World's Championship Demolition Derby at Islip Speedway, New York. First, it should be pointed out that auto racing is by far and away the most popular sport in America, with attendance figures (over eighty million annually in 1966, doubtless more for 1967) dwarfing those of pro football, baseball, basketball, etc. Second, we all know how people will slow up to gawk at an accident, or what a crowd a good one of, say, six or eight cars will draw. Consider then the appeal of the nightmare when over one hundred cars are delib­erately smashed all at once. Well, there were two heats.

The procedural rules for the derby are minimal (such as requiring at least a firewall between the engine and the driver, no "deliberate" head-on crashers) with some fascinating variations from freeway com­petition. A yellow light, for example, instead of being a caution sig­nal, here stands for "You are not hitting enough, pick up the action!" The drivers come from various occupations (two were mentioned: garage mechanic and policeman). Actually, considerable skill figures in the outcome. The most vulnerable parts are the radiator and the engine, hence most cars travel in reverse gear, smashing each other with their rear ends (whatever this all may mean, psycho-sexually). That two de­fending champions were still running toward the end attests to the ele­ment of skill or talent involved; the champion from last year, Neumann Boggs of Manassas, Virginia, in fact retained his title at Islip. When asked about his technique, Boggs replied, "I go to church a lot."

People from the audience were interviewed about the appeal of the event, as if the average television audience needed much explanation. "Well, there's nothing like a crash." "It's as wild as shooting deer or moose," "I get a kick out of the accidents," confided a cheaply demure American housewife, "and the fires are wonderful." Toward the end even the announcer caught the true spirit when he described the final two cars as "locked in a dance of death, all around them desolation." Finally, after the ritual victory lap of the last car able to move "(Just like at Monaco") all of the cars, winner included, are towed and shoved to one end of the track, and there stacked by a bulldozer with a lobster-claw appendage, eventually to be mashed all together into lumps of solid metal. This is the process shown in the films Mickey One and Goldfinger, To extend the cross-media references, the blocks of crushed metal (of prior automotive function) are employed by the sculptor Cesar, and stand in several museums, along with pieces by John Chamberlain that employ precrushed elements.

This show had toured 108 cities in the United States and Canada, with cars provided by the management, available for purchase at the prix-fixe of $25, for prospective contestants from the audience. If this mutes the distinctions between art and life, the TV commercials that just happened to accompany that segment of Wide World did not serve very well to reassert them. All of them were apt commentaries on the "derby," but the champion ad was for a malt liquor refreshingly name "Colt 45." The post-Surrealist scene opens with a man, well-dressed and blase of mien, seated at a Saarinen-designed table placed inside a bull ring. Torreros perform Veronicas as the bull charges about. A rose lands on the table as flipped from a mantilla-bedecked skinyerita. The ennui persists, painfully projected as the bull crunches the table, chair, man and all against the barrera. He gets up and dusts off his now somewhat tacky attire, still with that same snotty expression. The announcer begins his pitch, "In the dull and commonplace occurrences of day-to-day living..." and a glass of "Colt 45" is poured before camera. Maybe the drink is tasty, but I'd sure as hell find another restaurant.

Nevertheless, there are great inadvertent truths in the ads. What starts off as clearly cute and intentional hyperbole of understatement comes no where near comparing, in the end, with the terror and violence in "day-to-day" living (and dying). The ads, of course, are formalized and fantasized into their own peculiar art medium; but it takes immense' creative talents and all the artifice of the industry to compete with an average day's mere reportage. When such fresh content is itself formal­ized into its own art medium, and when the raw acts being reported have themselves become highly ritualized, comparisons between levels of media are no longer relevant. The war in Vietnam probably deserves to be considered the longest-running, highest-rated, and altogether most immensely successful TV drama ever programmed. It is misleading to think that those millions of Americans opposed to current U.S. policy in the conduct of that war are not among the most fervent fans of the drama. Hawk or dove just doesn't make any difference in the Nielson ratings.

A paper by the American poet and psychotherapist, Dr. Joseph H. Berke, presented also at the DIAS in London, investigated "the prototype of the theatre of cruelty and the archetype of the present day happening that is the spectacle of death, epitomized by war, characterized by the inquisition, and institutionalized by the modern state." ("Excerpts from Selected Papers Presented at the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium, Studio International, Dec. 1966, p. 284.) The operative ethic here, as in the destruction derby, is one of survival first; the counterpart is a martyrdom of immolation, like Herakles, a purification and apotheosis by fire. But the modern state has made martyrdom particularly difficult to accomplish. Official deaths are anonymous and unromantic - as Kafka perceived, or an anyone who has ever been in war knows very well. Men who are shot do not cast about like expressionistic swans, somehow managing to nearly tell it all to their buddies before finally expiring. They just drop where they are, most expressionlessly. That explains heroes. They are awarded medals by the state for helping to make the spectre of individual death more appealingly artful, more daringly dramatic. Their task involves all the talent, inspiration and opportunity of the artist, plus all the artist's hard work and ingenious utilization of resources. Heroes deserve their medals.

At this point it may be relevant to ask whether or not art will take over war. Dr. Berke, however, sees it the other way: "War has taken over Art. War is Art. No other form of human endeavor allows man to destroy with such joyous abandon, such total commitment, such attention to detail, such heraldry, and pagentry, and ceremony. And, as such, we all stand impatiently, and wait for war to kiss our lips."

Whichever way you like, it clear that art has made serious inroads on war, and that art may, but war never will, be the same. Having once glanced firmly at the conflict in Vietnam from the aesthetic point of view, for example, it is manifestly impossible to accept it as just another, old-fashioned, bang-bang, bomb-bomb, war of imperialist ex­pansion and control. Not even American politicians, industrialists and military leaders still seriously believe in the threat of an International Communist Conspiracy. There may be one or two of the self-deceived among the ping-pong players with the world - Walt Rostow is probably a sincere man, and some of the dumber generals. But the real issue in America is civil war, the maintenance of power primarily in the context of the national economy, which also prevents America from being genu­inely imperialistic.

So far the position of most American artists has been mawkishly sentimental, like the old-fashioned liberals who believe they can stop the Viet Nam war by old-fashioned means; but of course they can't, be­cause it isn't an old-fashioned war. (There are other internal com­plexities: most of the professional liberals, for instance, loved the Israeli war.) But Viet Nam probably isn't even that important to L.B.J. - anyway, it is as plausible to conceive Viet Nam as the best available and most dramatic diversionary tactic, insuring the perpetuation of power on the national scene. Why else should the voter polls on the war have acquired such importance? The peace marchers, as well-inten­tioned as they may be, are simply not protesting against the real war - ­they are concerned Romans, not rising against the tyranny of the Caesar (Nero? Caligula?), but rather campaigning against the use of lions in the Colosseum.

John Cage typifies the shifting sensibilities of those artists or thinkers who are attempting to create a new radical and relevant basis for their own survival or sanity, amusement or art. Cage: "My ideas certainly started in the field of music. And that field, so to speak, is child's play. (We may have learned, it is true, in those idyllic days, things it behooves us now to recall.) Our proper work now, if we love mankind and the world we live in, is revolution."