Long before Twitter, the critic, playwright, and artist Gary Indiana perfected the art of pungent, small-batch insults. Here he is describing the “truly peculiar talent” of celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz: “she makes even people who have accomplished something look like empty, narcissistic assholes.” About the British art duo Gilbert and George, he writes: “Perhaps the smell of dank tenement hallways and boiled cabbage that pervades these works would be less acute if Gilbert and George were themselves comelier as objects.” And reviewing the 1987 Whitney Biennial, he skewers the fashion photographer Bruce Weber with the impeccable windup of a nightclub comic: “Bruce Weber should not be in the same room with Ross Bleckner and Annette Lemieux. He should have his own room. It should be in New Jersey.” These are all examples of Indiana’s soft side.
Indiana has the thankless honor of being one of our culture’s most prescient and unabashedly queer critics, and one of its most distinctive.
Gary Indiana (born Gary Hoisington) continues to write novels and plays and make art, but between 1985 and 1988 he was the chief art critic for the Village Voice, a job that made whoever held it one of the most feared and reviled tastemakers in New York. The Village Voice was then the only major paper in the city, aside from the New York Times, that regularly reviewed new gallery shows. This fact, along with the paper’s circulation of about 150,000 readers, meant that a bad review actually mattered—or at least ricocheted. Indiana knew his influence and seems to have relished it while also worrying that, willing or no, criticism acted as coconspirator in the commodification of art. “Mainly, criticism reflects the preoccupations of its era,” he wrote in 1987. “But one thing criticism unavoidably does: it organizes the Cult of the Name. The Cult of the Name produces a hierarchy of importance.” That hierarchy was then reflected in stratospheric auction prices and the “endless recycling of 30 proper names.”
Vile Days collects Indiana’s reviews for the first time, more than ten dozen dispatches from the fever dream of the New York art world. Most of the columns are only three or four pages, and all of them reflect the preoccupations of their era: AIDS, Wall Street, the hypocrisies of Reaganism and trickle-down economics, postmodernism, a hyperinflated art market. Although Indiana was not seduced by the Cult of the Name, it is all but impossible to read these pieces today and not think about how they helped shape public perception of Jeff Koons (“For Koons, culture has succumbed to the mechanistic, the futile, the repetitive stasis of technological novelty”), Jenny Holzer (“Holzer uncovers the sexual dynamic at work in everyday public address”), Gerard Richter (“Richter often handles paint like a master violinist playing third-rate chamber music at formal tea”), Eric Fischl (Fischl “gives a literal form to the secret terrors of kitsch”), and the other art superstars such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Sherri Levine, and Robert Mapplethorpe who came into his crosshairs.
It is also impossible to read the columns without savoring their radioactive wit and aphoristic intelligence. (Consider Indiana’s take on landscape painting: “standing in for the sublime is the paranoid apprehension that a world of clean toilets could back up at any minute in a major way.”) It is de rigueur for essays such as this to insist that the cult writer under discussion is one of the United States’ most underrated, but in Indiana’s case, there is no argument: he is the most underrated major writer in the United States. A prolific author whose Village Voice work represents only a slim fraction of his output, Indiana earned recognition as an avant-garde playwright in New York in the early 1980s and has also written novels—among which the recently reissued Horse Crazy (1989) and Gone Tomorrow (1993) are standouts—as well as short stories, essays, and a memoir, all of them animated by the same feral energy and raucous spleen. Vile Days could be considered the third in an inadvertent trilogy of nonfiction collections that also includes Let It Bleed (1996) and Utopia’s Debris (2008), books that similarly deride an insipid, celebrity-obsessed era that Indiana calls the Age of Contempt. Now sixty-eight, Indiana has the thankless honor of being one of our culture’s most prescient critics, and one of its most distinctive. His voice is unabashedly queer, the slant catcall of an outsider empathetic to other outsiders but combustible toward anything institutional. (A 1984 survey found that half of the Village Voice’s readers were single and had never been married, which then-editor David Schneiderman chalked up to those readers being gay. Clearly, Indiana was preaching to the choir.)
On the current state of the landscape, Indiana wrote that “standing in for the sublime is the paranoid apprehension that a world of clean toilets could back up at any minute in a major way.”
Few critics today write the way Indiana does in these columns, and fewer still are so prepared to burn bridges or make enemies. Social media has arguably depressed this brand of idiosyncratic, bilious, often sarcastic criticism, a point Jacob Silverman made at Slate in 2012: “Reviewers shouldn’t be recommendation machines, yet we have settled for that role, in part because the solicitous communalism of Twitter encourages it.” He was describing literary criticism, but the diagnosis rings true across the “culture industry.” Criticism in the United States is frequently the byproduct of a multimillion-dollar corporate publicity machine, and so whether a review is good or bad is less relevant than its role in reinforcing the capitalist status quo. If that were not true, Hollywood’s testosteronal franchises and echoey remakes would have died out years ago, network TV would not be mired in bright inanity, and airport bookstores would stock something besides mass-market copycats. Profit always trumps taste.
As Silverman noted, professional critics are in short supply these days, and many reviewers are freelancers with skin in the game: career aspirations, personal affiliations, the desire to network (or simply exist) online without fear of reprisal or backlash. In Indiana’s case, there is a deeper reason why his criticism remains trenchant after three decades: few critics have the cynicism verging on nihilism that he exhibits toward the whole enterprise of cultural production and promotion. (One exception is critic Dave Hickey, who in 2012 caused a stir when he exiled himself from the art world and told reporters that he was tired of advising rich hedge fund collectors.) Because Indiana does not observe the conventional boundaries of the review form either, his critiques demolish a range of shibboleths: capitalism, consumerism, the middle class, the American Dream, the role of the critic, and the role of art itself. Written during the AIDS epidemic—U.S. AIDS-related deaths topped 10,000 by the end of 1985—Indiana’s criticism functioned as an existential plague journal, one man’s weekly effort to determine what’s authentic and what isn’t, what matters and what’s bullshit.
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To appreciate the mood of Indiana’s columns, you have to first recall the 1980s. Indiana offers a quintessential New York metaphor for what that decade was all about. “At the end of the ’70s certain shifts became palpable,” he writes. “A kind of negative idealism segued into a species of affectedly brainless optimism. The difference between the Mudd Club and Club 57 reflects this clearly. The Mudd Club was about exhibiting the dark underside of high culture; Club 57 was about wanting to be on television.”
“Many an East Village gallery overcompensates for the bodega it has supplanted by stuffing itself with fun-colored knickknacks that make you think Gee! What a happy planet the little asshole who made this stuff lives on!”
Club 57 was in the East Village, a pocket of Manhattan that by the mid-1980s had become more of “an ambition” than a neighborhood, as Indiana puts it. When he moved there in the late ’70s, the place “still had the narcoleptic desuetude of downtown Detroit.” Other sources, including Simon Reynolds’s Rip It Up and Start Again (2005), portray the area as a bombed-out circle of hell where junkies, immigrants, petty criminals, and artists lived in jumpy detente. Reynolds describes the neighborhood as one where “heroin was easier to buy than groceries.” Dead bodies materialized with scenic regularity in Tompkins Square Park. Property values were in the toilet, and many landlords more or less abandoned their buildings to a kingdom of roaches and arsonists. In 1978, Reynolds reports, there were 354 suspicious fires in the Lower East Side—unscrupulous landlords wanted insurance payouts, disenchanted tenants wanted a reason to flee. (The NYPD’s Operation Pressure Point, launched in 1984, cleaned up the area, jailed thousands of low-level offenders, and heralded Rudolph Giuliani as the city’s savior-in-waiting.)
Out of the rubble emerged a neighborhood of cocktail parties, hors d’oeuvres, and impossible rents. In 1980 the artist-organized exhibit Times Square Show threw a spotlight on graffiti artists and their guerilla-style brethren as well as soon-to-be huge names such as Keith Haring and Jenny Holzer. The following year, New York/New Wave turbocharged Haring’s career along with that of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Storefront galleries spread in Lower Manhattan and Midtown with the mindless vigor of gonorrhea. One of them, Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery, first opened in the basement of Indiana’s building and became a major venue for underground artists. As Cynthia Carr notes in Fire in the Belly (2012), her biography of David Wojnarowicz, thirty new galleries had opened in the East Village by March 1984. Soon gentrification had changed the character of the zip-code. In 1985 Indiana sensed an aftertaste of white liberal guilt among the art colonizers:
Many an East Village gallery overcompensates for the missing bodega, the vanished bookshop, or the evicted antique store it has supplanted by stuffing itself chock-full with fun-colored knickknacks and smile-covered gewgaws that make cute noises and wiggle back and forth and make you think Gee! What a happy planet the little asshole who made this stuff lives on!
Along with changing demographics came changing ideas about art and its role. “The Reagan years have left artists with little to do besides amuse the idle rich and decorate executive offices,” Indiana writes. Almost everywhere he looked, he saw an art scene that was self-serious, self-obsessed, desperate for novelty, and that rewarded materialism as a lifestyle. Art existed to be sold, an attitude Indiana sums up with a twist on the old Cartesian nugget: “I am bought, therefore I am.” Just as galleries metastasized, so did young artists—or dilettantes—who saw only meal tickets on those stark downtown walls. “Art-making has become a salvational sport,” Indiana writes, “the basketball of disaffected, middle-class white kids.”
Meanwhile, people continued to drop dead of AIDS while the government funded murderous debacles in Central America. In a 1993 essay, Félix González-Torres—the subject of Indiana’s final Village Voice column and an artist who died of AIDS in 1996—itemizes the lowlights of an abysmal decade: the national deficit nearly tripled; the number of failed banks increased twentyfold between 1980 and 1988; and the nation’s incarcerated population ballooned 130 percent. Moreover, the Cold War kept the prospect of nuclear annihilation at a constant simmer even as President Reagan rode off into heroic senility. Evangelicals and human bacterium such as Jesse Helms demonized pornography, rap music, and any art to the aesthetic left of Thomas Kinkade. Jackie Curtis died, then Andy Warhol, then everyone interesting. “Our time and age will be remembered, certainly, for throwing perfume over everything that smells,” Indiana writes. Vile days indeed.
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Vile days called for vile criticism. In Indiana’s view, much contemporary art was complicit in the country’s venality and shallowness.
Vile days called for vile criticism, or at least criticism unafraid to reckon with the downturn in U.S. moral and intellectual hygiene. In Indiana’s view, much contemporary art was complicit in the country’s venality and shallowness: “A great deal of interesting recent art seems content simply to mimic the nullity of meaning produced by mass media and mechanical reproduction, confronting the same hypothetical spectator who hasn’t yet heard the bad news.”
He saw this state of affairs as partly an inheritance from Warhol, who led legions of artists “down the primrose path to aesthetic bankruptcy.” Indiana cites Robert Hughes’s 1982 takedown of Warhol from the New York Review of Books, a piece with renewed salience now that the Whitney is mounting a new retrospective of Warhol’s work. (It is the first such show since 1989, the museum’s press page declares with a curious kind of pride, as if the last thirty years have not been one unending Warhol retrospective.) Hughes shares Indiana’s skepticism about the art market’s dilution of once-radical artists and that market’s eagerness to protect its investments:
If [Warhol], blinking and candid, denied that he was in any way a ‘revolutionary’ artist, his admirers knew better; the white mole of Union Square was just dissimulating. If he declared that he was only interested in getting rich and famous, like everyone else, he could not be telling the truth; instead, he was parodying America’s obsession with celebrity, the better to deflate it. From the recesses of this exegetical knot, anything Warhol did could be taken seriously.
If, in his latter days, Warhol styled himself as a kind of ingénue-cum-courtier to society’s elite (most infamously the Shah of Iran), then artists in the ’80s were courtiers to the market itself. As Hughes argues, Warhol’s cultivated blankness enabled him to remain a talismanic figure long after he had retreated into self-parody. “Warhol’s silence became a Rorschach blot, onto which critics . . . could project their expectations,” Hughes writes. The generation of blue-chip artists after Warhol—namely Koons, Julian Schnabel, and Damien Hirst—did not have to affect ironic detachment from their own fame. They merchandised their personas with the zeal of QVC shills. Their work—some of which, such as Koons’s, was churned out in the same factory style as Warhol—became secondary to the larger business of brand management. Indiana produces some of his most acerbic writing when imagining the prototypical artist of the era:
The artist should be a bright boy—white, comely, well-mannered, sportif. He must be eager to part with his products, to send them flying to whatever capital-intensive walls beckon. His best shot at immortality: his works will be purchased en masse by the head of a giant advertising firm, who will then reproduce them in authoritative-looking catalogues. Another member of the firm will describe the creative ferment of the artist’s lifestyle in expensive magazines. The artist’s skiff is well and securely launched on the sea of ordure. Next come the summer place in Montauk, the German and Italian retrospectives, the Manhattan building purchase.
Museums were only too happy to indulge this fantasy. Indiana’s columns are rife with invective against the hoary behemoths that inflate reputations and repeat hagiographic blather with the charmlessness of White House spokespeople. He has no use for what passes as canonical in these museums. In 1987 he criticized the Met for not acquiring more work by contemporary female artists. The “unadventurous purchases” that the museum had made “languished, or festered, in the Met’s basement . . . on cryogenic hold, just like Walt Disney at Anaheim.” Almost as reprehensible were endowments from “the very people who despoil the general quality of life outside the museum”—which in the case of the Met meant Mobil, Exxon, and other multinational scourges. No matter. “Our museums kill cultural inquiry and ignore ideological criticism with the majestic deftness of a teenage sociopath drowning a litter of kittens,” he writes.
The blue-chip art world was just capitalism masquerading as high culture, Sotheby’s as Kmart with stuffier branding.
In Indiana’s calculus, the entire supply chain—from the artists who make work, to the galleries that promote and sell it, to the sacrosanct institutions that acquire and monumentalize it—is a con job designed to make somebody, or several somebodies, very rich. The exploitation is just capitalism masquerading as high culture, Sotheby’s as Kmart with stuffier branding. Indiana lumps fine art with all the other detritus of leisure run amok: “When people die, they should have all the shit they have managed to accumulate through a lifetime of consumption piled up on top of their graves in the form of a giant pyramid: all the TV sets, all the cars, the stereos, the VCRs, the shoes, the designer dresses, the dishes, the chairs, the crystal, the paintings, the sculptures—and of course the bigger the pile, the bigger the shit you’ll be remembered as.”
Is it any wonder then that the columns default to bitchery? (And here I am echoing Indiana’s own instructions to himself. As M. H. Miller reports in a New York Observer profile, among Indiana’s notes for a planned review was the directive “be bitchy.”) Every week, Indiana had a credentialed view of what passed for art in the “culture of hypnosis and hallucination,” and most weeks he found something, or someone, objectionable. His aforementioned review of the 1987 Whitney Biennial exemplifies his rankled style. Highlights of the listicle include:
Julian Schnabel. Ugh. Don’t you just hate him? What’s all this ‘Mimi’ business with the cattle horns sticking out of it? And that little pennant with ‘Virtue’ printed on it hanging in the middle of that huge brown canvas? I don’t get it, at all.
Donald Sultan. Yech. Give it up. Go home.
Louis Fishman. Oh, really.
The two Willem de Koonings in the same area with Joseph Kosuth’s cancelled-out-text hallway and three magnificent George Condo paintings. De Kooning has really hit rock bottom with these vapid linear fantasies, one in blue, the other in red. Leave it to the Whitney to choose an American master at the very moment he hits the skids.
Don’t get the idea, though, that Indiana is a curmudgeon who hates everything on principle. On the contrary, the reviews demonstrate his eclectic taste and appreciation for unconventional or “transgressive” art. He writes of Mapplethorpe: “scarcely a photographer alive could cover the terrain Mapplethorpe has without plunging deep into witless vulgarity or blatant exploitation. . . . Mapplethorpe combines a preternatural refinement with an insatiable appetite: he can traffic in banalities and make them fresh, or tunnel into forbidden zones of scopophilia without losing grace.” The work of landscape painter Georgia Marsh, he writes, “implies a refusal to reduce one’s ‘product’ to a salable trademark, and affirms the autonomy of a singular talent.” Another singular talent was Gordon Matta-Clark, “a prodigious originator and a seminal moral presence” who died young, of cancer, in 1978. Elsewhere, Indiana champions the work of Kruger, Holzer, and Levine.
Still, he contended with a lot of rotten art. Worse, he contended with a rotten society. One fed into the other. He reserves particular scorn for how government officials and mainstream outlets such as the New York Times treated AIDS. “For society to respond to an epidemic, a movie star has to die,” he writes, referring to the 1985 death of Rock Hudson. He continues:
When the political manipulation of the HIV virus is stripped of its symbolic veils, it becomes obvious that persons with AIDS are of no concern to the government at all. The virus itself, which is not AIDS, has been claimed to be an implement of repression: it can be used to define and punish the Other, whether black or gay or simply foreign. The government envisions nothing for people with AIDS beyond incarceration, warehousing, or quarantine—Attorney General [Edwin] Meese, a public figure who might generously be described as a reeking tub of shit, thinks HIV infection should be a factor in parole eligibility for incarcerated persons. In effect, that people exposed to HIV belong in jail.
He takes an equally jaundiced view of Reaganomics and the collateral wreckage left in its wake—wreckage that became all too visible on the streets and sidewalks of the United States. In a 1985 column, he draws readers’ attention to the homeless, writing with chiseled sarcasm, “they die, in public hospitals or on the street . . . unremembered by the Gracie Mansions and Bianca Jaggers who have given so much, so unstintingly, to the society in which we are forced to live by the sheer accident of birth.” A review of the 1987 New York Flower Show becomes an occasion to remark on the depletion of the ozone layer, mass deforestation in South America, and ecological myopia across the board. That the flower show that year was sponsored by cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris makes Indiana’s critique all the more barbed. In other columns, he takes on war and the military-industrial complex, advertising, and the general anomie of a country in which “all anyone does anymore is eat dinner, take meetings and die.”
Among Indiana’s notes for a planned review was the directive “be bitchy.”
As his tenure went on, Indiana’s columns became ever more expansive, experimental, and attuned to the shrill dog whistles that passed for civic discourse. He considers the political and aesthetic implications of sumo wrestling, furniture design, male grooming, art auctions, and mass media. A 1986 column opens with a short vignette describing how Indiana, out the night before on an errand to buy coffee, witnessed a man jerking off in a parked car while a prostitute nearby talked on a pay phone. “I thought I would share this with you,” he writes apropos of nothing, and yet the anecdote crystalizes the absurdity and pathos of urban alienation. He plays with form, too, sometimes writing in pseudo-diary entries, letters, pastiches, or textual collages. A 1988 column, titled “Blood and Guts” in homage to a Kathy Acker novel, is a numbered list of corrosive observations and maxims, including: “Fuck you”; “There is no such thing as a normal conversation if the conversation feeds or starves somebody’s career aspirations”; “If I made a record based on my experiences as an art critic I would call it I Don’t Care If You Never Forgive Me, b/w Fuck You If You Can’t Take a Joke (Yourself).”
One cannot help but marvel at Indiana’s knack for producing such fine-tuned prose under deadline week after week. In a column ostensibly about quitting smoking, he drops this sensuous paean to Marianne Faithfull:
Faithfull’s voice, raggedly notched and erratic, sometimes starts flat or strikes a note like a bald tire hitting a patch of glare ice. But what’s there all the time is this ripping knife of an alto, rueful and accusing and strangely vulnerable. What is in this voice? Only a few notes, perhaps, but a gallon of prussic acid, a season of tropical cloudbursts, the grittiest pale Northern skies, the emptiest gray hotel rooms. And endless, sleepless flights, thousands of cigarettes, Rémy Martin, sex that’s the nostalgia of sex, and happiness that’s just the memory of happiness. Hope that if you die before you wake you really won’t be aware of it. And the most unexpected sweetness.
When is the last time you read a paragraph like that in an alt-weekly? When is the last time you read an alt-weekly at all? (You certainly can’t read the Village Voice anymore.) It is not just that this caliber of writing has largely disappeared from mass journalism, or that times have sped up enough to rout out such refined style, but that Indiana was, and remains, a different kind of writer—a sui generis mash-up of Ambrose Bierce, E. M. Cioran, Lester Bangs, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
When a stunt such as Banksy’s self-shredding canvas is feted as the vanguard of anti-commercial critique, you know there is not much excitement around.
Anyway, our own era is not all that removed from the 1980s, at least on the surface, which is where much of U.S. life happens. The worst isms of that decade have returned with tragic virulence: conservatism, evangelicalism, racism, jingoism, plus another iteration of the inexhaustible culture war based, yet again, on bad faith and willful misunderstanding. And much of contemporary art feels lackluster these days, the product of MFA mills and middle-class solipsism. When a stunt such as Banksy’s recent self-shredding canvas is feted as the vanguard of anti-commercial critique, you know there is not much excitement around. Maybe that explains the recent resurrection of vital artists from the 1980s: Wojnarowicz with his magisterial show at the Whitney; Jack Smith’s small but poignant show at Artists Space in New York, which underscored the prescience of his anti-gentrification rants; and the resuscitation of the performance and video artist Stephen Varble at Leslie-Lohman Museum. (All three artists died of AIDS.) These shows feel revelatory and urgent in much the same way that Indiana’s criticism does. It is not just about nostalgia, or the valorization of artists who have yet to be totally appropriated by mainstream culture. It is more that these artists, and Indiana himself, are so necessary because they speak so plainly. The United States is always in need of honest, insurrectionary critics—not just to tell us whether a work of art is good or bad, whatever that means, or whether we should fork over our hard-earned dollars to experience this or that product, but to illuminate a more tangled truth: our art reflects who we are as a country. It also reflects what we are willing to tolerate.