"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
English art critic Matthew Collings’ book “It Hurts: New York Art From Warhol to Now” (21 Publishing) is a gem. A smart and wickedly funny road map of everything from pop to performance, Collings hunkers down with downtown tricksters, the uptown avant-garde and all the painters, conceptualists and taste-makers in between. Collings is frighteningly well-informed, not just about the subject of art, but also about its rituals, its silliness, its gossip and, ultimately, its integrity. “It Hurts” pierces visual art’s pretentious membrane because of Collings’ affection for his subject. He and I recently spoke by phone.
The subtitle of your book is “From Warhol to Now.” Why did you want to begin with him?
I think that there’s a great difference in art generally before him, and certainly in American art before him. He’s a kind of watershed. I think he’s a figure. He’s a character. Within that character are a lot of tumultuous changes in art. And he sort of sums them up. In Warhol, it’s this mixture of utter realism about our actual world that we actually live in. But also a sort of romanticism about what it is to be an artist, that it takes a leap of the imagination to be an artist. I don’t think at all that his cynicism or his irony is all that he is. I think his irony and cynicism are connected to a sincerity about who we are. We give culture a kind of job, which is to tell us who we are, and he’s a very good oracle of who we are.
One thing in the book that seems rather Warholian is that there are almost as many pictures of the artists themselves as pictures of their work. Why did you do that?
I don’t think you learn anything important from seeing photos of the artists. But I don’t know how important it is seeing those reproductions either. I’d rather have no pictures at all or something that goes against the grain a bit. And I think portraits of the artists does go against the grain. I think that’s why I’m on the cover. Because then it’s more like the world of cookery books or show biz or something. And I think that’s annoying to the holy creed of the art world.
You have a hilarious section that’s a guide to art magazines. What’s your current favorite?
I think they’re all as objectionable as each other.
My favorite place to read criticism right now is the Focus on the Family web site. It’s a Christian fundamentalist site and they do movie reviews that are remarkable, because whoever the reviewer is watches movies actually believing that art can do something to people. Like that “Titanic” could mess with young girls minds about romance, or a hilarious litany of all the ways the “South Park” movie is devoid of redeeming social value. Do you think secular critics can come at writing about art with that kind of passion?
No, actually. I’m a pure insider. I’m not at all a secular critic. Every strata of my being is the art world. I was born into it. I don’t have any outside-the-art-world-ness. It’s just that it’s possible to be in the art world and not speak that language or to know that it is a language, one language amidst others. You asked earlier what magazines I don’t particularly read and I never would read “Art News” because it’s all rubbish. Because the people writing it don’t know anything about art. I really am interested in art. I do see the contemporary art world as a continuation of art history and I take art history very seriously. It’s a source of values to me and a source of meaning, it makes sense out of life. But my drive is to be as intense and realistic and creative and imaginative about that as I can. So that causes me to write like this. But I have absolutely no interest at all in what people outside the art world have to say about art. Because you need to know what you’re talking about. I’m not interested in people going against the grain who don’t know what the grain is. Of course I’m interested in people against the grain who do know what the grain is. Because they’ve got something to offer.
Let’s talk a little bit about words. The style of “It Hurts” is conversational, and sort of defiantly real. There’s a trap in writing about art. You can’t do it intelligently unless you’ve been schooled in its history and its lingo. But then once one has that lingo in his head it makes a person a crummy writer.
That style that I do, it’s quite laborious. I’m working very hard to arrive at a style which seems rather effortless and conversational. But in fact it’s quite deliberate and careful. It’s not really a casual way of writing. There is a kind of attitude in that it’s anti-academic. I keep trying to come back to some thing which would work even if somebody reading it had never heard of any of those artists. Or didn’t really know anything about the meaning structures that make those artists tick.
You describe art-speak as “a bad film set in the art world.”
I think that’s the social world. All films which attempt to be set in the art world are bad. They never get it right. You know you’re in a bad film, whether it’s “Legal Eagles” or Derek Jarman’s “Caravaggio.” If you go to a dinner party that’s put on by a collector, say, or a dinner party after a show, there’s a certain posh atmosphere. You know immediately that there’s going to be this immense, unbelievable falseness to the whole occasion, that if you’re in it, you kind of go along with. But one part of you, at least if you’re me, is sort of amazed you could be doing this and everyone else could be acting like this and talking like this. Amongst those people, if you stepped aside for a moment and commented upon it and laughed at what was happening, or said, ‘How on earth can you talk like this?’ they would be hurt. It would hurt their feelings, so of course one doesn’t really. One shuts up about it and then you build up all this pressure because you know you can’t go on being so false.
There are some parts of the book that read like a how-to for art students to talk about art. For example, there’s that section labeled “Architectural Art” and its sole content is the sentence, “Always link it to the social world.” Which is so true. That is exactly how you pass an exam. What made you put that particular thing in?
There are two sides to it. One is where I’m being aggressive and satirizing something in a way that has some sort of affection but also is maybe hostile. Another thing is that if you’ve been to art school, there are some sort of basic frameworks of learning that you learn. You learn about how art is constructed and how meaning is made. And actually those things are quite simple, relative to theorizing art. Usually it’s the simple meanings that are the best, that work best. It might sound amusing when I sum it up like that and rather blasi. But it wasn’t that it was inaccurate.
I used to teach art history to college freshmen. And a lot of your content apes student essays. When you’re talking about Cindy Sherman and you say, “She looked not quite right. That’s how women feel” — that sounds like the thing you tell your students and you’re horrified they’re coughing it up in an exam.
There’s a kind of literalism. It seems rather bald when you just spell it out.
Yeah. Is that it? Because we’re not really used to that in talking about art.
No. And especially if you know the context of being rather bald is humorous. There’s a lot of humor in the book, a lot of jokes and things. One drive of that book, and everything I do, is to be entertaining.
A lot of times, though, the teacher in me wasn’t so much reading you as grading you. When you’re talking about [color field abstractionist] Jules Olitski’s paintings and you simply say “they look fantastic,” if a student wrote that I would go ballistic and say, “You can’t say that!”
I’m always aware that when I say something’s good or something’s bad that I’m breaking the law. In some contexts, that is a correct law. But that book is about a different context. Olitski’s paintings do look fantastic to me. What the official art world says and what art history says is that Olitski is a problem. It’s almost as if Olitski is a fall guy. They realized — the minimalists and the popists and the conceptualists, and those movements have survived whereas color field didn’t — they realized that the weakness of that art, of a purely aesthetic type of art, was that it’s too soft-centered. So if someone says, “Oh wow, that looks fantastic,” it would be incredibly suspect. It’s not just that it’s suspect in an academic sense, or in an intellectual or philosophical sense, it’s also suspect in a specific art-historical sense. The point in the ’60s was not that something should look fantastic but that it should have some kind of philosophical armature or some sort of meaning. So it’s like Satan for an art to just look nice. But I think appreciating something looking nice is part of life.
As they say in the art biz, you’re very good sometimes at “exposing the process.” You confess that you can’t be enthusiastic about Mike Kelley because he refused to give you permission to illustrate his work.
I know! I used to really like him.
What’s to be gained for the reader in knowing that?
I guess it depends on who the reader is. One’s eye is immediately caught, whoever one is. There is a frisson straightaway. You think, ‘Right. All these pictures only appear in the book because the artist agreed to release them.’ Immediately, in just a line like that, as you say, the process of how the infrastructure of how the art world works is exposed in a way. But then, it’s not like I’m making a big moral point. In fact, it’s a rather flip way of avoiding a moral issue. I’m raising a question without really answering it in that particular case. I suppose what’s to be gained is the amusement of what’s happening, that it’s possible to like somebody’s art in an abstract sense, but to rather resent the fucking pompous asshole not letting me have the pictures.
How do you keep up your stamina? I went to some Chelsea galleries the other day. And I’m standing there looking at these white forms that were like overturned bathtubs.
Yeah, I saw them. I thought they were quite nice.
But the bathtubs had this beautiful surface and, any collection of a bunch of white things is always going to look kind of nice, and I guess I could find the words to talk about their exploration of form and repetition, blah blah blah, but basically, I was just bored.
Well, I’m always very clear when I’m bored and when I’m not. Because I feel it’s usually clear what’s happening and if it’s not clear I’ll ask someone and tune in to what the aesthetic is and try and fit it with things I already know. So the way I keep up my stamina for it is that I only do things that I find interesting. And if I’m writing in a jaded way about somebody, it’s for the purpose of saying that something else is interesting. What drives me isn’t a desire to put things down or to find them boring. It’s absolutely the opposite.
Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.More Sarah Vowell.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)