Bruce LaBruce’s Philisto-Activism Versus Lisson Gallery Moralist Collector’s Immunization from Social Responsibility

Fetishistic Encounters.

First and foremost, my conversation with Bruce La Bruce was a pleasure in spite of the diva-ish behaviour of whom, by then, was my partner in this Podcast project, and arrived one hour late to the interview he arranged  Sergio Pangaro, a Postmodernist-Kitsch singer if this is understood as a Situationist strategy close to what have been called “la derive” and had define the theoretical justifications of middle class privilege in Argentina which in this particular case, had a fetishistic weakness for 1950s fashion.  Anality and childhood were, in fact, at the core of my chat with La Bruce who surprised me both with his passion for critical theory and his inclination to push to the right of the ideological spectrum his point of views. This became evident with a series of statements that add up to, what we could consider as, a theoretical framework provided by him to approach his oeuvre, widely known, as pontificating the marvels of sexual fetishism as a variance not of sex but of love and… romance.

Pangaro who flaunts his bisexual nature as if there is any other, is married to a woman and indulges in, let’s say it with allegories, middleclass sins of the nose whose pleasure comes at the price of penile disfuntion.  That is why, in him, there is an inherent postponement of everything. He is one of the two people I have met that are defined through this inability to change reality, even at a micro scale. The other one was Dante Caputo, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of President Raul Alfonsin who used to indulge in the aesthetic appreciation of his own francophile verbosity while caressing his moustache in such a way that there had to be some sort of sexual obsessions involved. It does not come as a surprise that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the place where he made a name for himself for that Governmental Department (otherwise known as Palacio San Martin) used to be the preserve of every non normative human being that the Argentine upper classes produced. A place, like the Vatican, where nothing is what it seems.

In other words, what Pangaro and LaBruce have in common is a passion for anything that would not include a display of immediate performance or anal penetration. According to La Bruce, and these are not his words but my summary of the first part of our chat,  psychoanalysis is a fast track justification for all fetishistic preferences and maybe that is why he adored Pangaro without understanding one word of what he was saying and did not even send a thank you email after receiving in his house in Toronto my thank you gift that was Tim Dean’s book on Barebacking as political dissent. Bruce, as many of us, is a character full of contradictions disguised as intentional paradoxes assembled as an aesthetic project. Both Pangaro and Bruce were part of the jury of the BAFiCI which is the Festival of Independent Cinema organised by the City of Buenos Aires and for someone like LaBruce this brought about a lot of adulation, fans already queuing to be the muse of a future film and ready to do whatever he wanted, etc. Unsurprisingly, he missed his flight not because of a picket, as he claims in the interview, but because of the inherent risks of having sex in times of lockdown. This is the attractive side of Bruce LaBruce.

 

 

Exhausted Aesthetics of Shock during the Hang Over of the Young British Artists’ Era

Bruce and I had interacted more than a decade ago when this blog used to be, like now, written in English. This happened during a brief period of time before I got acquainted with what was happening in the art world during the initial years of President Kirchner. It was so bizarre and different from the culture I was raised in that I needed to pay attention to it and I switched to Spanish.  In 2011, the art world in England was ebullient but boring. It had the tiring drive of sameness. I was working as an art advisor with enough success to be mentioned by The Times as Frieze’s Art Fair Top 5,  The problem was that I like art so much that the sociality of it was an obstacle for my understanding of it. I needed Otium, not Negotium. By contrast, my fellow art advisors had MBAs in their resumes and closed any art discussion with utterances like “the brand of the artist”. A big percentage of them used to work in finance until they convinced themselves that they heard a calling from beyond. The conflation of class entitlement and a sense of mystic exceptionalism was a combo difficult to top. There were two types: the chaperons (that went with the rich collector everywhere and partied until after their bosses left the club) and the ascetics (that flaunted their mnemonic skills of remembering who is who and did what in that scene). Needless to say that I don’t have enough memory power left in my brains to belong to this latter type. An example of this group is Aphrodite Genou, a Greek woman that if I am not mistaken worked for George Michael or someone like that, and had  a wondrous memory which she knew how to combine with a prodigious capacity for name dropping and unnecessary allusions to obscure works by unremarkable young artists who she marketed as The Future. England was, at the time, experiencing the hangover of the Young British Artists phenomenon who singlehandedly generated the energy to propel the art market at such delusional heights to even dare to compete with the entertainment industry. From an artistic point of view, the outcome could not be worse because to have monetary value, they needed to bring back the Romantic aura of the artist and his signature as a human evidence for the existence of something beyond. From this point of view, a painting was like a lightning on a deserted beach. The problem was that these lightnings brought a “storm” in the form of the come back of painting but of worse quality than its previous two waves in the 1950s and 1980s. These were no Pollock nor Richter but shit presented as Elgin Marbles becuse, to make things worse, they conceptually endorsed a renunciation of quality, already championed by the feminist in the last 1960s and 1970s. This put all the weight of value creation on the brand of the artist which made the collectors buy whichever object touched by the artist. Back to the economy of the religious relic, an art object was valuable because it had been in the proximity of one those ‘geniuses’. Any attempt to analyse this could only succeed if approached through the disciplines of psychology or sociology and to date, in my opinion and to the best of my knowledge, the only successful account of them is Courtauld’s Julian Stallibrass whose book was immediately invisibilised and ignored by the art system. Let me remind you that in my time as art dealer when I had a sit on the dinner tables of the after parties at Lisson, for example, I never saw Stallibrass (which speaks very well of him but also of the art system indifference to him) while Professor Sarah Wilson, his colleague from the Courtauld, was showered with attention and the best quality food and alcohol which she seemed to enjoy a bit too much and raises the question of the place of academia in the legitimation and naturalisation of certain cultural practices. Was her presence guarantee for the also present collectors (I represented two of them) that what was being sold was fairly priced?

Bruce LaBruce as a Post Victorian Complement of Tony Blair Cultural Policies

LaBruce was wise enough no to publicly embrace such scene but he certainly profited from it which came at a cost. London, Toronto and Berlin were, at the time, hubs of gentrification and transactionalism. It was all about monetary value and status. Anything in between was considered as a waste of time. They made of work environments intolerable places where women and gays were mistreated if not abused in the name of multiculturalism and tolerance. The bipolar nature of Tony Blair’s culture legacy created the belief that work was torture and a good incentive to retire as quickly as possible doing as much harm to others and to the environment as possible.  The 2000s was the decade that elevated a type of expressionistic painting by young painters that mistook performance with posing and focus with being high. Amid that visual ordure, LaBruce seemed like a breathe of fresh air and his obsession with sexual perversion as sameness was a nod to Tony Blair’s safe multiculturalism. He wanted to transform variety and pluralism into a safe version of sexual difference through aesthetics. The problem is that this project had already been done efficiently by no other than Madonna. From this point of view, I found it interesting that both Pangaro and Bruce excluded her from his genealogy of erotic literature that influenced his work. I am referring to the unsurprising tradition of fetishistic horny men that since Henry Miller monopolised eroticism as something materially produced by women but only identified by men.

 

 

I remember reviewing  Gerontophilia, in the first few months of existance of this blog back in 2011. It was his first film as a well established realisateur. The title was a mistake for it diverted the attention from the plot and, this is key, conditioned there-hence the way his films have been approached as a catalogue of  sexual practices turned into sexual identities to be purchased by choice. This was another point of coincidence with Pangaro that would become the trigger of my fury in the last episode of my previous Podcast called Intelligentsia Comunista when discussing the problematic link between the Homosexual Movement and the Human Rights Movement in Argentina. I will publish that fragment soon because it shows with extreme clarity the contradictions of my Post Dictatorial generation. Besides, in times of identity politics, the right to overwhelm sexual boundaries is almost a daily day necessity which ends up creating sameness instead of difference. Today, what is considered as pornographic should necessarily lie in its opposite, the ascetic and the neo-stoic. The evidence of this is that in gay apps, two new cutting edge categories of sexual consumption and also identification are chastity and “side”. Bruce is earnest about this when saying that the value of sexual fetishism lies in the non penetrative which he understands as non procreative and i would add the issue of viral contagion. Being S&M far from self damaging is, in the new normal, a form of self preservation.

 

From Blair’s Multiculturalism and Madonna’s Multisexualities to Lisson’s Moralised Commodification of Ethics

In 2012, I started this blog to use my experience in cultural policies and the art market to understand the cultures that allowed them to emerge. The question was why the world of art had become so alarmingly philistine. Life put me very and I mean very close of two key players that could be indicated as leaders: legendary CEO of Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse, John Mack and Lisson’s Nicholas Logsdail. The former along with his daugther still are the two people I loved the most. The latter I knew quite well and I was even invited to his house in Kenya which, of course, I declined. Owner of probably the best art gallery in the world, Lisson Gallery, was in 2000 the last bastion of British connoisseurship applied to the market but in 2010, Nicholas realises he is not getting young and invites one of his son, Alex, to be a partner. Two young and too spoilt albeit hard working and with the right genes, they make the stupid decision to transform Lisson into a global operation like Gagosian. In one year, the magic was gone. I represented two collection that added a good couple of millions in purchases from that gallery for them not to listen. There were many specimens in the English art world such as that Freedman guy who I think was Tracey Emin’s partner and currently employs (actually he has done so for more than a decade) the Djament boy who is in his late 40s but will always be just a boy and became known through his asexual friendship with the wonderful Simon Tovey when they started a podcast that assumes that the only way to approach art is through the banal surface of its sociality at a corporate level. Instead of talking about art, they find pleasure in remembering who was at which dinner party. With that generation, aspirationalism and gentrification were so ingrained and naturalised that culture as we knew it could only be fond in the periphery. That was when I decided to dedicate my efforts to understand something closer to me but not too distant from the affect that this kind of scene generates. But to be honest, I had conversations with Logsdail that evidenced a U turn that I could not foresee. The price of an OBE seemed to be his last push for the cultural commodification of ethics and the neutralisation of political art to finally happen, in Britain.

 

Before and After Nicholas Logsdail’s The Guardianisation of Ai Wei Wei 

In my opinion Lisson gave invaluable support to other less serious mega art players like Gagosian or White Cube and created the conditions to bridge the misoginistic anti academic and a neo-classist worship of the Golden Calf championed by the Young British Artists generation and the new world of identity politics. The only player with authority to do that was Lisson whose intervention was moral and ethical at the same time. This, of course, was not proclaimed but applied to the sociality of art with, on one hand, Nicholas Logsdail moralising the need of the owner of a work to sell it, even if he needed the money, because it would  potentially hurt the  market price of poor artists like Annish Kapoor or Ai Wei Wei; on the other hand, his selling team used Angela de la Cruz’s illness and Ai Wei Wei’s narratives of  political prosecution to attract the media and to potentially manipulate the already aggraveted sense of inadequacy of the typical contemporary art collector and his or her typical sense of social inadequacy and guilt. Lisson’s sales force flaunted the fact that it would be ethically inappropriate to sell his works while he was kept captive of the Chinese governement (which, in itself, was a deformed version of reality) so, and I am quoting: ‘until he is released we cannot sell but we wanted to show them to you, however, because we are open to accept “expressions of interest”. In other words, they were generation an auction of sorts from what was allegedly a very worrying situation. In hindsight, the art world was becoming a laboratory for the conversion of post capitalist guilt into another extractivist territory. This has defined the following decade of art and reached a rather pathetic conclusion in the unremarkable curation by Cecilia Alemani of the last Venice Biennale.

LaBruce’s Knocking on the Doors of Post Capitalist Art World Elite 

Bruce LaBruce moved on the peripheries of this. Certainly at a lower level, exhibiting large prints or photographs with saturated colours in less prestigious galleries his attempt was on point if born in mind the direction of the market. What he did not see is that the mainstream was becoming moralistic in a Victorian way and the only reason why the tolerated his aesthetic was the logic of the ghetto. It was another opportunity for the homophobic elite to role their eyes while getting a bit horny. From an Art point of view, his work as photographer was derivative and irreflexive. In his ‘Homosexuality is the next Intifada’ or ‘Put Your Marxism Where your Mouth Is’ or in the Situationistic decoration of the gallery as if was splashed with blood, he was taking from the YBAs not just the shock value that a work of art supposedly needed to capture the young collector’s attention and most imporantly, the media, but he was also transferring to the viewer the production of meaning through allegories that ended up extracting a narratology out of sheer violence, intifada, religion and war, and, most worringly, using the semotic techniques canonised by critics by Hal Forster or Rosalind Krauss during the 1980s and 1990s (that is 20 years before) to allude to Barbara Kruger, for example. There was, however, a big difference between Kruger and LaBruce, I believe he was and is perfectly conscious of it.

If we approach the deconstructive postmodernism of the 1980s from a gay point of view, the semiotic dematerialisation of art created a virtual space that was, at the same time, very much in touch with reality but away from it. Such aesthetic oxymoron that linked two supposedly irreconciliable positions made of art something angelic, essential but material at the same time. Lets remember that the big hit in Broadway at the time was Lee Kramer’s Angels in America, a puritanistic account on how AIDS as God’s reaction to excess both of unprotected pleasure and religious fanaticism left middle class New Yorkers untouched as if they were mere spectators. In the art world, the dematerialisation of political art taken to extremes relied on the optimistic belief that a gallery-goer was the agent of change and that by changing his or her mind, political change would occur. As we know, the gallery-goer is the last person to be of any relevance when changing the real social conditions is at stake. If that dematerialised situationism of signs with slogans that seem to hijack the white cube of the gallery was accepted as art, it was because it promised a reality beyond the unbearable material reality they were experiencing where too many loved people were dying. LaBruce’s chose parody to comment on ‘queer blood shed’. How can we make sense of passing from the Homocore movement to finding blood splashed on the walls of the gallery is something cool or even worse, funny. I think the question is whether the place of a prominent member of a sexual minority known for his advocacy to that cause could ever be turning tragedy into comedy through allegories.

 

 

I saw those works at Peres Projects and they had a seductive guilty pleasure type of power.  His gallerist, Peres, was a rich, stocky and uber pretentious man with financial means to laugh at social responsibility. At the beginning of the 2010s, the only thing that mattered was sex and finance so both LaBruce and Peres were speaking the right language. His gallery’s goal was ephemeral like fashion or performance art and as a project it was solipsistic. A vanity project. LaBruce’s choice of art dealers was strategic for he did something similar with the choice of his Madrid gallery which was owned by Argentine transexual, Topazio Fresh, who had married a rich man who funded her. In other words, Bruce LaBruce exhibited his art in galleries that were professional hubs of banality.  Therehence, his work could only be seen as a catalogue  of identities where trauma and personal damage became just another anecdote as in Tracey Emin’s unreliable accounts of rape. In the art world, Bruce conveyed a melancholic idea of art presented as a convoluted paradox of optimism (the palette and the unquestionable success of his pieces in the art market) and an inappropriate use of the postmodern parody (the banalisation of death and, even worse, of necropolitics) for shock effect. This transformed LaBruce in a more eloquent and better educated version of the YBAs Chapman Brothers  but precisely because of that, his participation in the commercial art world is somehow something he would, at some point, regret.

There is, however, a contradiction that as our conversation in the podcast advance becomes more and more prevalent. How someone, like LaBruce that started as an angry kid protesting against Punks in the sweaty clubs of the Lower East Side negotiates his actual public persona of a well established artist who enjoyed the benefits of the commodification of gay lifestyles since the emergence of a niche in the market that soon would become the paradigm of consumerism and “good” homosexuality.

So what I have taken so far from the first part of the chat is that his artistic career derives from a fast disappointment with street level activism presented as the need to appeal to a wider audience. The problem with LaBruce is that that appeal to the masses is more for building his own celebrity persona than any political cause. A similar dynamics is discussed by Jacques Ranciere in his seminal The Emancipated Eye. For LaBruce the effectivity of politics resides in its theatrics, therefore activism becomes a banal sociality that stays on the surface of things to quickly fold into the private space and laugh at his own impotence. In the second part of the conversation that I will publish next week, this chasm between political commitment and the need to feed his celebrity status through the artistic elite become more and more apparent, turning his previous radicalism into something blatantly conservative that depends on patriarchal depoliticising institutions like MoMA. This is made clear with the intervention of Victor Hugo de los Robles,  the Chilean legendary HIV activist and pioneer of the use of performance art techniques to oppose Pinochet and who I invited to join us.

Something similar occurs with his taste for Freud and how psychoanalysis allows him to maintain his voyeuristic gaze fixated in an original source of identity with the promise of unfulfilment. Fetishism is something that, according to him, does not contribute to the act of procreation and I would add, in itself and in isolation nor to intimacy. This might be the reason of his fascination with christian saints and the romance that he sees in Saint Francis kissing Christ’s feet and why he sees there a fetishistic theatre with a worldwide audience. A highly monitored and political type of voyeurism, if you ask me.

Freudian LaBruce 

LaBruce establishes two links that are extremely important to understand his art. They follow almost literally by the book the Freudian principle that art is a way to sublimate repressed feelings into physical form. The physical form is a representation of the true emotion or repressed dream. The confusion between representation and mimicry does not tolerate any discussion. But the flattening of political pain to justify the joy he finds in personal pain happens also through aesthetics, through the leather outfit he would wear, which painful edging or avoidance of climax he places as an objective in itself. Postponement as a place of arrival. The repressed must remain repressed but the apparent cost of this vicious circle is, of course, social change.

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