Organized culture certainly has some obnoxious aspects, one of which is the clannish instinct by which groups of artists segregate themselves in an exclusive fashion, creating charmed circles bound together by closed circuits. When Gaetan Spurgin and I were doing the This Charming Lab shows in 2000, which we both found disappointing, Gaetan complained (and I agreed at the time) that the Philadelphia cultural mentality had to do with establishing a clan and then huddling together for warmth in a corner; Philly artists, and art-groups, were lousy at self-transcending and working together towards shared goals. This Charming Lab, in retrospect, was a warm-up for and way-station towards PFS and the Highwire Gallery shows of the mid-Aughts— I was learning effective, competent event-planning piece by piece, and also gaining competence skills at juggling artists’ demands and egos. That having been said, most of the This Charming Lab shows, though staged at decent venues (Khyber, Dobbs, Killtime Warehouse), were pretty tepid, and felt hollow to me. By the time PFS established itself in the mid-Aughts, some characters remained the same (Matt Stevenson and Gaetan were still around), but most of the TCL crew had to be dropped. The price I paid for making This Charming Lab non-exclusive is that everyone signed on to pursue their own agenda, rather than enacting the co-op set-up I hoped would manifest; and, rather than huddling in a corner for warmth, everyone claimed our corner for their own and went out of their way to thwart, hoodwink, and one-up everyone else.
Fast-forward four years— the PFS shows are underway at the Highwire Gallery. The four-person management system in place (me-Mike-Jeremy-Nick) was unique; but, on a day-to-day basis, it was really myself and Mike Land exerting the most strenuous efforts and pulling the boldest, foxiest moves to make the shows (and the general PFS scene) happen. My management skills by then were well-honed; and, because I’d gained the requisite skill in ego-juggling, the shows often took the form of hyper-aesthetic three-ring circuses. Were we exclusive? The weird riff on this form of PFS and exclusivity is that Mike and I especially went out of our way to demonstrate an expansive sensibility in our PFS-related dealings; nevertheless, the four of us together on the bar circuit was so unique an admixture of looks and temperaments, that our very collective magnetism could be repulsive, and we, as a social nexus, wound up effortlessly excluding anyone in our path who couldn’t deal with four highly educated, tall, thug-ist, brown haired, brown eyed, highly sexed, promiscuous, non-dealing, straight-shooting aesthetes with a penchant for seduction, fast action, bacchanalian reverie, and general impetuous combustibility.
As needs be made clear, neither Abs nor Mary knew themselves to be “PFS” artists; I stuck the label PFS on my Aughts friends and lovers, to make clear both the coherence, on aesthetic levels, and the cohesiveness of what was created among us in Aughts Philly. Now that PFS has migrated from the Highwire, four-guy orientation to Adam-Abs-Mary-Jeremy (retaining half-integrity in the process, or two-thirds; Abs and Mary both had some Highwire involvement), I have to say that it is difficult not to disclose a revelation of pure, unadulterated artistic exclusivity in what/who is being represented— the enlightened elitist/classicist orientation I have already brought to the surface and addressed, which can only express enthusiasm for and identification with the most sublime/Mandarin-ite cultural products, egalitarianism be damned. If anyone is an outsider in this context, it is Jeremy- his studied flaneur pose tended to disdain the haute, in favor of the quotidian and the arbitrary. With Abs, Mary, and myself, we set the bar as high as our boundless idealism and stern concentration-ethic could set it; and, what creates real, durable exclusivity in the arts over long periods of time is just this kind of steel-willed ambition, not to sell, not to hit demographics, not to create a new self-image, not to deal drugs covertly, but to create on the highest possible level, against those whose cultural small-mindedness knows no bounds. If I sound sanctimonious, it is for the simple reason that the highest, most durable art and artistic expression was literally sacred and sanctified for/to us. And the only business an artist has being exclusive is if what they’ve created lives up to a standard of centuries: not of months, years, or decades. Again, I fall, I bleed, I pontificate, but the fact remains: the last, permanent four-artist line-up must be an exclusive one, because, having created extremely rigorous and serious art out of the same social, sexual, temporal and geographical context, no one can get anywhere near us. I pant, I tremble, I expire.
For PFS, as a collective, to cut through the blarney, all the blarneying levels of post-modernity as a construct, we chose a tack of extremity, extreme disobediance- enlightened elitism/classicism, expressed with edges left in of doubt, foreboding, ghostly/apparitional presences, which accrued to all of us as we ploughed through the Aughts in Philadelphia. It's not just that, as has previously been stated, we skipped intermediate steps from post-modern comic auto-destruct modes to our own version of centuries-encompassed-from-America apotheosis - the lot of us, individually and together, were little thugs, and, in an ironic fashion, the "thug" image of Philadelphia in the American press does work for PFS. Elitist/classicist/thug-ism- that's a new one for the American art scene to deal with, and one which (to my knowledge) has never been seen in America before.
Dovetailing with this, it needs to be said, for those who care- despite the non-encumbrance of socio-sexual and socio-aesthetic freedom in Aughts Philly, the landscape we inhabited was not without violence. That's one constituent level of the PFS aesthetic which should make New York cringe, whether they then opt to turn away or not- the edge expressed around carnality, where sex and death manifest simultaneously, and the urgency around carnality and its contexts carries with it darkling undercurrents of physical violence, murder, mayhem, and the dissolution of boundaries which renders these things cognitively discrete.
If I stand like a thug behind our collective thug-ism, it's because the elitism/classicism built into our creations' formality and formal renderings in general leant (and lends) the entire PFS enterprise enough elegance and starkly imaginative gorgeousness that whoever in the United States elects to butt their heads against our brick walls will probably lose a substantial amount of blood. The whole broke-down contextualization of PFS might be a joke if we weren't also funnier than Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Andres Serrano, Bruce Nauman, Judy Chicago, Miranda July, and the rest of the semi-serious New York joke crew, who (their master narrative runs) make us laugh to ourselves in our despair, or make us laugh now to despair later, but may have to face a long-term socio-historical prognosis of cat-calls and thrown tomatoes, from a Campbell's soup can or not.
Another important level of awareness, for those interested in PFS, and the unique congeries of contexts around us, socially and sexually- PFS, and, in fact, all the major Philadelphia Renaissance sectors, were as completely and totally "street" as we could possibly be. We weren't watching Philly street-life from the sidelines and taking notes- most of us spent most of the Aughts on the front-lines. By the time I wrote Apparition Poems, the vitality of Aughts Philly street-life was receding into entropy and atrophy- but the book, nonetheless, is a reaction to a decade spent living in the street, as it were- and doing so by maintaining at least some thug-level street-smart survival skills, against the dealers, imposters, and clowns who perpetually threatened me, and us.
In fact, given how tight certain restraints are on Philly street-life, it is amazing to me that we were granted a solid decade to play around in. I did feel, especially in the early Aughts, a sense of being personally charmed- that when I walked and rode the Philly streets, a beneficent cosmic force was covering me, encasing me in a kind of shield- nothing could hurt me or touch me unless I wanted it to. I was young, of course, and wrong- but standing at the corner of 13th and Ellsworth in South Philly at 2 am, or walking home at dawn from Nemon Buckery's Halloween party on 49th Street to 21st and Race, that sense of being guarded was acute. Abs, Mary, Jeremy, all seemed to feel the same way- and we would hit the streets, go anywhere and do anything. Had we not been thugs, or at least partly carried ourselves as such, I'm sure someone would've killed us, and PFS, before we began; and there's nothing soft about our body of work, either.
Fit Audience Though Strange: Skipping Steps, Sublimity, and PFS
The manner in which Schopenhauer defines "sublimity"- an aesthetic object which simultaneously seduces and threatens the human will- is as good a starting point as any for attempting to come to grips with the body of artistic work left by the Philly Free School. In the paradigm shift from post-modernity to new modes of self-consciously high art, we skipped several steps- the most obvious step skipped being representations of the merely beautiful or charming, as (again) defined by Schopenhauer. By building sublimity into "The Lost Twins," here shown, Apparition Poems, and the rest, we assured ourselves a reaction from beleaguered post-modernists, of extreme fear, mistrust, and loathing- and, for all the positive wheels turning around us, their continued and continual silence in our direction signifies this extreme fear, mistrust, and loathing.
"The Lost Twins," in particular, manifests so many levels of sublimity that it seems impossible that Abby should've painted it, even in Aughts Philly, against an aesthetic back-drop which not only devalued (and devalues) painting, but one strictly focused on what I might call, as a legitimate inversion, the anti-sublime- ironic conceptual jokes, cloying politically correct installation art which aims to press all the most facile, cozy PC-consonant buttons; video art, fanciful and Dada-esque in its execution, which, underneath a patina of artistic daring, plays to the self-congratulatory peanut galleries of curators, investors, and art press bound by a play by the po-mo rules mentality.
Make no mistake- Schopenhauer's sublime is menacing- and, by daring to be a menace, and one not to be lightly dismissed on any level, Abs guaranteed herself an indefinite media/gallery/museum quarantine. That is, perhaps, one reason Abs sees her twins as "lost"- they dare to engage painting in all its primal and primordial (sublime) splendor- and, as voyeurs to their voyeurism, we overhear their overhearing what the illustrious past of painting has been, and how stranded in the darkness of ignorance it has become- devalued by charlatans, perpetuated by tepid quacks, shrouded in the chiaroscuro of an uncertain future.
"The Lost Twins," in fact, may be taken as a dazzlingly complex self-portrait, of an artist not menaced into silence by depth, shadow, and thematic complexity. If anything in the 20th century compares, including Picasso, I am not aware of it and have not seen it. Abby's sublimity has a brick wall quality, the implacable quality of a work of resolutely high art, which compromises nothing to a desire to please or sell.
The parallelism between myself and Abby is profound- in terms of pendulum-swinging, from the dross of thoughtlessness and post-modern cliche to the loftiest, most cognitively challenging form of high art, Apparition Poems enacts the same kind of internal drama that "The Lost Twins" does. Apparition Poems has received reviews, but none which evince any critical authority- if the book is to be reviewed by critics with no thorough knowledge of Keats and Wordsworth, or even Yeats and Eliot, then it is easy to get the feeling of what the losses imposed by post-modernity on literature are. A typical literary critic, from this context, can't put Apparition Poems in any perspective, can't see it clearly or begin to define its parameters in an original way, formally or thematically; in short, the English-language literary critics in 2014 other than myself are largely cretinous imbeciles; and the scholars, lost in pointless, meandering digressions and perfunctory quote gathering, are not much better.
One thinks of Milton's "fit audience though few" paradigm, and us, and is then hit on the other side of it by the fact that we do have some visibility and popularity- our work securely (and, truth be told, glamorously) locked into place on Internet Archive, high numbers for our books and pdfs all over the Net. It's an awkward situation, man...very awkward indeed. By pole-vaulting over the ridiculous and into the sublime, and not making any concessions to the ridiculous, PFS has created an extended moment and a socio-aesthetic context so stark and challenging that, for the time being, only the venturesome may approach us in good faith. I invert for us, Milton's paradigm into: "fit audience though strange."
Notes on Subsistent Matter as a Triadic Number Sequence (1-2-0)
Regarding subsistent matter: note that the number sequence 1-2-0 is capable of representing how cognitions, conditioned by the constraints of existence (time/space/causality), must attempt to represent to themselves what is subsistence/subsistent matter, which cannot be completely represented within these constraints-
In this context, any copula becomes "subsistent matter is (1)- subsistent matter is not (2)- fall past representational limits (0), which potentially erases 1-2 (1-2), or may not erase it (1-2-0), etc.
In ontological terms, Kether can be designated as Idea or Idealism, in its pure state; Malkuth as Will; both within the formal parameters of existence (space, time, causality); Tiphareth and Yesod are both within the formal parameters of (mere) subsistence; void-space matter, causality, substance; Tiphareth as matter stable-within-subsistence; Yesod as matter unstable within subsistence.
As for formulated paths, Kether-Tiphareth as a chiasmus- Kether down to Tiphareth is the path of philosophy; Tiphareth up to Kether the path of science; Yesod-Malkuth as a chiasmus- both paths, up and down, express degradation, decomposition and decay; Yesod-Tiphareth as a chiasmus- from Tiphareth down to Yesod is the path of damnation; from Yesod up to Tiphareth the path of redemption.
Tiphareth and Yesod, which represent subsistence past existence, are the two most protected stations on the Tree of Life; the formal parameters of existence (space, time, causality) which bind the other stations subject their energies to deluges of distraction and impurity; Tiphareth, also, represents unimaginable harmony, while Yesod represents unimaginable discord; neither form/un-form of energy is directly accessible to human consciousness.
A postulate derived from a reading of Schopenhauer
Substance, causality, that-which-is, can be represented from two sides- as abstract object for a perceiving subject, who projects the a priori forms of time and space onto it; that is, from the side of existence, the posited existence of substance, matter, causality; and, represented from the side of existence, matter extends infinitely (or into infinity) for a perceiving subject into an infinite past and future, and through an infinite present moment; or then as a non-object, perceived by no perceiving subject, not subject to the a priori formal imposition of time and space; that is, from the side of pure subsistence, the posited pure subsistence of subtance, matter, causality; and represented from an imagination of pure subsistence, matter takes on a "void form," as self-subsistent, or as an unimaginable void, subsistence within a void state; or as merely subsistent matter; so that matter, substance, causality, without a subject's imposition, both is and is not, must be and must not be.
The Baby Boomer generation in America were, and are, very funny about education, high art, and the humanities. Many, perhaps most, were weaned on notions of the sufficient adequacy of pop culture to represent culture in general, and cultural diversity- and their generational narrative, while heavy on pop culture iconicity (Bob Dylan and the Beatles, for example), is short on the kind of humanities achievements which stand a reasonable chance of becoming enduring monuments for the human race. This set of values and value judgments is what they passed along to us- along with some deliberately mixed signals as regards high art, the humanities, and education. The Boomer jive-talk around the higher arts, specifically, does a neat card trick movement towards proving the impossibility of pursuing high art in this country; and disavowing the entire rich history of high art into the bargain. The first card trick move is simple- if you bother to get an arts education, if you bother to learn in-depth the history of your art, and if you have the degrees to prove it, then that makes you an academic, man, and thus ineligible to create serious art yourself. Look, they say collectively, at Bob Dylan- he's their paradigm model (especially Boomer media sources) of the archetypal American artistic genius. His (they say) raw, untutored, and free-wheeling lyrical genius expressed the tensions, frustrations, and will-to-socio-political power of a whole generation (man)- all books and formal training would've done is bog him down in the namby-pamby cowardice and pointlessly ornate armature of Olde Europe.
Yet, to make a too-long story short, Dylan sucks- his lyrics can't stand as serious poetry, next to Apparition Poems on one side, and Eliot, Yeats, and English Romanticism on the other; even as song lyrics, their lack of discipline and often laughable incoherence rank him behind Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, and others of his peers; and the quality of his melodies is not particularly superior, even in a rock music context. That is, of course, leaving his voice out of the equation. But back to the Boomer card trick (a kind of Satanic inversion of Anselm's Ontological Argument)- we've established that seriously educated people are instantly and forcefully disqualified from being serious artists- yet, if you want to pursue anything in a high art context, you have to have some kind of education, man. You can't be uneducated and just paint, or write poetry, or novels, or sculpt. You can see how the Boomer card trick winds up in a double-bind- anyone who seriously tries to pursue high art is either too educated, or not educated enough to do so. So, here's the solution, say the Boomers- don't pursue the higher arts. No one ever faults Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney for not being educated enough- and the cognitive demands imposed by haute culture are just too heavy, man.
In totum, the cultural ground this generation gained in the late twentieth century has been, and remains, extremely ill-occupied- the simulacrum of serious art, rather than the genuine article, and always (after the Eighties) wrapped in a sentimental, sentimentalizing, self-congratulatory package. PFS clearly did not, and do not, buy their card trick swindle in regards to education and the humanities- it is grounded in fear, naivete, narcissism (collective and personal), and such extraordinary cognitive laziness that even to grant them fully human status seems a stretch after a certain point. The Baby Boomers are, and have largely always been, brats and little monsters. They've now had several decades to meaningfully distinguish themselves, and have failed to do so. If PFS has been able to turn the tables on their Rolling Stone magazine level mentality, it is because too many people born after the Sixties have noted how very vapid and vacuous their whole generational mold and paradigm-set is; and the task of deconstructing what's left standing in America during and after the recession is our task at hand.
Get With the Program : Context and the Philadelphia Renaissance
As of 2014, the contextual situation around the Philadelphia Renaissance, the Philly Free School, and Aughts Philly is an intriguing story in itself. Of all the contingencies which could destabilize culture and cultural contexts, the Internet has to be one of the most contentious; if used properly, it can grant an unprecedented amount of freedom, autonomy, and expressive power to savvy cultural auteurs; yet, in doing so, it thwarts mainstream media outlets and their overseers, who desire a certain amount of hegemonous power over the collective psyche of the American populace. Because the Internet has developed a good deal of upward momentum over mainstream media outlets, the national psyche, and the American cultural scene to accompany it, now subsist in a fractured, uncomfortable state of imbalance, exasperated and exacerbated by the deprivations of the recession. Innovations in methods/modes of dissemination of cultural data- in this case, the Philadelphia Renaissance pdfs which, now securely locked into Internet Archive, have given us whatever name and status we have- have no echo in possible innovations set in place by the mainstream media and their repositories. In short, the Internet has given us (and everyone) the opportunity to successfully, painstakingly and artfully "go rogue." To the American press corps, PFS cannot be anything/anyone but rogues- our terrain, aesthetically and on socio-sexual levels, is unfamiliar and hostile to them, our methods/modes of dissemination not germane. It also needs to be noted that high art/"haute" movements are generally not given much air-time in America; after the Abstract Expressionists, the Beats, and Warhol's Factory (all drilled into public consciousness decades ago), we've seen very little along these lines, and been asked to accept and embrace a pop culture world of dopey L.A. actors, rock half-artists, and various demagogue smarm-fests.
In fact, the media problems PFS faces are much more extensive than this; if there's a reason you won't find Abs (affixed to this post is her "The First Real Top") in "Modern Painters" or "Art in America," its because these publications are largely fraudulent fronts for rich families and business interests, using post-modern and other art instrumentally. The Internet era has hit these old-school art publications very hard, and they generally can't be found anywhere but at centralized urban Barnes & Nobles anyway. As we're on our way up, they will be on their way down; as will cornball century XX staples like the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, and the Nation, for whom the sublimity of Apparition Poems is anathema and the tininess of the pantheon of faux-entrenched American poets, in all their blatant and total inferiority to Apparition Poems, the kind of business-oriented commodity they want to sell. These are all closed fortresses; and they are now largely Fortresses of Solitude for aging Culture Lite and Business-Culture Supermen. We will win and they will lose; but as long as they continue to occupy some cultural space in America, a totalized picture of fragmentation, non-cohesiveness, and cacophonous incoherence will be difficult to avoid. The light in the darkness PFS, and the Philadelphia Renaissance in general, has to shine is intense, but also strange, uncanny, and warped towards a sense of mystery- how and why we did what we did is strange and uncanny, and odd fodder to set alongside not only the Reese Witherspoons of the world, but the C.D. Wrights and the Jeff Koons. We lived as captives of the depths, and the deep- even our happiest moments of expansion had some depth in them- even our bacchanals. So, as we roll up on America's collective psyche, the context around/of this confrontation is, as the Brits would say, bloody odd; perhaps the oddest single confrontation in American history. Philadelphia itself, under close long-term scrutiny, is extremely odd- and it is poetic justice, once Philadelphia is profoundly seen, for America that this is where we're calling from. Sometimes, in human history, the truth will out.
As much as I was, and am, a participant in the Philadelphia Renaissance, there is something to me very inscrutable about it- probably because, as an organic conglomeration of socio-aesthetic energies (rather than a calculated, "bought out" bid to occupy cultural and commercial space), its movements (backwards, forwards, and sideways) are unpredictable, even loopy. Thus it was that by 2009, my attitude towards Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Renaissance had undergone many modifications. Because I was moving up in the ranks as a heavily published and publishing avant-garde poet (my first print full-length text had come out through Otoliths in 2007), and was doing so with no particular support from the university whose fellowship was largely funding me (Temple), I was in a very ambiguous social position. The cohesive, "Highwire" mid-Aughts form of PFS had collapsed; Mary and I united again for '07 and then separated by '08; I had largely lost touch with Abs. The Philly avant-profs seemed undecided as to whether I should be recognized by them or not; by this time, I was not only publishing alongside them, but when a lengthy review of my second print book appeared in Jacket Magazine that summer, it seemed to me that I had brokered a high enough position for myself that I would be fine, thank you, with or without their sanctimonious blessings. The popular series I had going on my blog Stoning the Devil at the time, regarding "post-avant" as a possible movement in poetry, confirmed this- I figured prominently in dozens of high-level theoretical online arguments, and my name was being used in conjunction with many older poets, from established generations.
Then, by August, my final hook-up with Abs coincided with the beginning of my second fellowship year. I didn't have to teach, and had already passed the dread comp exams, which did its sometimes wonted task of upping my IQ. As I prepared to move my writing into interstellar overdrive, it was difficult not to notice that the rich personal life I had enjoyed all through the Aughts had dissipated into a fragmentary state. Mary, against everyone's advice and wishes, had left Philly to do an MFA in New York; but we corresponded, and she left comments on my blog with some frequency. The absence of Mary, Abs, and the other PFS characters left a vacuum in my life, now filled by a rigorous dedication to forging ahead on all fronts as a writer and theorist. What I wanted to do was to expand the Apparition Poems section of my Blazevox e-book "Beams" into a full-length manuscript; and to do this by broadening the parameters of what could be called an Apparition Poem. I noticed the poems getting richer, more assured, both formally and thematically, towards an attempt at the timelessness I loved in Keats' Odes and sonnets:
Why does no one tell the truth?
Because the truth is (more often
than not) absurd. No one wants
to look absurd, so no one tells
the truth, which creates even
more absurdity; worlds grow
into self-parody, systems grow
down into gutters, whole epochs
are wasted in perfidy; Cassandra
finally opens her mouth, no one
listens, they want her to star in
a porno, set her up with a stage-
name, she learns not to rant,
visions cloud her eyes, cunt —
Despite what I write, there's
not much sex in the world —
walk down Walnut Street,
take an inventory — how
much sex are these people
getting? This one fat, this
one ugly, this one old, this
one a baby, a couple married
twenty years, or ten, or five —
not much sex in these lives.
But media, movies thrive
on representing this tiny
demographic: single, young,
promiscuous. Crowds come.
All through September and October, an eerie feeling hung in the air around me, and around Center City in general- a sense of something misplaced, and of energies moving in strange subterranean directions. For two weeks in November, Philly enjoyed unusually warm weather- I couldn't write, and suffered a minor nervous breakdown- strange visions of grisly murders, alternating with a sense that Center City was suffering a major, unwanted L.A. invasion; and that many of my new acquaintances were stooges of one form or another. If blood had been spilt around me, I hadn't seen it- but, by late '09, I felt it intuitively.
By Thanksgiving, my feet touched earth again; and that's when Apparition Poems really started to take shape, especially when I hit the twin towers of the collection:
terse as this is, it is
given to us in bits
from rocky slopes,
of this I can only
say nothing comes
with things built in,
it's always sharp edges,
crevices, crags, precipice,
abrupt plunges into "wants,
what subsists between us
happens in canyons lined
in blue waters where this
slides down to a dense
bottom, I can't retrieve
you twice in the same
way, it must be terse
because real is terse,
tense because it's so
frail, pine cones held
in a child's hand, snapped.
Two hedgerows with a little path
between — to walk in the path like
some do, as if no other viable route
exists, to make Gods of hedgerows
that make your life tiny, is a sin of
some significance in a world where
hedgerows can be approached from
any side — I said this to a man who
bore seeds to an open space, and he
nodded to someone else and whistled
an old waltz to himself in annoyance.
I discovered then that the ghastly view from my studio apartment at 23rd and Arch (I looked out at parking lots, billboards, and the big black PECO Utilities Building) could be improved by bringing down my slatted shades, which created a "noir" effect and made these winter months (and those in years to follow) more bearable. This is also the specific moment when I discovered online the cache of masterpieces which Abby Heller-Burnham had left through the Aughts- I republished many of them on Stoning the Devil instantly, and hailed Abs as the genius she was. Abs by that time was haggard, and ten sheets to the wind- I don't think she noticed, and if she did notice I doubt she would've cared. The cumulative weight of this congeries I called "visionary deadness"- built into it, the allure of states of decomposition and decay, the macabre, and the fight to survive in a blasted landscape. The recession by this time was entrenched, and bearing down on all of us. As of four years later, many of us still occupy this space, as we wait for some sun to peak out from behind the clouds; though we also know that states of decomposition and decay can make for more than decent art, as Abs foretold in a prescient way in the mid-Aughts.
One quirk which made Aughts Philly interesting is that most of the Philadelphia Renaissance players, while they made little or no effort to court mainstream media attention, did display a penchant for exhibitionistic behaviors, postures, and attitudes. The immediate mea culpa is branded right on my "I am as wayward as Shelley" tee-shirt, made for me by my second wife Melissa in early '01. This contradiction- a flair we all had for dramatic self-presentation, while also maintaining a stubbornly independent streak which made it seem a sell-out to us to appeal to the press to legitimize our work- fueled the collective fire of Aughts Philly, towards greater and greater demonstrations of gonzo sangfroid. Mike and I got lucky at/with the Highwire Gallery, who helped us take our PFS shows there to the highest possible level of gonzo extremity; as long as we provided the booze (including, owing to our outrageous desire to get PFS audiences off, not only wine and beer but bottles of cheap whiskey and vodka), the Highwire curators brought treats for us- twice, a functioning nitrous tank, and once, hash brownies.
Congealed into this context, everyone brought their own gonzo predilections to the proverbial table- with Nick Gruberg, it had to do with a nuanced, broadly philosophical drunken professor role he liked to play. With Sir Gruberg plumbing (or spelunking) deep into his cups, out mosied discursive ramblings (Nick, remember, graduated with honors from U of Chicago) meant to establish his complete and total intellectual superiority to you, whoever you thought you were or might be. And let it not be said that Nick and Mike Land didn't perform what seemed to be rehearsed routines- Nick abuses Mike; Mike knocks back a bunch of shots and leaves the table, exasperated (this often happened at McGlinchey's); Mike returns to the table, and Nick begins abusing Mike again; they both slam back more shots; Jeremy finds a way of annoying both of them, and they begin abusing him; Jeremy plays pater, and does his "now, now, children..." routine, which they pointedly ignore, exasperating Jeremy; by the time we hit 15th Street again, we'd be so comically rambunctious that no one could remember who was abusing who, or why; then, off we'd go to somebody's house party, and more variations of the same.
Abby and Mary were rambunctious on a different level- when Mary wanted to make an impression, which she usually did, her moves were all Grace Kelly, "ice-queen vogue"; its just that Mary and I were often all over each other in public, because this was Aughts Philly and that's just the way we felt, babes. As has been said before, but bears repeating, Mary had it, where sexual magnetism was concerned- when she entered a room, gallery opening or not, she reached out to find everyone's sex buttons, and pressed them, then waited for the fireworks to start. They usually would, and did. Poor Abs was gorgeous, but tiny, and couldn't always keep up; yet few of us were unfamiliar with the sight of Abs moving in for the kill, with the right kind of girls and boys; including me, the night Abs and I spent dirty dancing upstairs at the Khyber in early '05. I would be lying if I said there wasn't a level of let's see her be Grace Kelly about this for both of us; facts are facts, Mary could be actively sadistic as a seductress. As predicted, Mary did find my early '05 affair with Abs outrageous- but it was karma she earned. That's why, when I saw the movie "Closer," I laughed- welcome to Mary-land. Was she also a complex character beyond all the overblown seductiveness? Yes she was- or Abs and I wouldn't have bothered to endure all her garbage. As for Nick Gruberg's garbage, that's one split which, by the end of the Aughts and for most of us, was unavoidable- though I know "gonzo" wasn't his whole life (he started grad school for linguistics roughly when I began with my University Fellowship at Temple), that's all, after a certain point, he would condescend to show us Aughts Philly stalwarts.
In retrospect, what was gonzo about Aughts Philly in general was how individualistic all of us were- a bunch of forces coalesced and made it possible for us to write our own rulebooks and define ourselves and our self-mythologies any way we damn well pleased. We had more real freedom than any other group of artists in American history- some of it we had to fight for, some we did not. One of our freedoms was the right to be extreme, and to live dangerously- and we did both with aplomb. Had we been exposed to media fangs at a young age, much of this freedom would've been taken from us, and replaced with bogus imperatives and pointless restrictions. I'm very glad and grateful Aughts Philly didn't happen this way; as the slow-burn towards all that media biz begins now. As a final note: the affixed pic was taken at a cafe on Avenue A in Manhattan's East Village in October '05 by Amy King.
Iconicity, Half-Art, and the Philadelphia Renaissance
The Biblical commonplace of ther term "false idol," and its significations, is pertinent as a tangent to the Philly Free School, the Philadelphia Renaissance, and what we were attempting to achieve in Aughts Philly. If I call the entire twentieth century an era of false idols, or false icons, it is because the drastically reduced profile of major high art consonance in said century created a cultural vacuum largely filled by popular culture entertainment business professionals, whose version of art I call "half-art," and whose manufactured iconicity filled an expanse of the Western cultural public sphere much better filled, as it may be in this new century, by the likes of us. The stock-in-trade of the twentieth century's false idols- what I call "half-art"- has, as a constituent structural feature, an imperative to fulfill of finding a way to appeal to the lowest public common denominator, while remaining representatively somehow "artistic" enough to satisfy at least part of the educated populace as well. Rock music, as a popular art form, and at its highest levels, seemed to work from this premise, and the manufacturing of rock music icons initiated the profile of the consummate "half-artist"- a figure thoughtful enough, in their life and work, to appear wise and/or venerable; but whose cultural expression remained crass enough, and uninformed by the history of serious art enough, to be easily comprehensible to broad masses of people, thus insuring both wide, continued interest and substantial profit margins. There is a utility value to half-art, and half-artists; engaging their work does not require an educated cultural background, and half-art grants the unrefined a handle on having at least some culture. But the abasement of the late twentieth century consisted of the fact that Western culture had lost all impetus to anything but half-art, and half-artists- they were granted an extremely inordinate amount of cultural power and prestige.
Part of the issue was what was happening in the higher arts themselves- the insipid vacuity of the movement called "post-modernity" created a congeries of circumstances which suggested that even would-be high artists were working to make high art obsolescent. They not only made a fetish of half-artists; they indicated with the chips they put down, on what could be permanent and durable, that half-art would triumph over serious, passionately engaged high art. Popular culture was made to appear formidable and substantial, in a false light; that it could be a hinge to the forms of advanced cognition which inhere in serious high art, and serious pursuit of the humanities in general. All of the major figures of the Philadelphia Renaissance were raised on half-art, and its pantheon of false idols- many of us were even fervent believers, in our youth, of these all-purpose mind-toys. Yet, what the arrival of PFS as a cultural influence in America creates is a novel, unexpected, and very potent power-block- a generation of educated, accomplished, manifestly historically aware and major high art consonant artistis, who are (suprisingly) attractive and entertaining enough (in the romanticism of their lives/adventures) to satisfy half-art/ pop culture imperatives too; and who are more worthy of iconic status than anything the second half of the twentieth century had to offer, from Elvis and Bruce to Warhol and Ashbery.
On another level, and strictly speaking, very few human beings deserve to be made icons- it is often forgotten that the etymology of the word "icon" is religious, and used in conjunction with figures who have manifested miracles, and who devoted their lives to aiding mankind on the most profound spiritual levels. By granting, say, Madonna iconic status, the twentieth century confessed many things- grounding in a pagan, primitivized form of secularism, which inverted frivolity and gross exhibitionism into religious virtue; a maintained state of absolute spiritual emptiness; a sense that it was permissable to let the public sphere be run without any undue responsibility to the general public; and a patina of prolonged semantic insensitivity, which reduced discourses to buzz-words and catch-phrases. Applying these complexes to us, the American press corps has only the most abysmal reasons for ignoring PFS- in many ways, we were (and are) everything they despise all at once. America in general is unused to anything but half-art; and we are aesthetic whole-hogs. What I want to propose, in 2014, is that an American populace, weathered and chastened by the recession, may be ready to move culturally beyond false idols and half-art- ready for the genuine ("whole") article, and from within the United States. The half-art level of PFS is supplied by our personalities and biographies- the narrative of our lives, which in Aughts Philly was outrageous enough to make more than decent pop culture fodder. After a certain point, the body of work we've created is strong and varied enough that some press corps will have to pick us up, American or not; and a twenty-first century narrative initiated, against the juvish twentieth century master narrative, in all its bought-out aridity, which will make clear just how fulsome we were.
As cultural mythologies develop, not just names and bodies of work but places take on a good amount of significance. We cannot think of Picasso and the Cubists without an association with Gertrude Stein's parlor; Byron and Shelley are eternally rogue English ex-pats living on the coast of Italy; and Milton shares his Cambridge, in all its parochial splendor, with Wordsworth. As to what places will be associated with the Philadelphia Renaissance and its key figures, the Last Drop Coffeehouse, at 13th and Pine, should be highly ranked. All of us spent a good amount of time there- with its high, coffered ceiling, large wraparound windows and, in its heyday, earthy green-on-red coloration scheme, it represented our entire sensibility, from imported European classicism to refined American urban hipsterism, and made our socio-sexual instincts tangible. I liked the Drop so much that I set my only extended piece of literay fiction, the novella "Letters To Dead Masters" there. I changed the name from the Last Drop to the Grind (and, oddly enough, there was a "Daily Grind" coffeeshop in Nineties State College), and altered character names, but "Letters" is, among other things, a portrait of what the Drop was like during the years the book was being written ('09-'11). By this time, the Philadelphia Renaissance was in limbo mode; many key players were AWOL, and the energy in the Philly arts scene was being drastically weakened by the great recession. Yet, through '11, the Drop remained oddly dramatic- and I wrote the book partly out of the energy generated by the characters there. The protagonist of the book, however, is not me- he shares my literary bent, but lives (as I do not) in a fuzzy, mellow haze, where even deep rumination doesn't have to lead to anything intense; and he isn't particularly sexualized, either, but observes carnality in a detached fashion.
The central, ironic conceit of the novella is that this protagonist is sleepwalking through a series of situations at the Grind in which he has been granted a starring role without knowing it; he registers the fact that he's been used and abused, but always as a disinterested observer; and he alone doesn't understand how disruptive his presence is. We realize, at a certain point, that he probably wouldn't care if he did- his imaginative life in invested in communing with literature's illustrious past heroes, as represented by the English Romantic poets he dictates his epistles to (Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, George Gordon/Lord Byron, William Wordsworth). The characters who pass in and out of his focus from the Drop are mostly non-literary, and represent urban American archetypes- Dana, the cute barrista, is perpetually out to bamboozle, swindle, seduce, and dramatically engage him. As a synecdoche of indie-world, she feels that the Grind is her turf, and that this irritatingly vague protagonist needs to play by her rules. The punk band who hang out at the Grind, the Fugazi Fighters, are companionable to him up to a point; he represents no ostensible threat to them; but they, too, eventually become frustrated by Dana's obsession with him; as do the resident DJs; and as does Tibby, the Grind's token would-be fiction avant-gardist. What gives "Letters" its heft are, in fact, the protagonist's ruminations; pitched to a very specific frequency, between the exuberance of the Philly Renaissance years and the entropic misery of the early Teens. An "epistolary" novel (or novella) is one in letters; as a literary form, an epistolary novel, when well executed, can create a sense of warmth and intimacy; I think "Letters" achieves this. The hot-house which was the Last Drop in Aughts Philly deserves to be brought into this charmed textual circle of warmth and intimacy- its a place we all felt warmly about. It encompassed everything we were with grace, and charm.