Get With the Program : Context and Neo-Romanticism
As of 2014, the contextual situation around the Neo-Romanticism, 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 modicum 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 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/renegade. 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.
In fact, the media problems PFS faces are much more extensive than this; if there is a reason you won't find Abs (affixed to this post is her "The First Real Top") in "Modern Painters" or "Art in America," it is because these publications are largely fraudulent fronts for conglomerate interests, using post-modern and other art instrumentally. The Internet era has pummeled these old-school art publications, and they generally cannot be found anywhere but at centralized urban Barnes and 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 (and the Jazz Ode before it) is anathema and the tininess of the pantheon of faux-entrenched American poets, in all their blatant and total inferiority, the kind of conglomerate-oriented commodity they want to push. These are all closed fortresses; and they are now largely Fortresses of Solitude. I feel assured, 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 Neo-Romanticism 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- 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 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 are calling from.
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 Neo-Romanticism 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; my confrontations with Jenny Kanzler were inconclusive. 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 37 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 did not have to teach, and had already passed the dread comp exams, which did its sometimes wonted task of upping my IQ and (more importantly) steeling my nerves. 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 Philadelphia to do an MFA in New York; she had already earned a PAFA certificate; 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:
I want to last—
to be the last
of the last of
the last to be
taken by time,
but the thing
about time is
that it wants,
what it wants
is us, all of us
for all time’s
ways, sans “I,”
what I wants—
She hovers above planet
Earth, making strategies
for safe landings, but
able to see that she is
on planet Earth, watched
like a crazed cat, a
rat, or a tied-up mime, I
cannot save someone so
high up or far down, it’s
like a black thread about
to snap, as it strains
breaking point she
for champagne, to
bubbles lunge up to
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 could not write, and suffered a minor nervous breakdown, distinguished by strange visions of grisly murders and violence in general, 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 spilled around me, I had not 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 twin towers like these:
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 do not 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 compelling 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 displayed 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 Philly Free School audiences off, not only wine and beer but bottles of whiskey and vodka), the Highwire curators brought treats for us- twice, a functioning nitrous tank, and once, hash brownies.
Under this aegis, everyone brought their own gonzo predilections to the table- with Nick Gruberg, it had to do with a nuanced, broadly philosophical drunken professor role he liked to play. With Gruberg plumbing (or spelunking) deep into his cups, out poured 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 did not perform what seemed to be, after a fashion, rote 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 familias, and does his "now, now, children..." routine, which they pointedly ignore, exasperating Jeremy; by the time we hit 15th Street again, we would 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 often Grace Kelly moves; 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 rolled, 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 kinds of girls and boys; including me. 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 Maryland. Was she also a complex character beyond all the seductiveness? Yes she was- or Abs and I wouldn't have bothered to endure all her shit. 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 is 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 rule-books 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 public-exposure fangs at a young age, much of this freedom would've been taken from us, and replaced with bogus imperatives and pointless restrictions. I am very glad and grateful Aughts Philly and Neo-Romanticism did not 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, the month I established PFS Post (Philly Free School Post) online.
Iconicity, Half-Art, and the Philadelphia Renaissance
The Biblical commonplace of the 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 (on the surface) 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 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 toiling 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- the first generation of Neo-Romantics- 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 (and elsewhere) creates is a novel, unexpected, and very potent power-block- a generation of educated, accomplished, manifestly historically aware and major high art consonant artists, who are (surprisingly) 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 Presley and Bruce Springsteen 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 permissible 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. Consequently, 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 have created is strong and varied enough that some press corps will be compelled 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.
With or without other Philly Free School constituents, or with PFS adjuncts like Jae Won Chung, Will Esposito, and Christian TeBordo, Philly-lit old guard stalwarts like Jim Cory, Alexandra Grilikhes, and Leonard Gontarek, and at venues which ranged from small-scale, intimate dens like Book Trader while it was still at 5th and South to the Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus (especially during the years I was finishing my degree at Penn), I did readings galore during the first half of the Aughts in Philly. I had a standard repertoire to draw from- among the flagship poems employed were three I had written in State College in '98- "Clean," "Prince," and "Disappear." Also, "Icarus in New York," which was written in NYC and published in American Writing 21."Clean" is the most serious, both formally and thematically- it can be taken as a queer poem par excellence (though the poem did not originate from queer experience per se), or an allegorical rendering of human frailty generally; and the meta-oratory level of the poem's construction and self-representation hinges it to the metaphysical conceits of Donne, Marvell, and Herbert. Plus, it was amusing enough that I could get a hearty laugh out of almost any crowd with it. "Prince" and "Disappear" were crowd-charmers, too- I had a more than decent show stopping and stealing ratio in those days.
The "Ode On Jazz," written in the fall of '02, also fulfilled many valuable public functions- expansively musical enough to work as high-level, high-maintenance ear-candy, three minutes long when read properly, it introduced audiences both to an interpretation of jazz and to Keats-sized formal ambition. "Ode On Psyche," completed in '01, a draft of which also appeared in American Writing in '02, fulfilled a similar imperative need I had. Certain nights stand out as extraordinary- one night in early '01, I read at Tritone with Matt Stevenson accompanying me on keyboards. Something clicked, and we achieved a kind of transcendental lift-off, and (I felt at the time) took our audience of 15-20 with us.
The Philly poetry reading circuit in the early-to-mid Aughts was limited, but had some points of interest. The PhillySound poets, ten years older than the wonted tag-team combo of myself and Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum, were very hyped on ruling their own roost, and subjecting all comers to their protocols. They were queer, and well-connected- to institutions like Penn and Temple, the Philly avant-professor crowd (DuPlessis, Perelman, Osman), and to the Poetry Project crowd in New York. Conversely, they viewed themselves as extremely "street," and prided themselves on writing in a street-consonant way. Their downfall, for us, was a rote and rigid insistence on being treated as absolutely aristocratic characters everywhere they went in Philly. To them, Jeremy and I were parvenu. Their version of Philly was South Philly working class, and anti-academic- its just that (as was noticed), because they constantly sought out the patronage of the avant-prof bourgeoisie to justify themselves, they were also easily dismissed as hypocrites, liars, and cowards; and by 2005, they were openly aping our moves. Nonetheless, we were always running into them, and C.A. Conrad, their reigning figurehead, worked with me at B & N. The American Poetry Review guys, Steve Berg and his cronies, were also around and, like Philly Sound, were such repulsively aristocratic characters that almost everyone just ignored them; while many of Berg's other cronies became my profs when I began my MFA at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire in 2004, and met Chris Goodrich and Mary Walker Graham; and, in anticipation of my University Fellowship and five years at Temple, I met Nick Moudry around this time too.
The online journal Hinge, edited by Marilyn Bess, also established itself as a presence for me in the early Aughts. Hinge was uniquely multi-media; it had feelers out to the visual art and musical Philadelphia communities as well, and, as such, the site was tilted towards poetry but also featured music and visual art. Hinge put on a show in the spring of 2004 in Northern Liberties at which I read, and which became the template for the first Philly Free School show at the Highwire Gallery that July. Between readers, bands (one of which, Lucky Dragons, was especially fascinating to me for their ambient version of electronic, computer-based music), and a freewheeling, slightly debauched atmosphere, the Hinge Northern Liberties show fulfilled the multi-media dream I had of creating/re-creating the Swinging London of my imagination. As to what I have on the Hinge Online site, now that it has been resurrected: the first page (from, I believe, 2001) features "Prince," "Disappear," and "Marriott Lane," all written in State College in '98; there is a 2003 page for the Keats inspired "On Love," which was very much about my life with Mary at the time; and on the third Hinge page from 2004, "Hamlet On Pine Street," which I debuted in a Perelman workshop at Penn, casts a light on the excesses of Aughts Philly, while "Technician of Tough Love" is my elegy for American Writing editor Alexandra, who died in 2003.
This liminal period, between This Charming Lab and the major '04-'06 PFS shows, was an interesting one for me- it coincides with the first two years I spent with Mary Harju (2001-2003), and Abs was around us constantly. As all the burgeoning Philadelphia Renaissance/Neo-Romanticism stalwarts fumbled youthfully around for direction, most of us had a sense of upward progression- that we were working towards something unique and worthwhile. It was a time of creative gestation and warmly-lived life for us. To the extent that This Charming Lab was a failed version of Philly Free School, I was gaining competence skills, on different levels, as collateral benefit from the readings we were doing, and the pace of things for all of us was leisured and comfortable. If my writing then was comparatively directionless, I was still planting creative seeds to bear distinctive, representative fruit later. Final note: Abs took this picture of me at a Radio Eris gig somewhere on Chestnut Street in 2002.
As I have now written, Abby achieved her artistic apotheosis during the "el primo" Philadelphia Renaissance years ('04-'06). If I didn't come into my own as a literary artist at the time, what I was producing was better than bits and pieces. One of my tangents at the time, following finishing my degree at U of Penn and doing readings at the Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus, was beginning a low residency MFA at New England College, in Henniker, New Hampshire, where I met Chris Goodrich, Mary Walker Graham, Melissa Severin, Becky Hilliker, and others. One poem I was chipping away at was what was later to become the Apparition Poem about myself and Mary Harju in Montreal in '03. Mary, it might as well be said, was prone to tantrums (even more so than Abs), and the one she threw in Montreal was particularly horrifying- we were two artists alone in a foreign country, and the logistics of trying to get Mary to a hospital were daunting for me. Luckily, I managed to soothe her out of it. Abs and Mary were both volatile- one reason that the year they spent living together at 42nd and Baltimore (2003) after Mary moved out of 4325 (which earned its own odal apostrophe in '04) was a patience-trying one for everyone around them, including me.
If I have to offer, in retrospect, some proof that I knew there was a grandiosity and an epic quality to Aughts Philly, even as it was happening, it would probably be "Feel," the "Howl" pastiche I spent two years ('05-'06) working on. Not having gained real, steady competence in inventing literary forms yet, I liked the Ginsberg form (post-Whitmanic) to plug into to tell the story of our lives. If the poem ends in despair and negation, rather than Ginsberg's radical (and shallow) affirmations, it is important to remember that the current ('14) recession was already very much a looming presence in the mid-Aughts; and, as high as we were, the darkness of the American economy's collapse and the Bush/Cheney regime did impinge on our fun sometimes. I debuted the first draft of "Feel" at Molly Russakoff's bookstore in the Italian Market in South Philly not long before I wrote "Wittgenstein's Song," probably March or April '05, with all the main Philly Free School figures in attendance except Mary and Abs. If I recall correctly, that particular reading was rather informal, and hastily thrown together. It was a rainy, chilly night, and Molly herself was upstairs putting her kids to bed. I also don't mind saying that, again for my money and despite a borrowed literary form, I do think that "Feel" beats the living hell out of "Howl" for human depth, thematic reach, formal gravitas, honesty consonance, and narrative interest. Too much of "Howl" is candy-corn and baby-mush- and the adolescent sense of mythology built into Ginsberg, Corso, and Kerouac grant an infantilizing blemish to their texts and general sense of textuality. Myself, Mary and Abs were adults in our work, always; in our lives, sometimes. It's another thing linking Abs to John Keats- she did her best, most visionary work while still in her twenties. And, no matter what you might hear, she was not an enfant terrible; she was half of one.
Also of interest as of the mid-Aughts; the rise of poetry online as a major enterprise in the world was heady, both to watch and to participate in. Establishing P.F.S. Post (Philly Free School Post) in late 2005 as a web-zine to publish poets from around the world, and Stoning the Devil in early 2006 as a personal blog to collect both poems and lit-crit musings, were essential endeavors for me. That internet publishing enabled me to perform feats of mobility like my appearance on Lars Palm's luzmag in January 2006, in which the poems were sent to Lars in Malmo, Sweden from the Boston 'burbs, where I was doing an M.F.A. residency, and the page went up while I was still in Henniker NH, were intensely about both intoxication and inspiration the right way for me and my compadres. Lars and I also collaborated at that time, and were not shy about adopting a straightforwardly po-mo approach. Through meeting Chicago poet Steve Halle at NEC in the Boston 'burbs, I was both able to visit and read in Chicago several times in the Aughts, and to publish Chicago-style intensively; and my first visit to Chicago, along with the publication from Chicago of the Ode On Jazz from the early Aughts, found me still in mid-Aughts '06. As did the fact that I conceived what became the '07 Blazevox e-book Beams in the mid-Aughts, and was already publishing from Beams in the mid-Aughts too. Among mid-Aughts publications, the poem Twisted Limbs, in Big Bridge, distinguished itself as a crash course in understanding that the Aughts could not only be a joy-ride. It was an established fact, as of the mid-Aughts, that the United States was on the brink of a major recession and the fall-out period which would inevitably follow from it; and the intoxication of doing the things many of us wanted to do in the world was tinged and impinged upon by shadows of what our future might hold.
Here's a funny story I've never told- the night, in late 2004, when Mike Land and I acted as "roadies" for The Bad News Bats, Abby's band with Liz McDermott. As an initial tangent, I find it interesting that Abby's years with the Bats ('04-'06) coincided with her great period of artistic fecundity. However rough-hewn and hard-edged the Bats' nexus was, Abs felt loved within it. That Liz ran the band with an iron fist didn't seem to disturb this. It's also worth noting that the Bats did get a standard write-up in one of the major Philly weeklies at the time; and that the lovely elfin Bats space cadet was also painting "The Skaters"and "The Lost Twins" then was lost on Mike and I and (I'm guessing) everyone else too. When Abs was painting her masterpieces, she was also playing her cards close to the vest; was, in astrological terms, moon in Capricorning. Had I seen what she was painting, Mike and I would've gone to great lengths to get her to show (as we had shown Mary Harju) at the Highwire Gallery in the now-razed Gilbert Building on Cherry Street, where we were doing our Free School shows. Indeed, the reason we were acting as roadies for the Bats on this particular autumn evening was that we were courting them- we wanted them to do a Highwire show with us in December. Liz was perhaps the greatest empress/tyrant in Philly rock history, so it wouldn't occur to her to just say yes- we had to demonstrate devotion first. So, there we were at the Bats' compound, a few blocks from where they were to play that night (at Tritone, 16th and South.) The first thing I noticed was that Abs was upset about something, and it had to do with Liz. Liz was storming around the house, doing assorted Liz-type tasks; she decided, for example, that Mike and I needed to hear Bukka White. From her. The other two bats, Mary-Beth and Virginia, were lounging around, and were nice enough to share their weed with us.
Once we were properly stoned, and as Mike and I later discussed, we got lost in a labyrinth of insinuations going back and forth between the four Bats. They weren't trying to be insular, but they were naturally, organically insular at the time. When it finally got to be time for us to move the Bats' gear, Liz directed and monitored our movements. Luckily, Mike and I had a good amount of physical stamina, and it wasn't difficult to follow Liz's instructions, especially as the car-ride was short. Nick and Jeremy showed up before the Bats played, and I tried to make some introductions; but Liz was lost in her private maze of secret huddles, low-worded debriefings, and symbolic silences. Abs already knew all of us, and Mary Beth and Virginia, both good-natured loafers, were companionable. The Bats onstage were about equally quirky and ferocious in the mid-Aughts; Abs added layers of polish and sophistication to Liz's she-girl/banshee approach. Tritone was mid-level crowded for the show, and at least one other band played, who I don't remember. I do remember that the Abs/Liz "Glimmer Twins" vibe was intense- they were good at generating tornadoes of energy around them. I also generally noticed, in the last months of '04, and despite the awfulness of the year's election, that something was coming unhinged in Center City Philadelphia- some kind of Pandora's Box had been opened, and the spirit/genie of abandon and the Dionysian in general had been loosed. What redeemed all the casualties which were to come is that whatever glue was holding us together worked- whatever we were in, we were in together. The basic "geist" unearthed was a magnetic one, rather than the repulsive-up-close L.A. vibe around so much advertised American art shenanigans. The worst thing you can say about Abs at this time is that she was radically compartmentalized- no one, in relation to the quality of her paintings, knew where they really fit in with her. But in this case, the art so justifies the life, who cares?
I'm grateful to have done work in philosophy, as well as literature. One thing I don't have the capacity to do, which I wish I did, is to discuss Abs and Mary discursively in a high maintenance aesthetics context. I probably have 50-60% of what I need to do the job thoroughly and with authority- but the big chunk of nuanced knowledge which only serious art critics and historians have, and which I do not, assures me that my attempts (and there have been some already) could veer dangerously close to wankery and disrespectful presumption. The little, compressed dialectical pieces I've placed into circulation about Abs were set in place just to get the proverbial ball rolling, and the ball is rolling, sideways/forewards; but, for now, one set of brief aesthetic surmises in Abs' direction is enough.
There are a few foreshortened arrows I wouldn't mind shooting into the air, in this more casual context. I created the Purification Chain as a "compressed matrix" expressing my value judgments about what constitutes both importance and durability in serious art; and the way I configure things, what I call "formal rigor" is ranked above, and adjacent to "invention," in dichotomous balance. Art that is formally rigorous tends to be grounded in history, and art-historical narratives of form and theme; aesthetic forms gain, rather than lose, rigor from intense, ecstatic/agonizing relationships with the forms of the art which precede it; competing histories, and historical narratives, build rigor into artistic forms; and worthy artistic forms embody, comfortably or uncomfortably, both dialectics and "anxieties of influence." Invention is ranked as a Secondary Mode on the Purification Chain, and by a spirit of pure inventiveness serious artists purify their engagements with the rigors of formal and thematic history, as well as add magnetism/interest to their creations.
What I do want to say about Abby Heller-Burnham is what I see- which has to do with formal elements haunted and "spooked" in her work by an intense immersion in Neo-Classicism, which, metaphorically, paints her into a corner from which she can only create her way out by sheer force of will and determination to develop a new aesthetic, and a fully/freshly contemporary one, out of the (French) Neo-Classicist impulse. Thus, feminism and queerness become modes of thematic rebellion for her, towards her invented aesthetic, and against the phallocentric voices which insist on booming through her forms, granting them rigor. Yet, just as formal rigor is "Primary" on the Purification Chain, this combat turning commerce Abs is engaged in may be the most enduring element of her art, with its singular ambiance of the spectral and of desolation, perhaps a byproduct of the loneliness of her fight, also a hinge to possible definitions of Neo-Romanticism.
Notes on the Philly Free School and Aughts Philadelphia
About the Philly Free School and class- most of us were raised middle-class. The European classicism we espoused, as one component part of our collective aesthetic, does leave us open to accusations of bourgeois interest and prejudice. A hard-line Marxist would have to say (to the extent that Marxists are worth taking seriously here), that any form of aesthetic classicism is inherently bourgeois. But our demonstrable downward class mobility, inverts this- none of us inherited a serious amount of money, and we all lived hand to mouth in Philadelphia in the Aughts. We were authentically Bohemian- not ashamed, and materially compelled to work retail jobs and occasionally starve. The whole catalog of our carousing exploits had to happen in this context- and the magic of Philadelphia in the Aughts was that we pulled off these exploits somewhat gracefully and unselfconsciously.
For example, during the years we spent bar-hopping, money for drinks made for a semi-empty fridge at home. If I wanted a midnight snack, it would often have to be bread and water. Not to mention that I met Abby and Mary, Mike Land and Nick Gruberg from working retail at the Rittenhouse Square Barnes and Noble in Center City.
Material perks came in and out of our lives- when Abby and Mary were attending PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) in the early Aughts, each was granted a personal studio. I am guessing now that Jenny Kanzler was granted one too. They could both work and crash there. I spent many nights with Mary in her studio, with its checkered linoleum floor and huge bay windows, on Cherry Street. She had a pull-out couch. After PAFA, the pair maintained co-op studio spaces, but never a completely self-run personal studio again.
All of us had good luck with people throwing drinks and drugs at us. The communal vibe in Aughts Philadelphia was very intense; if you were on the inside, and had something worthwhile to offer sexually, socially, or artistically, everyone was encouraged to share their goods and services. This was especially important for Mary, who was not just a pot-head but a fully fledged pot addict. One truly surprising thing about Aughts Philly is that all the different sectors maintained their own classicist ethos- The Philadelphia Independent offered their classicist form of quirky urban hipster journalism; the Making Time DJs were as classicist as they could possibly be about what they played; and us. Sharing your intoxicants expressed complicity with both this gestalt sensibility and the will to get trashed beyond it.
Most of us, in Philadelphia in the Aughts, felt an acute sense of being "in" something. I did, but was circumspect about it, and about expressing this "in" from the inside, because I was wary about jumping the proverbial gun. High art takes time. Owing to a stable, secure body of artistic work having issued from these nexuses, I have more confidence now. This confidence is a compensation for the intense socio-cultural aridity and lethargy of the Recession and 2014 America.
Abs and I were two of the less overtly political Neo-Romantic artists. For myself, I felt that the variegated life I was leading made its own kind of statement in Bush's America, and I'm sure Abs would say the same, possibly with more emphatic force, owing to gender and "queer" issues. Is that what "On the Other Hand" (affixed to this post) is about?
The Philly Free School were a clan of younger artists for whom sexual magnetism was no issue- we had it, and used it. Because our sex appeal was and is backed up by many years of exteriorized sexual behavior, and the many soap operas attendant on this behavior, there is nothing about our lives which would not satisfy a public carnivorous for such exploits. PFS were no slouches about intoxicants, either- our dissipation skills were well-honed. Even a small amount of research into the bar and club circuit of Aughts Center City Philadelphia would reveal this to be the case. Thus, the mythological antecedents to the Philly Free School artists cannot be the most vaunted haute-culture stalwarts of the twentieth century (with the possible exception of Picasso), who led tame personal lives in comparison (particularly acute with myself in relation to the likes of William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot)- our lifestyle would seem to be more normative for pop culture heroes like The Rolling Stones and Marilyn Monroe. Indeed, PFS's pin-up potentialities are extreme- and that Neo-Romanticism also included a version of Philadelphia Babylon is not only true for us but obvious and beguiling right on the surface.
Thus, the whys and hows of marketing the Philly Free School artists as potential cultural figureheads/icons- with renegade sex appeal on one side and European classicist chops on the other- are very contorted against the process being either easy or open to rapid, combustible progression. However, I would not be writing this if I did not believe we would win in the end, even on surface levels. This, simply because I do have faith that, once the press embargo has ended, a substance-starved American public will go for us in a major way. It is an interesting and very singular congeries of circumstances around a group of younger artists- numbers on the Internet indicate strong grass-roots support for us- while the media black-out against us, in favor of a cornball and very rote plebeian paradigm, demonstrates the American media's ferocious hatred both of complexities, and of anything extreme, threatening, thoughtful, or generally serious. I have no convincing way of imploring the American press corps to get off their flabby behinds and do anything- its just that the Internet itself has created its own egalitarian power-block against them, which is gaining momentum and brawn, towards a black-out of American public confidence in said press corps.
Many sectors around American culture are standing, it would seem, at a crossroads here- and part of the fate of public/cultural America hangs in the balance. I want to state with confidence that, willy-nilly, myths will be made of the Philly Free School and its exploits- our work is already securely set in place, and with enough authority, that crowds around it will continue to gather, and mythologies beyond my ken establish themselves. Conscious myth-making is what I am up to here- a risky venture, and one for which middling batting averages, even for the hyper-articulate, are often the norm. Yet, if I continue, against this limitation, it is because I believe that, despite our profligacy, we will be a positive cultural influence on the United States at large, and a solid long-term bet as well, solid body of work in tow.
How mythologies proliferate and perpetuate themselves among the human race- the mechanics of mythology- is a fascinating issue, and involves knowledge of humanities disciplines (sociology/anthropology) which I do not have. Yet, I begin this essay on the side of a certain kind of knowledge- that for the duration of Philadelphia in the Aughts, many young artists were developing rapidly and in tandem. The formal-thematic concerns they shared were easy to notice- expressed sexuality, both queer and straight, as a manifestation of achieved personal freedom and expressive competence, and against the backdrop of a faltering national economy and socio-political landscape; a rekindled romance with the haute culture of the nineteenth century, particularly nineteenth century Europe, as a repository of worthy forms and psycho-cognitive, textual or imagistic vistas; a generalized rejection of post-modernity's rote, dry, unimaginative and bloody-minded cultural stranglehold from cash-built, internally corrupt fortresses of media, galleries, academic institutions, journals, and presses; and the city of Philadelphia itself as a muse and fetish, specifically owing to the city's manifest complexities, exquisite architecture, and the spirit of socio-sexual freedom and aesthetic daring which reigned as a zeitgeist for many years in the Aughts here, and which, once descended, animated affected lives with a perpetual sense of liberation, release, and intoxication.
This congeries of complexes and circumstances constitutes, for me, the backbone of what I call the Philadelphia Renaissance- but as, in the midst of text-creation, I interrogate myths, mythologies, and processes of myth-making, it occurs to me that for a genuine, cherished myth (or series of myths) to take root in Western consciousness around what happened in Philadelphia in the Aughts, some form of collective will need to develop for the aforementioned proliferations and perpetuations to occur- in other words, myths cannot be created completely in a vacuum. I have failed to enumerate what we were (and are) up against, which is formidable- a shadow-Philadelphia (and America) of faux-cultural sectors, set in place only to coerce awful, inferior, thoughtless and formless art into entrenched positions of demonstrable power and prestige; the "deep pockets" able, for subterranean reasons, to buy out these contrived, inauthentic positions, and which can and will be willing to block attempts to consolidate Neo-Romantic art. Our art, of course, was not created or placed into circulation from "deep pockets" but by young artists living on, and from, their wits, instincts, and impulses; and we must also face the collective will of local and national press to bury the Philadelphia Renaissance, whose organic, sexualized, and aesthetically emancipated approach disrupts normative practices and conventional American myth-making mechanics.
The most enduring kind of high art, whenever and wherever it erupts, is always disruptive, because a genuine, tearing edge of innovation is in it, alongside an engagement with aesthetic histories. Both of these features are perceived by plebeian minds as strange and threatening- and the best pieces of Neo-Romantic art are no exception; are, in fact, representative of this phenomenon; and our very creation myth is a semi-unprecedented one. I consider my own attempts to disseminate Neo-Romantic art, and the myths which inform it, as a kind of humanities experiment over a long period of time. My formulated supposition is not a particularly modest one- that we were, and will likely remain, sui generis in the history of American (and Western) art, and that what we created deserves wide attention and comment, if not imitation (not-overt or overt, benign or malign, wholesome or craven).
As to the issue of why, in 2014, a "noir" aesthetic, inclusive of formal-thematic depth, would be of wide interest once placed into circulation- the reason is fairly simple. On many levels and in many variegated contexts, few sensibilities other than "noir" could be generally and widely representative in America, against the facile breeziness of post-modernity. The Recession has created a climate, both within and without aesthetics, of entrenched circumstantial darkness and shadowy langour. Untold, unreported catastrophes may have wiped out entire sectors of the population- yet the media chirps away as though nothing has changed. American pop culture is in an advanced state of erosion and deterioration- there are no new rock stars anymore, and new American cinema not only isn't selling but is divested, for the populace, of the perceived glamour which used to enable it to sell. The secret passageways which used to make America interconnect have largely been severed; even as the Internet has created new labyrinths and passageways which often amount to a subversive conspiracy against the normative. The truly noir facet of the Internet is that it allows the American public to understand how and why its been duped; and what's left of a thinking American populace is cognizant of these things. The Apparition Poems were written to hold down a cultural fort radically on the side of haute culture and high art, scribed by a single author from within the bounds of the United States. For those watching closely, and who know how the American literary landscape has largely been configured over long and short periods of time, this congeries of circumstances is a rebellion and an innovation. That the Apparition Poems are not only indigenously American (if standing, aesthetically, on the shoulders of historical Europe) but indigenously Philadelphian is another innovation- the creation of literary Philadelphia, in the twenty-first century, has to do with the noir elements already built into Philly as a mythological construct.
Philadelphia, much more so than New York (which offers, to my eyes, nothing labyrinthine beneath a bold, brusque surface) is perpetually ravaged by contradictions and conflicting internal imperatives- the Main Line surface/patina is all about the prestige of old money; South Philly prizes blue-collar, ethnic simplicity, but falsely and disingenuously (against the complex and baroque machinations of the South Philly mob); the mob also runs at least partly other suburbs supposed to be middle-class, and standardized to American suburban norms, which they are not; and the "noir" sense, at the end of things, is that Philadelphia is a shadow-plagued city, and what you see is certainly not what you get here. The representatively Philadelphian surface/depth tensions, including our relationship to Philadelphia's sublime architecture, are what make the city fertile ground for high art, rooted in formidably intellectual narratives, slanted towards the stylized chiaroscuro of noir symbolization and signification. Every thoughtful Philadelphian has their own Philadelphia narrative. Philadelphia, in fact, may be taken as the secret (as well as original) capitol of America, and much of America's internal darkness is exteriorized/embodied with precision in our labyrinths here. From a certain angle, for Philadelphia to produce representative American high art is no stretch at all- higher art requires higher faithfulness to complex human truth. Because complexities are difficult, both to perceive and to assimilate, they are, or can be, dark. If my version of noir borrows stylistically from the likes of Raymond Chandler, the substance of the art is uniquely set within its own thematic manner/mode of confused, perplexing darkness. Yet attempts to unearth deep truth, when performed skillfully, are always cathartic, as pitiful and terrible as the deep (noir) truth can be, and in this, this art finds its strength and metier.
What "noir" connotates, in popular culture, is an aesthetic condition of extreme stylization. Look at the elements which configure, say, the average Raymond Chandler novel, and which do not change from book to book; stylized elements- a hard-bitten detective (Marlowe) pursuing a treacherous villain, encountering a standard cast of characters. There's the coy femme fatale, attached somehow to a criminal underworld or with underworld connections; dirty and double-dealing cops, who may or may not be trustworthy, and in on certain hits; and innocent bystanders drawn into matrixes of crime and hustle against their will. What stylization implies, as a kind of mold for artistic forms to fit into, is homogeneity, and the solidity of homogeneity- we, as readers, never need to wonder what to expect from Raymond Chandler. To the extent that more serious artists develop individual and individualized aesthetic concerns and formal-thematic, consistent topoi, stylization in their work becomes inevitable- this is how we know Picasso from Manet, Manet from David; or, in literature, Milton from Byron, and Byron from Browning; etc. If I am interested in "noir," and in poaching "noir" from American popular culture and granting it another context, it is because the stylistic elements of my Apparition Poems series shares, in the kinds of moods, impressions, and ambience generated, something with noir, and noir stylistic conventions. All three major Apparition Poems collections cohere around a set of imperatives, which lean towards the revelation of shadows rather than light, dark tones and hues rather than bright ones, and labyrinthine complexities rather than scintillating clarities. Levels of cognitive awareness, represented in texts which seek to boast some philosophical import, particularly in regards to ontological awareness in the midst of extreme (even pornographic) vulgarity, separate the Apparition Poems drastically from the rote, pop culture consonant facility of Chandler's books.
Indeed, the chiasmus between noir and serious, sustained intellection is, as far as I know, a novel mode of stylistic inquiry and exploration. My equivalent of Chandler's shocking plot-twists and peripeteias are linguistic innovations which multiply meanings and make key words and phrases serve dual, or triple, ends; so that these words and phrases are set in place, figuratively, to "split the heads" of their audience, towards recognitions of hidden semantic-thematic depth, and against surface ("surface-y") orientations and sensibilities. That's why I call my version of noir "deep noir"- the Apparition Poems are crafted, on some semantic levels, from similar molds- towards chiaroscuro and the enchantment of multiple meanings. It is also easy to notice that the Apparition Poems are, in fact, haunted by coy femme fatales, dirty-dealers, and an interrogating, interrogative protagonist ("I"), who attempts to sift his way through mazes of psycho-cognitive, and psycho-affective, complications. The poems shudder towards satori-like head-split semantic inversions; and whether any give satori ends its poem or not, the ultimate stylistic effect is to startle, unsettle, and re-wire the minds of the audience who reads them. Chandler, in a pop culture context sans intellectual heft, is far less unsettling. The Apparition Poems create mysteries and remain centered in them, in a negatively capable fashion, while Chandler's level of stylization insures easy, unchallenging comprehension. Still, I like "noir" as a stylistic formulation around the Apparition Poems nonetheless, because they do create and maintain a "shaded" ambience, which is recognizably itself from poem to poem and book to book. I have spoken of the "body heat" passed from the twentieth to the twenty-first century, in spite of the new century's reservations- and, as one level of inheritance which takes the Apparition Poems to a secure hermeneutic locale, "noir" and "deep noir" both work surprisingly well.
The question arises, for myself and others of my ilk, whether our creations are made to subsist as "foster children of silence and slow time"; in other words, whether or not it will be a long, slow haul towards establishing ourselves and our art in a major way, and a way which would be satisfying and gratifying for us. How staunch, as a tightly knit collective, are the post-modernists in 2014? From the evidence my daily life has presented to me, I have induced the knowledge that post-modernity, as a capitalistic, profit-counting institution, has lost ground and momentum in our current Great Recession. My assumptions in this context must, of necessity, be modest- Philly Free School have demonstrably had a significant amount of space cleared for us, but we remain largely unknown to the general public, and no visible chiasmus exists between ourselves, our work, and the American or any other press corps. Yet if raw online numbers are any indication, there is certainly a receptive sector of the American and European public ready to greet our work with appropriately receptive hearts and minds. This is why the reference to Keats is both interesting and provocative- what we have written and painted must, owing to its depth, thoughtfulness, and formal-thematic richness, take on the sober, austere attire of "foster children of silence and slow time"- but it is intriguing, conversely, to consider that, with our current entropic zeitgeist, in which a populace are starved for authentic passion and intelligence in what they consume, Neo-Romanticism might attract some short-term success as well.
In a contradictory sense, it both is and is not immaterial to me whether this short-term success transpires- to the extent that our work is dealt with seriously, and we are not trivialized, it could be a positive development; yet all of us have enough education in the higher arts to understand that what achieves the most profound impact tends to do so slowly, incrementally, and often imperceptibly, over decades and centuries. This is one salient reason that post-modernity insults our collective intelligence- by reducing the higher arts to a mere adjunct and an underling to the popular arts, it so attempts to erase, in a brutish and militaristic fashion, the entire history of the higher arts beyond its tiny, crabbed purview, that the entire post-modern endeavor amounts to a sustained assault of anti-art and anti-culture on entrenched, yet often powerless, adversaries. In a very real sense, all PFS's elitism and classicism entail is a deep-set appreciation of the entire history of the higher arts, which we have refused to conceal or elide in an attempt to achieve short-term, ephemeral, and extremely hypocritical success. Why it is that aesthetic progress has to come at the expense of a reviled, demeaned, and somehow naive past is something I've never understood- now, as the new century coalesces, I've been led to the conclusion that auto-destruction of the history of the higher arts, as both a stated and a surreptitious post-modern intention/ambition, has had nothing to do with anything but fear and greed, set lecherously and coercively into motion to homogenize an already blasted Western cultural landscape. The commonplace, known to art-world insiders, that post-modern artists have more invested in pop culture imbecility and business ventures than in their own work (which may or may not sell for enormous sums of money), is shorthand for post-modernisty's rejection of both passion and intellect, and for anything humanistically expressive at all. Confounding this, our Philadelphia was Edenic for us. What Philly Free School pursued here was very unique, as we found a way to progress while conserving, and vice versa; and the twist in the tale is that our myth of what Philadelphia is may be the keeper for the entire length of the century to come.
Living with the remnants of the twentieth century, and twentieth century culture, still around us (in the press, art press and otherwise, and even online to an extent), it is easy to see in what manner my art (and the work of the other Philly Free School artists) can and will be dismissed. For reinstating a demarcation between low and high art, against the imposed confines of post-modern theory, thought, and practice, and radically against the grain of what is acceptable to the American press corps; and for reinstating, also, a historical sense which deals with art century by century, rather than living in a radically circumscribed, perpetually "present" moment; the Philly Free School/Neo-Romantics must needs be attacked by accusations of extreme/extremist classicism and extreme elitism simultaneously. I would like to opine, however, that what we have built into our body of work is a highly advanced, thoughtful, scrupulous, and one might say "enlightened" form of elitism and classicism. Neither I nor my friends had any problem looking the twentieth century, and twentieth century culture, dead in the face; its just that we were catholic enough in our tastes not to limit ourselves. Not working at the behest of spurious, frivolous motives, directed in our tastes by authentic impulses, proclivities, and sympathies, it was obvious to us that the high/"haute" art in century XX seemed constricted, narrow, and vulgarzied in its essence into tiny forms and expressions. Maintaining a historical sense, and an ability to make choices owing not to circumstances but to our individual temperaments, we migrated back to the nineteenth century over the twentieth and tended to stay there, judging century XX to be mostly a cultural regression, while having, by sheer proximity and "body heat" (like ekphrasis), to allow some twentieth century influence in regardless.
Thus, the language of our symbolizations and significations is polyglot; and if I am forced to answer accusations of elitism and classicism, simply owing to historical depth and diversity of influence, I will state that we made our aesthetic choices very carefully, and had the courage of our convictions to assimilate what moved us the most, from the inside out, rather than acquiescing to internalize what was presented to us as what was most contemporary, representative, and praiseworthy. The pejorative connotations of "classicism" and "elitism" have to do with retrograde, reactionary attitudes, bent into stuffy dismissiveness of anything new; what Neo-Romanticism has to offer is set at a perpendicular angle to those definitions. We, all of us, have lived and created under intense, group-centered pressure to conform, if conventional, substantial rewards (publication, sales) were to be ours; always with the knowledge that the adjacent post-modern group norm, to stay grounded in a twentieth century ethos at all costs, against any form of historical sense which would challenge this group norm, was configured to delineate what was and what was not acceptable, either theoretically or in practice; and our collective response, from Philadelphia in the Aughts, was to rebel, and to do so publicly, which we did, with panache. As of the initiation of our practice, enlightened classicism and enlightened elitism were both (and largely remain) rebellious stances; and the tyranny of the "present-minded," the vulgar, the thoughtless, the formless, the formulaic, and the insubstantial (to our eyes/ears) has been both a terrible weight for us to bear and heavy shackles for us to attempt to cast off. In the realm of the post-modern, what's "new" is never really new anyway- just as Koons reprises Warhol reprising Duchamp, it is a fraudulent simulacrum of the "new," which disguises the essential nature of genuine artistic innovation (that which creates new formal-thematic contexts, nexuses, and matrixes) in order to advertise its own inversion-heavy (nothing into something) paucity.
#717 On why it has to be that writing comfortable garbage is the inevitable byproduct of living comfortably, with each fresh hell I wonder why the hooks towards artful utterance are set this way, & why I must become such an oyster just to confer into a leaking bucket, insecurely hung from abraded cables, a blue droplet not even of blood but of nectar, or wine, or whiskey-
I've been giving a good amount of thought to the cultural chiasmus I perceive to be subsistent between the twentieth and twenty-first century. I've come to some radical conclusions- one is that, to make a long story short, the issue of carnality (fucking, sex) weighs, in the balance of things, for us (Philly Free School) against the show biz pros of the moribund regimes. My surmise is that, as is not generally known, rock and movie stars, and the wide range of fronts for dope deals and other illicit businesses both in Hollywood and in American society generally, were and are not allowed to establish or maintain fulfilling sex lives. Babies (including myself) are brought into the world in covert/illicit fashion; and those allowed to create an illusionistic simulacrum of sexuality/fertility on film or onstage are forced to be thwarted against personally engaging in much sexualized outward behavior. Were PFS a bunch of stilted, asexual nerds, and the family we were born out of full of bona fide players, fucking a blue streak in different directions, we would have a substantial problem, no matter how high or "haute" our art was. But, as histories become generally known, and it is seen and internalized that both the fucking and the art are on our side (not to mention the good looks, sans make-up/ornamentation), the cultural twenty-first really will chew up the lame-duck portion of the twentieth and spit it out again.
What Mary, Abby, and I had going for a while was a form/manner of "troilism." What happened between the three of us was rather devilish, but the entire series of scenes was buoyed up by a good deal of love and affection we had for each other. Leading lives unsullied by contracts with questionables, we were allowed to become emotionally and sexually entangled. Staged twentieth century cultural romances, from Scott and Zelda to John and Yoko, look stilted in comparison because, in retrospect, they were obviously just that (staged), and put in motion only to initiate and perpetuate appearances. Historians who will track the movements of PFS are not going to have to steer around a matrix of obvious, embarrassing discrepancies- both the eye-witness and documentation levels exist right there on the surface. And since Mary's portraits are both titillating and decent works of art, PFS has a way of fulfilling the sense of well-rounded and consummate artistry, on every level, which was our ideal.
If Abby Heller-Burnham's "The Skaters" shares some thematic ground with her "Lost Twins," it has to do at least partly with inheritance- with what the twentieth century bequeathed to the twenty-first. The allegory presented by "The Skaters" is centered on urban decay, specifically the urban decay of fin de siecle Philadelphia, and how a higher artistic sense of the visionary can be both transformative and redemptive. Part of a serious artist's potential brilliance is the fashioning of beauty (especially new modes of formal/thematic beauty) out of unpromising or abased materials- "The Skaters" achieves this by creating a hauntingly desolate ambience, which also comments on the nature of the spectral or spectrality, extending its allegory to include levels and layers of signification around the ineluctable quality of the "meta" in the higher arts to begin with. And she does this, literally and metaphorically, without leaving North Philadelphia.
The superior achievement of Abs against the tiny, crabbed hermeticism of post-modern visual art is this- her circles of signification include theirs' (i.e. she "walks the square" like Bruce Nauman and is as conceptually sound as Nauman or the Neo-Expressionists), but also expands to include narratives of form and formal mastery to create superbly well-rounded ("whole," organic) constructs which chafe against the confines of post-modernism's motivating ethos- easy, anti-humanistic, yearned-for and achieved, nihilistic aesthetic obsolescence. Abby Heller-Burnham's best paintings, despite their shared ambience of desolation and eerie time-suspension, are essentially affirmative, and humanistic, both in their formal/thematic dynamism and in their labyrinthine complexities- and "The Skaters" affirms that a worthy eye ("I") can always fashion something out of nothing (ex nihilo), in any context or socio-aesthetic time-zone.
One of the levels which can be read into Abby Heller-Burnham's "The Lost Twins" is a sense of menace and/or foreboding around the pursuit of major high art consonance. If the twins are lost, its because high art appears, in this context, to be frozen into place, ossified into rigid formality, and shrouded in large, long shadows. As of later in the twenty-first century now begun, this may be what art-oriented audiences remember about Abs and I- an age which compelled us to live and create under impinging shadows of hatred, indifference, and supreme mistrust; an age, in fact, so virulently corrupt in relation to the higher arts that many had given them up for dead or drastically, permanently impaired.
The closed circle of twentieth century art significations was, I suspect, set in place to maim/discredit attempts at major high art consonance; yet Abs has the guts here to place those shadows right where they belong- at the center of a composition so tricky, labyrinthine, and thematically rich that it is worth a century's perusal. As a potent symbol of transition between drastically different centuries, "Lost Twins" is par excellence enough to be, and remain, as definitive an art-moment as this century will produce. Abs was a pretty heavy Scorpion when she wanted to be.