Many people find themselves distracted by the current political climate, including writer-critic Bernard Cooper. “It’s been the weirdest political year of my life,” Cooper told me. “And I’m an elderly person.”
In a way we were meant to be talking about the span of Cooper’s career, since we were discussing his experience with art, which, as he writes in his latest book My Avant-Garde Education, began when he came across a magazine feature on Pop Art in middle school. But we’d gotten off on a political tangent via Cooper’s recounting of a performance he’d seen with some friends the night before. He described it as a long show with simultaneously spoken and sung narratives, which was so underwhelming that afterwards one of Cooper’s friends admitted that he “kind of wished we’d stayed home and watched reruns of Gunsmoke instead.”
“It had very little spontaneity, very little surprise,” explained Cooper, who for many years was the art critic for Los Angeles Magazine. “It checked all the boxes of the issues many artists feel obligated to deal with today.”
He went on to clarify that it was the “obligated” part, rather than the issues themselves, that made the experience so lukewarm. The performance was “dead serious” and the audience was a “sea of stony faces.” No wonder—the issue-heavy performance was nothing they hadn’t seen before. Experimentation is part of what defines performance art, but this show was almost conservative in its predictability.
“Maybe this election does relate to our discussion in that way,” Cooper mused. “Trump is cast as the radical and Hillary as the conservative. Those words ain’t what they used to be.”
Cooper knows from conservative. He grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, where his father practiced law and his mother stayed home and kept house—including a perpetually over-stuffed pantry—for her husband and three sons. This all-American fifties lifestyle was a mark of particular success for his parents, both children of Jewish immigrants, but it wasn’t without its heartaches: their eldest son, Bob, died of Hodgkin’s disease when Cooper was a boy, and he spent many hours of his childhood lolling on the couch across from a portrait that his brother Ron—also older, so much so that he was already practicing law by this time—had painted of Bob. On one such lazy afternoon, Cooper discovered that what had appeared at a distance to be a tie stripe was actually a line of text: Oh Bob, it read, Poor Bob.
“I realized that this awkward, amateur painting I knew so well contained something moving, and almost frightening,” Cooper told me. “This was my first inkling of the idea that art could embody these things.”
Cooper was already interested in art, especially Pop Art, which had thrown his young mind for a loop by introducing the idea that even ordinary pantry items could have meaning. But the act of discovering something new in his own brother’s painting, a painting he thought he knew so well, prompted him to begin looking at art in a new way, searching each piece for hidden meanings or coded messages. This way of looking came naturally, which he now believes was a side effect of his attraction to men, which he felt from a young age but kept hidden until after college. Even closeted, he had an understanding that—especially in the highly charged atmosphere of the pre-Stonewall sixties—he had to always be on the lookout for possible threats or allies. “You get used to looking at the world in this closely observed way,” he explained, “constantly decoding for your own safety.” It wasn’t a particularly fun way to grow up, he added, but it was “the perfect circumstances for a burgeoning artist.”
He wasn’t just speaking for himself. Since those isolated suburban days, he’s met many artists, colleagues, and students, “whose origins are really not conducive to becoming an artist: maybe they come out of backgrounds where the family doesn’t value art, or where financial needs always come first. They come out of it and make the art they need to make.”
The word need came up time and time again as we spoke about this, and was perhaps best illustrated through the life of a playwright friend of Cooper’s, a gay man raised in a strict Baptist family who encouraged him to “get right with God” and marry a woman. Rebelling was emotionally very difficult, and for a long time he didn’t—he even attended Oral Roberts University, a highly conservative Christian school where practicing homosexuality is still, in 2016, against the honor code that all students are required to sign. But, gradually, “writing about gay subjects helped him extract himself from that world,” explained Cooper.
Maybe I’d been reading too much news, but I kept picturing this playwright as an emigrant desperate to escape an oppressive regime, and his art as the raft he built to take him to a safer place. He was like one of the avant-garde Soviet artists that New Yorker writer Andrew Solomon interviewed for The Irony Tower: they were hassled or imprisoned by the KGB, but their work was eventually discovered by the Western art market, and this allowed some of them to travel outside of the U.S.S.R. and experience things like intellectual freedom and fully-stocked art supply stores for the first time. The experience was life changing, but not wholly positive. As Cooper said, growing up in the closet wasn’t great, but it did help make him an artist. Similarly, the Soviets had become artists as a way to deal with their oppression, and when that oppression was lifted some of them weren’t sure what to make anymore. “To create richness out of plenty is worse than useless,” Solomon writes of this sudden absence of inspiration, “it is boring.”
The strange flip side of making art from oppression is that it means being dependent on difficulty in order to create. Some artists have made work about this very problem—Cooper gave me the example of a Raymond Carver poem called “Your Dog Dies,” about finding out that the family dog has died and immediately thinking: how can I use this grief in my work?
“There’s something mercenary about it,” concluded Cooper, “but it also does something that I think is miraculous: if you can take the unbearable or difficult or deeply unfair, those things in life that cause great suffering, and stand back and figure out how to redirect them into a work of art that will allow other people to understand, that’s a redeeming quality.”
The experience of other people, i.e. art audiences, is an big part of Cooper’s conversation: by coming into contact with art, he says, the viewer might find that something familiar is “made fresh again,” that their knowledge of the world is “sharpened,” or they might, as in the case of the issue-heavy performance he’d just attended, feel like they’re “in an endurance test.” His descriptions come from both his experiences viewing art and from the experiences of others, which he’s had a chance to observe over the course of his many years in the art world.
He got his first glimpse of said world in high school, when he scored a summer job at a Los Angeles gallery. He wanted desperately to be part of the art world, where he felt he might really belong, but was underwhelmed by this preview: he’d pictured galleries as pulsing with frenetic crowds driven by the same degree of passion that art stirred within him, but all he found were snooty staffers in otherwise empty spaces. His previous understanding of art had been chiefly private, gleaned from magazines and books, and now he had to face a troubling question: “Could the commerce of art really be as impenetrable and lonely as it seemed?”
Many people might have given up on the art world right then and there. The pristine spaces where art is traditionally shown can be daunting, as can the people in them, especially if they’re dropping names of old masters and concepts and being deadly serious about the whole endeavor. “I would no more want to be in a room with someone who thought everything they said was meaningful and serious than I’d want to go to a performance where the artist thought the same thing,” Cooper told me. “It’s limited, and it’s pretentious.”
Both are critiques often given to the art world at large, and they’re not altogether false. I spoke to Derek Conrad Murray, currently Associate Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African-American Identity After Civil Rights, about his experiences in this scene, and he didn’t hesitate to confirm that the institutions where art is often exhibited or discussed “are elite spaces, which has always been problematic.” The problem is that this exclusivity can make the barrier to entry can seem impossibly high, keeping away potential art lovers and artists alike—including people who might really need the life raft of art. “On the other hand,” Murray added, “people access art on multiple levels, and there are various forms of art making that are not acknowledged as such by the highbrow value systems of the art world.” This introduces another problem, he explained, in that the separation of different forms of art into high versus low culture often reflects our culture’s ideas of who “deserves” to be called an artist.
Having learned his love of art from the relatively lowbrow Pop Art movement—full of celebrity, comic book, and suburban kitsch imagery—Cooper was perhaps more able and willing than others to stick it out with art despite the bleak first impression. In 1969, still on the hunt for an art community to call his own, he applied to the then-fledgling Cal Arts and found himself suddenly immersed in the avant-garde. His fellow students were art obsessives just like him, and they spent their days busily typing words over other words or saving locks of their own hair, supervised by a roster of professors that included conceptual artist John Baldessari, whose famous works include The Artist Hitting Various Objects with a Golf Club.
These projects might sound like just more art-speak today, but at that time the avant-garde was still considered truly avant-garde—new, weird, and controversial—and many people did not accept it as art. This was intentional; the aim of avant-garde artists was not to achieve inclusion in the art world as it was, but to subvert its norms. Some had more difficulty than others finding acceptance due to their race or sex, like Korean American Nam June Paik, the father of video art, or Judy Chicago, pioneering feminist artist (both, incidentally, taught at Cal Arts). The only way for them to get into the art world was to remake it.
This outsider status wouldn’t last long. Even as Cooper was watching his friends perform conceptual pieces in the old girls’ high school that served as their campus that first year, the art world was in the process of accepting and subsuming the sixties avant-garde. In 1966, for example, artist Ed Ruscha painted The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire to illustrate “an uproarious period in which artists felt increasingly alienated from cultural institutions,” according to MoMA’s description; four years later, Ruscha represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, a venerable art world institution. According to Cooper, the Biennale had begun exhibiting such a variety of avant-garde art that it even inspired a Cal Arts rumor that a man had been sighting running away from the Biennale screaming, “There’s too much art! There’s too much art!” before eventually projectile vomiting into a canal.
It was enough to make Cooper wonder, while still reveling in the shared passion of his new industrious community: “Had the cutting edge grown dull at last?”
At that point Cooper was still years out from becoming a critic, but he was already thinking like one, preoccupied not just with how to make art but also why and for whom. One day at CalArts, for example, he was distracted from a classmate’s performance—the student was beating his knees to the sound of static—by the blasé attitude of the school secretary who popped her head in midway to deliver a message. Cooper explained to me that one of his standards for what makes a piece of art good is that it “throws you at some point.” The secretary wasn’t thrown at all; she’d gotten used to seeing new, weird, and controversial things. Cooper realized that newness wasn’t enough to really throw a viewer; even the most up-to-the-minute artwork might be revealed as meaningless at its core.
He has been thrown by cutting-edge pieces and more conventional work alike, from the provocative photos of Robert Mapplethorpe to the traditionally structured stories of Alice Munro. Whether or not a piece of art is avant-garde, he explained, has no bearing on “its ability to make you gasp”—though he still holds a spot in his heart for the avant-garde as a movement. “It was where I got started,” he explained. “I still love new art.”
This attachment may cause him to be extra hard on art that makes false claims on the avant-garde. My Avant-Garde Education includes Cooper’s thoughts on an exhibit that included real human body parts. This wasn’t a new idea—Baldessari actually attempted something very similar in 1970—and it wasn’t thought provoking either, unless you count Cooper’s thought that it might be “a form of condescension to think your audience is so literal” that they could only think about mortality in the presence of dead bodies. Cooper, who has lost all his immediate family and his long-term partner, plus many friends in the AIDS crisis, was in no need of any kind of mortality wake-up call to begin with, much less a heavy-handed one. His critique is blistering: “I’d rather be turned into fertilizer than donate my carcass to art,” he writes. “I know how astonishing and fine a thing it can be, and I also know what ugly junk can be made in its name.”
Such gruff statements stem from a state of being he describes as “a muddle of half thoughts and contradictory emotions” that makes him “pathetically grateful” for art that jolts him—and ornery towards art that doesn’t. He refers to this as “my crankiness,” and there’s a certain down-to-earth charm to it, like when he complained to me that a show he’d seen recently was not only predictable, it also required the audience to sit on the ground. “If I’m going to sit on a cement floor,” he grumbled, “I’d like to be surprised.” Then he laughed.
This exchange was typical of my conversation with Cooper, and of his writing, which inclines toward the self-deprecating and has the tendency to get funnier as it gets darker. He is perhaps at his funniest when writing about his father’s dementia and death in his 2007 book The Bill From My Father. “If something is too grim I start to see things that are funny, and vice versa,” he explained. This habit gives his books an amiable, generous feel—it never seems as if he’s preaching—and also helps explain his impatience with too-serious art.
“Art that is absolutely serious doesn’t take doubt into account,” he explained. “The artists that I like always have a little insecurity about what they’re doing.” Self-skepticism doesn’t just keep work from being preachy, it also creates space in a piece of artwork, allowing room for artist and viewer alike to ask questions, like what the real difference is between high and low culture, or between conservative and radical, or whether the avant-garde’s rage for the new was ever as original as they thought it was. (After all, Ezra Pound hailed the modernist movement with the phrase “make it new” decades before the sixties movement, and he supposedly lifted the phrase from a book of Confucian philosophy.)
The desire to make something completely new is an old one, contradictory by nature and almost impossible to truly achieve, yet artists continue to try, to the degree that this goal might be the main thread linking them to past generations of artists. It’s almost like they can’t help themselves. Even Cooper, in his self-described advanced age, having written six books and countless reviews, has gone back to making avant-garde visual art; in 2015 he had a show of digital montages at Miami-Dade College Museum of Art and Design. He’s kept at it, even though he acknowledges that “the cutting edge always becomes predictable after a while.” So why bother pursuing it at all? “I like the idea that there’s failure built into it,” he explained. “That’s beautiful to me.”
Mary Mann is the author of the forthcoming Yawn: Adventures in Boredom (FSG Originals). Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Believer, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.