The Bell Curve: Controversies at the Drawing Center

The Drawing Center's panel on manifestos on May 21, part of their programming series, "Bellwethers: The Culture of Controversy."

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Last month, the Drawing Center launched a new program called Bellwethers: The Culture of Controversy. It was convened by independent curator Alison Gingeras in collaboration with Affidavit, the online publication run by PR firm Cultural Counsel. The three events brought together prominent artists, writers, and Twitter users to sound off on a trio of “cultural bellwethers.” I had vaguely understood “bellwether” to mean some kind of lightning rod or flash point, though it originally meant “the leading sheep of a flock with a bell on its neck” (a wether being a castrated ram). More commonly, this phrase describes an indicator or predictor. “Prepare yourself for the avant-garde,” the title seemed to suggest.

The majority of art or institutional talks I’ve encountered lately have been reactionary and defensive, responding to controversy only in order to try and defuse it. “Culture and its Discontents” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was a particularly tepid non-response to animal rights protests around “Art and China after 1989,” with analogous efforts by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum to address activists’ concerns about their programming. The Drawing Center’s series was a cool contrast. Our ovine stars, the titular themes of each panel, were “Manifestos,” “Panic,” and “Cancellation,” which rather succinctly traced the arc of any controversy.

In her opening remarks, Gingeras reminisced about attending talks on French theory as a grad student in the 1990s that took place in the same room where she was speaking, noting that this program signaled something of a return for the Drawing Center. A return to discursive relevance, I hoped, and not to the trying Francophilia that still stubbornly lingers in a certain sect of art writers and curators who wield the language of critical theory to say little and do even less. Invoking Deleuze, Guattari, or Lacan today feels about as relevant as a panel on manifestos in 2019. But here we were.

Manifestos have historically been used to launch political movements, or at least put forth new, radical ideas. Consider the militant group Weather Underground’s “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” published a half century ago amid the unrest of June 1969. The thing about the controversy machine today is that few people really want to get behind an idea with any intensity, never mind write a manifesto trumpeting it. What, in 2019, would be our panelists’ most pressing concerns? Climate justice, gun control, “artwashing,” ending the spectacle of celebrity curators?

Men, it turned out, in a lively first panel. It featured writer Audrey Wollen, poet Adrian Matejka, philosopher Chiara Bottici, and artist Sam McKinniss, who each read a manifesto of their own, to be followed by a discussion that didn’t happen as time ran out. “Every time you slice into the canon, girls rush out like ghosts,” Wollen said in a lovely, funny opening text nominally about Rilke, but really about all the invisible women in the poet’s orbit.

This was a manifesto in that it “made manifest” women whom history has suppressed—women who might have been talented artists and writers in their own right but are remembered only as footnotes to the great men in their lives. Wollen explained her decision to generalize about men as a “practical solution to a lack of time: Do you want me to list every man that has done violence to me or my loved ones? I don’t know all their names.”

Partway through Wollen’s reading, her water glass—which had been angled on the lectern at a terrifyingly precarious angle one might describe as “leaning in”—smashed. The shattering felt like a fitting segue to Matejka’s theme of heartbreak. But his piece turned out to be a rather pedantic, solipsistic exegesis of love and poetry. If Wollen’s talk expressed exasperation toward men, Matejka’s demonstrated why her attitude is warranted.

Bottici followed with a strident anarcha-feminist manifesto that hews closest to the militant convictions of the Weather Underground and their ilk. Mostly, Bottici focused on violence against women: genital mutilation, selective sex abortion, foot binding. This feminism might be anarchist in that it’s ostensibly against #girlbosses and female corporate presidents. Yet we got only a bizarre, throwaway reference to the “ontology of the trans individual,” rather than a proper reckoning with how her term “gendercide,” which refers to the worldwide phenomenon of violence levied against women, neglected to factor in the disproportionate violence against trans and gender nonconforming people. Perhaps “gendercide” would be best retooled against the abolition of gender entirely. Bottici’s main concern seemed to be the expectation that women wear high heels. She said “we pledge to fight state fascism and plantar fasciitis,” and that she wants “women to be able to walk freely, so Just Do It,” which led me to wonder whether Nike is a Cultural Counsel client.

McKinniss’s reading, a stream of consciousness about disconnected moments of discomfiture, had a strangely sad, elegiac air to it. His “Cockroach Manifesto” features beautifully wrought, texturally precise vignettes—dinners at Lucien and a party called Jizz; a moving parable of two blind girls leading each other at the church where his father is pastor. Yet all this is soured by a sprinkling of casual slurs. Describing a monthly party at his local gay bar, he writes: “The transvestites yelling at us from the stage are very much on my nerves. Gay bars used to have strippers. Now we have unrelenting gender expression, the obnoxious envisagement of crossdressing clowns.” I don’t doubt that McKinniss sees it as just language, gender panic played for louche laughs. But what is a manifesto but weaponized words?

The second panel, on panic, featured a meandering talk from psychoanalyst and critic Jamieson Webster that emphasized panic’s contagious, viral nature while hitting a number of sex-based touchstones like a psychoanalytic marimba: coitus interruptus, incest, and the “phantasm of perpetual parental intercourse and permanent pregnancy.” Like Bottici’s retro-style political manifesto, Webster’s entry mostly served as a reminder as to why this form has fallen out of favor: it’s so couched in theory and distanced from present reality that it feels irrelevant.

A performance from Felix Bernstein and Gabe Rubin dramatized the etymological root of “panic.” It centered around the figures of Peter Pan and Pan the satyr, with a kind of galumphing Monty Python sensibility, and a Renaissance faire soundtrack. One wore a red bonnet and a white boiler suit, the other a Venetian long-nosed mask. A rope connected them at the throat, which was hard not to read as a noose. The performance was memorable only for the phrase “I must circumcise my ears,” which is exactly how I felt at the end of the night.

The final event, on cancel culture, featured writer Natasha Stagg. Unfortunately, it also featured Anna Khachiyan, a former art critic known primarily for her racist, sexist, ableist, and transphobic sound bites on the cultural commentary podcast Red Scare. Khachiyan’s troubling stances (e.g., that Woody Allen or disgraced comedian Louis C.K. did nothing wrong) is certainly a bellwether, albeit a frightening one. Red Scare’s popularity stems from backlashes against liberal feminism; they describe themselves as socialists, but might be better understood as leftist counterparts to the alt-right’s online trolls. I was out of town, but the Drawing Center’s decision to give Khachiyan a platform really tells us all we need to know about which way the wind blows.