Outlaw Art

Until we read David K. Nelson’s interview with Toni Schlesinger in last Sunday’s Tribune, we were determined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Harvey Grossman, his ACLU attorney, had insisted to us that Nelson was not such big potatoes; and when Nelson told Schlesinger there was no master plan behind his unpleasant picture of Harold Washington, we gave up hope.

Harry Bouras was right. As Bouras explained on WFMT: “Mr. David K. Nelson is not an artist. He’s an art student, and there’s a great difference. This means that Mr. David Nelson is liable to the desperations and concoctions and confections that all students are . . .”

Some had wanted to give Nelson a scintilla more credit than that. We’d suspected that Mirth and Girth was just his tinder to ignite a civic happening, and that the real work of art was the follies that ensued. Follies that surpassed anything Nelson might have dreamed, for he would not have imagined aldermen–aldermen the late Harold Washington handled with tweezers when alive–storming the Art Institute in his name and arresting a painting.

Could such a stunt be art? We put that question to Hudson, the owner of Chicago’s Feature gallery and a politically conscious performance artist. Yes, he said. “I think of it as a tactic that artists know about, that the art world knows about.” It can be art’s legitimate purpose “to investigate the power structure and the power of art.”

Perhaps David K. Nelson will be pleased to know that his fame has spread at least as far as Minneapolis. It was there, at Hudson’s suggestion, we contacted Lane Relyea, editor of Artpaper magazine. Hudson had told us Relyea could speak knowingly on a cultural current Hudson called “illegal art”–which sounded to us like company Nelson might aspire to keep.

Do you recall the hijacking of the WTTW signal last November? The regularly scheduled program was interrupted for 90 seconds of antics by a Max Headroom type who did not vanish until Chicago had seen his bare buttocks thumped by a flyswatter. This event was described in the press as some kind of criminal stunt. In fact, said Relyea, some video pirates see themselves as cultural activists rebelling against centralized information and entertainment industries; one theorist is video artist Tony Conrad of Buffalo, New York, who in a celebrated speech last year said there’s a need “to find creative engagements with the law . . . to invent new crimes.”

Relyea also cited Jill Posener, guerrilla feminist artist from Australia whose chosen canvas is the billboard: whenever Posener deems one sexist, she defaces it with graffiti.

What did Relyea think of Nelson’s opus? Not much. “It doesn’t seem like he’s taken any steps to control the way the debate goes,” Relyea said. “What he gets out of it is he was able to cause a ruckus–well, big deal! It’s bad-boy art, a 19th-century notion of artist as prankster.” Trivial? we asked. “Really trivial,” said Relyea.

But the idea of artist as outlaw is not trivial at all. It is a wellspring of Western culture. Relyea urged us to go down to the Renaissance Society on the University of Chicago campus and take in the exhibit there by Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley. Kelley doesn’t mind offending people either–the catalog refers to his work’s bad taste, its material stupidity, its unreasonableness.” Kelley, though, is a grown-up.

Dominating the show is a massive installation that lines a long corridor outside the gallery. Its centerpiece is a bright little painting of a clown with a red-white-and-blue face and tassled hat.

All about this oil are huge painted banners that stretch from ceiling to floor. Each bears the countenance of a particular aesthete and words uttered by the personage on the subject of art and evil.

Sartre: “Evil action . . . should contain within itself–and should resolve–so many contradictions that it would require invention, inspiration, in a word genius. It would thus be akin . . . to a great work of art.”

Genet: “I want to sing murder, for I love murderers.”

Bakunin: “Destruction is creation.”

Mondrian: “I think the destructive element is too much neglected in art.”

Courbet: “In our oh-so-civilized society it is necessary for me to lead the life of a ‘savage.'”

Veronese: “We painters claim the license that poets and madmen claim.”

Rimbaud: “I do not understand laws. I have no moral sense. I am a brute.”

So there you have it. These are the giants on whose shoulders David K. Nelson stood to jape the memory of Harold Washington. As he’s tried to explain, Nelson sees himself as iconoclast and ironist.

The little portrait of a clown was painted by John Wayne Gacy.

Nelson and Kelley have at least this much in common. Their work gets lifted. Mirth and Girth was carried out of the School of the Art Institute by Alderman Allan Streeter–an act whose disdain for the law Rimbaud would have applauded.

And Rimbaud’s own banner disappeared from the Renaissance Society gallery one night, apparently heisted by a student. We told a gallery staffer that it was OK; under the circumstances, theft was a valid aesthetic response.

“Yeah, but it’s an exhibition,” she stormed. “It’s a work of art. If we lose one more we’ll take it down and the hell with the students!”

Speculating on Sun-Times Futures

Last week we wrote about the tough line the Sun-Times has been taking lately with its distributors. Some of the newspaper’s actions have appeared all but unfathomable. If, for example, Mary Spencer down in Mokena agrees to drive 35 miles for the sake of four subscribers in order to keep her route, why on earth take it away from her anyway? If Donald Hartman can sell his 290 SunTimes “tags” to the guy in the next district, why not let him do it? Why should the Sun-Times borrow trouble?

Some of the biggest distributors out there think they know why. The Sun-Times wants to lose money. It wants to bathe in enough red ink to convince the Justice Department only a joint operating agreement with the Tribune will keep the paper in existence.

These distributors explain that a JOA–which would allow the Sun-Times and Tribune to merge every department but editorial–would suit both papers’ purposes. The Tribune’s Freedom Center is big enough to print the Sun-Times too, and the Sun-Times could then junk its obsolete printing presses and clear off its biggest asset–the land the paper sits on–for a high-rise development appropriate to riverfront real estate. Nothing would more dramatically shrink Robert Page’s $140 million debt to his investors.

Distributors who suspect collusion between the papers point to John Cimaroli, vice president for circulation of the Sun-Times, and Jack Hogan, the circulation manager. Both men used to work at the Tribune. The Sun-Times snapped up Cimaroli 14 months ago when he came on the market, even though Robert DeBono, the incumbent veep, had held the job only four and a half months (DeBono has since sued the Sun-Times for breach of contract).

But we hear that Cimaroli was forced out at the Tribune; besides, the Sun-Times would gladly have hired him just to debrief him on the Tribune’s distribution strategy. And surely the Sun-Times doesn’t need a JOA to lease presses in Freedom Center and move out of 401 N. Wabash.

The distributors’ scenario may be a little too elegant to be true; it’s possible no one at the Sun-Times is thinking that far ahead. We’re told what the owners of the Sun-Times want to do is get it ticking along, turning a decent profit just long enough to demonstrate that Chicago’s second paper remains a viable operation. Then they want to unload it.

Good Work in Winnetka

In the blanket coverage that both papers gave the Laurie Dann saga Sunday, two leads struck us as terrific. By Steve Johnson and Peter Kendall in the Tribune:

“Not until she shot 20-year-old Philip Andrew did Laurie Dann pick on somebody her own size. Even then, she was the one with the gun.”

And by Mark Brown and Tim Padgett in the Sun-Times:

“The men and women of Winnetka converged frantically on Hubbard Woods Elementary School, surrounding it with Mercedeses, BMWs and Cadillacs as they rushed to the aid of their children.

“Power cars carrying powerful people on the most powerless day of their lives.”

The Sun-Times further distinguished itself with an article by Tom McNamee on the fears of working parents who leave their children with anyone (an angle the Tribune missed). No matter how well you know your babysitter, you never know her well enough.