“I told you, I’m an extremist. Even in art, if my work wasn’t fifty times more interesting than me and my petty life, it would be useless.”
I never graduated high school, which makes me smarter than basically everyone, though just that little bit poorer than basically everyone. Coffee at Palais de Tokyo was outdoors and overpriced, and I was sitting opposite a girl having brunch with her placenta, Starbucks Sweet’n Low, and a packet of first-grade Ambien; she had tremendous presence and range. Having a rough time of it money-wise, too, I guessed. However reverentially she was eating herself, she was a touch less stupefied by her partner’s mansplaining between sips of bright orange Campari, decoding gender spectrums and his short-lived affair with a wiry nonbinary who had had a cataclysmic nervous breakdown last spring. Bored with the mansplaining but also enjoying it just that little bit, I listened to the livestream psychoanalysis, his totally successful personal disintegration that I’d eagerly write about later to remind myself how much better than him I am. Tables three and eight appeared equally fascinated by his breakdown of the breakdown, which was hardly surprising; big dick energy instigates swarm-like behavior. If art-bro mansplaining still offers a useful model for the contemporary art world, it’s because of its capacity to generate murmurations that move in relation to so many other competing fluctuations—passages of time, erotic drives, shifting power relations, the currents of war, intrinsic psychic shifts—and because its specific way of moving (or not moving) has everything to do with our inherent failure to learn from the past. Life is one very long April Fool’s Day that’s a total success.
Since we were all migrating in the same direction (toward personal atrophy), I turned to my notepad to see how far I’d not come with my essay due yesterday, trying to decipher the vacillating, tangential text. The words jump cut between damage and damage control, attempting to re-narrate something clever with a high social purpose that’d appeal to my belligerent taste: RIP facts. Perverse, yet completely escapable. As usual, I was butchering the job and couldn’t seem to haul my ass outta there. Like it or not, I was always slurring my words together, assassinating ethical propositions in art like the beauty-school dropout I was. Nobody knew this about me, mind you, and should they ask for my matriculation certificate, I’d attach a freshly minted copy of my BNP bank statement and be on my way—people love an underdog.
Then there was Bruce Hainley. Bruce fucking Hainley. My editor. On the scene, doing his job brilliantly, annoyingly. Everything he writes is so goddamned intentional,like a Scandinavian heavy metalist. He’s very pushy. Making heaps of cash, as art critics do, Bruce had bought two first-class tickets to Paris to meet me at the Palais and discuss why I was late on the text, which was unusual for me, though flying twelve hours across the Atlantic to hear my reason seemed moderately histrionic? (Question mark being mostly ornamental.) A novice psychoanalyst might have something to say about that, but I was a quick-moving creature, unfortunately, and had moved on parenthetically, focused intensely on the efforts of placentas and the holey mOther. We had a lot in common, she and I, finding roundabout ways of dissolving into ourselves, saving dimes, engaging in desultory efforts to test the limits of our own gullibility. Laboring animals looking for hermetic self-sufficiency. Whether there was genuine nourishment in the devout pursuit of disintegration was still elusive, a saintly reality standing in for reality, a huge, unfinished, low-hung picture I wasn’t about to lose weight over. There’s something thoroughly incommensurable in all this. You can see for yourself.
For reasons I could care less about, Anne Imhof was on the Palais’s oversize, prosaic cement stairs, vacuuming something complicated, chasing herds of gallery kids off ledges like legions of demon-possessed pigs in the Bible or whatever. Improvising conviction, I knew if I worked hard at it, really gave it my all, this could be me too. A cult has arisen.
In an everyday group hallucination (in a time-poor kind of way), people find ways to articulate themselves as flawlessly streetwise, perfect cynics—rationalists looking around for other life forms that might interest them, blind animals thriving under an immaculate conception, a lifestyle they could brag about. Believing is a real menace. A big, unspoken issue is that it wasn’t true, and this made me feel like a million bucks. I was a skeptic way before Andrea Fraser, which was exactly how I knew this. One of the more elaborate things I’d written on the page was an itemized plan for self-sabotage that hinged—relied, even—on this very fact, and for the seventh time that day, I wondered how to exit the contemporary art scene with one monumentally demented essay about whatever took my fancy. The reason for the pesky human desire to almost cheerfully self-sabotage was that there was truly no point in being good at anything, and even if there were, it’d never bring about the credit-card trip to Corsica everyone should have—but I wouldn’t know this until much later. A total work stoppage was the only way to face what I suspected to be fact: writing well only comes when one’s own accurate assessment of gullibility (the art world’s original sin) becomes vulgarly available again. Once an art critic has negotiated this considerable distance, they’re free to pursue whatever they want. It just probably won’t get published. I am a brute and a visionary. Meanwhile, at the egocentric table with King Casanova and an unlicensed organ donor, a “conversation” was now happening about Antonio Gramsci’s fruitful stint in jail scrawling about cultural hegemony, Gucci underwear campaigns, and Agnès Varda’s basic theory of micro-dosing . . .
Brucie would be here any second with that repulsive plastic bottle he’s always clinging to, and whoever got that other classy Air France ticket; time flies when one is obsessed with themselves. Could a trainwreck of an article secure a place in peripheral history and an unshared agreement with Crédit Mutuel for that sunny trip to Corsica I was always missing out on? Whatever. The burning question here was: Were people gullible enough to think I did it on purpose? Career Russian roulette is ever so exciting. False moves and potentially fatal dissolution were charging me up with all sorts of primitive emotions. My epithet: très hit or miss.
Earlier that day, I’d been walking around my apartment eating fifty-cent soft-serves, drinking stolen Tokyo Nights rum, breaking a decades-long fast in my camel-colored underpants, hoping my neighbors were looking. I did this Monday to Friday, trying not to alter the time too much, my knickers a temporary stand-in for an occulted level of sincerity I never actually had. Business as usual. I couldn’t wait around to grow as a person, so I made it my vocation—my calling, even—to serve the community with the level of degradation I already had. You know, bird in the hand, et cetera. I was a broken happy. On the FM radio, in my kitchenette, Vincent Gallo was being interviewed by Conan O’Brien, giving me all sorts of inspiration about how to be a total fucking moron and neoclassically self-destructive. Frauds like Gallo have a niche way of summarizing the (most likely) fact that being hot also means you’re in the genetic hell’s kitchen for IQ—and the Catholic’s insolvent purgatory for swab results, for that matter. The Catholic’s purgatory, a filibuster if I ever saw one. Brown fluff bunnies and burnt narcissists aside, Gallo had given me the oomph I needed to demand my own institutional spectacle, and judging by the deadline and last passive-aggressive email I received, I may have already succeeded. The quixotic, dilatory artist who writes badly, and I mean staggeringly badly, might find themselves in the opportune position to challenge the profit-making habits and laws that determine the value of skepticism and its public uses. That is, if people were gullible enough to believe it. And I lecture my brethren: “–––––”
What was this ingenious experiment about again? Concrete clarity was long gone by the time I’d found my wonky, extortionate table and eighty-euro passionfruit cheesecake, waiting on Hainley to Hainley it up and say my psychic drives are an inherent lost cause. The thing is, critics are sensitive creatures with harlequin skin and loath to admit it—all-in-one vehicles for bottom-of-the-barrel self-esteem issues and six or seven hang-ups about the last brief interaction they had with a pharmacist or a grocery clerk. Hard-won self-loathing. Mini, soi-distant rock stars for the dysfunctional, long-suffering, maladapted compadre theorists with their perverted dreams and glass viles of chloral hydrate. Truly, our genetics are wasted. Compulsive cynicism is a symptom of all this, which is fundamentally an insistence on meeting obligations, and for the seventh time that day, I realized that pursuing truth with absolute dishonesty was my modus operandi, and naivete, and otherworldly greenness out-politicized just about everything.
A spot of pink light from Imhof’s vacuum cleaner made for a most transgressive environment in which to decide whether or not to push the panic button and shove my way through the crowds and baseless coterie worship, trampling grass and work contracts. But my neurons were currently indisposed, as they so often were, seizing up from years of hush money and grayish booze. I didn’t care, nor had I ever met anyone who made me care. Believing we were xenogeneic cynics was just about the most wide-eyed (and admirable) gesture of self-care imaginable, like unintentionally running to the bathroom between main and dessert and bolting ourselves in. Self-capsizing and watching the voluptuous oscillation between believers and unbelievers, fed and overfed, seemed as good a way as any to check out where this DNA sequence ended. Did I mention my epithet?
So here was Bruce, Brucie, Hainley the ol’ dawg, walking over with his lame Granatapfel juice and a dewy-eyed Lolita figure he’d picked up in Amsterdam who didn’t underreact to anything, so the placenta meal was mostly unhelpful. Shitting my pants, I started to pitch before they’d even sat down—told him I was onto a novel idea, original even, where I would throw a big boxing match and inch off menacingly like a good little social Darwinian, judging the gullibility levels of every single one of my bright, lanky readers. Like I said, I never graduated high school, which makes me smarter than basically everyone. Striking an equally purgative chord, Miss Amsterdam wearing pig-colored fishnets (a drive-by offense, said some), suggested or maybe mouthed a Gematriacal working title, over-enunciating as though competing for Miss World: I’m Going to Slip Myself a Mickey.*
The thing about naive people is that they’re smart as hell.
Some of us can’t afford a seven-year hiatus from our art career, but goddammit, we can try.
* And another thing, the reverse ordinance for I’m Going to Slip Myself a Mickey is 666, which also happens to be the exact number of personalities Vincent Gallo has. Phoaar.
Estelle Hoy is a writer and art critic based in Berlin. Her second book, the critically acclaimed Pisti 80 Rue de Belleville (After 8 Books), was released in 2020 with an introduction by Chris Kraus. She is currently collaborating on a book and exhibition with Camille Henrot for ICA Milano. Hoy regularly publishes in the international art press.