There are worse things than velleities: To Joyce Burstein on Thomas McEvilley and Cindy Sherman

Dear Joyce,

I know it has been a long time (some three years) and I hope this finds you well, if indeed it finds you. Even though I know that you engage with antiquity in your work, from The Epitaph Project to the Iliad piece you once showed me in your apartment, I realize that you may not read Minus Plato, so this message may never reach you. Even so, it is important to me that this is the place that I will try to reach you, after so much time.

Today, here in Columbus, Ohio, the exhibition Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life opens at the Wexner Center for the Arts and it made me think back to the short article I wrote for the Brooklyn Rail for their June 2014 issue called “Cindy and Andy on the Ancient Unconscious”. As you’ll recall, it was in this text that I engaged with the work of your partner Thomas McEvilley, who had recently died, and our plan to organize a symposium in honor of his work that embraced the dynamic between ancient cultures and contemporary art. Here is the opening paragraph:

Thomas McEvilley (1939 – 2013) wrote about contemporary art as conjunctive, as sequentiation and dispersion, as an “and,” and not an “is.” For example, in an essay called “Modernism, Post-Modernism and the End of Art,” McEvilley reacted to Arthur Danto’s boast for the philosophization of art as a recent phenomenon by offering the following cumulative portrait of ancient philosophizing:

Plato produced various theories of art, but even before Plato Democritus of Abdera wrote a book On Painting, and even before Democritus the Pythagoreans were involved with music theory and geometrical abstraction. For some reason these ancient philosophers felt that an essential part of philosophy was to investigate art and analyze it theoretically, and that conviction about the duties of a philosopher has remained active till our time.

It is this aspect of McEvilley’s work that I wish to commemorate and expand on in a symposium devoted to his work that I am currently planning with artist Joyce Burstein on the topic of Ancient Cultures and Contemporary Art. My aim here, however, is to pay modest tribute to the conjunctive spirit of McEvilley’s work by briefly complicating our view of what we could call the “ancient unconscious,” while at the same time expanding the kind of contemporary art often included in discussions of both ancient cultures and the unconscious.

Now, you no doubt remember how I failed to fulfill this promise of the symposium on McEvilley’s work, either at the time of the tribute you organized back in March 2014 or since. I don’t think I adequately communicated to you my gratitude to you for inviting me to speak at that tribute (and the launch of his last work The Arimaspia) you planned at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church on March 5, 2014. While I don’t recall precisely what I said that evening, I know that I was moved and also embarrassed to speak about a person who I had never met and only read among a group incredible artists and critics (including Carolee Schneemann, Holland Cotter, Pat Steir, Les Levine, William Anastasi, Susan Bee, Ann McCoy, Charles Bernstein and Marina Abramovic – via video), paying tribute to their friend. What right did I have to be there? To join my voice to theirs? Furthermore, I could speak in impassioned terms about the significance of McEvilley’s work for my own, but what did these words mean if I failed to follow through with the symposium?

Thinking back to this time now, as I have done many times since, I finally think I know that I failed to follow through with the symposium owing to two, admittedly selfish, pressures. First was the uncertainty about whether what I was doing and what McEvilley devoted his working life to do, were in fact that similar in the end. Yes, we both return to the ancient past and its rich cultural lessons to intervene in the creative work of the present, but did that make them equivalent? Second, I felt the ‘anxiety of influence’ of McEvilley’s work as a Classicist engaged in contemporary art, and perhaps I was unsure that aligning my interests so directly with his legacy was productive for my own development. Did I really need to invent a father for myself to frame my own work? Thinking back, the second reason seems less significant now than the first. But what precisely are the differences between McEvilley’s work and my own? I know this comes later, but I still feel like I owe you owe some kind of an explanation.

This brings me back to today and to Cindy Sherman. In my piece for the Brooklyn Rail, I attempted to articulate the difference between those who saw a forerunner to the Freudian unconscious in Lucretius’ Epicurean epic De rerum natura and those who were more skeptical. To make this distinction, I used Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills as an illustration.

On the one hand, we could compare the argument raised by the skeptics to how Sherman’s famous Untitled Film Stills (1977 – 80) series should be interpreted as a feminist deconstruction of the variety of feminine roles most recently defended by Roberta Smith in the New York Times against James Franco’s New Film Stills at Pace. On the other hand, we could compare those defending an Epicurean unconscious and follow Donald Kuspit, who saw a feminist approach to Sherman as eliciting only a “partial truth” on account of her work showing “the disintegrative condition of the self as such” as prior to gendered definition.

Between these two options, I offered a third way, grounded in the Epicurean ideas of the simulacrum and clinamen:

The simulacrum which, as a “latent image” has been read as anticipating Freud’s unconscious, was in fact used by Epicureans to describe how sight and other senses work; in how objects give off particles from their surfaces which strike our eyes or ears. If we keep this latter simulacrum in mind, consider how the Untitled Film Stills may be interpreted if we frame them in terms of the pervasive influence of Andy Warhol, whose work not only utilized the media of photography, television, and film, but also shows us the repetitive “filminess” of these fantasies. But where does this leave Cindy Sherman’s own description of the work as originating in girlhood games of dress-up and a fascination with the look of film noir characters? One way is to follow Epicurus and allow for a “swerve” or clinamen to occur within materialist repetition of her work. In Lucretius’s Latin this swerve is enacted through the material of language itself, in the change of one letter (e.g. voluptas/voluntas)…

To be frank, reading this now, I struggle to understand my own argument, although I think that my basic point was that Sherman’s photographs had their own version of the Epicurean unconscious embedded in their material qualities – the simulacrum of their Warholian ‘filminess’ and the clinamen of their repetition with difference within a series. Reading my treatment of Sherman back then, I only now realized how deeply ingrained McEvilley’s approach to ancient cultures and contemporary art were for my own writing. Whenever I read McEvilley, I am amazed by how deeply he wrote out of his knowledge and engagement with antiquity, enlightening the critical discourse of contemporary art with deep rooted and profound ancient models. McEvilley found ancient philosophy everywhere around him and, like his hero Diogenes, was relentless in bringing our attention to the crucial questions of creative performance and its reception.

Yet, today, re-reading my words and acknowledging McEvilley’s influence on them, makes me realize how different my approach to the Classical and contemporary art has become, as explored in the posts on Minus Plato, especially during this last year of the Minus Plato Today experiment. I am reminded of how the Epicureans believed that the memory of past pleasures were sufficient for our present happiness and how this always made me think about the reverse: was the memory of past pain a hindrance to present happiness? I guess there may be a middle ground here, which that wonderful word ‘velleity’ articulates, as used by Beckett in Malone Dies:

After all it is not important not to finish, there are worse things than velleities.

In other words, what Sherman’s work teaches me and which I now believe separates my project from that of McEvilley’s, is that I am a Classicist who has learned his lessons from the partial and unfinished desires of contemporary artists’ engagement with antiquity. For example, whenever I see Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #13, I am less interested in claiming any continuity with the ancient unconscious, but am instead intrigued by the word ‘dialogue’ in the title of the book her character is selecting. I also want to think about how she is looking away, perhaps to some other book that just caught her eye, that in the next moment she will move towards. For me Sherman’s work is exemplary for how artists engage with ancient cultures. Their engagement is more often than not momentary and a decision or interest made within a series of other decisions and interests. This means that my role is to focus in on this moment when my work as a Classicist and the artist’s decision to engage with antiquity meet. Yet, at the same time, to acknowledge that it may just be a moment, and that at any minute, like Sherman’s character, the artist’s attention may move elsewhere. I keep thinking that, if an artist wanted to devote their lives to the study of Classics, they would be a Classicist not an artist and reading McEvilley, I actually felt like he was more truly a Classicist than I am.

There are still so many unfinished conversations that I have with McEvilley’s work and as I return to his texts I am more and more amazed by how he bridged his Classicism with an expansive attention to cultural difference that stretched far and wide, ancient and modern, beyond the Mediterranean cultures of my discipline. His work remains the place to go to to negotiate Classicism and Primitivism, in all their attendant failures.

I know this note, written over three years later, does not sufficiently excuse my failure, especially after you so generously included me in the commemorative events for the man you loved. At the same time, as I write for Minus Plato every day, as part of my mourning diary since last Thanksgiving, I knew that somewhere I needed to address you as a way of understanding not only how vital my encounter with McEvilley was for my work, but also where I have found important differences in my own practice.

I very much hope this reaches you.

All my best,


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