Gilbert Sorrentino's Problematic Middle Child: Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

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The chocolate was real, the lard was melted, and the vomit that was meant to represent The Sweet and Pungent Smell of Success had no smell at all because it was plastic. To prevent the lesson of this last model from being lost on the bewildered viewer, however, artist Sue Williams provided a capsule--and capitalized--summary of the point she wished to make on the floor of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art in 1993:

8,000,000 PEOPLE IN THE COUNTRY HAVE EATING DISORDERS 90% ARE WOMEN 6% DIE

Strident, certainly, but perhaps necessary in a Biennial Exhibition devoted to "inscribing the personal, political, and social into the practice of art," as the signs by the elevators read. With no explication de texte readily available, the striated three-foot-high cubes of chocolate and lard that comprised two parts of Janine Antoni's Gnaw clearly failed to make their point about women's pursuit of beauty on the one woman I saw fixing her lipstick in the mirrors that backed the cases of the installation's third section, Lipslick Display: Phenylethylamine. The cases contained heart-shaped packages of chocolate taken from the Chocolate Gnaw cube and tubes of lipstick made from pigment, beeswax, and chewed lard derived from the swamp into which museum lights were rendering Lard Gnaw. For in this world of what Arthur Danto termed "disturbational art" (qtd. in Ross 9), making a point--usually with respect to inequalities experienced because of gender, race, and/or class--was precisely what creative expression had come to be about in the 1990s.

Such a scenario is a far cry from the skewering given the "Revolutionaries of the elegant lofts" and "glittering people who play with vomit" in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (6), Gilbert Sorrentino's re-creation of the 1950-1960s New York art and literary scene. It is an even more distant cry from the formalism propounded by Sorrentino within that same text as the basis for aesthetic production. Eulogized by Whitney director David A. Ross as "the cynical formalism with which many critics defined the arts of post-war America" (9) and consigned by curator Lisa Phillips to "a backseat to the interpretive function of art and the priorities of content" (53), concern with style would seem to have gone the way of "authorial voice" and "all the emblems of successful art: originality, integrity of materials, coherence of form," according to those who mounted the Biennial (53). Moreover, if form and voice were among the primary traits that, for Sorrentino, characterized modernism in art, so far from modernist concerns did the Whitney exhibitors go, in the view of at least one member of the museum's advisory committee, as to be beyond postmodernism as well: "By giving abstract concepts and formal operations more overt social content, they localize, politicize, and historicize postmodern cultural debates that had been at one time excessively formalist and ethnocentric" (Fusco 81).

And yet, for all Sorrentino's stated emphasis on form, Imaginative Qualities seems to be singularly lacking in design. Unlike the chapters arranged in accordance with the letters of the alphabet in Splendide-Hotel (1973) and the eighty-four lyrics linked by the use of the word orange that make up The Orangery (1978), the eight sections that comprise Sorrentino's third novel adhere to no particular structural principle--each one seems to be just another satirical expose of a failed artist, and their combination "a collection of `bits and pieces,'" as the book's narrator admits (11). Conversely, for all Sorrentino's disdain for "ideas" in art, particularly the kind the novel lambastes as "proffer[ring] the most marvelous radical sentiments in utterly degraded and reactionary poetic structures" when expressed in works with titles like "Raincheck for Fidel and Che" (145), the book is replete with diatribes against the United States the equal of any disaffected lefty's--diatribes that cannot simply be dismissed as belonging to the narrator since they duplicate so clearly remarks made by Sorrentino in essays and interviews. …