Magazine article Artforum International

Fear and Loathing in Vienna

Magazine article Artforum International

Fear and Loathing in Vienna

Article excerpt

Rhonda Lieberman on the Indiscreet Charm of Thomas Bernhard

We all want to be good consumers. We don't want to reproduce negativity. So whenever I hear Cindy Crawford aver, "It's really inner beauty that counts," my inability to take things at face value makes me feel unclean. According to Gilles Deleuze, "The world is the set of symptoms of which the illness coincides with man."

A recent art piece in Vogue juxtaposed two "artful gatherings": a late-19th-century parlor painted by Alfred Stevens, garnished with lady artist and models, and a mod 1965 postcard of a fancy French restaurant in Chicago with mannequinlike patrons, all of whom looked upscale yet very normal. Both images offered the voyeur attractive poses to identify with--one the pale romantic, two the sporty WASP. It has been customary since the 19th century for image-makers to reflect back their bourgeois or bohemian audiences from the place from which they appear likable to themselves; god help the artist who refuses to mirror his consumers back to themselves in idealized form.

While one-too-many a puff piece on a "down-to-earth" celebrity or pure-hearted artist can throw one into the hands of the devil (at least for a moment). Thomas Bernhard, who died in 1989, based his career on recording every possible insult to his intelligence and finding that everything, upon close examination, disgusted him. He was one of those Viennese who were constantly hating everything: art, kitsch, nature, the Viennese who "have no lavatory culture," his colleagues, and himself. He reserved especially colorful remarks for "the real wreckers of art"--art historians--who deserve "to be chased out with a whip." Heidegger himself appears, unattractively, "pulling on his socks." Especially apt at capturing esthetic urges as they curdle into careerism, jealousy, sterility, and consciousness (where most people prefer to forget these Kodak-unworthy moments--and years), Bernhard has preserved them in his books. Despite his frequent tirades against the Austrian people, when you read him it's hard to remember he's talking about horrible people in Vienna and not people you know in NYC today.

Woodcutters: a novel, 1984, is a charming account of an "artistic dinner," populated with people mid- to late-career who are past their period of productivity and may or may not know it yet, and of how they prey upon others. The host couple are in fact the real parasites of the evening, a culturally anxious heiress and her husband, a once promising composer "in the tradition of Webern" who has developed over the years into an alcoholic who scares people at parties, and inflicts atonal entertainments upon them when they would like to go home. The narrator contemplates his long personal history with the guests, all of whom have prostituted themselves in various ways in the name of Art, and who repel him.

The Bernhard world is structured like a Mobius strip on which culture vultures flip into philistines, and vice versa; one relishes every sordid turn with discreet grunts of pleasure, and leaves the book strangely expunged of ego shit one didn't even realize one was busy repressing. His work bears testimony to the fact that prolonged exposure to Beauty does not necessarily do any Good. I was bemused to hear that Susan Sontag has recently conducted a Bernhard reading at a tony Manhattan bookstore.

In Old Masters: a comedy, 1985, he provides a portrait of a professional art-consumer, an excruciatingly cultivated geriatric music critic. He goes in for a book-length close-up, observing the geezer as he observes another geezer (this one by Tintoretto, the White-Bearded Man), a habit he has committed every other day for 30 years at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. We get into his head for an unsightly portrait of an "old master" internally corroded by his lifelong dependence upon "old masters," "to be saved anew by music every day, from all the atrocities and hideousness," which indeed are plentiful. …

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