An Art Writer's Ultimate Act of Contrarianism

A baby is about process, odors, palpability, and living in the moment -- and nothing about the art school culture of presentation, polish and craftsmanship.
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At first I carried my son everywhere, to art galleries and openings and museums, strapped to the front of my jacket like a figurehead, as a proud emblem of contrarian philosophy. In the arid world of art galleries and museums, I... I... had gone the opposite way of everyone else. Instead of producing the exquisitely crafted essay, and shaping a career, I had made this... other thing, this amazing replica of myself in flesh and blood. A baby is the ultimate trompe l'oeil. His little penis sometimes actually fountained up in the air like a whale's spout when I was scraping the mustard-colored sh*t off of his butt! What art review, what work of art, could be more complex in form and conception, more fraught with meaning, taut with metaphor, more laced through with irony than the tiny, lumpen, but full-throated object I carried on my chest?

I had trained myself to think of everything I did as a gesture, a wry statement, a summing up, a thrust, a bit of repartee. Even the clothing I wore was a part of an ancient and laden dialogue. Doc Martens had been the perfect antidote to hiking boots, which had been the perfect answer to narrow ties. Later there had been a lot of black clothing and then retro shirts from the '50s and finally pinstriped suits, à la Jeff Koons. Which amounted to the more flamboyant and magnanimous statement, the summing up of everything important? If art was all about the grand gesture, then my son was a slap in the face of the avant-garde. He was a big f*ck-you to the art establishment. Deal with it! Next I was going to buy a minivan and move to Nyack. That would show them.

These were the thoughts that consoled me as I stumped around the slushy streets of SoHo and Chelsea trying to keep up with the art world, as I contemplated my already tenuous position as an art writer.

Yeah, here was this baby, number one son, drooling and carrying on in front of me wherever I went, gumming and slobbering on its Baby Björn carrier. My son was a volcano of piss, sh*t, mucus, and saliva. A lot of artists were working with body fluids that year. Nothing new, of course. Marcel Duchamp had used semen in a work as early as 1946 and the artist Piero Manzoni had grossed everyone out in the early '60s by canning his own sh*t and calling it Merda d'artista. Serrano caused a minor sh*t storm by taking a picture of a crucifix floating in urine. This was human representation stripped down to its most basic level. He was, actually, a real human, but small enough so you could throw him in a shopping bag. He was a maquette, a miniature, a scaled-down model. He had a butt and little shoe-button eyes and a set of tiny miraculously detailed fingers curling in his hands.

Here was a set of instructions turned into a fully realized art object, like a Sol LeWitt installation. At the same time, a baby evoked everything that was cute and commodifiable in our culture. Warhol had stumbled upon the emblematic value of babies years ago. Keith Haring had honed the image of the baby to a fine and culturally radioactive art object. Furthermore our baby was the product of chance operations, of the alchemical swirling together of male and female genotypes, with no possibility of predicting the outcome, à la John Cage.

And moreover, the two of us, working collaboratively, had made him at home. To hell with presentation! A baby is about process, odors, palpability, and living in the moment -- and nothing about the art school culture of presentation, polish and craftsmanship. He's all passion and instinct and groping blindly in the dark. F*ck you! We're not talking about mock naïve, with all of its sly levels of mono and double entendres, and this year's crop of art brut. We were the true naïves, visionaries: a man and a woman, bravely slashing out a new aesthetic terrain all by ourselves.

Excerpted from Peter von Ziegesar's memoir, The Looking-Glass Brother.