Reviewed by Benjamin Lord
The Careerist without Qualities
Seth Price’s new book, Fuck Seth Price is a searingly pungent, often comic rumination on art world economies, myths, and power structures, presented in the form of an early 20th century novel of ideas. The artist-protagonist, an unnamed third person “he,” drifts through a mid-career haze in which every ladder has been successfully climbed, and all moral and aesthetic compass has been lost. Deep in an interiorized world of cultural-theory speculation, his will and his actions become dissociated. Decision-making becomes impossible, and there’s nothing left to do but disappear.
Disappearance, not coincidentally, was the subject of Price’s last book, How to Disappear in America, a lightly-doctored collage of writings, mostly from the seventies, describing techniques for identity erasure and going off the grid. It sketches the edges of a simpler world, one that has since been made obsolete by facial recognition software, license plate scanners, DNA profiling, and internet tracking techniques. How to Disappear was ultimately an elegiac work, a grave marker for a countercultural conception of freedom that Americans have since collectively abandoned, perhaps unwittingly.
In the new book, the narrator speculates that the only way left for an artist to disappear is to be subsumed by one’s career, to a point where one’s public persona floats free of one’s self. This is ultimately a failed notion, he implicitly senses, not least because of the obligations and encumbrances that genuine Koons-level celebrity imposes.
In his earlier days, the protagonist’s chosen medium was abstract painting, an essentially outmoded medium that could nevertheless be “upcycled” into a position of status through the judicious and canny application of backstory. A materials list for one of his imagined artwork reads: “Foxconn worker’s accidental Coke spills on Nigerian mud cloth, scanned and randomly manipulated in Photoshop, printed on Belgian linen stretched over a vacuum-formed frame.” Who has the time and energy to unpack such a smokescreen of vague yet contemporary-sounding references? Content here exists as a kind of flavor enhancer, a semblance of complexity or depth for a collector audience either too clueless or distracted to know the difference. But after all, in a cynical world, isn’t unyielding cynicism an accurate portrayal of the times?
Bored with the art world, and intrigued by the new forms of writing spawned on and around the internet, he turns to writing. The narrator’s thought process is a once a brutal skewering of bad art writing and a hilarious auto-critique:
The problem with the art world was that you were expected to write uneven, eccentric, unresolved texts; it was like being a grad student in an “Experimental Writing” workshop. While many in the art world were wonderfully omnivorous, broad minded readers, few were any good at writing, including most of the critics and curators, so it was easy to stand out. Most people didn’t bother with critiques of art-world writing, and for good reason: if people criticized you for being lazy or obscurantist, you could assert that you were being “artistic,” that what you intended was less lucid rhetoric, more Delphic poesy. Writing these texts was like making films where everything was a dream sequence, and therefore immune to challenges of illogic and sloppiness.
Shorn of any specific creative conviction, “he” programs and optimizes his career as if it were a kind of digital algorithm. In this encoding, various hypotheses and notions do-si-do lazily with their opposites in a kind of intellectual danse macabre that predictably confuses obscurantism with critical depth: “This was thought capable of folding inward on itself yet somehow also playing outward, toward the world, seeking every possible angle, locating opposed positions only to swap them, as if any one thing must serve as its own inverse.” As in popular dialectical thought, each theory of the contemporary moment is confronted by its antithesis. But instead of this encounter producing a clarification and refinement of the superior idea, there results only a kind of dazzled paralysis, a cheap terminological fireworks with no real aesthetic or ethical import. This result, of course, is entirely deliberate, allowing the various producers involved to evade the accountability involved in actually taking a position. This is the familiar zone of art world Theory Lite, which typically pays great respect to Germanic philosophical notions of Negation, while married to a social universe that is pathologically affirmative, one in which clicking the “like” button (and its various social counterparts) is the preferred mode of exchange.
It’s enough to drive somebody crazy. And that’s where Price’s protagonist goes. In between reflections on representation, technology, rhetoric, and art history, both incisive and amusingly off-the wall, he commits random acts of murder and mayhem. Without warning, he slips into the rear door of an apartment building and strangles a porter. In another episode, he murders a boy by the side of road after his car inexplicably slows down. These whiplash, collaged-in spasms of shocking violence are short, matter-of-fact, and don’t otherwise interrupt the flow of philosophizing. It’s unclear if these micro-episodes are intended as a satires of artistic criminality, or simple provocations.
In both his themes and prose style, FSP broadly evokes Robert Musil’s unfinished masterwork, The Man without Qualities (1930-43). Like the character of Ulrich, Musil’s protagonist, Price’s subject hovers in a state of analytical passivity. Ulrich is fascinated by the figure Moosbrugger, a drifter who is convicted for rape and murder, while Price’s “he” commits such crimes himself, apparently completely untroubled and undiscovered. Where Ulrich is troubled by the world’s drift toward quantification and mathematics, it is the unbounded spectre of “the digital” that preoccupies Price’s man. Finally, the odd laundry list of obscure short fragments and ghastly word-images rendered in italics in the final pages of FSP run vaguely parallel to the CD-ROM worth of thousands of pages of false starts, false endings, drafts, alternative versions that lie at the end of The Man Without Qualities’ German edition. The real commonality however is one of mood, a feeling of helpless inertia in the face of a slow drift towards disaster. In both books, the slippery exchange between the perspective of the narrator and the perspective of the protagonist creates a dark atmosphere of complicity. Price has a real, studied gift for writing the process of a thought’s unfolding, and not simply stating its conclusion. The blind alleys and cul-de-sacs are, in these forms, always more interesting than the boulevards.
It’s worth noting that there are some broad parallels between Price’s real life art career and that of his unnamed character. I will leave it to future critics, with a greater personal knowledge of the writer, to decide whether this is simply a thinly embroidered roman à clef. (Much of The Man Without Qualities, it has been pointed out, is also transparently autobiographical.)
In the meantime, FSP seems like an instant classic, guaranteed to divide its audiences. Ambitious art students will likely misread this book as a how-to account of life at the top. Humanists will dutifully wince at its crassness. And those who have given up entirely on altering any of the world’s power structures may simply smile faintly, nod knowingly, and raise a toast.
Seth Price. Fuck Seth Price. The Leopard Press, 2015.