Vile Days, by Gary Indiana,
edited by Bruce Hainley.
Semiotext(e). 600 pages. $29.95.
Courtesy of Harper’s Magazine
How unromantic can a deathbed scene get? A test case: one day in 2015, The New Yorker’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, makes his way to the Village Voice’s Cooper Square offices, seeking to rescue the columns he wrote for the alt-weekly in the 1990s from their undigitized obscurity. Let in by a staff member who seems slack-jawed that anyone should be so keen to enter, Schjeldahl observes the paper’s remaining employees: “A very few people, not appearing to be up to much, sat far apart at desks in a dimly lighted panorama of desuetude.” Coda: as summer 2018 gasps its last, so does the Voice; mourned in September blog posts, like Schjeldahl’s for The New Yorker, it now exists only in archival form. This seems a fittingly uncharismatic parable for an East Village that has died more than once in the past thirty years or so—the end doesn’t even get to feel poignant anymore.
The few things the Village has going for it today include the far too often underrated writer Gary Indiana, who lived there when, as he puts it, “it still had the narcoleptic desuetude of downtown Detroit,” and recorded its fatal flourishing during the Reagan years, when he wrote the aforementioned Voice art column between 1985 and 1988. Thanks to the poet and Artforum contributing editor Bruce Hainley, who had the same idea as Schjeldahl around the same time, Indiana’s articles from that era have now been retrieved and published as Vile Days. The collection captures a key moment in the development of the current art world, New York real estate, the AIDS crisis, Indiana’s own writing, and much besides. As these columns were ground out on deadline and to length, the book falls short of the cohesive brilliance of Horse Crazy and Gone Tomorrow, the novels in which Indiana captured the same period, and which have just been reissued by Seven Stories Press. Yet Vile Days has endless compensatory thrills, and an implicit narrative arc of its own.
As well as offering shrewd judgments of artists whose stature has only grown since — Indiana can be equally fervent and persuasive in his analyses of the brilliant, the charlatans, and all those in between — he frequently used the column as a space for experimentation, both formal and philosophical. An intellectual with a precise sense of history, he nonetheless writes with a quality he ascribes to Kathy Acker in one of the articles here: “a liberating, combative irreverence and glee” that puts many other critics to shame. He’s not above shaming them directly, either. Janet Malcolm, for instance, gets skewered for the credulousness and snobbery Indiana identifies in one of her New Yorker profiles: she’ll believe anyone, no matter how corrupt, whose taste in home décor she admires, and her text, he writes,
is studded with . . . novelistic details, which twinkle class assurance from reporter to reader: never mind what X thinks, he or she lives alone in an apartment so messy you and I would never dream of living there. . . . These people are Russian émigrés who serve refreshments in a slobby manner, so I guess you understand how exasperated I felt.
Composite and fictional characters appear. Indiana’s first entry, a characteristic blend of barbed wit and melancholy warmth, asks the reader’s pity for one Gaston Porcile Vitrine, a socialite painter whose “prolific Expressive Jismism” has fallen out of favor, leaving him friendless and broke like so many others in “our fair but unfair city.” One column removes all art-world players’ proper names and shows how little is thereby lost. Others consist of damning collages of quotation, or numbered lists, one of which attacks the reader and the whole scene and city before deigning to share any thoughts on particular shows:
- This paragraph goes here in order to destroy any notion of continuity in what you’re reading.
- Fuck you.
- If I want to tell you something, why drag everything relevant in because “art needs to be covered”? Cover art with a blanket and pour gasoline on it, then light a cigarette and throw the match away. You won’t lose anything you can’t live without.
This, from February 1988, indicates an increasing impatience with the task at hand and the environment, which is confirmed by Indiana’s departure from the Voice a few months after: “bailing out,” as he later put it, in “that leisurely half hour before the aircraft hit the ground.” He leaves on a tellingly serious note that hints at how high he’d always felt the stakes in this milieu to be. After making fun of everyone, including himself, for petty egotism, he turns grave in responding to a potshot from an Artforum writer who attacked him for being “obsessed with AIDS.” Not alone in focusing on “the present health emergency,” Indiana warns any uninfected careerists — flitting about the biennials and churning out Saatchi catalogue copy — whose personal luck has so far allowed them to ignore the dying: “that attitude is not going to play too much longer, even in Peoria.”
Featured Image: Village Voice Covers, a wood-block print on newsprint, by Nils Karsten © The artist. Courtesy Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery, NYC
Vile Days review originally published in the November 2018 issue of Harper’s Magazine
Lidija Haas is the New Books columnist at Harper’s magazine and a contributing editor at Bookforum.