Art has never been a question of life and death…
– Barbara Rose
Art is the only thing worth dying for.
– Abbie Hoffman
WE TOOK THIS REALLY NICE HOUSE IN BERKELEY that some friends were vacating for the summer. Lots of rooms, a few pieces of old furniture, dark wood paneling, and the basic item of Bay Area life, a round oak table around which there always seems to be a lot of people. Shortly after our arrival I was supposed to meet Richard Serra and Joan Jonas to drive down to Nevada to see Heizer’s Double Negative.
I had been talking to Serra on and off for about two years. He has a gargantuan appetite for art and its problems. Ideas explode in his head with the regularity of Dexedrine spansules popping. He has a fine sense of art world theatrics and times his art world (life) actions with the precision of an Abbie Hoffman. As a matter of fact, Hoffman’s name came up in the ride to Nevada pretty frequently. Serra had gone to school at Santa Barbara and, after Isla Vista, was having serious doubts about whether he was the most revolutionary thing that had come out of that campus.
What, we argued, was the most revolutionary thing to do?ą Serra was wondering whether the times were not forcing us to a completely new set of ideas about what an artist was and what an artist did. I argued for Michael Fried’s idea that the conventional nature of art was its very essence, that the great danger was the delusion that one was making art when in fact you were doing something else, something of certain value but not the value of art. That’s where Hoffman came in:
I’m more interested in art than politics, but, well, see, we are all caught in a word box. I find it difficult to make these kinds of divisions. Northrup, in Meeting of East and West, said, “Life is an undifferentiated esthetic continuum.” Let me say that the Vietcong attacking the U.S. Embassy in Saigon is a work of art. I guess I like revolutionary art.
Serra wasn’t quite ready to absorb even elegant military actions into art, but neither was he ready to dismiss the idea that there are certain moments when what artists do is suddenly thrown up for grabs. Was it possible that Hoffman had seen where a whole lot of art, from the Happenings on, had been leading?
Throwing money onto the floor of the Stock Exchange is pure information. It needs no explanation. It says more than thousands of anti-capitalist tracts and essays.
The car broke down about fifteen miles outside of Bakersfield, and we had to spend the night. As we walked across the parking lot of a truck stop toward the diner, Serra said, “Jesus Christ look at that – bombs!” A huge truck, parked in the lot, was stacked full with open-slatted crates containing, sure enough, bombs. We walked over to it and continued our political discussion:
“B-O-M-B-S,” spelled Serra, reading the stencils on the crates. He looked at me. “They’re bombs.”
“Look, they pack the nose cones separately,” I said, meaning the warheads, or the tips, or whatever they were.
“A whole truckload of bombs,” said Serra.
“Maybe they only travel at night,” I said.
We ate in the diner. When we came out, the bombs had left, off to Cambodia. Would they have gotten past Abbie Hoffman that easily?
Heizer’s piece was on a giant mesa high behind the town of Overton, Nevada. We were all expecting something strong, but none of us were quite prepared for it, as it turned out. We were all yipping and yowling as if Matisse had just called us over to look at something he was thinking of calling Joy of Life. The sun was down; we wound up slipping and sliding inside the piece in the dark. The piece was huge, but its scale was not. It took its place in nature in the most modest and unassuming manner, the quiet participation of a man-made shape in a particular configuration of valley, ravine, mesa, and sky. From it, one oriented oneself to the rest in a special way, not in a way competing with, or at odds with them either. The piece was a new place in nature. That seemed to me a risky kind of art; there was a range of consequences in doing it wrong that one wasn’t used to contemplating in relation to art. But Double Negative was not doing it wrong.
We came back again to see the piece in the early morning, and Joan made a videotape of it. Then we left. On the ride back to Las Vegas we talked about the piece a lot, about politics not at all. It wasn’t as if the problem had gone away; it was, at least for me, as if revolutionary art is where you find it and that the question of what is revolutionary art isn’t too different, in the end, from the question of what is good art. Anyway, nobody mentioned Abbie Hoffman. We all got very happy. Serra wondered whether anyone in the “information” show had submitted a piece paper that said: “Go to a mesa and dig a slot 40 feet deep and one hundred feet long. Then go to the other side and dig a slot…”