José Esteban Muñoz. Photo courtesy the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of Arts, NYU.
THE WORK of José Esteban Muñoz—as a student, a teacher, a writer, and a friend—was electrified by his desire to tip the world toward something joyous in the face of intense opposition to that joy, toward a place that is more just and generous, but also more ferocious.
José’s lifelong passion was to express the utopian gesture that responds to the awfulness of things as they are. The work of balancing hope against despair ran through his writings from the earliest to the most recent, and it was a work he associated with the queer, the minoritarian, and the brown. Under his attention, those terms became not generic categories but critical passageways. Queerness, for José, named the possible but also the “not yet.” The “sense of brown” (both the title and the subject of one of his books still forthcoming from Duke University Press, and first theorized in a seminal essay on the playwright Ricardo Abreu Bracho) indicated a form of discontinuous commonality, “not knowable in advance” but actually existing as a world, in the here and now. He mined a Marxist tradition that included Althusser, Bloch, Adorno, Fredric Jameson, and Jean-Luc Nancy, and used this radical tradition to show how the affirmations in his work required negations of and deviations from the status quo.
“The challenge here,” José writes in an essay on the LA punk band The Germs, “is to look to queerness as a mode of ‘being-with’ that defies social conventions and conformism and is innately heretical yet still desirous for the world, actively attempting to enact a commons that is not a pulverizing, hierarchical one bequeathed through logics and practices of exploitation.”¹ There was something heretical about his own work in the academy, the art world, and everything betwixt and beyond them. In making a world for himself in which to flourish, he couldn’t help but build one for others too.
Born in Cuba in 1967, brought to Miami by his parents as an infant, José Muñoz was always on the move. Leaving the Cuban-America enclave of Hialeah, where his youth played out to the sound of bands like X and the Gun Club, he studied at Sarah Lawrence College, where he first read Cherríe Moraga’s Lo Que Nunca Paso por Sus Labios (Loving in the War Years, 1983), which became for him a touchstone (especially its chapter, “La Guera”). José then entered Duke University’s doctoral program in Literature, which at that time was at a high point of prestige and influence. Under the guiding love and friendship of his mentor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and among a precocious, brilliant cohort of fellow students, José, a rising star and only twenty-six years old, was hired to teach at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He brought the “symposium of Eve” to “the broke-ass institute,” as his friend Fred Moten put it in a poem for José that appears in Moten’s 2010 collection, B Jenkins.
When he arrived in Greenwich Village in 1994, José planted himself at the center of a circle of influence that would expand over a short two decades. His home functioned as a true salon. The most ferocious personalities conspired amid stacks of comic books and philosophical treatises, surrounded by punk ephemera, the remnants of late-night sessions, toys belonging to one of his adored animal companions, piles of manuscripts, and friends’ artwork. “José had this endless stamina for socializing,” friend and dramatist Jorge Cortiñas remembers. “It was a wonderfully seamless way of engaging with art and with artists.”
José brought to the academy an archive of film, art, and performance that still astonishes readers of his first book, Disidentifications (1999). And he interpreted this archive using a sturdy theoretical apparatus that was never directed toward its own legitimation, but was instead devoted to the value of queer and minoritarian life, and to the mourning of queer and minoritarian loss. For José, experimental art, performance, and poetry were keys to “the practice of survival.” Prescient readings of the work of Félix González-Torres and Isaac Julien (attending to the forms of queer exile that shape the aesthetic practices of both) sit alongside groundbreaking writing on figures who, at the time, had received little or no critical attention. From the very beginning of his development as a thinker, he formed intense and collaborative relationships with artists. Vaginal Davis, Carmelita Tropicana, and Nao Bustamante figure heavily in his thought, and he figured heavily in their lives as an advocate, a friend, and as a critic. “José’s serious engagement with artists’ lives, practice, and work,” social theorist John Andrews observes, “has changed how many academics conceive the practice of theorizing. His work as a theorist countered the more rarefied modes of how academics and art critics use and produce theory.”
The list of other artists whose careers José supported through his advocacy, his intellect, and his friendship is vast: Wu Tsang, Justin Vivian Bond, Kenny Mellman, Marga Gomez, Tony Just, Miguel Gutierrez, Jorge Cortiñas, Michael Wang, Kevin Aviance, and Kalup Linzy to put names to some. José sought links among artists few had the capacity to imagine as part of the same world. His second book, Cruising Utopia (2009), an exciting antidote to both mainstream gay and lesbian politics as well as to the “anti-social” turn in queer theory, set LeRoi Jones’s play The Toilet in conversation with the philosophy of Ernst Bloch, the paintings of Luke Dowd alongside performances by Dynasty Handbag and My Barbarian or poetry by Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop. Some of the book’s most moving passages grow from his familiarity with a wide range of gay scenes in New York City and beyond, especially those off the white, homonormative map. Underground and experimental social spaces were as important to him as Marxist philosophy and queer theory. He encouraged people to follow him, as a thinker and happy participant, into those zones.
In José’s writing a performance, painting, photo, or literary text is not merely an “object of study” but a philosophical encounter, one that sits alongside other kinds of encounters, moments of collision and contact. For this reason, in his writing he did not lead with the information that facilitates the absorption of an artist’s work into the academy (a defense of the work’s relation to a canon, to art history narrowly imagined, to a disciplinarian articulation of “performance”). He offered instead a language that invites the artist’s work into the reader’s life, by way of his thinking. He drew other scholars into conversation about his muses, his Furies; his experiences of their work were not intended to be “his” but “shared out.”
José redefined the meaning of “academic superstar” in Warholian terms: He had a way of finding beauty in what others considered to be their own damage, recalls Jonathan Flatley, a friend and co-editor (with Jennifer Doyle) of Pop Out: Queer Warhol (1996). José quickly transformed the academy not only through his writing but through his mentorship of a generation of scholars, many of who now work at some of the country’s most dynamic and prestigious departments.
And so we met the news of José Esteban Muñoz’s death on December 3, 2013 with a collective howl. A constellation of artists, writers, curators, and scholars have spent the winter shaken by paroxysms of grief: José’s lifework as a philosopher/critic, which includes his practice of friendship, has been so integral to this community that we feel as if the very ground beneath us has disappeared.
On February 8, at a memorial gathering at NYU, Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman reprised Kiki & Herb’s rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in tribute to José. Later that afternoon, Carmelita Tropicana welcomed his friends to a Village basement bar, where filmmaker Guinevere Turner roused the crowd with a performance of her correspondence with José; the electronic duo Matmos staged a “Germ Burn for Darby Crash” in his memory; Miguel Gutierrez amplified a farewell “I love you” into a gorgeous sonic loop; Gus Stadler and Barbara Browning sang their cover of “Take Ecstasy With Me”; Kay Turner led a rousing reprise of Cruising Utopia as a punk anthem; and Nao Bustamante, wearing a nude body suit and veiled in the black cloud of a Vegas widow, planted herself face down on the stage and tore through “Lara’s Theme.” Nao peeled the skin off its lyrics (“Someday my love…”), marking out the distance between its sweet fantasy and the place we are in here and now. Then she rolled and crawled across the floor, from the front of the stage to the back of the bar.
Jennifer Doyle is a professor at the University of California, Riverside.
Tavia Nyong’o is an associate professor at New York University.
¹ José Esteban Muñoz, “ ‘Gimme Gimme This… Gimme Gimme That’: Annihilation and Innovation in the Punk Rock Commons, Social Text 31, no. 3 116 (Fall 2013), 95–110.
THERE WERE FOUR BROTHERS IN ALL, and the one later known as Run Run Shaw was the youngest. Large families were the rule in the China of the late Qing Dynasty, and the family patriarch, Shao Xingyin, undoubtedly expected his four surviving sons to follow him into the pigmentation/dyeing business he had established in Shanghai. And so most of them did, to start with, but when the eldest son, Runje (a qualified lawyer with an expanding business portfolio), bought a bankrupted theater in Shanghai in 1923, his ambitions changed direction. In 1925 Runje stopped staging plays and started producing films, and his brothers were very happy to join him in show business. They founded the film company Unique (in Chinese: Tianyi) and were soon turning out a film a month. And they’d already begun exploring the possibilities of expanding the business into Southeast Asia when six other Shanghai film companies formed a cartel in an attempt to block Unique productions from movie theaters in China. Unique managed to keep going regardless, but it was the scale of the company’s “empire” in Southeast Asia which won it pole position in the post–Pacific War market.
In the 1930s, around the time the Shao family westernized its name to Shaw, Run Run (then known as Renleng, though he soon changed his Chinese name to Shao Yifu) was busy helping his brother Runme with a burgeoning regional movie distribution and exhibition operation based in Singapore. Meanwhile, another brother, Runde, set up a similar base in Hong Kong. Long story short, Runde’s company Shaw and Sons was stagnating by the mid-1950s, and Run Run came from Singapore in 1957 with the mission of turning things around. In the event, he broke with Runde and started the new company Shaw Brothers. He built the huge studio Shaw Movie Town in Clearwater Bay, on land bought cheaply from the Hong Kong government, and launched production in 1958. Within two years, Run Run had only one rival as the leading film-biz mogul of the Chinese diaspora—and that rival (Loke Wan Tho of the Cathay Organisation) obligingly died in a plane crash, leaving Run Run a very large share of the pie for himself.
Shaw Movie Town was a dream factory on the model of a Hollywood studio of the ’30s, only more so. Everything possible was kept in-house, from set and costume storage to poster design and printing, and stars, directors, and other key contract personnel were expected to live in the staff dormitories adjacent to the shooting stages. Films were shot silent and post-synched in the studio’s dubbing suites, then released in Shaw-owned theaters in Hong Kong and across the region . . . except, of course, in communist China. Surmounting the complex was Run Run’s own villa, for a while his actual residence, containing the private screening room in which he watched (among other things) each new production. By the early-’70s, he was watching forty-plus Shaw Brothers features a year.
Leading directors in the studio had their own units (there were certain rivalries) and made pretty much whatever genre films they liked, but Run Run’s business model was inflexible: Everyone was on a fixed salary, there was no profit-sharing, and rewards for success came only in the form of celebratory banquets. Not surprisingly there were defections: Star directors Li Hanxiang and King Hu decamped to Taiwan in the mid-’60s and then, more damagingly, head of production Raymond Chow left in 1970, taking several directors and actors with him to found the rival company Golden Harvest, built on what was left of the old Cathay Organisation. Soon after, Run Run famously made a big mistake by failing to sign the former child star Bruce Lee; he offered him the standard Shaw contract (a long-term commitment for minimal wages) and so Lee went to the upstart Golden Harvest instead. Run Run responded by increasing production of kung-fu movies—and then by diverting his energies to commercial television. His station TVB was (and remains) the most successful broadcaster in Hong Kong.
I met Run Run face-to-face only once, in the early ’90s, when I nervously had to ask if he would let me screen some Shaw Brothers classics in a survey of Hong Kong cinema at London’s National Film Theatre. He was Sir Run Run by then, knighted for his charitable donations and perhaps also for endowing the British Academy of Film and Television Arts with the luxury auditorium which bears his name. He spoke nearly accentless English, but had a distinctly un-British directness about money. How much, he wanted to know, was the National Film Theatre proposing to pay for the screenings? My explanation that other producers were supplying films without charge didn’t impress him, but he did eventually let us have four titles for free. Most likely someone in the Hong Kong government had a word.
Run Run certainly wasn’t embarrassed about dirtying his hands with lucre, but even before he gave control of the film side of his business to his last wife—Mona Fong, a former nightclub chanteuse—he was a hands-off producer. Some directors complained that he vetoed their pet projects, but when he gave a film the green light he didn’t interfere. The evidence suggests that he never thought reshoots or reedits were worth the time or money, either. Maybe that’s why, despite the profits-first mentality, Shaw Brothers produced so many memorable films. Run Run himself will be remembered as a grand old man of Hong Kong cinema, attending social functions with a starlet on either arm. But Shaw Brothers—its logo brazenly copied from the Warner Brothers trademark—gave us as many indelible images as any Hollywood major, from Zhang Che’s crypto-gay martyrdoms in martial arts movies to the lilting songs of cross-dressed sweethearts in The Love Eterne (1963). Run Run’s empire laid the foundations for modern Chinese pop culture.
Tony Rayns is a London-based freelance filmmaker, critic, and festival programmer.
“Ontology is the study of what it means to be something. But knowing whether something is art belongs to epistemology—the theory of knowledge.” –Arthur Danto
ARTHUR DANTO, who departed us on October 25, 2013, was the greatest philosopher of art of our time. Faced with the immense range of artistic practices that define our historical moment, it is all too easy to surrender to a pluralistic, “anything goes” approach. But Danto was able to apply his deep, encyclopedic knowledge of history and philosophy directly to the art world in unprecedented ways, and in doing so he illuminated multiple dimensions of our contemporary field.
In his final book, What Art Is (2013), Danto wrote, “The issue of what art is has become a very different matter than it has in any previous moment in history.” Today, we casually take the idea of the art world (which, it should be mentioned, Danto himself invented) for granted, but Danto reminded us that art has occupied radically different places in other cultures and epochs: Plato, for example, “drew a map of human knowledge placing art at the lowest level—with reflections, shadows, dreams, and illusions.” Plato put Greek art there because it was mimetic, as was Greek architecture, in a certain way. But Danto made this historical comparison not so much to explore Greek aesthetics as to illustrate his idea that “art is an open concept,” as he put it in his discussion of Morris Weitz’s classic 1956 essay “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics.”
The philosophical equivalent of this open-minded approach is embodied in the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher I have always been particularly fascinated by because of his famous excursion into architecture through his involvement in the design of his own house. When I was commissioned to design a new space for the New York University Department of Philosophy in 2004, I was inspired by Wittgenstein’s text Remarks on Colour (1977). And indeed, when Danto honored me with his critique of my project in Artforum—one of the greatest moments of my career—he closed his text with a reflection on Wittgenstein.
“Holl told me that he wanted to inscribe the two exterior door handles with some words by Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, but that the NYU philosophers were unable to agree on which words. In the end the handles are eloquently, rather than merely, blank. As Wittgenstein famously said, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ The central concerns of philosophy lie outside the realm of the sayable.”
Today, as the art of our time mirrors the state of our increasingly interconnected and complicated globe, Danto’s rigorous philosophical questioning is more important than ever. And so we must hope that his brilliant mind, his engaging voice, his contagious curiosity, and his profound joy in thought will continue to serve as an inspiration for future generations.
Steven Holl is an architect based in New York and Beijing.
AFTER READING Arthur’s “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace” (1974) on the recommendation of the poet, Ann Lauterbach, I went to a talk he gave in 1984 in the library of the New York Studio School on West Eighth Street. That night, hearing his thesis about “the end of art” for the first time, I initially mistook it for an extension of the death of painting arguments I had heard in my years in New York. I thought that I was again being told that what I wanted to do as a painter was impossible because of art history. I remember so clearly the wonderful moment when I realized that instead, this time, Arthur’s argument gave me freedom. He was focused on the human interaction with art. I could do what I wanted.
When looking at art with someone else, the way the work appears and what it means actually changes. It’s as if one sees the art through someone else’s eyes and mind as well as one’s own. This is why it is so much fun to go with a friend to see an exhibition or visit a museum. Arthur was my favorite companion on such trips.
He was fearless. Arthur followed his thinking wherever it led. And while looking at art with him, I was drawn along into this brave territory.
In 2003, I attended a conference about Arthur’s writing at Columbia University. The night before, during the celebratory dinner, I saw the genuine respect and warmth with which he was treated by his philosopher colleagues. Not knowing the etiquette of such events, I was shocked the next morning when these same colleagues viciously attacked Arthur’s ideas in their presentations from the podium. I didn’t know that for philosophers such attacks are a form of respect. Arthur, delighted and smiling, leaned over and whispered in my ear: “He’s really trying to eviscerate me!” Along with Arthur’s other artist friends, I sat in a protective circle around him, but he didn’t need us. After each paper he stood up and replied extemporaneously, unbloodied and unrepentant to what he called their “bouquets of jabs and slashes.”
One of our last trips together to view art was on a Monday in 2006 at the Metropolitan Museum, and was arranged by Faith Pleasanton, a friend who works there. We went to see the exhibition of the great French Romantic painter Anne-Louis Girodet. Arthur had written about a painting of Girodet’s, The Sleep of Endymion, 1791, in relation to my work, and we ended up talking about the strangeness of the light in Girodet’s paintings in relation to the light in my “bedroom paintings.” Speaking, as we often did, of various possibilities of “expanded painting,” I told Arthur about a special series of gates by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which the previous year had run through Central Park to a locked door at the back of the Met. And we must have spoken of Warhol, because we always spoke about Andy.
As I prepared to write these paragraphs, reading over old emails to and from Arthur and notes from his talks and panels, I could barely stand to go on. It really hit me how much I have lost now that our dialogue is over. We have his writing and our memories. But there are a lot of exhibitions that I would like to see together with Arthur this weekend.
David Reed is an artist based in New York.
Amiri Baraka in his apartment in Harlem, New York, in 1966. Photo: Bob Adelman.
SOME BLUISH NOTES ON AMIRI BARAKA
“If my letter re your poem sounded crusadery and contentious I’m sorry. But I have gone deep, and gotten caught with images of the world, that exists, or that will be here after we go. I have not the exquisite objectivity of circumstance. The calm precise mind of Luxury. . . . I can’t sleep. And I do not believe in all this relative shit. There is a right and a wrong. A good and a bad. And it’s up to me, you, all of the so called minds, to find out. It is only knowledge of things that will bring this ‘moral earnestness.’ ”
On the stars
On your head
—William J. Harris, “The Western Philosopher”
ON JANUARY 18, with bagpipes and African drums, singers, one tap dancer, and many speakers—including, poets, politicians, and community activists—the life and art of Amiri Baraka was celebrated at a four-hour funeral service at Symphony Hall in Newark; he died January 9 at the age of seventy-nine. It is hard to believe he has left us so soon. Each time I saw him he was so alive and vital, especially in performance. He was a fighter and an artist to the end. Since the mainstream never understood Amiri, it surprises me that there has been such a mainstream response to his death, including the front page of the New York Times. It seems like the cultural establishment realized something important had happened whether they understood it or not. But what really heartens me is the insightful comments by such people as Ishmael Reed, Questlove, Greg Tate, and Richard Brody, and in such strange places as Ebony, the New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal. And Ish Reed is right in his Wall Street Journal post: The mainstream has ignored Baraka’s important work after the 1960s. In spite of the narrow-minded dumbness that has been floating around about Baraka, he has made his mark on our time.
Baraka was a great artist in many areas, including poetry, music criticism, the novel, and nonfiction. But I want to talk about him as an anti-colonial writer, a man who wanted to see the world from his point of view and not the master’s. What I have always loved about Amiri was his superiority to the white power structure, or any power structure. In short, he was doing the judging. As he says in Home: Social Essays, he refuses to “merely tag. . . along reciting white judgments of the world.”
To fully understand Baraka’s project, we need to revisit W. B. Du Bois’s key concept of the double consciousness. In his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois famously observes: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” This is a profound insight into the minority mind—or perhaps any mind that does not control the world. Amiri’s art has tried to destroy the double consciousness, has tried to see the world through his own eyes—eyes embedded in a particular body and place (culture).
There is much of Baraka’s work that is not as well known as it should be and I would like to make a few suggestions. See his recent Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music (2009), where he continues to both write about music and use his words like music, and Tales of the Out & Gone, (2006), where he continues to write “gone” stories, relatives to free jazz. Also look at the finally released Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters (2013), which lets the reader witness two American intellectuals, one black, one white, frankly discussing race and justice in our country at a crucial moment in the ’60s. On the Internet, check out Baraka in performance at PennSound, where you move from reading the score to listening to the music. A real treat.
Ah, after thinking about Amiri I feel he is right here in the room with me.
William J. Harris is creative writing director and associate professor of English at the University of Kansas and editor of The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1991). You can listen to his talk “Amiri Baraka’s Blues People at Fifty” at the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University here.
CHARLES POLLOCK, creator of what is roundly considered the best-selling chair in the history of modern office design, lived several lifetimes in the course of his eighty-three years. While his talent was legion, Pollock was also bipolar, which ruled out the traditional apprenticeship-to-partner-to-namesake-studio track followed by many of his peers. But then he rarely followed established patterns: He made small fortunes and lost them, and left behind little in the way of archives. Anecdotes of his unfiltered, larger-than-life persona abound, but given the unconventional circumstances of his life—and later, his death—it’s difficult to get a true picture of the man behind the legacy.
Charles “Chuck” Pollock was born in 1930 in Philadelphia, and as a young man worked on the floor of the Chrysler factory in Detroit. He attended the illustrious Cass Technical High School, then Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, on scholarship, graduating in the school’s first industrial design class in 1953. He impressed George Nelson enough to earn a spot in the legendary designer’s atelier, and helped develop Nelson’s signature Swag Leg profile. Pollock notoriously caught the attention of Florence Knoll by knocking her over—literally—with a chair prototype. She hired him, seeing promise in a draft of what would become Pollock’s 657 Lounge, introduced in 1961. Just two years later, Knoll released Pollock’s seminal Executive Chair—which sports a pedigree both academic (residing in MoMA’s permanent collection) and popular (featuring in the décor of AMC’s Mad Men). In a later interview, Pollock described his process as one of intelligent fiddling: “You don’t make this arm shaped like that because it is beautiful just by itself. You are integrating an awful lot of different elements all at once… I mean, you just fiddle with it forever and run back and forth to the factory and talk to Mrs. Knoll forever until finally it just gels.”
Charles Pollock’s designs for Penelope, produced by Castelli.
The Executive Chair proved so successful that Pollock lived off royalties for almost two decades while traveling around Europe and tinkering with nascent design ideas, sculptures, and prototypes. While skiing in Italy, he met the Castelli family—owners of an Italian office furniture manufacturing company since 1877—who produced his steel-mesh and wire-frame Penelope chair in 1982. Though he kept developing ideas in the intervening years, the passive ergonomic structure he created for Castelli was Pollock’s last full-fledged design to hit the market until 2012, when his CP Lounge chair—produced in collaboration with North Carolina–based Bernhardt Design—earned him late accolades and introduced his name to a new generation of design aficionados. The designer was still hard at work when he died in a fire at his Queens studio in August 2013. And even now, the powerful momentum of his extraordinary talent continues to move forward; Bernhardt will release a new piece, which he designed during his last year, this May, during the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York.
Kelsey Keith is a senior editor at Dwell magazine.