The New Art and the Anthological

I worked for a time at a used book seller— not at a bookshop, mind you, but one of those vendors you see listed on Amazon or Abebooks. We’d buy books in bulk, generally from overstocked thrift stores, sort through it all, sell what we could— a small fraction— to readers and sell the rest to paper recycling outfits. The sorting took place on “The Line,” a conveyor-belt system that, as we achieved greater sophistication, looked as though it ought to produce Everlasting Gobstoppers. It was on The Line that I first heard of Gregory Battcock. I must have seen a number of his Dutton Paperback “critical anthologies” before I took note of his name: at the very least, Minimal Art, The New Art, Super Realism, and Breaking the Sound Barrier all passed through. “Who is this guy,” I remember thinking, “some sort of professional anthologizer?” I scoffed at the notion as I pocketed the books.

In addition to the above-named volumes, Gregory Battcock also edited the anthologies Idea Art, New Artists Video, New American Cinema, even New Ideas in Art Education, and, with Robert Nickas, The Art of Performance. Still, he was more than a professional anthologizer, as David Joselit’s September 2012 Artforum essay “Transformer” details. The respected critic was also “a notoriously handsome, sexually voracious bon vivante,” a major figure in a developing queer arts scene, and an associate of Andy Warhol. As this last, he participated in works, appeared in films, and was photographed in his underwear for the cover of Arts Magazine. Not quite the insipid academic hanger-on I’d imagined. Joselit addresses the irony: “Part of the frisson generated by his Arts cover lies in the incongruity of encountering a serious anthologist posing as a queer exhibitionist: We tend to think of gender outlaws as those people who explode canons rather than found them.” He continues, offering a thesis: “What reconciles this apparent contradiction is Battcock’s consistent effort to broaden the circulation or distribution of information in and around art.”

As Joselit makes clear, the anthologies aren’t the entirety of what makes Gregory Battcock interesting. But, surely, they constitute his most visible legacy, at least for now. I never adequately explored Super Realism or Breaking the Sound Barrier, and I no longer own those copies. I consult Minimal Art, which is loaded with important writing, every so often. Judging by footnotes and name-checks, others have found his other anthologies very useful indeed.1 The New Art is a bit different. Published in 1966, it’s the earliest of the Dutton Battcock anthologies. Battcock himself doesn’t deploy these terms,2 but, put broadly, the anthology covers the shift from Abstract Expressionism to Pop and Minimalism. Reading the book cover-to-cover, a reader would, I think, have a better sense of the art, and of the debates about art, of the early-to-mid-Sixties. In that sense, it’s a success.3 Still, The New Art‘s scope is probably a tad general, and the subsequent anthologies, each more narrowly defined than this first, seem to render it increasingly irrelevant.

The New Art

One gem, however, to which I’d like to call attention, and which I’d likely not have encountered outside of The New Art, is Battcock’s own “Humanism and Reality— Thek and Warhol,” in which he juxtaposes discussion of one of Paul Thek’s “meat pieces” and Andy Warhol’s film Blow Job.4 It’s a good pairing, I think, but one sentence in particular jumps out: about the film, Battcock asserts, “The presentation of the material in Blow Job is, once again, ‘anthological’— a mirror image, so to speak, presenting demands on our attention, that are entirely without regard for that image’s relation to the dialectic of the story.” The anthologist champions an “anthological” art, by which I take him to mean an art that problematizes questions of context.5 So, Blow Job6 is, merely, a limited view, static and indirect, of the titular act; there’s a natural progression, a beginning and end, but, story-wise, there’s certainly nothing dialectical about it.

Blow Job

I already hinted at a sort of reflexive disdain for anthologies. Re-contextualization, undoubtedly, can be fun: everyone, you know, likes mixtapes. And, for sure, anthologies are convenient. But, also, they tend to proliferate. That said, working through The New Art is enjoyable— a bit like opening a time capsule, the contents of which are alternately as banal and exciting as one of Warhol’s.  All venues and forms of distribution– galleries, magazines, blogs7— define and develop their own ideal and corresponding art.  Gregory Battcock underscores this truism when he labels certain art “anthological.”

1 E.g., Cynthia Carr, author of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, responding to a question about formative encounters with writers and books: “Well, Jill Johnston definitely. But there weren’t many books available then. I did have The Art of Performance, edited by Gregory Battcock and Robert Nickas, and I had Queer Theatre by Stefan Brecht.”

2 Reading the introduction, one gets the sense that the book’s subtitle, “a critical anthology,” ought, perhaps, to be given top billing. He starts off, “Today’s critic is beginning to seem almost as essential to the development— indeed, the identification— of art as the artist himself.”

3 Per Joselit, it was a surprising commercial success: “His first anthology, The New Art, published in 1966 and revised in 1973, was reported to have sold an astonishing 160,000 copies.”

4 I’ll lean on J. Hoberman’s description of the film, which he calls “arguably the most conceptual work of porn ever made”: “Over the course of eight 100-foot rolls, a would-be James Dean in a black leather jacket appears to be sexually serviced by someone outside the frame. […] The camera, however, never budges. The frame is absolute. […] There’s a bit of bucking and writhing, then an inadvertent attempt to slip out of the frame. Now the guy has to act cool. He lights a cigarette and the movie ends with him still smoking it.” (J. Hoberman, “Bon Voyeur: Andy Warhol’s Silver Screen”)

5 This idea of the “anthological”—or even the particular wording here— doesn’t seem to have originated with Battcock. Having written half this post, I read Barthes’s “Objective Literature: Alain Robbe-Grillet,” in which he writes, “Description for Robbe-Grillet is always ‘anthological’— a matter of presenting the object as if it were in a mirror, as if it were in itself a spectacle, permitting it to make demands on our attention without regard for its relation to the dialectic of the story.” Part of Battcock’s essay originally appeared in Film Culture, No. 37 (Summer 1965); Barthes’s essay, which is included in the Evergreen Black Cat Two Novels edition of Jealousy and In the Labyrinth, appeared first in Critique, nos 86-87 (juillet-août in 1954) and, in English, in Evergreen Review, No. 5 (Summer 1958.)  I’ll leave speculations on the relationship of anthologizing to plagiarism to the reader.

6 Battock, by the way, appeared in the 1966, full-sound “remake” of Blow Job, Eating Too Fast.

7 See, for example, Michael Sanchez, “2011.”

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