APRIL 4, 2020
I HAVE OFTEN bristled at Arthur Rimbaud’s injunction at the end of A Season in Hell: “Il faut être absolument moderne.” I have never wanted to be absolutely modern; I find infinitely more comfort in my futile yearning for the past. Recently, however, I came across a short film by Lucien Smith that unexpectedly assuaged my nostalgia. A Clean Sweep (2013) is a sort of lullaby for New Yorkers: the soft texture of the film footage renders otherwise mundane city scenes (a bustling street at rush hour, a plump deli cat pawing a door) into tender tableaux vivants. Blinking brake lights of cars stuck in traffic blur into soft, red nebulas, as though seen through a rain-splattered window. But this soothing effect is conveyed most acutely by the spoken-word address of its narrator: the maverick writer Glenn O’Brien, who passed away in 2017. He meanders through his thoughts about the concurrence of the past and the present, gently nudging us to see that time is perhaps far less rigid than we suppose. “It feels like history here,” he says at one point. “Where? Where what? It feels like history, here.”
O’Brien was himself a mainstay of New York City’s landscape for over five decades, a remarkable polymath who championed the cross-disciplinary mentality of creative culture in the 1970s and 1980s. ZE Books, for its inaugural publication, has released Intelligence for Dummies, a collection of O’Brien’s writings from 1963 to 2017. The smartly designed book features critical reviews, profiles, and essays alongside poems, freeform meditations, diatribes, tweets, and works of fiction. Intelligence for Dummies is not just a mélange of O’Brien’s greatest (and quirkiest) hits, however; the rounded selection pointedly reflects his virtuosity with form and the imaginative fluency he had within the medium of words.
The essayist does not have it easy when it comes to gaining entrance to the literary canon, but O’Brien would seem to have an even greater trial than most because his seminal work was defined by its ephemerality. His extraordinary output existed mainly in the glossy pages of magazines: in the editorial columns as well as in the advertisements. He was a prolific copy writer and advertising director whose wit graced many a billboard and perfume bottle, and his ad campaigns were lauded and even occasionally denounced (most famously by the Justice Department in 1995 for a series of Calvin Klein commercials shot by Larry Clark). O’Brien managed to blur the lines between art and commerce in a way that legions of artists today attempt to do but rarely accomplish as successfully, or explosively, as he did.
O’Brien came to New York in the late 1960s to pursue a graduate degree in film at Columbia University after studying philosophy and literature at Georgetown. He dropped out to write for the recently founded Interview Magazine, and quickly became one of Andy Warhol’s coterie as well as that magazine’s editor and art director in 1971. He created the public-access television show TV Party in 1978, a kind of surrealist, guerrilla broadcasting effort based on the concept of a televised cocktail party but featuring a rotating cast of the downtown art and music scene’s grittiest, coolest characters. O’Brien and Chris Stein played host, making up each episode as it went along; Mick Jones, David Byrne, Klaus Nomi, and Debbie Harry, among dozens of others, would play music, chat, make out, do drugs, or pass out on the show. Jean-Michel Basquiat, O’Brien’s close friend and collaborator, would pen poetic, incomprehensible subtitles for the episodes. He was a celebrated columnist at Artforum, GQ, and Paper; a founding editor of Bomb Magazine and Spin; and a contributing writer to countless other publications. He was a stand-up comic for two years in the mid-1980s; wrote a great deal of poetry; and he played music in Konelrad, a “socialist-realist” rock band.
Artistic visions such as his rarely distinguish between media. O’Brien was a critic, an artist, and an adman, both observer and participant: the literary incarnation of Pop Art’s union of art and commerce. Some critics accused him of playing both sides, but this criticism ultimately seems disingenuous, particularly in light of the transparency of his writing. He sums it up neatly in the introduction to his collected Artforum writings, Like Art (2017): “There are no ethics in fashion. There are no ethics in magazines. There are no ethics in advertising.” The art, film, and publishing industries (not to mention academia) could hardly be excused from moral bankruptcy, too. But using commerce as a vehicle for personal gain is one thing; using it also as a vehicle for art, as O’Brien did, is another.
These purportedly profane dualities granted him the highly atypical perspective that made him so cutting as a cultural critic and so brilliant as a humorist. There is something to be said for understanding the contradictions by which we live, and perhaps the fact that he saw no conflict of interest was indicative not only of a strong ego but also of something more deliberate. Jonathan Lethem explains in the book’s introduction that O’Brien was “acting as a semiotician, but one doing groundwork down among the signs and symbols themselves, unafraid of contamination.” Under his gaze, all subjects are of equal footing, and nothing is sacred except for the will to create.
This contamination served him well, because his knack for observation was honed to perfection by the worlds of media and fashion. The latter became one of his most effective lenses for cultural analysis, though specifically for its economic implications rather than those more decorative. All media of creative production today are redefined in relation to the guiding principle of fashion: planned obsolescence: “[I]n a world that worships growth, progress, and upward mobility there has to be a system in place that constantly apotheosizes movement and struggle and continually recreates the pantheon of relevant personae.”
Similarly, O’Brien’s column for GQ, “The Style Guy,” presented a meditation on style that went far beyond sartorial concerns. His political writing, ever witty and often prescient, was never more startling than in his analysis of Sarah Palin’s style of speech:
It goes beyond doubletalk, beyond doublespeak, into circumlocution combined with Burroughsian cut-up strategies; so that logical thought is short-circuited, and meaning can never proceed in conventional linear fashion. A sentence — or its equivalent — begins conventionally, but then, when the electrically charged key word is reached, it is as if a switch is flipped and a tangent kicks in, negating the previous logical track while appearing to complete it. In Palin’s discourse there are no actual diagrammable sentences […] [her] words and phrases don’t mean in the conventional sense. They are not ordered logically, but biochemically, forming a rhetoric of subconscious rhapsody.
There is something clairvoyant about these observations on speech. In a sense, he was forecasting that profoundly disturbing transformation of the modern era: the erosion of meaning from language.
I tried to imagine the experience of encountering his writings in their original, glossy-page format; somehow, it felt like an integral part of the interpretation. Intelligence for Dummies honors this experience as best a hardcover book could, employing a variety of different fonts, margins, and layouts for each entry, perhaps to mirror the assortment of magazine designs. O’Brien’s wide range of interests is barely contained by the six sections into which the book is divided, and while the editors cannot be faulted for not covering the waterfront, there could have been fewer pages dedicated to O’Brien’s affiliation with Warhol, Studio 54, and the well-known cast of celebrities whose myths are so committed to pop cultural memory as to feel devoid of meaning. They were all significant figures in his career, especially Warhol, but the implied nostalgia at times becomes distracting from the task at hand, which seems to be an otherwise well-wrought argument for a greater consideration of his work as a writer. The power of his narrative flow, even between entries, smooths out these thematic digressions however, and some of the personal essays from his columns could even be considered quintessential.
“Most people do not write,” he tweeted in 2014, “because it’s hard to use words without really saying something.” Intellectual honesty is a built-in function of essay writing (though not necessarily one that is always exploited). Such directness offers a delicate, if taxing, kind of gift, one which for critics such as O’Brien reaped great benefit as often as it landed him in hot waters: an almost total transparency of opinion. Candor beckons provocation, but it’s worth noting that this exchange is critical if the object of one’s desire is to progress.
O’Brien was not a confessional writer: while his experiences frame his discussions, they do not take center stage. Rather, there is a tangibility in his writing that conveys the impression of having a conversation. He writes close to the nerve, which is why it is so easy to feel what he is saying and also why his writing remains so relevant today.
The most brilliant cynics, no matter how scathing their harangues, usually rely on a cache of idealism to kindle their fervor. His profile of photographer Nan Goldin, in which there is a palpable shift in tone, reveals this kind of idealism. He describes Goldin, whom he had never met before, with gentleness and admiration, and writes that her photographs, frequently cited for their occasionally explicit sexual content, are not about sex, “but about need, people’s need to merge, to be close.” He continues, “I always knew that what Nan does was extraordinary, but suddenly it seemed more important, even more urgent than ever. […] Art has gotten into a habit of ignoring humanity and what comes with it: beauty, desire, and love.”
O’Brien has an exceptional method for emphasizing his points. When Taliban militants in Afghanistan destroyed several ancient Buddha statues in 2001, he commented,
suddenly I felt like iconoclasm is not without its points. […] I think that in a very extreme way they are making a point that is well taken. It certainly would have been more appropriate if they had trained their artillery on, say, Disney world, the headquarters of the Jerry Springer show, Julian Schnabel’s studio, or every copy of the film Titanic, but the rural zealots struck the only targets they had in range, the big old stone Buddhas. I suspect they were trying to point out that the world is too caught up in the worship of images, be it the Buddha or Brad Pitt.
His claims are revelatory but not actually contentious; what makes them shocking is merely the setting in which he suspends them, likely to make sure that we are listening. The purpose of this style is not to shock readers with controversial language but to shock them out of what he perceives (and I think correctly) to be a widespread cultural stupor. Toward the end of a piece on Richard Prince, he casually drops an impassioned comment about the urgency of engaging popular culture in practice and not just in theory: “The real facts of America just get plowed under and irradiated by Dawson’s Creek and The O.C., but by going out into the field, like Walt Whitman or Vachel Lindsay or Margaret Mead or Gaugin,” he explains, one is able to send “back images of a truth so ignored it’s amazing.” His voice as a writer was built on this same approach.
Idolatry and iconoclasm are themes he frequented throughout his career in writing, no doubt because he was deeply involved both in building up our idols and then tearing them apart in his writing. Exposing the contradictions of society is a difficult (and dangerous) thing to do, and the fact that he pursued it so doggedly, even to his professional detriment, is a sign of his commitment to truth. His milieu certainly scares off a lot of the critical elite (many reviews of Intelligence for Dummies appear to be driven more by personal animus toward him than by objective criticism), but the things we value most about essay writing clearly figure in his work: the ability to reap from the transient that which is timeless, and from the mundane that which is profound.
It’s entirely possible that O’Brien wouldn’t want to be canonized. It is a rather dusty process, after all, and one that doesn’t take kindly to the multiple-hat-wearers of this world. But those who truly broaden the field and rock the boat are those who stand at the liminal junctures between media, practices, and industries; O’Brien’s legacy is too rich to leave unattended.
In his memorable profile on musician Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, O’Brien wrote that his music functioned as “an art vaccine ready to mutate into whatever form was necessary to function as an anti-body to corporate death culture.” O’Brien’s writing has this same bubbling potential for new generations to get high on.
In “Heaven and Hell,” another lyrical entry from his Paper column, O’Brien imagines the realms of the afterlife, populated above with all his most beloved jazz musicians (and below with his most despised):
In the lounge of heaven the piano of Bill Evans can be heard in the late afternoon around cocktail time. Bill slumps over the piano surrounded by vases of red and white poppies. He plays: “Peace Piece,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” “Stella by Starlight” “If You Could See Me Now” “Turn Out the Stars,” God phones in a request for “Israel.”
I picture him up there too, probably busy at work on a celestial version of TV Party.