Tag Archives: William Burroughs

Stendhal Syndrome

My head was spinning, my heart was pounding. I was worried about hitting the stone pavers on the gallery floor if I fainted. I took a deep breath and walked slowly and carefully to the next one of the large paintings. It was my first experience with Stendhal Syndrome, but it would not be my last.

It was disorientating and confusing, but there is also the attraction of the art to consider. In this way, it was different from the pain of a panic attack where there is a powerful motivation to escape the experience.

It was in 1994 sometime between 9 September to the 3 October, and the exhibition was James Gleeson, Paintings from the Past Decade at the National Gallery of Victoria. I hadn’t planned to see it and had just wandered in. The sudden shock of this powerful aesthetic experience caused a physiological reaction.

Gleeson’s paintings had subtle references to the history of art, and I was aware that there was something that I couldn’t  place. It was like the moment just before you get a joke or recognise a face but extended into minutes.

I had no idea what was happening. Thankfully, it did not last long and was over after an hour. I would go on to have experience Stendhal Syndrome on a few other times and read other first-hand accounts of it.

Although Stendhal wrote about his experiences in 1817. Stendhal Syndrome only made medical literature when Italian psychiatrist, Graziella Magherini wrote about it in 1989. It is also referred to as Florence Syndrome and “hyperkulturemia”. Alternately it could be diagnosed as mild ecstatic epilepsy.

It wasn’t long before it made popular culture. Wm Burroughs wrote, “My ambition is to evoke Stendhal Syndrome!” He wanted to have people carried out of his art exhibition on stretchers (Painting and Guns, 1992). Later Cerise Howard showed me the 1996 Italian film Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome di Stendhal) by Dario Argento.

Music and dance performances have provoked powerful effects on me. These have been extremely cerebral, closer to a mystical experience, where I felt as if I was floating and had no bodily sensations. I wonder if standing and walking when viewing visual arts as opposed to sitting comfortably account for different experiences? Risk factors for Stendhal Syndrome, such as inadequate hydration and nourishment, would indicate a physiological factor.

However, first-hand accounts are the lowest form of evidence. How could I even be sure that experiences, which occur years apart, are the same? What, if any, was the medical or psychological explanation for what I had experienced? There is little medical literature on the topic, and it is clear that more research is required.

Here are some free articles for further reading (thanks to Catherine Voutier for finding these): 

Palacios-Sánchez L, Botero-Meneses JS, Pachón RP, Hernández LBP, Triana-Melo JDP, Ramírez-Rodríguez S. Stendhal syndrome: a clinical and historical overview. Arq Neuropsiquiatr. 2018;76(2):120-123. doi:10.1590/0004-282X20170189

Nicholson TR, Pariante C, McLoughlin D. Stendhal syndrome: a case of cultural overload. BMJ Case Rep. 2009;2009:bcr06.2008.0317. doi:10.1136/bcr.06.2008.0317

Arias M. Neurology of ecstatic religious and similar experiences: Ecstatic, orgasmic, and musicogenic seizures. Stendhal syndrome and autoscopic phenomena. Neurologia. 2019;34(1):55-61. doi:10.1016/j.nrl.2016.04.010


Under the influence

“His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach…”           William Burroughs Naked Lunch

Keith Haring Untitled 1983 © Keith Haring Foundation

Both Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were influenced by William Burroughs; their shared interest in semiotics and proximity in the NYC art scene made it almost inevitable that they would meet. Haring was a friend of Burroughs, the invite-Keith-around-to-dinner-kind of friend and collaborate on a couple of books, as opposed to a ‘Facebook friend’. So Burroughs influence on Haring is extensive from Haring’s distinctive hieroglyphic iconography to his, not well known, cut up collages and performance poetry.

‘Lick Fat Boys’ by Haring owes much to works, in film and audio, by Burroughs and Brion Gysin, e.g. “Recalling All Active Agents” In these works words are rearranged and reordered to create new meanings. Haring’s cut-up collages of text and images look very similar to Burroughs’s pages of cut-ups with collage elements.

“Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV documents this influence; including a list of people from Basquiat with Burroughs along with Prince, David Lynch and Godard (Burroughs is misspelt ‘Burrows’).

Although the exhibition documents Burroughs influence it then ignores it continuing to ignore it when it comes to interpreting the work. It describes the personal computer headed centipedes in Haring’s paintings as “caterpillars”. It is not a correct description for several reasons. Centipedes are used in many of Burroughs’s novels including Naked Lunch as a symbol of self-centred evil whereas caterpillars are not used as symbols of evil in anyone’s iconography. Centipedes are distinguished by having one set of legs for each segment of body, which is what is shown in Haring’s images even though they and all species of centipede don’t have a hundred legs. Finally, caterpillars don’t walk, they crawl, grasping on with their prolegs to pull their body forward until it arches; an iconic movement not depicted by Haring.

Keith Haring Untitled 1982 © Keith Haring Foundation

Haring and Basquiat had an influence on Australian art, especially its street art. The walls that Haring painted are still visible in Melbourne (see my blog post). His simple style of line drawn figures is not inimitable but few do. There is only a couple of Melbourne street artist openly and obviously influenced by Haring – Ero and Civil. Although the influence of Haring, in particular his dogs, on the iconography of clothing manufacturer Mambo has yet to be fully explored; the first appearance of the Mambo’s farting dog occurred in 1984 the same year that Haring visited Australia.

The influence of Basquiat’s visual style is even wider and more varied; from the work of street-artists from Anthony Lister to many contemporary/non-street artists.

How important is influence? Influence has so often been seen as a positive attribute however each iteration of this style weakens the effect, until it becomes bland and ordinary.

Civil, detail of mural, Brunswick

This is the second of a series of posts about the “Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV International. To read the first post. (Thanks to the NGV for the tickets to the exhibition and access to media photographs.)


The Culture Club

Craig Schuftan’s The Culture Club explores the nexus of twentieth century ideas, art and rock’n’roll. His thesis is spelt out clearly in the conclusion of his introduction: “Far from simply functioning as a bit of arty window-dressing for dilettante Rock stars, the isms of the twentieth century have become the founding principles of Pop music in the twenty-first.”

Schuftan first presented “The Culture Club” on Triple J’s Monday morning program and the book grew out of these radio segments. (These are now available on podcasts.) So it is an introduction to a large number of important contemporary art ideas in easily digestible breakfast portions.

How the minimalist music of contemporary composer, Steve Reich and Moby’s beats are related, Pierre Schaeffer’s ‘musique concrete’ and Grandmaster Flash, the madness of Antonin Artaud and The Doors, and many other connections. Schuftan does this in a balanced way; looking at the different value of popular tastes between Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, or between the energy and incoherence of madness and the meditative boredom of minimalism. Sometimes his references to rock’n’roll work like when he comparing Brian Ferry and Blondie’s cover versions to Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building with its “Chippendale” roof line. Sometimes he takes an odd turn; in the history of the cut-up from Dada to William Burroughs Schuftan then goes to Dylan, rather than, Bowie or Throbbing Gristle. Others are over played, so what if the album cover designer knows the history modern art, you expect that a trained designer would.

There is a more radical thesis that Schuftan could have pursued; not about the artists and musicians but about their audience. That the audience of avant-garde art employed in pop music is a revolutionary break from the traditional plutocratic system of art patronage. That mass market and mass production replace the unique valuable object based art with conceptual elements that can be reproduced for all. That contemporary art is not for the elites (political, financial or artistic) with time to cultivate their tastes it is accessible to everyone. Contemporary art has an audience larger than any visual art movement ever before; evidence that is contrary to the claim that post-modernism is problematic for people.

Although Schuftan is no Greil Marcus and The Culture Club is not Lipstick Traces, he is not presenting a secret history of traces but another angle on a now familiar story. My twenty-something year old self would have loved this book, I once wanted to be the heir to La Monte Young’s drone music compositions; my adult self is grumbling about having read most it before.

Craig Schuftan The Culture Club (Australian Broadcasting Commission, 2007)


Persons of Interest

Persons of Interest was a series of blog posts about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life and have continued to have an impact. I wanted to write a personal history of art, telling it from my own view, to examine how the art and biographical details have influenced my own critical judgements. It was not an easy process and the posts did not attract many readers; maybe it was too self-indulgent or my choose of persons too obvious. Maybe, the posts didn’t come with enough images; anyway, I don’t think that I will continue it.

Who to include and who to leave out? This is always the question in making such lists. Influences come and go in waves of interest by the public and at various times in your life you get caught up in that wave of general interest. As a kid I must have been reading Robert Hughes in Time Magazine as my parents subscribed to it but I wouldn’t want to count Hughes as an influence or a person of interest. I played on synthesisers and so I was interested in Brian Eno. I am not claiming that I am major fan of Eno but Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World has been on high rotation for decades.

Here are all my Persons of Interests posts. They were written roughly in the order that they started to influence me.

Jan #1 – Desmond Morris

Feb #2 – Andy Warhol

March #3 – Salvador Dali

April #4 – Marcel Duchamp

May #5 – Laurie Anderson

July #6 – Various, Notes from the Pop Underground 

July #7 – Keith Haring

August #8 – William Burroughs

September #9 – Philosophers

December #10  – Hunter S. Thompson

It is not surprising that I am interested in influences when the subject of my thesis was the influence of Max Stirner’s philosophy on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. I started reading Max Stirner because of one remark by Marcel Duchamp but as I was investigating his relationship to philosophy, both the influence on and the influence of, I felt I had to read him.

“When he (Duchamp) was asked later in life to identify a specific philosopher or philosophical theory that was of specific significance to his work, he cited Stirner’s  only major book – Der Einzige und sein Eignetum…” (Francis M. Naumann “Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation of Opposites”  p.29)

 


Person of Interest – William Burroughs

The confessions of an unredeemed William Burroughs junkie: I first became addicted to Burroughs when I read an interview with him in Rolling Stone back in the mid 1980s. I had a taste of him before that through David Bowie, Gary Numan, Laurie Anderson and other artists that he had influenced. Since then I have read most of his books, listened to a lot of recording and watched a few documentaries.

My favourite book by William Burroughs is The Western Lands (1987). This is his final novel, although Burroughs lived longer than even he expected and managed to write a few more novellas, this is clearly intended as his final novel. I love how The Western Lands critiques his most famous early work, Naked Lunch and the pathos of writing his own death as a lonely cat obsessed old man.

My favourite spoken word CD by William Burroughs is Spare Ass Annie and other tales (1992) with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. But my favourite musical collaboration with William Burroughs is on Laurie Anderson Home of the Brave. It was my first encounter with him and it contains my favourite concept from Burroughs is that “language is a virus from outer space.” I’m not sure where Burroughs got this idea from the “logic bacilli” of Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifestos or the “spooks” of Max Stirner or somewhere in Buddhism. It is the softwear/hardwear distinction, the “meme” of Richard Dawkins, expressed in a beatific poetry.

My favourite movie appearance by William Burroughs is Gus Van Sant’s Drug Store Cowboy (1989) as an old priest – it was a roll that was perfect for him. He did appear in other movies; he plays an unnamed old man with a gun in the comedy Twister (1989) – another roll that was perfect for him.

My favourite work of visual art by William Burroughs is… no, I’m not going that far. I’m not that much of a fan but I do have three books on his art. As Burroughs said: “Something worth doing is worth doing badly.” As far as celebrity painting goes Burroughs successfully integrated his personality with his art practice. And writing about art in Painting and Guns (Hanuman Books, 1992) is certainly worth a read.

Burroughs has influenced so many artists from Jack Kerouac to Keith Haring. His influence has been wide from literature, to music to the visual arts. Many new forms of media emerged during his long life from tape recorders, 16 mm film, computer art and spray cans. This makes him the seminal artist of punk, graffiti and music sampling. He exemplifies the Beat idea of the person as multi-dimensional, free, individual, artists working across art forms and media.

At the request of Alan Ginsberg Marcel Duchamp passed on the mantle of the godfather of the avant-garde to Burroughs with a kiss.

I will end this post with Burroughs “Words of Advice For Young People” – it is good advice, worth following and delivered with an elegant brutality.


Person of Interest – Keith Haring

The art of Keith Haring first came to my attention when he visited Melbourne (see my post Keith Haring in Melbourne). Haring was like a pop star, except that he was doing visual arts rather than music. I didn’t get to see him in Melbourne but he was everywhere for the next few years; I saw him on TV and in magazines and not just the art magazines.

Peat Wollaeger, Keith Haring Stencil, 2008 at Collingwood Technical College

Peat Wollaeger, Keith Haring Stencil, 2008 at Collingwood Technical College

In the early 1980s Keith Haring along with other East Village artists, like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger used ‘wall-posters’ (paste-ups/wheat-pasting). Haring’s paste-ups were fake news headlines like as: “REAGAN SLAIN BY HERO COP”; cutting up headlines was a strategy adopted from William Burroughs. Haring also used stencils in his early street work stencilling “CLONES GO HOME” on sidewalk borders in the Village. This early flowering of what would later be known as street art heralds an art movement.

“The galleries at that time were still dominated by people over thirty and mostly Conceptual and Post-Minimal art.” Keith Haring commented on his influences (Notes from the Pop Underground, Peter Belisto, p.99) Haring went the opposite direction, appealing to people under thirty, like me at the time, and creating art that didn’t depend on art galleries for their meaning. Haring’s line drawings worked on subway walls, t-shirts and even Grace Jones’ naked body.

In 1986 Haring collaborated with Brion Gysin in “Fault Lines”; Haring’s art is connected to Gysin’s tagging calligraphy (see my post). In 1988 Haring collaborates with Burroughs for “Apocalypse.” The great centipede with a television head in the Collingwood mural is an image clearly inspired by Burroughs who writes about giant aquatic centipedes in many of his novels.

When Keith Haring died in February 1990, followed by the death of Jean-Michel Basquiat, it felt like the art of the 1980s had died. Both Haring and Basquiat were, what we would call today, street artists who had become international art superstars. Street art would have to wait another decade before its full flowering.

After that I would look out for Haring’s wall every time I went that way in Collingwood. Now, finally after decades of inaction there preservation work has started on the site. It is a difficult issue, preservation or restoration, both will have loses – a restoration would lose the authenticity of Haring’s brushstrokes and preservation loses the vibrancy of the original but better either than the loss of the whole mural.

“I just want to be taken seriously. I would like to think that someday there will be drawings next too a Lichtenstein, or beside a de Kooning drawing in a museum.” Keith Haring said. (Belisto, p. 111)

This year Keith Haring is finally receiving the recognition that he richly deserves. There is a major retrospective “Keith Haring, the Political Line “ at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and a very small exhibition about his 1988 Tokyo Pop-Up Shop at the New York Historical Society. (It was a very small, just a display case, a painted lantern and video shot of Haring discussing the lighting for the Tokyo Pop-Up Shop.)


What is it with Hipsters?

Hep or Hip … Someone who knows the score. Someone who understands ‘jive talk’. Someone who is ‘with it’. The expression is not subject to definition because, if you don’t ‘dig’ what it means, no one can ever tell you.”

– William Burroughs Junky glossary, 1953

I haven’t used the word ‘hipster’ before in this blog – I have been consciously avoiding this now heavily loaded term – Kate Forsyth on the Melbourne Arts Club did not avoid the term in her post “Hipster or Hobo”. (I don’t have any argument with Kate Forsyth, I’m not surprised that people are mistaking hipsters for hobos, this is only an example to show that the word is in common use in Melbourne.) I savvy the history of the word but I’m not sure when the word ‘hipster’ took on a pejorative connotation, maybe it always had one in the square world and I didn’t know about it.

I did use the word ‘hipster’ in my MA thesis but that was decades ago, at a time when the hipster had fallen out of contemporary use. To quote from my thesis:

In “The White Negro” Norman Mailer, attempts to explain the philosophy of the hipster. He argues that since death is ever present “then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey of the self.” (Mailer “The White Negro – Superficial Reflections on the Hipster”, 1959) Both Stirner and Mailer advocate living with the contradictions, living with the nihilism and the meaningless arguing that it brings a valid, life-enriching existence. This is a life enriching experience because the objective of the Unique One (Stirner’s name for the ego) is to get as much enjoyment from these things while he and they last.

In reference to Mailer’s contrast between the hipster and the square, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin provides a compilation of contemporary comments on the dichotomy along with Mailer’s 1959 list.

Do I really care if some people think that being a hipster is right or wrong? No, there is something square about distinctions based on appearance, clothes and hair. Mailer’s list is also kind of square, lamely attempting to define the indefinable with a few examples.

“I don’t care about the state of my hair/ I got something out of nothing/ That just wasn’t there/ And your kiss kiss kiss/ Is never going to blow me away.” (Jesus and Mary Chain, “Blues From A Gun”)

Getting “something out of nothing that just wasn’t there” was Marx and Engles critique of Stirner’s proto-hipster philosophy of the Unique One. It was, according to Marx and Engles, impossible and a “conjuring trick” on Stirner’s part. But according to the Jesus and Mary Chain they did it and it had something to do with hair and never being blown away. Now this might seem like nonsense to some but I’m hoping that someone will be hip to what is happening here. It is this acquisition of something (cool) out of nothing is what is desired and despised in the hipster. And this explains why Kate Forsyth’s friends were mistaking “hobos” (people with nothing) for hipsters (who also clearly have nothing but are getting something out of it because they have other things like a home, a job, money, skills, talent, good friends…) – as I said, a common mistake; it embarrasses the cops, and those with minds like cops, like Marx and Engles, all the time.


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