Claes Oldenburg insists that his 1961 “I Am For…” is not a manifesto, and we have every reason to take him at his word. He sees it as poetry, specifically as an ode; and well before the final “I am,” the object of praise is clear. This is a song of the self in the spirit of Whitman (Oldenburg later cited Whitman and Ginsberg as inspirations), and that makes it quintessentially American. In 1974, he told curators at the Walker Museum in Minneapolis that “There’s a lot of literary intention in that, so many of those things are said for the sound of them, and I don’t necessarily believe all those things. But I, at some point, might believe them. … It’s the sort of thing American artists are expected to say, because they want to embrace everything and they want to honor the muse of democracy. I don’t always feel that way.” (For now, let’s set aside the fact that a statement is not disqualified from being a manifesto if its authors don’t always believe everything it contains. Being human, we never believe everything anything contains all the time; so manifestos, wisely, do not demand unwavering and consistent belief. Let’s also set aside, for now, saying what one is expected to say. Making a poem of it makes it possible to think of the “I” as the voice of “American artists” rather than the voice of the writer, which effectively stands it on its head.) The impulse to embrace everything is akin to John Cage’s “here comes everybody” (which Cage properly attributes to James Joyce, quintessentially Irish – and appropriating it as American is as American as cherry pie), though how that relates to democracy is a bit more complicated than honoring its muse.
What I find interesting about the “I am for” refrain is that it defines function as well as desire (or stance). As it turns out, the “I” of the poem is for just about every human activity – and the “I” of the poem is for art. This is an ode to the artist by the artist, effectively saying to art that “I am at your disposal” and describing every human activity as art. So the artist is, in effect, at the disposal of every thing human beings do whenever and wherever we do it.
While it may not be a manifesto, the first six repetitions of “I am for” launch statements that are sufficiently manifesto-like to account for the widespread embrace of this ode as a call to action.
1. “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than…” both calls for and circumscribes “something other.” What the “I” of the poem is for is art that is political-erotical-mystical and that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. Whether the objection is to sitting as such or to sitting in a museum is a legitimate question. (One might well ask the co-creator of a work like Spoonbridge and Cherry if art that sits on its ass outside the museum is ok.) But if art can sit on its ass, it must be an embodied being capable of action (and inaction). The question, it seems to me, is not simply about the artist and what s/he does but also about the place (and placing) of art: where does art take place? What is the significance of placing art? Not only who does it but who places it – who puts it in its place?
2. “I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art…” implies that the action or inaction of art (and therefore of the artist?) should be unselfconscious. Or, perhaps more accurately, that it should not be done as “art.” So in much the same way that art should do something other than sitting on its ass, it should do what it does as something other than art. (There is also the more problematic possibility that it should do this only until it grows up. But the old, thankfully, cannot kill the young forever.) This extends the image of art as an embodied being by making it a being capable of knowing (and naming) what it is doing. (Here again, the artist, it seems, stands in for art.) The question is about the consciousness of art and the artist: what does art know? How? Who knows what art is?
3. “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap…” both calls for an art that is everyday and characterizes what happens everyday as (mostly?) crap. The point seems to be that art should be ordinary rather than extraordinary, for the people rather than for an elite. That it “still comes out on top” seems to run counter to that call (or at least to raise the question “on top of what?”).
4. “I am for an art that imitates the human” implies that art is not human (otherwise it would be imitating itself, which, I suppose, could explain the attitude many people have toward arts such as poetry, which is sometimes suspected of endlessly imitating itself). Imitating the human may be necessarily comic or necessarily violent. Note, though, that neither “comic” nor “violent” applies to art itself but rather to the human it is called to imitate. That imitating the human means doing what is necessary is telling, whether that is comic or violent or both. (Severn Darden explored the third option – both – brilliantly in his “Oedipus” skit.)
5. “I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself…” refines #4, but it also introduces the possibility that we are now talking about more than human life. Why imitation of “the human”? Why not imitate nature in its manner of operation (Cage/Coomeraswamy)?
6. “I am for an artist who vanishes…” suggests that the artist disappears (or should disappear) into his/her art (presumably understood in this case as a practice, not an object). The artist disappears into what s/he does. And what s/he does (see #2) does not know it is art (though it is unclear whether the one who does it knows). That the artist “vanishes” and turns up “in a white cap painting signs or hallways” raises the question of whether the one who paints signs or hallways in a white cap (as opposed to the one who paints “art” in a studio?) is invisible. Identification of the artist with the practice of art and identification of the practice of art with being human leads to art and artist disappearing into humanity. (This is an important theme, closely related to the discussion of alienation that has developed around Marx’s “fetishism of commodities.”)
I return to Oldenburg’s “ode to possibility” because it was recently cited as an inspiration for transforming the way a gallery with which I have been connected works. A close reading, a reading through, leads me not to answers but (as I would expect) to familiar questions, not only about how galleries and museums work (or should work) but also about how art works (or should work) and about how artists work (or should work).
How galleries work (or should work) is not the same question as how museums work (or should work), though they are related questions, both concerned with the work of art as object (a work that is the product of work) and, particularly in the case of the gallery, the object of art as commodity. How artists work is influenced by (and may come to depend on) the object and how it works, and who determines how (and where and when) it works.
After reading through, I am not much closer to knowing how museums work (or should work). But I do have a sense that Oldenburg believes they should work differently because the way they work now (or in the “now” of 1961) distorts the work of art, the work of the artist, and the artist who works. (His language is less explicit than Ginsberg’s lament over minds destroyed by madness, but there is an undeniable kinship.) This distortion is not unique to art, and one of the virtues of Oldenburg’s “ode” is that it turns our attention to the work of institutions designed to contain work. That has been of particular concern to critical theorists since the late 18th century, especially in the field of political economy, which has roots that reach back to much earlier philosophical and theological discussion of vocation.
The theological roots are evident, for example, in Marx’s critical reading of religion in the 19th century, which is probably as relevant to Oldenburg’s ode as his critical reading of political economy. (Marx boils it down to two sentences, the second of which, at least in the United States, is usually quoted – or slightly misquoted – in isolation: Die Religion ist der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur, das Gemüt einer herzlosen Welt, wie sie der Geist geistloser Zustände ist. Sie ist das Opium des Volkes. The sigh, the heart, the soul, the opium…
The opium without the sigh, the heart, and the soul strikes me as a more radical version of Oldenburg’s art sitting on its ass in a museum. And particularly if Oldenburg is saying what “American” artists are expected to say (or were expected to say in 1961), that seems about right. (We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit, from another manifesto, written a year later in Port Huron, Michigan, comes to mind.) But, as Marx notes, the presence of opium may be an indicator of real suffering; and attending to that real suffering turns our attention to the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. (Oldenburg’s “political-erotical-mystical” gestures in this direction.)
The museum is a church, the gallery is a market. One of the great challenges for revolutionary thought since Marx has been to move beyond simply identifying these mechanisms of containment to determining what is to be done with them (and this includes the ecclesiology of writers like Leonardo Boff and the “market socialism” of writers like David Schweickart). If that is the challenge Oldenburg lays down in this ode, now more than half a century old, it is still well worth addressing.