Nothing Sacred: On “Intelligence for Dummies”

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

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.

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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.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books