PROSE? By Martin Gantmann
From Coagula Issue #70 – October, 2004
When I was in art school, I roomed with an ex-marine, English major, poet. Phil was intelligent, ornery and gruff and he had a way of doing things that, more often than not, caused the question ?€?why?€™ to pop into my head. On one particular morning I awakened to the sound of a musical rhythm repeating persistently. I walked blearily up the stairs and found Phil hunched over the record changer. He was holding the cover of the Allman Brothers?€™ Eat a Peach album in one hand and a yellow legal pad in the other. Intently he would listen to a few lines of lyrics and then replay them.?
?€?Phil, what are you doing??€? Phil, disgruntled: ?€?I?€™m trying to get Gregg Allman?€™s response to Prufrock and there?€™s one word I can?€™t make out.?€? It was then I noticed that he had written all of the lyrics, save a blank space for one word, on his pad. Later that day, when I returned, I asked him if he had gotten the word. ?€?Yeah,?€? he sneered. ?€?It was ?€?white.?€™ Gregg Allman?€™s answer to Prufrock was cocaine.?€??
There is disagreement about whether the Eat a Peach album intended any reference to Prufrock, but what reminded me about that long ago incident was seeing another word recently used in that same singular way, similar to white. It was put forward in a magazine essay; lamenting what the author considers is missing from contemporary art. The word was ?€?charm.?€? Charm?! Of all things to be missing, the word bespeaks white, epitomizes it: the whiteness of charm. It?€™s sound rolls off the tongue like the last white crumbs on a flat mirror, or the futile remembrance of a now distant society.?
Where might it come from, that desire for the warmth and pleasantry of charm? It seems to get right back to that Karl Marx again, doesn?€™t it? And Freud. They just had to go and yank the white veil of the refined world right off the backs of the common predicament and all those black little secrets. After that exposure, you could just not avoid seeing the dirt, and the weeds, and the shit on the ground. It was all around. Seeing the collective mess. It had never been pleasant to discuss ?€“ was never charming.?
I never knew what side of Phil was so upset about ?€?white?€? ?€“ whether it was the regimentation of the Marine Phil, who wanted society to fit to a narrow ideology; or the poet-philosopher Phil, who longed for the realization of an ideal, and beautiful, world. Obviously his chagrin was a mask on his deep disappointment from the recognition that a world he didn?€™t want ?€“ hadn?€™t foreseen ?€“ maybe none of us want ?€“ had become evident.
Phil?€™s mistake, as is the Charm essay?€™s author, was that the world we don?€™t want has always been there to see?€¦ Beneath the purity of charm, the whimsy of pleasantry and the whiteness of cocaine?€¦ And he just never saw it. Charm?€™s author?€™s further error is that he pines for the art world, epitome of purity and charm that it is, to differentiate itself from that reality. He wants art to ignore what the rest of the world must face. He wants us, as artists, to stretch our blank canvas right back over that supposed ignoble truth; the truth that people?€™s potential and manifest inhumanity toward other people ?€“ the anger, despair, the neediness that have always existed and will, for the foreseeable future – continues to reside among the many things we have that are historically beautiful. And he would have us paint. What he doesn?€™t get is that no amount of smearing of that potentially charmful medium is going to obscure the images and the issues that we have already seen, the ones that really do yearn to be faced and recognized.?
After graduation Phil and I went separate directions. I returned to Los Angeles and Phil moved to San Francisco and continued writing. I visited him one holiday evening and rode shotgun in the cab he drove until four a.m. It was one of those fortunate times when one is presented with an alternative view of a familiar scene. I remember from my past, the exuberance of an evening?€™s club prowling, feeding off the energy of a close crowd and music and the buzz of a few drinks; exiting a club into the intensity of the flashing lights and sounds of the city streets. From the cab I saw people frazzled and wasted and burnt, seemingly longing to hang onto their dissipating high until the first rays of the next day.?
Phil, by that time having come to terms with Allman, could also see the two sides: the thin wafer-like purity of charm and the dense complexity of being. And, in spite of an insidious pressure to align with those who would have us focus on the flatulent aura of sentimentality, he felt eager to explore all the possibilities of imagery and creative initiative available to his art form in order to portray all that he saw.