Ryan McCourt recently pulled off something that I’ve wanted to do for years by mounting an art world equivalent of the Sokal Hoax. In 1994, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at NYU, submitted a paper to Social Text, a journal of cultural studies with a postmodernist editorial angle. This paper was a pastiche of academic cant and inanities that would be recognizable as such to an undergraduate student of science. After Social Text published it in 1996, Sokal revealed the paper as a hoax in the journal Lingua Franca.
To test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies— whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross—publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Interested readers can find my article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text. It appears in a special number of the magazine devoted to the “Science Wars.”
Ryan, a excellent sculptor in Edmonton, Alberta, saw a similar opportunity when a local arts organization called Latitude 53 put together an exhibition entitled “National Portrait Gallery.” He framed an inkjet print of Ingres’ Napoleon as Jupiter Enthroned, digitally altered so that the face of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared where Napoleon’s ought to be. He then dropped it off anonymously on the doorstep of Latitude 53, which found it exhibition-worthy and hung it in the show attributed to Anonymous. Ryan’s image appeared in a SEE Magazine article about the show that refers to its curator, Fish Griwkowsky, as a SEE columnist. Latitude 53 blogged about the news coverage with the image even more prominently displayed. The show had been conceived in part as a response to the Harper administration’s refusal to fund a proposed Canadian national portrait gallery, and this anonymous work, tellingly signed “Mutt R.” and accompanied by an obviously bogus letter from the Prime Minister’s Office, had become its emblem.
After the exhibition opened in June, Ryan revealed himself to be the creator on the blog of the North Edmonton Sculpture Workshop. He said nothing about it, and called out no one. To those of us not familiar with the circumstances, it looked like Ryan had just produced a mild satirical piece on a lark. We only learned the whole story this past weekend when Ryan reprinted an e- mail exchange between the curator and himself. After insisting, and humorously failing, to conduct that conversation by phone so as not to put himself on the record, Griwkowsky claimed that Ryan’s divulgence had robbed the piece of its power. As Ryan explained:
Of course, I naturally suspected that I could never hope to have a work of mine selected for a Latitude 53 show under my own name, which is why the work had to be submitted anonymously. But this was the first hint I had of how open they were about such bias: this was the beginning of the hastily-built case for why it can only be hung if it is anonymous, that it somehow doesn’t ‘work’ anymore if a name (any name, mind you, of course, not just mine, don’t you know…) were attached to it. It would be a travesty, I tell you, for the artist to get credit for this work, lest they take away from the magic of anonymity, or the possibility it was, um, really sent by Harper… No, no, they couldn’t possibly be so shameless as that, I thought.
Alas, they could. Of all the blows that one’s ego can suffer, one of the hardest is the demonstration, for its own sake, that someone has understood you better than you have understood yourself. The only response that doesn’t impugn your character, and possibly your virility, is to butch up and give the other guy credit for a prank well played. But that’s that’s not how Sokal’s deserving victims responded…
In their defense of the decision to publish Sokal’s article, the editors explain that they had judged that it was “the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some sort of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field.” In an introduction to the issue of Social Text in which Sokal’s article appears, one of the editors mentions that “many famous scientists, especially physicists, have been mystics.” There may be some working physicists who are mystics, though I have never met any, and I can’t imagine any who holds views as bizarre as those that Sokal satirized. …
After Sokal exposed his hoax, one of the editors of Social Text even speculated that “Sokal’s parody was nothing of the sort, and that his admission represented a change of heart, or a folding of his intellectual resolve.” I am reminded of the case of the American spiritualist Margaret Fox. When she confessed in 1888 that her career of seances and spirit rappings had all been a hoax, other spiritualists claimed that it was her confession that was dishonest.
…and it’s not how the deserving victims of the McCourt Hoax responded either.
Now as an artist, I understand how one would normally want to get credit for work … But there is a specific context in which it was left on the gallery’s door, which is to say anonymously. With an incumbent story. A good one, too.
This is fundamental, mandatory, to the piece’s central strength, the intimation the prime minister himself could have arranged for its unseen disposal. This is more important than the artwork itself – that which the art creates, including the myth. To come at it after the fact and claim ownership is, I hope you don’t mind me saying, a great disservice to the original spirit of the work that got it up on the wall in the first place. A spiritual hijacking. I’d have to ask, honestly, how does the art community – as if correcting a gallery mistake – benefit by having the portrait suddenly owned by an individual? It seriously cheapens the effect.
At this point I would refer you to Ryan’s account of the story. Ryan had to explain the obvious to Griwkowsky (that the effect was the artist’s to choose, not the curator’s), who nevertheless did not change the attribution to its rightful owner. After the show ended and Ryan went to pick the piece up, he was subjected to shabby and borderline larcenous behavior by a Latitude 53 staffer who displayed marked umbrage about the whole sequence of events.
As an aside, in 2008, after I spent two and a half weeks in Edmonton at Ryan’s invitation, I was accused by a pseudonymous commenter on Artblog.net that I knew nothing about the Edmonton art scene. It amuses me to see that one of the artists included in “National Portrait Gallery” was none other than Terrance Houle. Amy Fung wrote the show’s catalog essay. (“The medium of portraiture is as old as humanity itself,” claims Fung, thus obliging us to suspect her knowledge of humanity in more ways than one.) Somehow my alleged total ignorance is not uninformed enough to prevent déjà vu regarding these characters.
Left at that, this remains yet another demonstration that the world is full of unsatisfactory people, as the commenter known as Jack used to remind us at Artblog.net. But admire, if you will, the perfect subversion that Ryan has accomplished here. He proved that Latitude 53 welcomed art into the exhibition that raised questions, as long as those questions didn’t pertain to the legitimacy of its enterprise. He exposed Fung’s characterization of the show, namely,
…this ulterior [sic] exhibition of a Portrait Gallery project as organized by a humble group of Edmonton-based artists collectively legitimizing the voice of a Canadian art culture. Appropriately enough the intention may have brewed from rejection, exclusion, and a burning desire to stake a claim, as naturally the misfits of society have convened here in one way shape or form [sic].
…as a risible pose.
The editors of Social Text and their defenders counterattacked Sokal by every means available to scholars, but their rejoinders rang false, defensive, and beside the point. The Sokal Hoax inflicted a permanent injury on the legacy of postmodernism, which could thereafter never claim that all instances of obscurantism and rhetorical overreach committed in its name were necessary, sophisticated, or comprehensible to the genre’s experts. It proved that its luminaries’ and adherents’ avoidance of plain speech and plain argument were to some degree a mannerism, leaving only disputes about the extent of that degree. I hope that the McCourt Hoax causes Edmontonian art-worlders normally immune to self-examination to engage in some. The aforementioned commenter who attributed me with zero knowledge of Edmonton’s art world, in another exchange on Fung’s blog, said to me, “Maybe you know more about Edmonton’s artistic community than I’m giving you credit for, but I’d like to think that we work as a community, even when that involves criticism.” There’s your problem. You like to think this, even as you act otherwise. Ryan has proved it through empirical means.
What now? Everyone will likely continue as they were, but the McCourt Hoax will remain ever at the ready as a counterexample whenever Edmonton’s self-presumed artistic progressives rail at its modernists for cutting off debate, as Amy Fung did a few months ago, or describe themselves as “provid[ing] a forum for dialogue about contemporary art practices.” It would be good if this in turn caused a real pluralism, open to the full diversity of approaches employed by its artists, to come about in Edmonton, instead of its current prosthetic pluralism, at once fake, ersatz, and conveniently removable.
—Franklin Einspruch: Journal, 02 Aug 2010