Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 2, 2016
Seth Price Fuck Seth Price New York: Leopard, 2015. 122 pp. Paper $20.00 (9780981546834)

Visual artist Seth Price’s Fuck Seth Price declares itself a novel. It claims this clearly on the cover: A Novel—with a capital “N.” While Fuck Seth Price is the artist’s fourth book, it is his first self-declared novel, though its qualifications to this identity begin to disintegrate even before one flips open the small volume’s die-cut cover. What readers find in the relatively short span of the book’s 122 pages is not a novel in any recognizable sense (though it makes minimal, perhaps token, gestures toward the narrative form), but rather a somewhat schizophrenic deluge of thoughts on art—and particularly painting—and the figure of the artist in the age of “the digital.”

Price’s novel is narrated in the second person; its opening lines introduce the protagonist, if he can be called that. “He drifted through a thick and obscure world,” Price begins, “observant but incapable of action. It took him a while to understand that he wasn’t dreaming, but moving through the real world and actual life, only it was no longer his life, because his body and all of its doings were no longer under his control” (7). He (that he is a man is not underscored by the author, but is nonetheless important) lacks agency; he is an empty vessel, a directionless but thoughtful automaton. This man is, of course, an artist (who may bear some faint resemblances to the artist and author, Seth Price).

At certain moments, the book zooms rapidly between topics; at other times, it orbits around them haltingly like a scavenging bird. In the flow of his quasi-theoretical diatribe, Price lays out the four motivations for making art, meditates on the prevalence and puissance of the art market, and rambles through issues of taste, criticality, and novelty. Early on, Price (or the anonymous narrator-artist who stands in for him) makes the connection between once “lowbrow” foods that have now transformed via new trends in “upcycled” cuisine—hipsterized versions of homemade meals—and a repopularization of a certain strand of abstract painting. While consuming a meal in a trendy restaurant capitalizing on the kitsch value of its menu, the artist hits upon a thought: “[He] found himself wondering whether abstract painting wasn’t due for a spaghetti-and-meatballs recuperation. . . . Someone, he realized, needed to come along and devise a painterly abstraction that embodied cultural sophistication and ‘nowness’” (10–11).

The proposed solution—this new form of painterly abstraction—shares certain characteristics with actual works by Price from the mid-2000s. Made of vacuum-formed polystyrene, these abstractions focus not on the material or aesthetic concerns of painting, but rather on automated and clinically removed (read: digitally conceived) backstories—a modern and conceptual solution to the visual problem of taste and judgment. “Any number of methods or styles would do,” hypothesizes Price’s fictionalized artist, “so long as the result looked ‘cool,’ ensuring that the painting would seem classic and minimal while emanating a vague awareness of rich historical struggle” (15).

Throughout the book’s several chapters, Price’s protagonist-surrogate struggles with grandiose questions about the artist’s place in a contemporary art world that is dominated by the concerns of the market. (“The market was the only indicator that mattered now,” he asserts dispassionately; 16.) In a way that seems to faithfully reflect the ambivalence that many working within this small universe undoubtedly feel, Price’s character lands on both sides of the central question—Why make art at all?—positioning himself as both opportunistic operative and romantic creator.

His list of the four reasons for creating art provides a good example of the fraught double-mindedness of his character. They include: Freedom, Craft, Money, and Scene (with a honorable mention given to a fifth motivation, “the need to forestall death”; 38). Oscillating between an analysis of the somewhat altruistic motivators (Freedom and Craft) and their corrupt counterpart (Money and Scene), the protagonist struggles to create a hierarchy. Does an emphasis on Money, he wonders, undermine Freedom, as the commercially viable artist inevitably transforms from artist into businessman? Or, is it the inverse—does Money provide the ultimate Freedom, the ability to “enter the studio and dream up something and have it produced exactly as they wished” (85–86)? Who should the artist seek to emulate? Who is more free: Marcel Duchamp or Jeff Koons?

In the midst of these long, inconclusive searchings, the author-Price occasionally steps back to describe the movements and behaviors of his central character. These snippets of text seem like discontinuous afterthoughts. Shifting between the (problematically) general and the specific, these punctuating paragraphs narrate moments of action that do little to elucidate the text that gird them. They are equally fleeting and unexplained. In one moment, the text quickly moves from a stream-of-consciousness commentary about the monochrome in twentieth-century painting back into the text’s “present”: “There was a shuffling sound on the other side of the door, and his arm came up with a small device that appeared to be some sort of flashlight. He clicked a trigger, and an acid-green beam flooded the peephole. There was an audible commotion, and he turned on his heel and headed toward the elevator, moving past a double row of doors leading into homes” (28–29). The text then immediately zooms back out, the image of the door segueing into a rambling idea about the early stages of an artist’s career as a succession of opened doors. Elsewhere, it jumps from a discussion about digital culture into an increasingly more bizarre—even disturbing—scene: “He stepped from the car, entered a thicket of ornamental evergreens by the on-ramp, and wrapped his arms around a skinny boy standing there, brutally wresting him up and away. He banged the kid’s head on the edge of the car roof until the small body went pliably limp and could be bundled inside” (46). Following this two-sentence commotion, the action gives way to another line of thinking entirely, and there is no further mention of the boy.

These interruptions add a complex textural layer to Price’s already scattershot text. Random as they seem, however, these disconnected plot points serve an important function in the underlying ethos of Fuck Seth Price. By creating a central character whose thoughts form the bulk of the novel, by casting that character as a prototypical artist of the post-medium age (his defining characteristics including the fact that he is white, educated, and male), and by depriving this character of any real consciousness or control over his actions, Price describes an art world in which the artist is subsumed and consumed by the all-powerful art market. Just as our main character here is caught up in the motion of some unknown force, the artist (as a generalized figure) moves at the will and whim of the market.

Perhaps, then, the term “Novel” on the book’s cover refers not to the literary genre, but rather to the idea of newness and novelty—qualities that preoccupy the artist-protagonist, and the author himself. This obsession with newness is manifested in the art world of Price’s book by an obsession “with technology, with the young.” The drive toward novelty (as well as salability) compels artists to try new tools, adopt new forms, and invent new fictions to surround their artwork. (It may even compel an established visual artist to take up writing, as it were.) This constant repackaging of ideas in service of the market reflects “a continuous flow from top to bottom and back again, as in a trick fountain” (12).

Price’s “novel” approach to the novel is full of contemplation, contradiction, and contrivance. While there are some lucid moments in the text that hedge toward actual insight or critique, its universalizing tone becomes tiresome in the book’s later chapters. Reading the final forty pages or so is something like listening to an overly confident college student (whom we also might assume to be male and white) philosophizing broadly (and loudly) in the university dining hall, relatively unaware of his own inconsistencies and the boredom of his audience. But even this disappointment at the nearsightedness and incompleteness of the novel’s words merges into the tautological scenario that Price defines—an art world in which an artwork and its failings inevitably collapse into one another. In the book’s final chapter, he writes:

People’s reasons for dissatisfaction with cultural productions—books, movies, songs, exhibitions, spring/summer collections—always boiled down to a sense of lack: the work evinced insufficient beauty, or effort, or sincerity, or meaning, and usually all of the above. This failing, however, was precisely what people expected and needed. . . . There was no artwork so great that its power couldn’t be dispersed with a shrug of the shoulder. (97–99; emphasis in original)

Liz Glass
Associate Editor, The Exhibitionist