On ‘Artaud-Mania … The Diary of a Fan’
October 10, 2011 | by David O'Neill
Johanna Fateman began her 1997 fanzine, Artaud-Mania, by professing, “Dear Diary, I am writing to you because confessional writing is the self-effacing form most suited to the abject position of the fan.” Until then, the twenty-two-year-old Fateman hadn’t confessed much in her work; her earlier zines (including the series Snarla, cowritten in the early nineties with fellow high school misfit Miranda July) never had the insular or solipsistic feel typical of many of that era’s photocopied missives. What’s more, the syphilitic and schizophrenic Artaud, an enfant terrible of French arts and letters, was an unlikely idol for the feminist punk scene that Fateman had been a part of and was reacting against—post–Riot Grrrl publications that rarely ventured beyond subjects like the DIY music scene, grassroots organizing, and personal politics. Her appreciation for Artaud came through artists and writers like Nancy Spero and Kathy Acker. Like them, she was inspired by his fierce articulation of what Spero once termed a “sense of victimhood”; Fateman put it more bluntly when she wrote approvingly that Artaud was a “crazy bitch with male authority.”
In the fall of 1996, as Fateman attended several Artaud events and exhibitions in New York, argued with her art-school professor at SVA, and read about Artaud’s life and work, her fan persona and diarist disguise allowed her to investigate a nexus of personal, political, and artistic considerations. Artaud’s unruly spirit seemed to pursue Fateman as she worked to create a zine that chronicled art with a punk attitude—a way, she says, “to be an outsider and a refuser of culture, while maintaining the access and insight necessary for savvy critique.”
As she began making the zine that winter, Fateman returned to her diary entries from a few months earlier and transcribed them, intercutting the journals with self-reflexive and hindsight-wise commentary. The then-and-now first-person viewpoint that emerged was beautifully and forcefully expressed in Artaud-Mania’s marriage of form and content: layers of typewritten lines, hand-written additions, redactions, and sous rature that drift in the page’s white space. The zine’s range of tones and subjects is as bracing and heterodox as its look; the prose is playful, self-conscious, angry, and earnest as she muses on Madonna, the film The Craft, getting spooked by a David Bowie poster while stoned, and art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s misapprehension of Artaud as precursor to sixties counterculture:
“The only way he can identify with Artaud is in the tackiest possible way, the American hippy affinity for Artaud’s exploration of hallucinogens and his trippy poetics … Schjeldahl writes the way that Jerry Springer wraps up his talk show … the way that Jerry Seinfeld brackets his sitcom with those stand-up comedy sequences, and of course, the way that Jerry Saltz writes art criticism as well … Sane commentary on an insane world.”
Fateman’s first outing as an incognito art historian—chronicling a Drawing Center–hosted lecture on Artaud (the first in a series)—was undone by a broken high heel. Feeling thwarted, she attended class the next day, a seminar taught by the critic and artist Donald Kuspit, who usually talked about his favorite topic, the greatness of “idiosyncratic” artists. A testy in-class exchange ensued after Fateman commented on some of her professor’s assertions and was disdainfully told she should probably drop the class. Kuspit, Fateman thought, was tired of imparting wisdom to the young and tried to disguise his fatigue for teaching what he perceived to be a generation of cynics: “He remained calm but there was something weird about the modulation of his voice and he addressed me with a gaze of pure hatred in the guise of bemused annoyance.”
On the facing page, Fateman drew her verdict: a black-and-white rendering of a punk girl in a skull shirt crying and giving a thumbs down, captioned, “Dear Diary, School Sucks again this Year.” On the next page, she wrote, “I am not without compassion for [Kuspit’s] bleak outlook on my generation … but I do think he’s got no business teaching a senior seminar if he can’t deal with a 22-year old girl being a pain in the ass.” This text appears above a drawing of a puppy captioned “He misread my sincerity totally” (a problem Fateman’s friend Miranda July still seems to have, as a recent New York Times Magazine profile paraphrased July’s message to detractors in its headline: “Miranda July Is Totally Not Kidding”). When asked about Kuspit’s strong reaction to the hint of dissent in his class, Fateman told me she was surprised, because she “had grown up being rewarded for challenging ideas.” Then added: “I pretty much like the art that he likes. I just understand it differently.”
After class, Fateman walked to another Artaud lecture at the Drawing Center, fuming at the fact that Artaud would fit perfectly into the Kuspit canon and feeling that Artaud’s work was rich enough to accommodate a spectrum of interpretations, from academic analysis to raw proclamations of desire (on page 1, she states, “I Love Antonin Artaud”). She pondered quitting her zine project but knew that while the punk pose of saying “fuck off” to anyone not cool enough to understand what is near and dear to the punk’s heart has a crisp, dismissive quality to it, surviving the cutthroat capitalist megalopolis of New York required more from her. When she got to the Drawing Center, she was quickly engaged by the lecture’s roster of diverse, deviant talents: Spero, Semiotext(e) founder Sylvere Lotringer, curator Margrit Rowell, critic Gayatari Spivak, and an underprepared Jacques Derrida, who shared off-the-cuff anecdotes, such as the time a psychiatrist told him that, with modern psychotropic drugs, Artaud could have been “corrected” within a week.
The next evening, Fateman returned for a reading of Artaud’s work headlined by another of her intellectual heroes: “Sontag read passages of the letters [in] a deep calm voice,” she reported. “It was very relaxing.” After attempting to see The Passion of Joan of Arc at Anthology Film Archives (it was sold out), Fateman abandoned Artaud-Mania and devoted herself to painting. A few months later, however, an exasperating Artforum review about Artaud by Kuspit renewed her zeal. The article’s publication, she wrote in the zine, “has such [a] shockingly poetic meaning for me”; it “profoundly validates my fandom, as ironic as my love might ultimately be.” She revived Artaud-Mania and pasted a copy of Kuspit’s review in the back of the zine, underlining the passages she found particularly galling.
Fateman printed only a few dozen copies of the zine in an all-night photocopying session at a Lower East Side Kinko’s. Though Artaud-Mania has been all but lost, its ambition and bold, genre-defying scope make it one of the most interesting, atypical relics of the mid-nineties’ zine heyday. “What struck me so powerfully when I finally read Artaud-Mania,” says Sara Marcus, author of the Riot Grrrl history Girls to the Front, “was how Johanna wrote about art as if she were part of a conversation that was larger than just her peers. In her zine, she talked back to her art school professors, to dead artists, to famous art critics. Her values were underground values, but she had the whole world in her sights.” Archivist Lisa Darms, founder of the Riot Grrrl collection at the Fales Library at NYU (where Fateman’s zines now reside), calls Artaud-Mania “the epitome of a genre that Fateman probably invented and quickly mastered: The high art fanzine that borrows from and mocks the confessional self-absorption that many Riot Grrrl zines had become.”
Fateman gave up zine writing shortly after graduating (she got an A in Kuspit’s class, after giving a killer presentation on Jackson Pollock), and then abandoned painting for music. In 1998, she cofounded the band Le Tigre, integrating her unmistakable writing and visual style into the band’s aesthetic, lyrics, and politics. Last spring, Artaud-Mania was included in the MoMA exhibition “Music 3.0,” accompanied by a Le Tigre listening station and a screening of the movie Who Took the Bomp: Le Tigre on Tour—all of which placed Fateman’s artistic contributions in the museum’s hallowed halls alongside Kuspit (and Fateman) favorites such as Pollock, Louise Bourgeois, and Robert Mapplethorpe. Her oeuvre—Artaud-Mania in particular—has an enduring quality that the zine’s namesake described best, when he wrote, in 1947, that he “wanted a new work that catches certain organic points in life, a work … in pursuit of [a] new, strange, and radiant Epiphany.”
David O’Neill is an editor and writer living in Brooklyn.