It’s Always About The B-Side


A key to understanding the work of Tom Sachs is how he likes to watch some of his favorite homos scratch, bite, kick and mud wrestle each other. (Not unlike the way Proust got a kick out of masturbating while hungry rats were thrown in a cage to kill one another. Look it up, Sachs.)

Tom Sachs said I had to listen to Morrissey’s song Christian Dior when I thought about the burned plywood, resin and synthetic polymer paint that make up his very personal show, American Handmade Paintings. Morrissey makes the case (always somewhat of an odd thing to do in a song, but this is Morrissey) that the closeted, buttoned up, workaholic Dior wasted his life on fabrics and perfume, the trivial cares of the rich.

The alternative? Straight from a Pasolini film, I guess. Dior could’ve/should’ve gotten stoned and fucked illiterate kids on “backstreets,” and romped around “impregnating women” and “kissing mad street boys.” (Yup, those are Mr. M’s words.)

What Morrissey does to complicate the thumbs down on Dior, is … OMG, he’s actually saying this about himself! He’s Dior. All this time, Morrissey’s been the closeted workaholic. Being a songster is no better than being a tailor. Cue to Morrissey at age 19, smoking clove cigarettes and watching a movie like Accottone with his friends, feeling very cool and dangerous, wanting to be Caravaggio, but instead he chose the sad path, working hard writing songs, becoming rich, melancholy and 54. Yawn.

I’m not buying it, Sachs.

What I am buying, and what I do hope people will rush in and buy are these paintings and sculptures, and the worth and hard work of making them. Like the best of Morrissey, like the elegant wonder of Dior, who always thought of himself as a dressmaker, this new work by Tom Sachs is sad, lovely and personal, so full of mature assurance and grace. I’m struck by how beautiful it is. I’d even say Sachs is defining a new American sublime, embracing our flaws, our fall, our tarnish, but still stubbornly flirting and hoping, playing the role of the romantic artist as only an American could, still wearing that Goodwill smile, even when all of us know some pervert is wearing an ankle bracelet because at Goodwill kids are groped in the dressing rooms in the back.

What’s particularly moving to me is that, while all his work (Are you there, Sachs?) has handmade qualities, this body of work can get rid of the word “qualities” and we can just say “handmade.” It feels quiet, personal, made slowly, over time, equal parts love and regret. These works are his. This is him.

Which is why I find the coy Morrissey BS about the supposed choice between discipline and indulgence so phony. Christian Dior is a poor little rich boy, mid-life artist crisis song. And things are much more complicated, much more interesting than the self-pity and the dismissive caricature of what choosing hard work means, what being a backstreet boy means.
Tom Sachs, If you want to take on the dilemma of either/or, let’s talk with crazy Mr. Sunshine, Kierkegaard:

“I see it all perfectly. There are two possibilities - you can either do this or that. My advice: do it or don’t do it - you’ll regret both.”

Here’s what he had to say about Morrissey way back in 1843:

“What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ - that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul … because the music, that is blissful.’”

And I say, tell Morrissey not to revise away Dior as just a fussy queen.

How is life wasted if you die during wild slutty sex like Dior did? How is life wasted if you dress Nazi wives while your sister fights in the Resistance, almost dies in a concentration camp and when she comes home half dead, you hold her and kiss her and say “My love, my love. Look at your clothes!” Then you launch the greatest fashion house in history in her honor.

How is life wasted if you’re so exquisitely attuned to beauty that you find a 19 year old lover who may not be backstreet, but does happen to be a genius? Yves Saint Laurent is so good Dior goes right to Laurent’s mother and tells her the kid is his successor (say what? she asks), then essentially Dior is done, goes and fucks his brains out and dies. That is wasting your life?

Dior turned women from war to The New Look, The Complete Look. He gave them a kit for living: a dress, shoes, hat, perfume and a tie for their husband. A kit for living? Who does that sound like?

Sachs, the funny thing is that Dior’s parents wanted him to be a diplomat. A powerful connection between Dior and you is not only that you’re both obsessive makers but that, in fact, you finally took that diplomat’s job: you’ve made peace between fag and engineer, between NASA couture and fashion couture. You’ve shown girls as both Madonnas and whores. You’ve borne down on both logo and individual, on both the Man and the man. You’ve played the song and the dub version, the hit and the even cooler b-side.

What Morrissey sings in Christian Dior sounds lovely but speaks fake. It’s an insincere pose of self-pity, of what could have been. Dior was a lot classier. His fakery didn’t whine. What he made wasn’t for himself, wasn’t about himself:

“By being natural and sincere, one can often create revolutions without having sought them.”

I love that because it’s outrageous and absurd. But you can believe Dior believed it and lived it. It’s both the most sincerely untrue and insincerely true thing any artist has said.

And yet, it’s either/or, baby. Either/or.

Related: Essay art