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The Sermons of
Art issues. Press, 128 pp.,
Thirty Silver Dollars ($20 from
Art issues. Press is best known for collections of incisive, stylistically assured critical essays about art and things like it by writers such as Christopher Knight and Dave Hickey. But the publishing arm of the art-world-baiting, L.A.-based magazine Art issues. (which folded on Saturday; the press continues) has a sideline in tales of the adventures of faux-naif visual/performance artists you’d be forgiven for suspecting to be brain-damaged.
As a subscriber (true confession time: I’ve also been a contributor), you receive the latest book each year. In 1994, we entered The World of Jeffrey Vallance and became privy to the thoughts of a seeker obsessed with what late-nite TV calls “the unexplained” (Bigfoot, Nixon, the Shroud of Turin) and given to wandering off to tiny, axiomatically funny island principalities, including Tonga, Iceland, and the District of Columbia.
A few weeks ago, my mail slot disgorged a package containing a tiny paperback, its cover bearing gold, debossed lettering on hard, glossy, white paper textured to look like crocodile skin. Like a prayer book or a first-communion Bible, it came with a red strip of grosgrain to thread between the pages. It was a collection of sermons, and the Rev. Ethan Acres did not want me losing my way.
Mistrustful though his readers may be of the pronouncements of people who build armor against disrespect right into their names”Honorable” judges, “Distinguished” professors, and the likeAcres wears his “Reverend” with pride. He paid good money for it, and for his Doctorate of Divinity, having received that honorary honorific in 1996 from World Christianship Ministries, among the most distinguished of mail-order ordination mills. Acres is also proud owner of a UNLV M.F.A., and it is in the clash and concordance of his credentials that he bases his authority to dispense chicken soup for the jaded, agnostic, artgoing soul.
The Sermons of Reverend Ethan Acres is more than would appear from its title. There are four proper sermons (on evangelical salesmanship, the resurrection of art through commerce, finding Rapture reflected in the works of man, and reconciling the corporeal with the divine), which take little lessons from Acres’ everyday trials and mix them with frantically telescoped accounts of history’s more obscure byways, chronicles that whiff of the crackpot while never partaking fully of its essence (also a Vallance specialty). They are bookended by a Call to Worship and a Benediction, in each of which Acres tells how his Southern circuit-preacher stepfather found his calling by losing his armsfirst the flesh ones, when, as a boy, he grabbed some power lines after daring to climb a pole; then the prosthetic, when they wouldn’t unclamp from his steering wheel one busy Sunday, necessitating their removal via Boy Acres’ Luke Skywalker pocketknife and spurring the Rev. Albert Satcher into a well-earned jag of blasphemy.
There are also the texts to a clandestine wedding performed sotto voce in the Sistine Chapel and to an open exorcism of evil spirits from the Santa Monica Museum of Art. And a letter to the Rev. Mrs. Acres, Lisa, written in a motel near Clines Corners, N.M., in which the Rev., answering for unnamed behavior that has caused Lisa to suspect he might have need of psychotropic medication, places himself at the end of a chain of holy fools that stretches from St. Simeon of Damascus through vaudeville and on to the museum-circuit performers and Vegas lounge acts of today. Add a mash note to Jerry Falwell from Tinky Winky and color plates of Acres as the epistoler, in purple body paint with a purse and an Etch A Sketch draped around his neck; as 13th-century mystic-cum-nutjob Jacopone da Todi, nude and saddled up for villagers to ride to find Jesus; and transfixed by heavenly beams outside the Getty Museum and the Bellagio Resort & Casino, and you’ve got…well, what?
If you’re any kind of skeptic, it’s hard to know just how to take Acres. Or, rather, it’s easy to write off his schtick as the stunts of a grad-schooled apostate bent on mocking the power structures all those French dudes wrote about. It takes a while to come around to the notion that Acres may actually love the Lord. (That he loves art is more obvious, his M.F.A. doubtless coming more dear than his preaching papers.)
Part of the problem, now brushing away the protestations of the Rev. Mrs. Acres, who contributes to the book a number of recipes for treats ranging from Snickerdoodles to Cool Cucumber Sandwiches to the ominously named Dump Cake, is that the Holy Spirit has not blessed her husband’s tongue. The Rev. Acres’ Alabama provenance aside, his strenuous speechification, cozily larded with “beloved”s, “my lambs”es, and the like; shot through with heated testimonials (“I found Rapture, I found understanding, and I found Godbut not up there in the sky, no”); and no stranger to catechetical exchange (“And what do we dream for? Wealth? (There is a resounding ‘NO!!!’ from the audience)”); sounds about as authentic as Jubilation T. Cornpone. If it were any more arch, you could march the armies of Napoleon through it.
It turns out that you can’t keep ’em down on the farm, even if they want to stay there. A cultural heritage is something you can outgrow or educate yourself out of, and Acres has heard too much new music to be able to sing the old songs the way his daddy did. In driving for a knowing syncretism of newfangled context and old-time zeal, Acres butts his head against an ancient mode of experience whose strength lay in its not-knowingness. It doesn’t surprise me that he took up his vocation in the mid-’90s, when indie-rock acts like the Make-Up, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and the Reverend Horton Heat were attempting to yoke “evangelical” fervor and imagery to musical forms that might otherwise have seemed played out. Recall that this gambit worked best on those occasions when the shock quotes dropped off.
There remains the possibility that an Acres live showhe does occasionally preach in public, a converted 1965 Shasta camper serving as his portable house of worshipbreathes life into words that don’t exactly leap off the page, but the book is all we who haven’t sung in the choir have to go by. And, as anyone who’s ever sat through an inept explication of a mathematical proof knows, the fact that Acres heaves his point across with hand-waving and table-pounding doesn’t mean he’s wrong. His flaws as a writer don’t mean that he doesn’t attempt to communicate the truth, only that the truth is somewhat beyond his ability to convey, that ability being constrained by the limitations of talent and sociological niche. Chalk it up to the difference between a failure of rhetoric and one of doctrineor, in this case, faith.
Preaching being a performance genre, Acres would naturally link it with performance art, but what does it have to do with regular old art? I’ve got my own pet theorythat the very act of looking brings about in us an aspect of reverence, that we’re essentially hard-wired for the transaction. In the future, when Sony starts pushing consumer body-imaging consoles and recreational MRIs are the latest fad, we’ll probably be able to see that the brain’s hot spots for visual art and God aren’t disjoint sets. God and His henchmen seem to have known as much when they put the proscription of graven images right up there in the Ten Commandments next to His monopoly on being worshipped.
It’s hard to outlaw an innate psycho-physiological response, though, so the church eventually came around to sanctioning art that aimed viewers’ reverence in a direction approved by the clergy. Time marched on, and now we’ve got a secular art world whose principal players stand in direct correspondence to those of the sacerdotal regime: Curators are the new clergy, academics the new theologians, and docents the new church ladies.
That makes critics and commentators on art latter-day Protestant reformers, eager to usher in a priesthood of believers and allow the faithful to reclaim an unmediated experience of the divine from the powers that be. Throw in the inherent performance aspect of criticism and you can see that the virtually self-ordained Acres is simply literalizing his role in the new scheme. It doesn’t even hurt his stance that he isn’t all that eloquentor all that critical. It helps him reaffirm the exalted position of art for a populace that has grown suspicious of rapturous enthusiasm. His words may be clumsy, but once you’re on his wavelength, they aren’t mere sounding brass. The moral of The Sermons of Reverend Ethan Acres is that we all need something to be unequal to. CP