Several years ago, while jet lagged, I was watching reruns of Sex and the City in the middle of the night—the chaste versions without the nude scenes, which usually involve Samantha, that are offered on basic cable. It occurred to me what a fitting metaphor the show could be for the art world—and not merely because an upper-middle-class existence governs the setting. Rather, the show appears to revolve around making something (sex) fantastic when, in fact, it is about making conversation. In contemporary art circles one regularly overhears talk about a sobering lack of fruitful encounters with art. Discussion is the final product in these friendly rehearsals of unmet expectations—not sex, and not art.
We find discourse taking over for the act on show. The therapeutic maintenance enacted by women having girl talk overshadows the repeat performance of sex in the city. This intimacy is actually what sustains the characters. Art also seems to live by such motivations. They are intimated by replicating subtle, coded expectations about how the object acquires or lacks an aspect of desirability.
While dialogue moves all drama, developing a sayable sexual practice drives the major and minor characters on the show. And to listen to the conversations that typically follow the opening of an art exhibition is to realize that art does not make for pleasurable experience so much as the shared pleasure of criticism. The most genuine reviews of art do not occur in newspaper print, but as we see them on Sex and the City, that is, among trusted colleagues who can convincingly compare current to past experiments in the field. Without the surety of its disappointment, art would preclude this camaraderie and there might be nothing to talk about or share but nods of approval.
For cosmopolitans like Carrie Bradshaw, the dysfunction of love in the city defines a warrior status. As with any ongoing struggle, this status is conferred off the battlefield among confidants. Conversation is the site where the critic of modern New York life asserts that she still has what it takes to be both a cynic among the pretenders and, to her friends, a true romantic. Art’s critics must be of a similar lot. Often in the absence of romance or art, these wanderers carry on looking until that something appears, just so, all the while taking inspiration equally from marvels and disappointments.
Sex and the City’s realism resounded in the absurdity of ancient pursuits taking place in an advanced society. Notably each chase takes a feminine perspective told by Carrie. When she asks Mr. Big, as the pilot episode draws to a close, “Have you ever been in love?” he replies, “Abso-fucking-lutely.” This exchange sets the stage for every episode to follow. The art of dating, like art itself, comes easiest to those who have already made it. Carrie’s existentialist quest, though ostensibly feminine, actually captures the carnal pursuit of New Yorkers for whom the city works best, namely enterprising metro-sexual men—men for whom the city’s demands, etiquette, decorum, and business practices are second nature. In her neo-New-Age cosmos, Carrie positions herself as the diviner of the shifting constellations and the black holes that swallow fellow singles. Because people do not know where they are going in this galaxy, they remain out of touch with the oblique motivations driving them. As Oscar Wilde aptly tells us in The Critic as Artist, “It is because Humanity has never known where it was going that it has been able to find its way.” Constantly adopting new roles to essay pleasures gives Wilde’s critic an artistic disposition comparable to his subject, the artist. Carrie is herself a critic who ambles into her own fieldwork artfully as a decipherer of man.
We see this especially with Carrie’s paramour, Mr. Big. As simple as he seems, he embodies the city’s male qualities. Seen through Carrie’s eyes, we regard New York as Mr. Big: he’s charming, unflappable, laconic, knowing, and, above all, already on top. At some point in his past he untied the Gordian knot of self-fulfillment that eludes Carrie and her bachelorette friends. Like anyone with a driver, town car along, and an apartment with a doorman, Mr. Big embodies his imperious social qualities unapologetically. As the pronouncement above makes clear, Mr. Big has seen and had it all.
Yet, as in an old painting depicting life in harmony, his charmed life adds to Carrie’s attraction even while it is a foil for her deeper critical quandaries. Big’s near-perfection is a mirror that reflects her own latter-day bohemianism.
“The metropolitan man,” writes Georg Simmel, “develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart.” 1Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Urban Life,” in The Cities Culture Reader, eds. Iain Borden, Tim Hall, and Malcolm Miles (Routledge: London: 2004), 13. Rather than succumb to overstimulation, our metropolitan woman intellectualizes the all too physical information that reaches her senses in the city. To maintain a safe distance from all that jolts her as she careers across the sex-scape of New York, she reconstructs a viable urban life through categorizing it, converting friendly conversations into the discourse of her authoritative sex column. In this double tracking of personal and professional lives she risks becoming blasé—a sexual atheist or flâneur of sorts, who treats everyone she meets, even friends and lovers, as a signification or specimen of a flawed social type. The inevitable risk is that Carrie’s metropolitan life could lose its edgy ethnographic character if she were to become hypersensitive or unfastened from a critical outlook that protects her professionally and grants her the confidence of others.
Just as the show ponders what collective defense mechanisms mean for a society beholden to the city’s trendy perversions that are trivializing human intimacy, the question here becomes what is left of art’s imperatives. In a broadening field that is all the time more intellectualized while being sacked by commercialism’s “threatening currents and discrepancies,” in Simmel’s words, how does the engaged critic navigate contemporary art’s infinite possibilities (and just as many failures) without becoming a cynic?
Boris Groys suggests first accepting the aestheticization of all aspects of life, including our politics and our most intimate desires. “In today’s world,” he writes, “the production of sincerity and trust has become everyone’s occupation—and yet it was, and still is, the main occupation of art throughout the whole history of modernity: the modern artist has always positioned himself or herself as the only honest person in a world of hypocrisy and corruption.” 2Boris Groys, “Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility,” e-flux Journal 7 (June 2009), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/self-design-and-aesthetic-responsibility/ (accessed 30 July 2015). Simmel’s metropolitan being becomes Groys’s self-objectifying artist capable of turning their person into a desirable artwork by wading into the social field as an image.
Carries arrives at sincerity when she realizes she has lost her blasé shield of critical impenetrability. It occurs not by making love to Big, but when she realizes her image may be incompatible with his perfect image. All comes to a head when she finally falls for Mr. Big (season 1, episode 11) and nearly spoils everything on a languorous morning when she passes gas on his “$500 sheets.” A patent downward spiral of embarrassment and uncertainty ensues. Carrie tortures herself for days. As she goes about repainting her kitchen to create solace, Big appears at her door at long last. This will be his first time in her apartment. The offending fart is not discussed but the scene reads as though he has arrived there to sniff her as dogs do. After a brief inspection of her artful apartment—her studio, her taste, and her person—Carrie delights in Big’s approval. All along she had nothing to fear: Big’s impending critique never comes—the only judgment of her image was hers. He, being an image, simply shrugs unable to understand what all the overthinking Carrie has been doing has been about. In this moment we are reminded that Big has no name; he is a concept. In the closing scene of the episode, we pan from an interior view to outside her apartment window. The shot returns the couple to the crucible of New York City’s streets, as they enjoy the fleeting joys of urban sex as Big’s imagistic and Carrie’s critical worlds collide.
Carrie’s investigations of sexuality typically isolate an obsession with success that leads to failure (whether personal or career). Thus she is faced with the possibility of her own failure. Her inadequacy once in love would seem to have less to do with Mr. Big’s unattainable perfection than her own projected investment in his impeccable status. In the wake of her masochist nosedive, a more legible version of Carrie appears, one that transcends social trends and her friends’ critical confidences. A Carrie who cannot intellectualize every affection, who must build a life full of material choices.
But soon she is back to studying the short life cycles of attraction that plague cosmopolitan mammals, in which Carrie draws out her cogent aesthetic and critical values in the bohemian artist tradition of work as play and poetry as life. “I’m sort of a sexual anthropologist,” Carrie tells Big in the show’s originary dramatic scenario. His mid-century brain recoils. “You mean, like, a hooker?” he says. “No, I write a column called ‘Sex and the City,’” informs Carrie. She is then reminded (by the man she will fall for) that she has never been in love; Mr. Big seems to know immediately that her condition is attributable to the fact that she wants to have her cake and eat it too. But today’s viewers can likely relate to precisely the ambivalence entailed in adopting a role and needing to never get too heavy about anything. This decorum is shared in the anecdotes that fill brunch conversations with friends and later Carrie’s column. A man appears, disappoints, and recedes back into the hetero-normative mists of New York City. For the female protagonists in Carrie’s clique, each potential partner courted represents some familiar and fatal flaw in humanity: egotism, perversion, deception, stupidity, and the occasional risk to reproductive health.
Art today would seem to consist of a lot more perceived apartment sniffing than actually takes place. Part of this is surely because promotion has filled a vacuum where art criticism formerly resided. Relatively few art exhibitions, studio visits, or reviews amount to much in terms of professional courtship or canonical history for their featured subjects. Yet, antagonism relates not to this. It has to do with the irresistible disappointment that justifies critique, discourse—brunch. Until that something big comes along, we know from Carrie what Gore Vidal meant when he famously declared, “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.” After internalizing the exotic politics of our social conventions, like Sex and the City’s dutiful heroines, a need for describing a new short-lived society displaces the primary objective.
Generating talk instead of lovemaking amounts to more than self-serving boredom; it contends with the murky rules that guide a laborer such as Carrie in an immaterial workplace, both everywhere and nowhere in the city. These shared rules provoke critical apprehension and may be reinforced at a million Chelsea brunches. But these other words in turn invite that one, unspeakable “Abso-fucking-lutely” that premises the critic’s need for a life in the city at all.