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ART : Money Can't Buy This Guy's Love : Why does artist Jimmie Durham short-circuit his own fame and fortune? It's simply a matter of his own personal politics

August 22, 1993|KRISTINE MCKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

The ultimate in politically correct art would, of course, be art that refused to participate in the money-driven art market in any way whatsoever. What that means is that you, the consumer/art viewer, would never even hear of it.

This brings us to Jimmie Durham--an artist most people probably haven't heard of. A Cherokee Indian who's lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico, since 1986, Durham will show his work in Los Angeles for the first time beginning Saturday at the L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice, after having shown regularly for the past eight years in New York.

The artist, also a writer, poet, political activist and performer, lived in New York from 1975 to 1986 and was featured in this year's Whitney Biennial. Durham was also in last year's Documenta international exhibition in Kassel, Germany, has exhibited frequently in Europe for the past eight years, and will be the subject of a retrospective opening next month at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels.

However, Durham's ambivalence toward the capitalist structure of the art arena is such that he keeps short-circuiting the machinery that might conspire to make him rich and famous.

When a Paris museum wanted to buy two pieces out of a show in 1972, he responded that the work was for sale for "minus a penny"; that meant the museum would take the piece and he would pay it a penny (the museum refused to accept these terms and didn't acquire the work). This year he simply gave away the 50 works included in his exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent, Belgium.

The subject of a laudatory profile in the February issue of Art in America, Durham responded to the article--which focused to a large degree on his identity as a Cherokee Indian--with a letter to the editor stating that he is not, in fact, a Cherokee. (In the eyes of the U.S. Government, Durham isn't officially recognized as a Cherokee because he has refused to register as such with the government.)

Obviously, Durham can't resist throwing a wrench into any discourse that attempts to incorporate him, and in talking with him it becomes clear that the stereotypical lifestyle of the successful artist--as well as the idea of art with a capital A, neatly labeled, on display and available to be bought and sold--gives him the creeps.

"I primarily work with installations in an attempt to subvert that setup, but it's very difficult to get around the fact that the art world is a capitalist institution and, as such, notions of value and meaning evaporate if a thing can't be sold--monetary value is central to everything," the 53-year-old artist observes over lunch at a Venice restaurant. "If you pay money, you've sacrificed to have that thing. If I give it to you, I make the sacrifice and you say, 'Thanks, sucker.' "

Durham's unorthodox views on ownership can be largely traced to his American Indian heritage; born and raised in a primarily Cherokee community, he grew up keenly aware of the issue of rightful ownership. Espousing a pantheistic philosophy that sees humans as merely having temporary stewardship of the world, the Cherokee believe that people can never actually own anything because we're just passing through.

Durham's understanding of this concept was honed to an even sharper edge from 1973 through 1980, when he gave up art altogether to work full time as an organizer for the ill-fated American Indian Movement. When AIM went down in flames in 1980, amid internal fighting and opposition from the U.S. Government, Durham returned to his art career, but it's a career he views with a mixture of hope, suspicion and skepticism. He harbors no illusion, for instance, that multiculturalism--a gravy train he could easily hitch his own wagon to--is anything more than a cosmetic job on the sagging face of European culture as it limps into its twilight years.

"Multiculturalism is nothing more than lip service," he says as he lights one in an unending series of imported cigarettes.

"It's happening at this point in time because the state has to somehow acknowledge the current reality of the U.S., and that this is not the country the Pilgrim fathers are said to have created. Of course, it never was that country we read about in history books and never was a melting pot--it was a nation of slaves and masters from the beginning. The state invented the lie we know as history, and the state is very good at adapting this fictional narrative to fit its own purposes. And the latest adaptation of the story is the notion of multiculturalism."

Durham's strong opinions are at odds with his manner, which is uncommonly courtly and graceful. A slender, soft-spoken man who seems to move through life in a state of perpetual amusement, he tempers most of what he says with a flourish of humor.

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