As an art student who went from college into corporate design and media, I used to have a running joke. It was based on “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, and it went something like: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by advertising agencies...” Even while working in an agency, I felt there was something very sad and destructive about taking promising young artists, and using their talent in service of persuading people to buy more stuff. Still, there was always something subversive about the idea of integrating “real” art into advertising. It was through this personal exploration that I was first introduced to the work of Glenn O’Brien.
His work for major brands like Calvin Klein and Barneys was subversive, and about as close to “Punk” as you could get in advertising. I was intrigued with his work before I knew who he was. Once I started to investigate, a whole world opened-up for me.
It’s with this experience that I came to the Glenn O’Brien reading, for the posthumous release of the book “Intelligence for Dummies,” at the Hammer Museum on January 14th, 2020.
Glenn O’Brien was a writer, a magazine editor, an ad man, a New York scenester, TV show host, script-writer, creative director, musician, and style icon. He was closely associated with Andy Warhol, was a close friend of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and as the host of “TV Party” featured Mick Jones, David Byrne, Debbie Harry, James Chance, Klaus Nomi, David Bowie, and many more recognizable creative characters who went on to put their mark on pop culture.
He was a taste-making propagandist, feeding the hungry minds of the pop-culture starved through multiple channels.
He was, in many ways, a reporter on the front lines of the culture war. He was the prototype “influencer,” in a pre-digital age. Early in his career as editor of Interview Magazine, as the host of “TV Party,” and even as “The Style Guy” for GQ Magazine, O’Brien always rode the line between reporting on pop culture trends, and creating them.
He was a taste-making propagandist, feeding the hungry minds of the pop-culture starved through multiple channels. He had the ability to write about many topics, with an expert command of the cultural-language of those topics. He did this with wit, intelligence, and empathy for his subjects, which made his work something completely unique.
This unique ability was on full display in the reading of his work during the evening.
The reading had an impressive group of writers who were connected to O’Brien. They included Ernest Hardy, Jonathan Lethem, entrepreneur and designer Andy Spade, and was moderated by the acclaimed writer and art journalist Linda Yablonsky. Publisher of the book, Michael Zilkha, gave a lovely introduction to the evening, talking about his relationship with O’Brien. It was an impressive, and diverse, group.
Linda Yablonsky started the readings with the piece “Why I Still Don’t Paint,” which was first published in 1984 in Paper Magazine. A piece on the art of specialization, which dissects the inevitable, multi-disciplinary, nature of what it meant to be an artist, writer, and musician in 1984. (*Side note: There was a reference in this piece to a band called “The Happiness Boys,” which I highly recommend.)
Ernest Hardy’s reading of “I remember Jean-Michel,” gave a beautiful and meandering account of the personal details of the artist’s life. Details which might easily be considered mundane and inconsequential, but as written here are treated as sacred accounts of the life and times of a messianic figure, and rightly so.
“Notes on Hip” (a piece from Interview Magazine, 1987) was the section selected by Andy Spade. Considering O’Brien’s self-awareness of his position in the pantheon of “cool,” it was surprising that he would have ever dared to broach the subject, but here it was in all of it’s ephemeral glory. The cadence, rhythm, and music-like quality of the reading by Spade almost made you forget that the content of the words were a sardonic observation on taste.
The last, and most politically topical, piece of the evening was “The Rhetoric of Confusion: Sarah Palin and the Rise of Mediocracy,” read by acclaimed author Jonathan Lethem. This piece, written in 2008, is a haunting prophesy that lays-out the neoconservative strategy, in a world where “the political system resembles American Idol.” This piece is a startling, and poignant, reminder that the political mechanism of manipulation and control of the American public is always being refined. While this exercise could quickly become cynical and accusatory, in O’Brien’s hands it does something else. While the piece critiques the neocon strategy, it treats the population that put these people into power with a level of understanding, and compassion, that’s sorely missing from today’s political dialog.
In the world of contemporary writing, there are very few writers whose work permeate as many different mediums as O’Brien’s did. He had an unrelenting eye for observation. His ability to be awed by something was only matched by his ability to make you be in awe of that very thing. It was a kind of observational symbiosis; what he fed on, would feed you too.
Here is the video from the evening: