Jeffrey Grunthaner looks at the triad of art, life, and aesthetics via the Spencer Sweeney lens.
[My] current work has evolved according to a process I didn’t exactly plan. I come across a concept, symbol, artwork, music or philosophy that strikes a chord. From there I choose a way to incorporate this into my practice, and thus my life. I surround myself with representations or reproductions of these ideas and works, which are the motors. They give off energy. This drives me to familiarize myself with them inside and out, and this is the fuel. — Spencer Sweeney (exerpted from “The Pains of Being Spencer Sweeney” by Jane Harris, Art in America, January 13th, 2010)
If the panoply of motors Spencer Sweeney surrounds himself with and the energy they give off remains obscure here, this very obscurity contributes to what gives life to his art. An almost panoramic attitude underlies Sweeney’s work, something that would be universally embracing: a noumenal wholeness that can only be phenomenally grasped in terms of contradictory representations. The limit of this kind of aesthetic is the image of an all-embracing freedom, where all forms of diversity meet and interconnect—and where even the notion of an image, the static displacement of self from world, is finally transcended.
Such reaching toward an ungraspable wholeness is, at least in part, responsible for the more sinister aspects of Sweeney’s output, visible mainly in his more traditional work with painting, where it would seem the delimited space of a canvas elicited the artist’s critical ire—as though contained spaces could only adequately realize figures of negation.
Essential to Sweeney’s aesthetic, however, is a movement away from limits toward unlimited potentiality. And whatever negative aspects are apparent in his works on canvas, they find their positive corollary in his output involving music, and in his role as co-owner of Santos Party House. In a very real way, Sweeney’s aesthetics aspire to redefine, reexamine, and reformulate groups—not only in terms of individual persons, but as classes, concepts and ideas. Bodying forth the fluxional nature of experience in arrangements of equally flowing and lavish forms, the locus of Sweeney’s sensibility lies in unifying disparate, even antithetical elements in such a way that difference is not extinguished, but that divergences are brought into something like an antagonistic harmony.
Santos Party House, which Sweeney co-owns with the notorious Andrew W.K., is a corollary of this. Santos provides a venue for diverse and divergent aesthetics subterranean to what would ordinarily be given a platform in many Manhattan galleries; as such, it can potentially expand our culture of the aesthetic experience. This aura of potential extends from Sweeney’s own creative practice and concerns, which embrace diversity and emphasize plurality over singularity. When I asked Sweeney what his desired audience was for Santos Party House was, he replied:
As far as a desired audience, what’s always most exciting to me is to reach an almost impossible level of diversity under one roof—in age, race, nationality, style, sexuality, you name it. This is why we started the club, and this is what we have been able to achieve with Parties like 718 Sessions with Danny Krivit, Spencer’s GIFS, our DJ Harvey residency, and our various Metal, Death Metal, Hard Core, Hip Hop, Punk, Salsa, Sissy Bounce, Main Floor House Gay Circuit Parties. Everything, we love it all. It’s all life and it’s all creative.
The key words here are “ . . . what’s always most exciting to me”—a phrase that could serve as a kind of shibboleth for Sweeney’s aesthetics, as revealed through Santos. This is not a passive frame of mind where anything goes. Rather, the locus of interest—say, what one might happen to attend to most at a Death Metal show or an installation event—binds itself to the development of a greater organizing process, within which experiential forms can emerge in their own particularity.
For this reason, Sweeney’s work with Santos is like a contemporary form of pop art: it can readily incorporate topical subjects, commodified images, and signature hallmarks from across practically every genre. Yet simultaneously, whereas pop was absorption in spectacle, referencing a cold nihilistic distance between consumer and image, Sweeney’s Santos is experiential: his work disrupts the fixity of images, making passive contemplation next to impossible. An aesthetic ever in situ, the experiential quality of Sweeney’s work dissolves spectacular absorption in images and veers instead toward intersubjective forms, under the aegis of a communal space where a multiplicity of persons can come together. The ethical implications of such an aesthetic gesture toward an egalitarian understanding of the creative act:
Creativity comes in all forms. It can comment on all things: joy, sadness, love, hate and misery, anything. You can be at a Death Metal show watching the band Hate Eternal play. You might turn to your friend or someone you have never met before and say, “Man I love this band!” Then you are experiencing and sharing the love and joy of creativity.
The elements that Sweeney’s aesthetics employ never connect in an arbitrary, passive, or conceptually limited way. Impulses and feelings can discover their own purposive space within the enclave of a designedly permissive structure. The very fact that Sweeney creates multimedia work is in itself highly significant in this respect; it suggests the reciprocity of influence between things normally kept apart. The sensation of disparate genres being somehow “connected” characterizes Sweeney’s style more clearly than anything else—
The creative act flows through a number of different channels. Sometimes it travels musically, sometimes visually; sometimes musically, visually and socially. This is how it happens at [Santos]. You have the music, you have the visuals, light, decoration, the creation of different environments, and then you have the social interaction and behavior of the people inside of the club. Dancing, clowning, laughing, talking. When I create music, art, or both together in a space, the same sensitivities are at play. This is when I follow my creative instincts and apply them to the space and materials around me. I believe it is all connected.
Redefining what is considered art through participatory social involvement, the thematic of creative work focuses on groups in formation—and Santos Party House comes to function as an intellectual structure that can embrace a multiplicity of genres ever in flux. Emphasizing experiential development over the fixity of salable images, the unreality of mere spectacle is cast aside, and the creative energy specific to art-making is translated into action directly. This experiential awakening of groups is a corollary of Sweeney’s multimedia aesthetics, and signals an ethos where art can enter into the world, recreating life in its wake. For Sweeney, a crucial ingredient in this transformation is love:
Yes, love is the most important thing. The most important thing that you could hope for in life is to find yourself in a situation where you are at least enough at peace to feel compassion for another person. If you are able to act upon that love or compassion, you are engaged in the highest form of creativity.
What’s significant about Sweeney’s work with Santos is what’s significant about multimedia art in general: the overreaching of one medium (or genre) into another, creating a context where disparate media extend as well as illuminate each other. A domestic example of this is the music video, where the images presented seem to explain what the music is all about, or at least comment on aspects of the music. With Sweeney, however, whose multimedia aesthetics relate to social settings, to experiential forms involving intersubjectivity, the explication involves nothing less than a demonstration of how art and life overlap—in such a way that life is not sacrificed to art, or vice versa. The collapse of the distinction between art and life is what Sweeney ultimately aspires to in his work. Santos is an exponent of this, a kind of living installation that extends from the drama of historic action:
My dream space is the planet earth right now actually . . . the ultimate creative space is again right here. I feel very fortunate to be alive. I am very grateful for this life and will fight to remain creative and make others happy. We are very fortunate to be comfortable enough to take the time to write, think about, and discuss the nature of creativity. This is a true luxury. We are very fortunate.
Jeffrey Grunthaner is a poet, reviewer, and art critic. His poetry has most recently appeared in Revolutionesque and Unlikely 2.0, and his critical writing has most recently appeared in The Faster Times and Art Comments. He is also a poetry editor for The Brooklyn Review, the literary magazine affiliated with Brooklyn College’s MFA programs. He lives and hurts in Brooklyn.