Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Her Life Among The Deathworks

Catherine Opie, Philip Rieff, and a strategy for the end of the world

What does a civilization’s art tell us about its soul? Consider the case of Catherine Opie, a photographer profiled in the current New Yorker Excerpts:

In the course of a thirty-year career, the photographer Catherine Opie has made a study of the freeways of Los Angeles, lesbian families, surfers, Tea Party gatherings, America’s national parks, the houses of Beverly Hills, teen-age football players, the personal effects of Elizabeth Taylor, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Boy Scouts, her friends, mini-malls, and tree stumps. But her most famous photographs are probably two that she took of herself, early in her working life. In “Self-Portrait/Cutting,” which Opie made in 1993, when she was thirty-two years old, she stands shirtless with her back to the camera in front of an emerald-green tapestry, which offsets her pale skin and the rivulets of blood emerging from an image carved into her back with a scalpel: a childlike scene of a house, a cloud, and a pair of smiling, skirt-wearing stick figures. In “Self-Portrait/Pervert,” made the following year, Opie is faceless and topless and bleeding again: she sits in front of a black-and-gold brocade with her hands folded in her lap, her head sealed in an ominous black leather hood, the word “pervert” carved in oozing, ornate letters across her chest.


Really, what Opie liked best about transgressive sex was the way it created a feeling of family. “S/M was all about community for me,” she said one afternoon, sitting in her sunny kitchen in Los Angeles, with its gleaming stainless-steel stove and Heath-tile backsplash. On a bench by the window was a pillow with a needlepoint inscription that read, “Grandmothers are a special part of all that’s cherished in the heart.” Opie, who is fifty-five, smiled wistfully when she recalled that era: “You dress up with your friends; you do things together in the dungeons.” At the time, she was taking photographs of her cohort, with their tattoos and piercings, in formal compositions and vibrant colors that evoked the Renaissance paintings of Hans Holbein. Opie felt that she was creating a portrait gallery of her own “royal family.” There was something not just regal but disarmingly heartfelt in those pictures. As the Los Angeles art critic David Pagel put it, in 1994, “The strangest and most telling quality that Opie manages to smuggle into her images of aggressive misfits is a sense of wholesomeness.”

Opie grew up in the Midwest. She was going to be a kindergarten teacher before she became a photographer. She always wanted to be a mother. “ ‘Self-Portrait/Cutting’ was about longing,” Shaun Caley Regen, Opie’s gallerist since 1993, told me. “It was about an unattainable ideal—two women, a house, whatever it was she felt she couldn’t have—cut into her back.”

She’s so marginalized, othered, and in every way oppressed that she’s on the top of her world:

In the intervening decades, Opie has moved from marginal radical to establishment fixture. In 2008, the Guggenheim devoted four floors to “Catherine Opie: American Photographer,” a major mid-career retrospective that attracted some three thousand people a day. Several luminous shots that Opie took of Lake Michigan hung in the Obama White House. Opie is a tenured professor at U.C.L.A., and sits on the boards of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Andy Warhol Foundation. She earns more than a million dollars in a good year. Recently, when the Smithsonian Archives of American Art gave Opie a medal at a gala on the Upper East Side, the host noted that it was his first opportunity to honor a pillar of the “ ‘Los Angeles leather-dyke community.’ ”

Her father, a Republican from Sandusky, Ohio, was a dirtbag who screwed up his family. It ended like this:

When Opie was sixteen, her parents divorced. “Dad drove my mom to a condo and said, ‘This is where you’re gonna live. I’m keeping the house and the kids,’ ” she told me. “Then my dad remarried immediately—he married this crazy woman, and my brother protected me from her in really nice ways. Like, he put a lock on my bedroom door when he realized she was crazy.” Her brother left to join the Air Force, and her father—less than a year into his second marriage—started having an affair with Opie’s mother, over at the condo. “It’s like a soap opera, I know,” she said. “The whole idea of the family unit was just totally chaotic and completely messed up for me.”

But she pushed onward:

Opie was stumbling toward her own domestic future. In the fall of 1999, she was awarded a fellowship at Washington University, in St. Louis, Missouri. In the two months that she spent there, she became friends with a professor of painting named Julie Burleigh, a single mother from a prominent family in small-town Louisiana. They had just begun to grow close when Opie accepted a job offer from Yale, and moved to New York City. Her life was changing rapidly: she’d decided that she didn’t want to wait any longer to become a mother. “A number of my butch friends were shocked that I was going to get pregnant and have a baby—like, ‘How can you do that?’ ” Opie recalled. “I was, like, why can’t I be butch and have a baby? Why can’t I acknowledge the fact that I’m a biological woman and I have a vagina that can do shit?” She tried five times to get pregnant, using her friend Rodney’s sperm and a turkey baster. “Different dykes would come by the loft, and Rodney would come over and look at gay male porn magazines—then they’d take it in to me in a Russel Wright teacup.”

And now?

The dream of lesbian domesticity that once seemed out of reach—that she once had cut into her back—is now Opie’s reality. She lives with Burleigh in a handsome, spacious house in Hancock Park, with chickens and rabbits in a coop in the back yard. Oliver, who recently turned fifteen, attends a progressive private school, where he has classmates named Aristotle and Theory; three years ago, Burleigh’s daughter gave birth to a son, whom she brings to visit every Sunday.

Read the whole thing.  At the end, she’s talking with a friend about the movie she’s working on now:

“It’s weird,” Opie said after she described the premise of her film. “It’s kind of a piece that’s gonna work better under a Trump Administration.”


“Right,” Taschen said. “Because the world is ending.”


That may not seem like the worst thing to some of us.


What makes Catherine Opie worth discussing is that she is not a marginal figure, but at the pinnacle of the art world. The photography of Catherine Opie is what the late Philip Rieff would have called a “deathwork” — art that deliberately destroys the foundations upon which a society can build a flourishing life. Read this passage from a great piece on Rieff that TAC once published, written by Jeremy Beer:

Rieff evinces more concern about the “triumph of the therapeutic” in his famous book of that name published in 1966. That work opens with the text of Yeats’s “Second Coming”—a sure sign that what follows will not be painted in the sunny colors of American progressivism. Rieff now worried that, though Christian culture had been all but entirely shattered, nothing had succeeded it; there were therefore no extant authoritative institutions whose demands and remissions (the culturally regulated relaxation of those demands) could be internalized, thereby acting to “bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs.” This failure of succession was no accident but rather the explicit program of the “modern cultural revolution,” which was deliberately being undertaken “not in the name of any new order of communal purpose” but for the “permanent disestablishment of any deeply internalized moral demands.”

This revolution posed an unprecedented problem, for at the heart of Rieff’s theory of culture lies the insight that all cultures consist precisely in a “symbolic order of controls and remissions.” Lacking such an order, one gets not a new culture but rather a kind of anti-culture. For that reason, in Rieff’s view, therapeutic ideology rather than communism represented the revolutionary movement of the age. Communism inverts religion but accepts, at least in theory, the idea of a social order that embodies certain moral commitments; therapeutic society, on the other hand, stands both against all religions and for all religions. That is, it refuses to engage religious claims on their own terms, to take them seriously as a “compelling symbolic of self-integrating communal purpose.” It represents the absolute privatization of religious doctrines, absorbing them as potentially useful therapies for individuals. “Psychological man,” remarks Rieff, “will be a hedger against his own bets, a user of any faith that lends itself to therapeutic use.”

Indeed, compared to the emergent Western rejection of all “moral demand systems,” Rieff notes that communism was, in a certain sense, conservative. Americans, on the other hand, had been released by the anti-cultural doctrine of the therapeutic to be “morally less self-demanding,” aiming instead to enjoy “all that money can buy, technology can make, and science can conceive.” (This comparison helps explains why self-publicists such as Christopher Hitchens have been able so easily to “switch sides” in our culture wars; their fundamental allegiance is to the globalization of therapeutic remissiveness, and they realize that that goal is now best served by Western secular liberalism.)

The loss of “corporate ideals,” of any communally recognized symbols of authority or guides to conduct, as well as “the systematic hunting down of all settled convictions,” began to trouble Rieff, who knew that such an anti-culture had never before existed and was likely not even possible. Still, at this point Rieff was willing to entertain the notion that this attempt to build civilization on the foundation of psychic well-being rather than a system of moral demands (which he would later call “interdicts”) and their circumstantial remissions might work. He even concludes his book with the claim that “the new releasing insights deserve only a little less respect than the old controlling ones.” It is not clear whether he is being coy.


Rieff develops a typology of three “worlds” or cultures that is also a chronology. The first world is essentially that of pagan antiquity; it is no longer psychologically or sociologically available except in pastiche form as a consumer item, and its leitmotif is fate. The second world is essentially rooted in Jerusalem but—Rieff concedes, so far as it is inclusive of the form of Judaic law—also includes Christianity. Its leitmotif is faith. The third world is that which is now being born; it is the anti-culture of the therapeutic, which has come into being through the “deathworks” mounted against second-world interdicts by such third-world figures as Freud, Joyce, Duchamp, and a host of others. Its leitmotif is fiction.

Hitler, too, is a third-world figure, a proponent of the anti-cultural “clean sweep, the brush aimed first and foremost at the kingdom of priests and holy nation, however members in that kingdom may rebel against their membership.” Media notices of My Life among the Deathworks have, predictably, focused on Rieff’s scorn for multiculturalism, feminism, and “homosexualists.” But what is most striking is the extent to which Judaism, Hitler, the Shoah, and the author’s Auschwitz-surviving grandfather occupy the almost too visible foreground. The price of therapeutic freedom, Rieff suggests, insofar as it consists in the removal of all authoritative interdicts, those delicately constructed checks against human evil, has already been incalculable.

“My grandfather told me, in Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, that he wanted to go to Svad, Israel, the town of his great teacher, Isaac Luria, to die. America was to him a land without grace, and he could not die amid such gracelessness,” recalls Rieff near the end of the book. “My grandfather saw this de-created world coming; he thought that Hitler had won in some way. The evidence surrounded him: the gross sexuality of the young, the aestheticization of my father’s Judaism… ” Has Hitler really “won in some way”? Perhaps the question is not as insane as it sounds.

“The commanding truths are Nots,” Rieff reminds us, one last time. “As my grandfathers well knew, before permission there must be prohibition.” These are the fruits of Philip Rieff’s decades-long pieties of silence: to become a “remembrancer,” in his terms, of the past, one man’s lifework against the deathworks mounted by modernity against all sacred orders. 

An aged and great scholar recently said to me, “I am on my way out. I am glad I’m not going to be around to see what’s coming. But I grieve for my grandchildren.”

What a lot of people don’t get about the Benedict Option is that I don’t propose it as a form of cultural protest, a pious therapy, or a program of moral rigorism. I propose it as the only thing that believing Christians (and, I suppose, others) can do to hold on to sanity and stability as this culture of death continues its long, slow suicide. Its death rattle is going to shake us to the foundations.

People keep thinking that the current order can be saved. On what do they base this, given that the past century, at least, has been devoted to destroying the conditions under which ordered life is possible — most basically, the belief in sacred order? It is impossible to know at this stage which things, precisely, we should do for the sake of cultural survival, but it is essential to understand what is happening, what is going to happen, and that we need to start working together to prepare, spiritually and otherwise, for a very difficult future.

UPDATE: Rare footage of Your Working Boy confronting the horror of the abyss:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSjUL2j-Gnw&w=525&h=300]



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