I once attended a Q&A with Chris Kraus, the author of I Love Dick. She was promoting her biography of Kathy Acker, a work she undertook at least partially because she didn’t like Acker. It struck me as a particularly selfish act. But here I am choosing to write a review of the TV show based on her book, at least partially because my curiosity was piqued by my dislike of her. Writers are monsters.
It’s this kind of fascination born from irritation that’s at the heart of Jill Soloway’s new Amazon series, I Love Dick, based on Kraus’ book. Kathryn Hahn plays Chris Kraus, a mediocre filmmaker who hangs all her sexual obsessions and frustrations on Dick (Kevin Bacon), a land artist who runs an eponymous institute in Marfa, Texas. The more Dick dismisses Chris, the more she weaponizes her desire. Caught between them is Sylvere, Chris’ husband who has been invited to Dick’s Institute to study the Holocaust. Chris travels to Marfa to get Sylvere settled, but when her film is taken off the program at the Venice Film Festival, she winds up staying there and stewing in her anger and horniness.
Chris writes letters to Dick, waxing philosophic on how much she wants to fuck him and how his apparent indifference to her only gets her hotter. It’s a position I don’t understand. I know people (usually women, when portrayed in media) do become attracted to people that neg them. Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock is one example, jumping Kenneth when he insults her and moaning “Oh, daddy! Go on, keep talking. What else don’t you like about me?” But it’s not a mindset I understand, nor one I’m super interested in inhabiting for eight episodes. But I Love Dick expands beyond this pathological obsession and into more cerebral territory.
Surrounding this lust triangle are the other fellows at Dick’s Institute. There’s Toby, an art historian studying the morphology of hardcore pornography, Paula, the put-upon curator at the Institute’s gallery, and Devon, a local nonbinary artist/fuck-up. It’s these satellite characters’ stories that both appealed to me more and rounded out one of I Love Dick’s main theses. Art is selfish. It’s piracy. It has the potential to disturb or even hurt those closest to you, so you’d better fucking mean it.
The other thesis of I Love Dick is that men are super uncomfortable with being a focus of the Female Gaze. For centuries, men have been making art about naked women and their desire to have sex with those naked women. These naked women have been denied the interiority of the men who created them. The men in I Love Dick are deeply disturbed when confronted with women’s actual thoughts and feelings. Imagine you’ve been sitting on a couch for approximately 1000 years, when suddenly that couch gets up and speaks. What’s more, the couch wants to have sex with you. Boring men have argued that all of civilization is a product of frustrated sexual desire. A man creates to impress women. I Love Dick flips that “all art is created from lust” idea. Women make art not even necessarily to seduce men, but to claim space. Their art announces their right to exist.
Framing many episodes are clips of video art by women artists. Motifs and concerns from the videos bleed into the episodes proper, situating I Love Dick even more in the world of contemporary art. The real Dick from Chris Kraus’ novel was Dick Hebdige, a cultural theorist and author of Subculture: The Meaning of Style. It’s significant that Kevin Bacon’s Dick is a land artist hailed as a Great Man in the art world. He thinks of something, then gets other (poorer, lesser) men to construct his visions. The show subtly highlights the classism and racism in the art world. A clear line is drawn between the art people in Marfa and the average schmucks who happen to live there. Devon straddles this line, as an artist who is from Marfa and too poor to work on art full time. Devon also straddles the gender divide inherent to I Love Dick. How Devon identifies is left ambiguous. We know they used be named Dolores, but changed it to Devon at some point. We know they present butch, but they’re frequently referred to with female pronouns and lumped into an episode about all the women of Marfa. Devon becomes fascinated first with Chris, then with her letters to Dick. Her raw need lights a fire under Devon, pushing them to work on a new play.
Chris’ lust sets off a quiet revolution in the phallogocentric art world of Marfa. Being objectified unsettles Dick so much that his tough guy/Great Man facade crumbles. Which turns out to be a good thing for everybody, including Dick. An implicit third thesis of I Love Dick is that maybe it’s time to call it a day on men making art – or they should at least cede more of the floor to women and queer people.
The one qualm I have with I Love Dick: not enough dick. We see plenty of naked women, and men in various states of undress. Lots of nipples all over the gender spectrum, and man butt, but no dick. I know Kevin Bacon has a penis. I’ve seen it in Hollow Man and Wild Things. His butt shot in this show is downright demure in comparison. In Kevin Bacon’s dick’s oeuvre, I Love Dick is like Vin Diesel’s Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. You never actually see him, but you feel his presence. I want Vin Diesel in the Fast and the Furious series: constantly on screen and extremely veiny. That would be equality.