Critical Dialog in the Visual Arts
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DM In The End of Art, his wonderful new book, Donald Kuspit argues that art is over because
it has lost its aesthetic import. Art has been replaced by "postart," a term invented by
Alan Kaprow as a new visual category that elevates the banal over the enigmatic, the
scatological over the sacred, cleverness over creativity." Donald, what do you really
mean when you say, "the end of art?"
DK , . . this thing called "fine art" came into existence in the 18th century and Kant is a key figure in that and Reynolds is a key figure. And it had a run and I think the run is ending in a kind of endgame situation . . . Mainly that you don't aim for something called "the aesthetic" or however you want to articulate or discuss that; what you aim for is dealing with everyday experience and making some kind of statement in relation to that. And that's what I think this postart does. . . . This disjunction with one part thrown away is the end of art. It's not anything that's imposed from the point of view that philosophy throws away art, discards it--nothing like that. I think art itself is self-destructive.
DM For example, I don't know if you all saw The New York Times this week but the winner of the Turner prize is a self-described non-artist. He won this $50,000 prize with a video "Memory Bucket," a film about Texas, about Waco and Crawford. His name is Jeremy Geller. He has had no art training whatever ...
DK (Rachel Whiteread) was a candidate for the Turner prize--that's the prize for the best young artist in England at the time, and there was a rock group that offered a prize double the Turner prize for the worst artist at the time. I am telling you the truth. She won both. (Laughter). She was very embarrassed. I think this suggests, shall we say, the whole ambiguity of, "What are we talking about when we talk about art?" anymore and I think her piece is interesting in the whole history of modernism, don't get me wrong, and I think from her to this character is downhill all the way. And between them was this guy who had a light switch that went on and off.
DM Madonna awarded it . . .
DK Madonna awarded it and that's what got all the press. I think art right now--let's use this word "art" in many, many quotation marks. It's part of a seam and it is torn between trying to make a socially relevant ideological statement, sort of--get the message out there. Art, whatever that is the platform for getting the message out there and there is less and less of it, so just "get the message." Ideological message. Closed belief system, I don't care what belief system it is, and then, on the other side, you have the celebrity culture. You may recall that it was in the 80s, there was this thing going around, this statement that the artist was the rock star of the 80s. I would say that the dealer is the rock star of the 90s and the collector is the rock star of 2000s. Whatever. If you look at the market results you see what it is about, so I think frankly, just to deviate a little bit, a lot of it is the social excitement and still, this guy represents maybe the ultimate in the leftover étonner le bourgeois, "Let's shock them." I don't think there is anything really shocking anymore. Maybe I'm wrong.
DM The thing that makes you unique as a critic is your psychoanalytic approach.
DK Partly. Formal issues as well.
DM Formal issues as well. Which brings us to Duchamp. You did quite a wonderful slice-up job of him in your book. I enjoyed it tremendously. We like Duchamp around here. We talk about him a lot.
DK Well yes. . . Duchamp has an important cultural significance. There is this whole issue of art history becoming part of cultural history and we now speak of visual culture--that gets rid of the word art in there and maybe it is just as well. . .
He's a complicated figure. He's a brilliant mind. I think a lot of what he says is very important. I think his essay in '46, "The Creative Act" is a fantastic essay, where he talks about the critic as collaborator with the artist in completing it, however, for him-- it is very interesting to read that essay again carefully. A lot of people looked at it recently and he says interestingly that the artist is a psychological dimension. He talks about this as a kind of unconscious expression in that he actually uses the words "transference." He talks about transference and transferential effect. So he was aware of Mr. Freud and company.
The problem is, he began to think, as I see it, that you could have this transferential effect with any object, which may be good, but that didn't necessarily make it art. And I must remind you that a lot of his stuff--a lot of the "readymades" which are now more "made" than readymade, not so found, that a lot of these were throw-away pieces, meant to be an example and then, later when he became famous, they were wanted for a museum and they didn't have any so they made multiples for the money.
So, I think he's a complicated figure but I think his effect has been extremely pernicious because it has led to post-artists imagining that all you have to do is take an object, append a text to it and you've got something significant, and I don't think that's the case.
DM Is Andy Warhol his direct descendent?
DK . . . he understood mass production, and he became a certain personality, a certain character, you know. He had all these parasitic types around, a sort of pseudo-cultural thing. Actually, I think he understood something even more important, the first artist who got it that art was part of capitalism now. He was the first capitalist artist to see himself, to call himself a business artist. Some people think of it as a joke but it is not. He began as a commercial artist and he said things. He said, "I went through this thing called art." That his own terms. As the business artist again, he said the hardest thing was making money. He may be right about that. But that doesn't make it art. It's the art of making money, something like that. So he's an interesting social character but I fail to understand, except for social reasons why he has such prominence . . .
DM You oppose political art. But can art be both political and aesthetic?
DK Oh sure. Take a look at Goya.
DM Specifically ideological art.
DK Ideological is the term I prefer. I think there is a lot of art that has an ideological ax to grind--the feminists, black power art, whatever you want. It's all fine as long as there is ideology around. You can call it what you want, but I don't think that in itself makes for art. Okay, so you look at Goya's disasters of war, look at Otto Dix's lithographs, etchings of trench war, which I think are the greatest things of the 20th century dealing with war. They are "political" but they are making a general human statement but they are not political in that they are "let's be red state or let's be blue state." They are looking at a certain situation and transforming it and that transformation brings out certain aspects of it that you wouldn't get otherwise. I'm not particularly opposed to it but I have seen art that I would call ideological, I don't want to mention any names, that I don't think has any artistic substance, a fair amount of ideological substance--the message is old. It's stale, ideological clichés. Right? We know it. We're all for women's rights, we're all against racists. Okay, what else is new?
DM There's an example of electronic love recently . . .
DK . . .An artist was commissioned by a collector to go to a hotel room with him and videotape having explicit sex and then he pays her and leaves and that's it.
DM Call it a postartist.
DK A photographer, a filmmaker . . .
DM Hold on, what else is new. I may not call it art. I may call it prostitution.
DK Well, it's interesting. There is a wish for people to be exhibited, a very primitive wish to exhibit, very narcissistic. . . You point out something important. Kaprow was one of the first people to talk about electronic sex, the whole voyeuristic thing. Quite amazingly in the 60s already, I forget the exact quote there. And he as aware that we were entering this sort of voyeuristic world where people want to be looked at and look, I guess, and that may be the last thing left. You have no power otherwise in the world, you just look, look at television. You can't change anything but you can look.
DM . . .would you tell the Damian Hirst garbage story?
DK . . . Damian Hirst had a show at Eyestorm Gallery. There was a VIP preview of the show. The show consisted - do you know all about this?--the show consisted of ashtrays, with cigarette butts in it, real cigarette butts, real ashtrays, coffee cups with junk, paint in them. All things like leftover studio stuff, or like the studio, so all the fancy people came to it and that night, the cleaning man came in and he bagged the whole thing and he threw it out! (Laughter) I'm telling the truth. There's an exact quote there.
I hope he was never fired. The article didn't mention that because I thought that was completing the work of art. But anyway the next day the director comes back to the gallery. She's upset and she tells the interviewer from the Times, my god, that's a six-figure Damian Hirst work! It's worth a fortune. We're all upset but Damian thought it was great. He laughed!" Of course, he wanted the art in the street. It went back to the street. It was garbage to begin with and it went back to garbage. Okay.
No transformation. The transformation was the bagging of it. I assume those bags were picked up and are in some collector's collection now. And so forth.
So, he has generated some amount of momentum, some sensationalism, from the first time he showed the formaldehyde shark, which was paid for by Saachi. And the rest is economic and social history. Quite interesting. So Hirst, I would call that yet one more last gasp at dead-end Dadaism.
DM . . . Let's leave the ridiculous and visit the Neo Sublime. A new name for beauty. What do you think about beauty?
DK Well, as I said at dinner, I don't think the Neo Sublime is the same as beauty. I really accept the Kantian distinction between the beauty and the sublime, the two types of sublime. I think that Kant was right on there, amplify it, modify it base it. Beauty always deals with finite harmony, with control, with closure, but there's always something as Francis Bacon the philosopher said, there is always something strange in the proportion of beauty, which I think is a sign of the unconscious, some trace, something not clicking exactly, to make it work. The sublime deals with the infinite.
But what I think is happening is, I'll come at it from a different angle, as you may be aware, scientific research has shown that cross-culturally, that there are universally recognized proportions and harmony of patterns that we regard as beautiful, in all culture, whatever idiosyncratic differences in faces. The New York Times had an article on this on the Science page and this has been studied.
DM You wrote eloquently about Van Gogh and his attitude toward art as religiosity.
DK Yes, Van Gogh is a very special figure. He had two years where, that were very special. I admire the sort of striving, the aspirational element. Of course he really wanted to be a pastor but he was too crazy. It didn't work. He was more religious than the miners. He had difficulty with over-identifying with them but I think he represents a very important moment in the history of modern art, a kind of beacon. He was one of the beacons. Rembrandt was another. And I think the ambition, of the maturity of his ambition, whether every work was great or not, was quite special and does come through and that seems to have been lost although many artists had it in different ways, including the best formalists and that works, through a lot abstract art. I think you can trace it through Hoffman in various versions. And I think we always must remember that art from Day One, from the first people who tattooed themselves, was connected to religion, not this religion or that religion dogma , but a certain religious attitude, or religious feeling, the kind of thing that William James talks about.
DM The spiritual?
DK The spiritual, if you want. I hate the word in English. For me spiritual, in German, weltgeist, which means kind of consciousness, I think spiritual has a double meaning, one leading to the other, spiritual means you are conscious of your own consciousness, how it is working, you are as conscious as you can be whatever there is to be conscious of, whether unconscious feelings or whatever and that opens up a kind of perspective or what another writer calls "marginal freedom" in which you get free of determinisms, to seem to be free of all these determinisms that run us: biological determinism, social determinism. This moment can become a moment of epiphany, to use that term and art can work in that moment.
The other thing I would say is something like this: We are in a capitalistic society. Everything is commodified. There is no way out of that situation. Whatever the complexity of the market. Many, many years ago, Meyer Schapiro, whom I always loved, said, "It is very hard to separate the money value, the economic value of a work of art from its spiritual values. I think we've reached a point where it seems impossible to do it. The money value and the spiritual value. What bothers me about the situation is that the bets that capitalism are placing on art are determining art historical values. And this has driven out any critical discourse about the work.