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Eleanor Heartney WITH PHONG BUI

On a recent afternoon in May, Eleanor Heartney, the independent cultural critic, came by Art International Radio to talk to Publisher Phong Bui about her life and work.

Phong Bui (Rail): While we were at the AICA panel last week, exchanging our views about the various issues that many contemporary critics have had to undertake recently in order to adapt to an increasingly globalized world, I thought that in addition to the collective effort of Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchlol in their Art Since 1900, who, with the year-by-year approach, surveyed all the turning points and breakthrough in Modernism and Post-Modernism in the 20th and 21st centuries. Your last volume Art & Today was rather timely and comprehensive in its focus on a new set of problems that I don’t think the art world has ever experienced before. I know that it featured more than 400 significant artists in 12 chapters. The first two, being “Art & Popular Culture” and “Art & The Quotidian Object” basically look back at the legacy of Warhol and Duchamp and the last two, “Art & Politics” and “Art of Audience,” deal with different ways in which contemporary artists have to communicate the larger world, on both a social and political context, into different methods and approaches. Could you tell us the genesis of the book, and how long it took you to write it?

Portrait of Eleanor Heartney. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Eleanor Heartney. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Eleanor Heartney: It was a magnum opus, which took seven years to write. It was seven pounds for seven years. One pound for each year. It came about because Phaidon, the publisher, had wanted an update of a book they had published about fifteen years ago called Art Today, which was written by Edward Lucie-Smith. So they came to me, and what appealed to me about the project was: first of all, they wanted me to focus on the last 25 years, from the 80s to the present, which was the period that I’d been most actively involved in the art world. Secondly, I could organize it in any way I wanted. So I picked out 16 of what seemed to me significant themes, and in each one I tried to pick out a range of media from various international artists. It was very important to me also that it be a very global book, because globalism had been one of the most significant changes in the last 25 years.

Rail: From my own observations, I do feel that the multiculturalism that arose in the 80s, which as we all know was associated with political correctness and the rise of identity politics, had to do with both cultural and economic aspects of globalism. Hypothetically speaking, though culturally it addresses art as a manifestation of basic human interests, economically it seems tied in with corporate interest and political allegiances. In other words, artists tend to see the world at large, from the inside out, whereas corporate interests see the world as small, from the outside in. This, I would say, inevitably creates a huge conflict of communication, which means that artists are usually put in a position of having to satisfy corporate interests, which is so far removed from their intention. But at the same time we also are aware of the real issue of art being irrelevant, no longer as an isolated phenomenon, pursuing its imperatives or personal ideologies without reference to the outside world. How do you see the polarity?

Heartney: I think globalism is very double-edged. It’s interesting because in the art world, when you say globalization, it tends to be a very positive thing because it suggests this new kind of inclusiveness, which admits different sorts of narratives from different places in the world. But it also of course has this other connotation, certainly on the economic front, which is invested in a variety of aggressive forms of corporatization and homogenization. Not only does it wipe out diversity, it seems to be devoted to making us all into the same sort of consumer. However, for artists, I think they find it both exciting and strange to skate between those two realities when they’re dealing with the global art world.

At the panel last week, which was about art critics and globalization, one of the things that was very clear to most of the panelists was that the explosion of International Biennials over the last three or four years has really been a vehicle for bringing artists from far-flung places and introducing them to the larger art world, which is all good, but each of them requires large amounts of money and has multiple agendas. In some cases there is a hidden political motivation that desires to wipe out some egregious kind of political event from the past. In other cases, it’s simply based on pure economic motivations. Either way, artists who participate in those Biennials are quite aware of the two different agendas, yet they’re also advancing their own agendas. So it becomes very complicated. In my case, I find it very important to figure out, “Why this Biennial, at this place, and at this time?” And then I can go on and look at the individual works.

Rail: To go back to the late 70s and 80s, the name F.A. Hayek, the Viennese economist who wrote The Road To Serfdom (1944) and Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988), somehow loomed quite prominently in the light of Reagan/Thatcher’s political and economic policies. As we knew then, the multiculturalist view had its advantages and its disadvantages. On one hand, there were those who really advocated for and embraced the so-called redemptive “diffusion” from non-Western cultures, which they thought could perhaps replace the old image of the melting pot that allowed differences to be submerged in democracy. Yet on the other hand, you have those who opposed it, who thought it was an anti-Western ideology, and therefore downgraded or undermined U.S. national culture, while raising the status and power of other cultures. Since you have written extensively on the subject, particularly in Critical Condition: American Culture at a Crossroads (1997), which traced the rise of Neo-Expressionism, appropriation, Neo-Geo, and of course multiculturalism, how would you reassess that decade from today’s perspective?

Heartney: You know, writing that book gave me a chance to think about a lot of those issues. The whole multicultural movement, for instance, laid out the groundwork that preceded globalization. On the one hand, it was very much about opening up the art world to these other voices from other cultures and other traditions that had been excluded. But on the other hand there was something about it that often became very militant and very exclusionary, to the point where people were only allowed to express a certain part of their identity. So the notion that we’re all kind of hybrid and made up of many different aspects kind of got lost there. In Art and Today, I have a chapter on art and identity, which I begin with that unitary notion of identity, and by the end I concluded that we’ve moved to a more hybrid notion of identity as something that is much more free-flowing and changing. In terms of the culture war, it had a lot to do with the rise of so-called “identity politics” and the notion that certain groups—non-white, non-male, non-European—were vying for power in the art world.

What was interesting about the whole culture war that rose really in the late 80s and early 90s was that it coincided with the end of the Cold War and the rise of the global market. In so many ways, I think it was a losing battle for the right, but nevertheless one in which they were deeply engaged; and of course looking back now, one that forms the perspective of a year in which we have elected a black president and the nomination of the first Hispanic woman, Sonia Sotomayor, as a Supreme Court justice. I think it’s kind of amazing when you look back to those wars and think that they really felt that they could hold back this tide.

Rail: What was your feeling of about the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] in those years?

Heartney: Well the NEA, you know, became a kind of rallying point for the political and religious right. There was a time when they would comb the lists of the NEA recipients to find out if there was anyone who had any even slightly pornographic or transgressive content in their work. But of course it was big enough for them to use it as an excuse to end grant givings to individual artists, so in that sense, they have won the battle.

Rail: Did September 11th, and its aftermath have any bearing on your next book Defending Complexity: Art Politics and the New World Order?

Heartney: September 11th was such an unimaginable event that changed so many things in our lives. One of the things in particular that I was concerned with in that book, which also overlapped with my other book Post-Modern Heretics: the Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art, finished right after September 11th, was the way in which religion suddenly was on the table in a very significant way, religion being a subject the art world had long ignored or seen it as a purely reactionary force. At any rate, when Serrano’s “Piss Christ” created controversy, the one thing that the right wing and the art world establishment agreed on was that it was an anti-religion work. Whereas, in fact, it wasn’t simply that; Serrano has a much more complicated relationship to religion.

Nevertheless, it became clear that there were certain things we had to pay attention to which we didn’t before, and part of it was the role of religion. Whether we see it for its positive and negative sides or not, religion wasn’t something that we’d put behind us, as some kind of relic of the past. In fact, it became an evermore important and growing force. And within these various religions, there is a great deal of controversy and dissention, and to see it as a monolith is a mistake. I think the political uses of religion, both on our side as well as on the side of those who perpetrated that disaster on September 11th, became more amplified. In both cases, it empowered the people who practiced the fundamentalist versions, which tend to see things as solely in terms of good and evil. And of course that kind of mentality had been guiding the Bush administration, pretty much up till Obama’s election.

Rail: I agree. Anyway, in the first chapter of your book Postmodern Heretics, you use the example of Bernini’s great sculpture, “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”; you point out that the faces of Saint Teresa and the cupid are identical, and that you were shocked by the sexual implication. In thinking of this I remember John Graham, who said that when you look closely at Saint Teresa’s eyes, they’re in fact crossed. It’s as if she is experiencing a religious ecstasy, which he believed is identical with sexual ecstasy. Of course it would make sense considering his obsession with cross-eyed women.

Heartney: Well, the question I asked myself in the book was: why is it that whenever you have a controversy involving an artist—and this was particularly the case during the culture wars—it always turns out that the artist came from a Catholic background? What was that about? Since I was raised Catholic I had a certain sympathy with that issue. And one of the things about Catholicism, as opposed to other forms of Christianity as practiced in America particularly, is that there is this kind of slippage, you know, from the sexual to the spiritual, and to me Saint Teresa totally embodies that.

Rail: Totally [Laughter].

Heartney: In a nutshell, she’s my argument.

Rail: Well, it would be hard for Catholic children to grow up seeing the image of the nearly naked Christ or the image of Mary with her exposed breasts feeding baby Jesus, and not think about sex and the use of the body, which is heavily referenced in contemporary art.

Heartney: Sure. And I think that for artists who grew up in that tradition, as I did, had a certain relationship to sexuality and the body that was very much governed, not just by those iconic images but also by the literature of Catholic devotion, some of which is very sexual. Again, some artists I was dealing with in the book were Serrano, Mapplethorpe, Robert Gober, and Karen Finley. All of them were raised as Catholics and in most cases they had a love-hate relationship with Catholicism, and this is what I think the critics of “Piss Christ’” misunderstood: it wasn’t completely negative. For example, Robert Mapplethorpe used to say that the two most important influences on his childhood and on his artwork were Coney Island and the Catholic Church, and I think you can see that in his work.

Rail: Of course, it’s easier to detect that Catholic feature in some works and not others. It’s more obvious in the case of T.S. Eliot’s poetry and the paintings of Rouault, which compelled Greenberg to consign him to the status of a lesser artist than Cézanne and a few others.

Heartney: Well, you know, it’s not just about Catholics. In fact I’m working now on the very preliminary stages of a new book where I’m going to look more broadly at religion and art. And what I want to do is to focus on certain artists from different religious traditions whose work seems to have nothing to do with that tradition on the surface. But when you look more closely you see that it is really grounded underneath, for example Sol LeWitt or Mierle Ukeles in Judaism—the latter’s been very involved, actually, in her own practice and it comes through in the work. Or Keith Haring and evangelical Christianity. Or Damien Hirst and Catholicism, and so on. One of the things that multiculturalism and feminism both taught us was that we have to look at how certain aspects of who we are as people and how these manifest themselves in our outlook and in our art. And the other aspect of identity, I have been arguing, is religion.

Rail: Of course, it brings us further back to the Sensations Show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999—I mean the Chris Ofili and Rudolph Giuliani ordeal.

Heartney: That was just more grist for my Catholic mill, because Chris Ofili is a practicing Catholic and the whole thing was deliberately framed to look like the old controversy over Serrano’s “Piss Christ.”

Rail: And then it shifted to Pataki attacking the Drawing Center in 2005!

Heartney: Well, since the culture wars have sort of died down, at least around religious issues, it turned into politics. So the whole thing with the Drawing Center was really sad, because it sort of got caught up in the whole fervor after 9/11 of patriotism and positivism, therefore anything critical said of our government would be damaging, threatening our troops on the field. I mean, that was the pretext, which was used as a way to silence people so that they couldn’t be critical. But people had always been critical and always will. Their voices just can’t be shut down.

Rail: Now that we know that you were born as a Catholic, where were you born?

Heartney: I was born in Des Moines, Iowa. And I went to an all-girls Catholic school all the way through high school. I really got a full dose of the whole thing, so by the time I went to college, I realized, “Phew! That’s over!” you know? [Laughter.]

Rail: Which college did you go to and what did you study?

Heartney: I went to the University of Chicago and studied art and philosophy, among other things. And only much later I began to realize that probably even my choice of career, to be involved in visual art, was influenced by my Catholic upbringing.

Rail: Did you realize then that you were going to be a writer?

Heartney: No, I didn’t. I actually was very interested in painting and drawing. In fact, I took some art classes, but I quickly realized that I wasn’t very good [Laughter.].

Rail: How long did that last?

Heartney: Well, it was not that serious, and it ended definitively when I started writing about art. But I was not, certainly, intending to be an art critic. In fact, I wasn’t aware art criticism even existed. This is an odd anecdote—here I am, just a kid from Des Moines, Iowa, I didn’t really know a lot about the larger world. But in my freshman year I got a work-study job showing slides in an art class, which turned out to be conducted by Harold Rosenberg, which was pretty amazing.

Rail: Yeah. He was there, teaching for nearly a decade, from 1967 to 1978.

Heartney: Right. He was really a great lecturer, and I went and read a number of his books after that initiation. Otherwise, I was more interested in philosophy at the time. After graduating, I ended up working as a paralegal for a couple of years and then went back to graduate school in art history.

Rail: Also at the University of Chicago?

Heartney: Yeah. And I have to say, I lived for eight years in Hyde Park, Obama’s neighborhood, which was amazing.

Rail: While in graduate school, was there any particular scholar or writer whose work was important to you?

Heartney: One of the most exciting classes I took was on Medievalism, which fed into my whole Catholic obsession and was taught by Linda Seidel, the terrific Romanesque scholar.

Rail: Who edited Meyer Schapiro’s Romanesque Architecture Sculpture: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures.

Heartney: That’s right. Another one was a class on Frank Lloyd Wright, which was taught by Joseph Connors, who was at one time the Director of Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. I was interested in the political aspects of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work as a kind of social planner and social theorist. So I think those two classes, both of them, pointed the direction towards where my writing eventually would go. Even then, I wasn’t really thinking of being an art critic. My initial intention was to try to break into the museum world, but I simply couldn’t get a job! [Laughter.] I kept applying for all these museum jobs, but no one would hire me. So by default, I fell into doing a little bit of writing, and I just loved it.

Rail: What year are we talking about now?

Heartney: It was right after graduate school when I moved to Minneapolis, so this would have been about 1980, I guess, or ’81. That was when I started writing for the New Art Examiner, the Midwest publication based in Chicago, which was really my education in writing. Derek Guthrie and Jane Addams Allen, the two co-founder/publisher/editors really encouraged me to do very provocative articles, which really fed into what I do now. I was grateful for that opportunity.

Rail: Did you find the transition process from art historical writing to art criticism difficult?

Heartney: Well, sometimes people would introduce me as an art historian, which I am not, although I’m glad that I have this art history background. But my education as a critic really came from looking and writing on my own. Working with deadlines does help to improve the writing.

Rail: When and what compelled you to come to New York?

Heartney: While I was in Minneapolis for a couple of years writing for the Art Examiner, I realized this is something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I also knew I couldn’t make a living at it by staying in Minneapolis. So after some occasional trips to New York, where I crashed at some of my friends’ apartments, I finally came to New York in the beginning of 1983 with $900 in my pocket. It was difficult but very exciting when you’re trying to figure things out.

Rail: How did you get started writing for Art in America?

Heartney: When I first came to New York I was writing still for the New Art Examiner and some other publications from the Midwest. What I did was send out my clips to the four prominent art magazines in New York including Artforum, Artnews, Art in America, and Arts Magazine, and the only one that responded was Richard Martin of Arts Magazine, which was a wonderful magazine, like the New Art Examiner, also sadly gone. Anyway, he was very open to new writers, so I started with him, and eventually parlayed that into Artnews, then eventually into Art in America. But it took a while to get there.

Rail: So you had the whole and full training from Richard Martin to Barbara McAdam and finally to Elizabeth Baker!

Heartney: [Laughter.] Exactly.

Rail: When, in fact, did you begin to write about contemporary art from Asia?

Heartney: What happened was around 1989 I had a Korean friend named Chae who was telling me about all the interesting activities happening in Korea. We in New York didn’t know that much about what was going on in Asia at the time. I was friendly with a curator in Seoul who was putting together a big international show and they were inviting all these older-generation critics to come and he said, “You know, you need somebody younger.” So they invited me and I spent two weeks seeing a lot of stuff which all ended up in my first big article on the contemporary scene in Korea. And up to that point, nobody was writing about Asian art and since I had already written on Korea, I began to travel extensively to Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Japan, and a few other places, and started to do a lot of writing about the differences between each country. That was when I realized that to talk about “Asian art” is almost a misnomer.

Rail: True. So you started writing about contemporary art from Asia in ’89, which strangely coincided with the Tiananmen Square episode.

Heartney: Yeah. While I was in Paris covering the Magiciens de la Terre, which was really the first genuinely global art show in 1989, I remember sitting in a café in front of the Pompidou where the show was, talking to a friend about the Tiananmen demonstration, and how the world was changing. Of course, just a few weeks later, the uprising was suppressed, it’s true: 1989 was a moment of incredible change. Change was in the air, the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall went down, and many other major events took place that same year. It was definitely a new world that we were entering.

Rail: When I think of the image of an unknown man trying to stop the advancing tanks of the People’s Liberation Army on the 5th of June, I thought of the Old Testament image of David vs. Goliath, which never really existed in Chinese mythology or religious belief. For me it signaled a significant and symbolic change in the desire of the Chinese people in wanting the autonomy of the individual, which is quite contrary to their Taoist, Confucist, and Buddhist backgrounds.

Heartney: What did it in the end was not the desire for freedom, but the desire for money. It was capitalism as we all know it. [Laughter.] That was what spawned this huge Chinese art scene. But for sure the Tiananmen episode set things off in a direction we didn’t expect from China.

Rail: Whether we like it or not, free market capitalism—as far as Hayekian economic theory is concerned—is the only practical way to organize modern society, and the only key to economic growth is global information. Of course, it took another decade or more, when China’s economy got bolstered for everything in their art scene to speed up to date. Still I can’t help but to think of the differences between the image of Christ on the cross and the image of Buddha, sitting and contemplating under the Bodhi tree. Perhaps the Western and Eastern notions of anxiety are far different from one another?

Heartney: Yes, very different. Communism did actively reprise those religions and philosophical traditions for so long, that it created this huge void during the Cultural Revolution. This certainly carved in the Chinese people’s psyche, and it’s part of what you see in a lot of the work, where the defining point of their identity is being broken in two: while some artists long to get back to that old way of thinking, others are remotely interested.

Rail: Which brings us right back to the whole issue of how art criticism is useful. I can’t help but think of the wonderful essay that Milan Kundera wrote in The New Yorker magazine about two years ago, called “How We Read One Another,” in which he stated there are two basic contexts in which a work of art can be placed: either in the history of its nation, which we can refer to as the “small” context, or else in the supranational history of its own art, the “large” context. Similarly, provincialism exists as much in the small nations as it does in the large ones. In other words, for small nations, the provincialism is often related to their desire for a distant ideal reality that has little to do with their national literature. Take Rabelais, whose work may be underappreciated in France, but it was never better understood than by Russian writers like Mikhail Bakhtin and Dostoevsky. As for large nations, it usually deviates from their indifference or ignorance to the literature produced by small nations. Not long ago there was a survey done in France where a collective of prominent publishers from all kinds of magazines and newspapers invited 30 or more distinguished intellectuals to vote for the ten greatest books out of one hundred in all the whole history of French literature, and it’s not that surprising Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables came in first, and I can’t remember the order, but Rabelais came after De Gaulle’s War Memoir.

Heartney: That doesn’t surprise me. And sometimes much to the detriment of the small nation. I was very struck by what Kim Levin had said about one of her first trips to Korea and how the critics there ask her, “I have a question for you, do you prefer [Jürgen] Habermas or [Jean-François] Lyotard?” And I thought, that certainly summed up my experience of Korea as well; in a way there was a grasping after a particularly French post-structural theory at that time, as Korea was just attempting to kind of break out and have an international impact. And again I think at times to their detriment, since, sort of half-digested, it didn’t really have much to do with a lot of the work that was being done, and I think for awhile there, for most Korean critics, in order to talk about art, had to use that language. So they might have been better off looking more at what was happening at home than looking to these more powerful father figures in other countries from the West.

Rail: The other thing Kundera talked about in the end of that essay was his rather ironic view of anti-modernism which some may or may not agree with, but which said that up to the 20th century mankind was divided into two groups: those who defended the status quo and those who sought to change it. But now, the world moves so fast that being comfortable with the status quo also means the same thing as being comfortable with history on the move. What he meant was that a person now can be progressive, conformist, conservative and a rebel at the same time. I mean, what are we to make of this strange predicament?

Heartney: It’s good and bad that we are no longer confined so much by those labels. Take what people have been saying about Obama, for example. While the right thinks that he’s this wild radical, the radicals thinks he’s way too centrist and conservative. These labels don’t seem to really mean much, and I think that’s true in the art world as well. I think that’s all to the good. What’s not so good really is not being aware of what the different positions are before you would formulate your own reading. It might just be that a lack of awareness is the problem.

Rail: What are your feelings of the younger generation of artists?

Heartney: You mean the Younger than Jesus show [Laughter.] I’m not so sure that age and demographic is the best subject to put together a show. The only one thing that’s clear from that show is that they’re doing a lot of different things, which is not saying much. I mean, you can make certain generalizations about young artists who are more comfortable with new media and technology. That’s one of the things everyone seemed to say about the show, that the New Museum has always adopted and sampled themes from popular media and mass culture and had a different relationship to originality. But in terms of trying to come up with a sort of generational mandate with some specific subject, I feel that it’s always more useful to explore the subject rather than just saying, “Well, here it all is! You figure it out.”

Rail: [Laughter.] What’s your insight into the Pictures Generation show at the Met?

Heartney: Although I was aware of the works, which were primarily made during the 70s, when I got to New York in 1983, it was pretty much the end of that generation. However, for some of us who’ve lived through that decade, the show is fascinating, but for the general public, I can’t imagine it’s a very interesting show. [Laughter.] It’s too insular and the issues it deals with are so much of a particular moment, and even the consequences of it. I mean Art in America did a really interesting series of articles that came out at the time of that show. There was a very interesting interview between Laurie Simmons and Marvin Heiferman and one of the things that struck me was that they didn’t have a plan, they didn’t have a theory, and Cindy Sherman has talked about this, too. It wasn’t like they were manifesting this kind of very complicated theory. And then there was also an article about three young artists who see themselves as followers of the Pictures generation. They were full of theory. I just thought the contrast was really interesting. [Laughter.]

Rail: One last question to tie up with your perpetual fascination with Catholicism: What do you think of Sister Wendy Beckett?

Heartney: I have to say she’s great. She goes along with exactly what I’ve been talking about in my Post-Modern Heretics book because she lingers over the sensual naked bodies of the various people in the Renaissance paintings. There’s a wonderful interview between her and Bill Moyers where he was trying to get her to say, you know, don’t your fellow nuns find some of the things you’re looking at kind of upsetting. And she said, “Well, I’m a Catholic, and I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with any part of the human body.” And I think she totally exemplified what I’ve been thinking about in art and Catholicism.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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