The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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MAR 2014 Issue
Art In Conversation

FRAN LEBOWITZ with Phong Bui

Portrait of Fran Lebowitz. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Fran Lebowitz. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Fran Lebowitz and I met several years ago at a lively dinner at the home of our mutual friends, painters David Novros and Joanna Pousette-Dart. While we’ve occasionally ended up smoking outside of one social function or another, I had never had the opportunity to sit down and have a lengthy conversation with Fran about her life and work until Eugenie Dalland, editor of Riot of Perfume, recently asked me to. The following is an excerpt from Lebowitz’s four-hour visit to the Brooklyn Rail’s headquarters.

Phong Bui (Rail): I laughed out loud in Martin Scorsese’s Public Speaking when you spoke of a woman behind the counter at 3 a.m. in a 24-hour Duane Reade near Columbus Circle, who told you that your favorite brand, Marlboro Lights, was on sale, and that she should charge more, not less, for an addict like you.

Fran Lebowitz: Why would cigarettes be on sale? Cigarettes are a drug. Heroin was never on sale. No one goes out at 3 a.m. to buy apples. You go out at 3 a.m. to get a drink, to get drugs, or to get cigarettes, because you need to get fixed desperately.

Rail: So true. Do you have a clear memory of when you first smoked?

Lebowitz: Yes, I do. I was 12. I was at the movies with a girlfriend of mine, whom I am still friends with. I even remember the movie, which was called Jason and the Argonauts, at the less nice of the two movie theaters in Morristown, New Jersey, where I grew up. Movie theaters then were quite elaborate. They used to be called “movie palaces,” and the ladies rooms were very big and had sofas. Just before the movie started we went to the ladies room and there were two other girls there and they were smoking. I was pretty shocked, I have to say. They both happened to be very tall—they looked older than me, even though they were my age. And they said, almost at the same time, “Do you want a cigarette?” And I just said, “Yes”—I hadn’t even thought about it. And I took the cigarette.

Rail: And it tasted good right away?

Lebowitz: Yes. This is the thing, I always tell this to kids, even if they don’t ask me: The thing you love right away, don’t do it, because that’s the very thing that’s going to be your addiction for the rest of your life. Which is unlike with most kids, the first time they smoke cigarettes, they don’t really like it because it makes them cough. I really don’t believe in the theory of genetic addictions, that you’re either born an addict or you’re not. I don’t happen to think that food or sex are addictions, because they both are natural desires. An addictive substance is something that if you never did it, you’d never want it. If you never smoked a cigarette, you’d never want a cigarette. If you never took heroin, you’d never want heroin. If you never took a drink of alcohol, you’d never want it. But food, from the second you’re born, you want to eat. The same thing with sex: the minute you discover it you want to experience it again, but both are not addictive.

Rail: Well, your smoking habit reminds me of Zeno, protagonist in Italo Svevo’s La coscienza di Zeno, who remembers, just like you, the first time he smoked a cigarette as a child.

Lebowitz: As you can imagine someone gave me that book for the same reason, and I read it years ago.

Rail: And have you tried quitting?

Lebowitz: Never.

Rail: Unlike Zeno, who tried to quit relentlessly.

Lebowitz: I never tried to quit. Not even once. I don’t know any other smokers who didn’t try to quit. I know smoking is bad for you; it’s not that I haven’t heard this. If you ask me, “Would you like never to have smoked?”—yes, of course. But also stopping smoking, after you’ve smoked a long time, is not the same thing as never smoking. Generally, people want you to think once you’ve quit it’s like you never smoked ever, but that’s not true. I mean you may have forgotten you did it, but your body remembers.

Rail: Like what Max J. Friedländer said, “It’s easier to change your worldview than the way you hold your spoon.”

Lebowitz: That’s true.

Rail: I read your book Social Studies yesterday again for the second time since the first time I read it in college. I felt the labor that went into the four categories: “People,” “Things,” “Places,” and “Ideas.” Each was written with different tempos, textures, content, among other things. But it’s a big shift from the concise summation about people’s similarities in the essay “People,” for example, to the “Four Greediest Cases: A Limited Appeal.” I thought your description of Angela de G.’s apartment at the East River co-op was so vivid. And the devastation that Leonard S. had to go through with the loss of his lover, half of his wardrobe, his money, his portable T.V., and above all the exquisite little Ingres drawing was both pathetic and funny at the same time. I have a feeling they take much longer to write than their deceptive simplicity suggests.

Lebowitz: Except for “Notes on Trick,” which was never published anywhere because no one would publish it—that was included in Metropolitan Life—every single one of those stories and essays were written in one night.

Rail: Seriously?

Lebowitz: Yes. Not because I’m a fast writer, but because I never would write unless I had a deadline. I would, in general, start like at, you know, 11 p.m. or 12 a.m., and I would finish at like 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. This is the thing: being young doesn’t just mean you look better. You actually are better, physically. You are faster. You think faster. You can concentrate better. I’m certain that I couldn’t do that now. I also don’t think I take things as seriously as I did then. Now I don’t feel any pressure to write. I could if there was a Nazi with a gun at my head. I think writing for me has always been a matter of fear. Writing is fear and not writing is fear. I am afraid of writing and then I’m afraid of not writing. Also, I don’t know how to type, so the second I finished writing my essay by hand I would call my friend, Marc Balet, who was then the art director of Interview, because he knew how to type. I would go to his house with coffee and a danish, and I would read it to him and he would type it. And then I would go to proofing and give it to them by early afternoon.

Rail: With one condition: No one could ever edit your work.

Lebowitz: Right. I also kept a copyright, which no one did. But of course, if you look at those old issues of Interview, there wasn’t that much writing in them. So I pretty much had the place to myself from a writing point of view.

Rail: I know that you often say that you don’t have a particular favorite writer, so I won’t bother, but all of us have been taken to some other place altogether by the sheer power of a story. I remember in Toni Morrison’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1993, she said that the first sentence of our childhood that we remember is the phrase: “Once upon a time.” Well, in her case it was an invented fable of a blind woman and a bird, both being metaphors for writing. The blind woman was a practiced writer, and the bird was language. Both had to do with aspects of Beloved and the idea of transgression. What was the first book you read that took you away to that different space or place like it did for Morrison?

Lebowitz: The second I learned to read in first grade, when I was 5, I preferred it to life. And I still do. And the book was A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, which was almost every child’s favorite book. I liked to be read to when I was little but as soon as I learned to read I preferred to read by myself. And I would say that the first time I ever read and finished a whole book in a day was Nancy Drew, which was one of my mother’s books from the ’30s. I spent lots of time in the library because I just loved reading. Toni once said to me that she loved to write. Now, I have to tell you that my general experience of life is that writers who love to write are bad writers, okay? But Toni is a great writer. So I said, “Why do you love to write?” And she said, “Because otherwise you’re stuck with life.” So I thought that’s a lucky thing for Toni, and it’s a lucky thing for people who read Toni. But unfortunately for me, the thing I decided was better than life was reading. No matter how happy or unhappy your childhood was, reading is more interesting. Your environment is less interesting than reading. Maybe some children grew up with very interesting, stimulating environments, but most don’t. I certainly didn’t. I grew up in a very conventional, small-town environment, which was not that interesting, so reading was the whole world to me.

Rail: Perhaps your upbringing was conventional, but your story was not. I mean, you were expelled from school for, as you referred to it, “nonspecific surliness,” and never went to college. Instead, you went to New York when you were 18 in 1968, which was the most intense, exciting time in New York, because it was the height of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and second-wave feminism, among other things. You drove a cab only just enough to pay the rent and buy food. Otherwise, the intention was to hang out in bars, smoking and talking about the history of art and literature. So I’m wondering whether you were able to read at all during that period?

Lebowitz: I would say during that period I read the least, mostly because of what you’ve just described of the political and social climate of the late ’60s, which was an exciting time to be in New York. Like most people who had very unhappy adolescences, the second I moved to New York I wasn’t unhappy. Also, we lived in horrible places, one after the other, especially after the two months I stayed at the Martha Washington Hotel, which was a hotel for women; it was the opposite of the fancy Barbizon.

Rail: Which was on the corner of Lexington and 63rd Street.

Lebowitz: Yes, where the rich girls went and stayed. I remember when I moved out of the hotel I basically lived on the floors of my friends’ apartments. I would even go to Boston and sleep on the floor in the dormitory of a few friends from high school who were going to college in Boston. I didn’t really have my own apartment probably until I was 20.

Rail: How did you survive in those days?

Lebowitz: People paid me to write their papers.

Rail: Where was your first apartment?

Lebowitz: It was on West 4th Street, between Gay and 12th. The apartment was tiny, and the rent was $121.78 a month, which was four times as much than the ones in the East Village. But unlike the East Village in those days, which was full of crime, the West Village was safe because it was gay.

Rail: Whom did you first meet when you came to the city?

Lebowitz: I didn’t know anyone. In fact, when I told my parents I was moving to New York, my mother said, “But we don’t know anyone in New York.” I thought she meant that I wouldn’t have any friends, so I said, “I’ll make friends.” But she meant you had to know people to get jobs or, in fact, anything. I always used to say, the people I knew around my age who came from outside New York generally succeeded in achieving their goals more than the people I knew who were born in New York. And I always thought that was because the people who were born in New York knew how hard New York was. But the people from outside had no idea. So there’s something to be said for that type of ignorance. Because you’ll try to do things that someone who really knows how things work will say, “Forget it. You’ll have no chance.” And so I think not knowing I had no chance was very helpful to me. I came here with no money, no skills, not even a high school diploma. I didn’t know how to type, which was the only job that girls could get. I had no connections. And I think that was very helpful to me. People now always say, “Oh, New York was so cheap then.” It wasn’t. New York has always been more expensive than any other place.

Rail: That’s true.

Lebowitz: Even when the city was bankrupt in the ’70s it was still too expensive for most people I knew. At one point, my parents also said to me, “If you will take classes at a school, we will pay for that.” So I took I think two courses at the New School, one on poetry with Diane Wakoski and one on sociology with Ernest van den Haag. Anyway, I picked up the Voice one Wednesday morning and looked up a job listing, and one said something like: EVERYTHING FOR EVERYBODY. That was the ad with a guy who had an Irish name and a phone number. So I called this number and he told me to come to his apartment, which I did. It was on Bank Street, and it was a little white room with a single bed and a crucifix hanging on the wall, and maybe a chair. He was one of these guys who always had all these different ideas and one of his ideas was how to use the Village Vanguard, the legendary jazz club—which during that time only opened at nighttime—during the daytime, say 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. So he eventually made a deal with Max Gordon, the owner, and that was what he did. At night you could still come and hear Monk, Mingus, and many other jazz legends who still played there. But if you walked in there at two in the afternoon it could be a folk singer performing, or a poet reading. In fact, in addition to all sort of jobs and errands I did for him, I actually read my poetry there.

Rail: Cool. I never knew you wrote and read poetry.

Lebowitz: Oh yes. Once, after one of my readings, some guy who happened to be in the audience, came up to me and said, “I am one of the editors who decides the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. Would you submit your poems?” So I said, “Yeah, sure.” Later, he called up and said, “This can’t be the same poetry that you read.” And I realized that I was bad at writing poetry, just great at reading it.

Rail: Did that damage your self-esteem?

Lebowitz: Oh, not to mention that I also walked into Grove Press, which was the place that you wanted to be published at the time.

Rail: Sure thing. Barney [Rosset] was at the height of his publishing prowess.

Lebowitz: Exactly. I walk into Grove Press with the manuscript of the same book of poetry that I brought with me when I came to New York, and I announced myself, “I’m Fran Lebowitz and here’s my book. You’ll be allowed to publish this book.” And when they rejected the book I was flabbergasted. Luckily, no one has seen this book, which was terrible.

Rail: It’s definitely good to recognize that one shouldn’t be easily convinced by one’s inflated sense of belief without inviting others to give you some hints.

Lebowitz: The truth is, very few people are good at writing poetry, just the way very few people are good at writing anything. I believe in talent. I know you’re not supposed to believe in that anymore because you’re supposed to believe if you just work hard you can do anything. That’s how you succeed, maybe. But talent is something you’re born with. You cannot acquire it by working hard, and you cannot lose it by lying around either. I realized at the age of 10 that I was a less than mediocre child-cellist. And my interest in being a less than mediocre anything was zero. I remember when my grandmother bought me a Pablo Casals record. I played it over and over again, and I was stunned because I could hear how great he was. He’s still my favorite cellist. I mean, I love Yo-Yo Ma and others, but I still think Casals is the best.

Rail: Fran, since you’re a first-rate epigrammatist, world famous bibliomaniac, social critic, and prolific humorist, among innumerable other talents, I want your opinion on something: How would you describe the difference between humor and wit?

Lebowitz: It’s a matter of temperature. I think humor is warmer, and wit is colder. Wit is judgment, whereas humor invites some sort of response. It’s like, “Look, isn’t this funny to us?” Or, “Aren’t we funny?” I remember I was working on a book that was meant to contractually replace the novel that I never delivered. And this was maybe seven or eight years ago. While I was working on it, Toni asked to read it and I gave it to her, and even though she knows I’m really not interested in people’s advice for writing, she said, “Do you want to hear what I think about it? Everything is great, but there’s just one tiny thing I think you should change, Fran.” Now this is Toni Morrison, a person who certainly should be listened to. I said, “What is that?” She said, “Here in this sentence where you say ‘you,’ you should say ‘we.’” And so I looked at it and I said, “No. You say ‘we,’ Toni. You are ‘we.’” I said, “I mean ‘you.’” And Toni, in addition to being a great writer, is also loved by her readers. I mean truly loved, because she communicates a tremendous amount of emotionality in her work, which is very easy to do in life if you are emotional, and very hard to do on the page. In other words, Toni’s readers have a relationship to her that is emotional—not to her personally, but to her writing. Toni is also more compassionate than I am. When she criticizes people that we know, like a friend, she almost always says, “but there’s this nice thing about that person.” I’m not that person. I’m just not as nice when I am looking at something from an intellectual point of view. Automatically, there is what I see: great, good, bad, the wrong thing, the dumb thing, the hypocritical thing, or whatever. But that’s what I see.

Rail: When did you discover that you were funny, or say, had a sense of humor? I assume that humor can come before wit?

Lebowitz: You know, I never thought about it because when I was a child, humor was not valued until I graduated from junior high school in the ninth grade, which was the first and last place I graduated from. There was some type of graduation ceremony, without the parents, but there were awards given, and I won this award called “Class Wit.” I was surprised that I won it, but I was also very worried that my mother would find out that I won this. Because my mother used to say to me—starting at the age of 13, 14—“Don’t be funny around boys. Boys don’t like funny girls.”

Rail: Because it’s a threat to the boys!

Lebowitz: First of all, my mother was wrong. Boys do like funny girls. Girls like funny girls. You can’t imagine what girls were told when they were young. Almost every girl conventionally was taught when she got to a certain age—13, 14—what to do: “When you’re talking to a boy, do not talk about yourself. Ask him about himself. Boys don’t want to hear girls talk about themselves.” This is true. And you know what? Boys absolutely do prefer to talk about themselves. This persists until they die.

Rail: Weren’t you published in other magazines before Interview?

Lebowitz: Yes. The first thing I ever published was for this little tiny magazine called Changes—it was a little quarter fold. They were book reviews and I just automatically wrote them in a funny way. I wasn’t thinking about it to be funny or not to be funny. No one told me to be funny, but once people started saying that the things I wrote were funny, I realized I was interested in things being funny, and then I intended to write things that were funny. But before that I never thought about it.

Rail: Especially in New York, where people say what they think of you.

Lebowitz: Definitely. I was around the people who were hanging around Max’s [Kansas City], where being funny was appreciated. It’s the opposite of when I used to sit in the back of classes and make funny remarks, which I was always punished for. But as soon as I got to New York, it was a great thing, being funny. It was like being beautiful.

Rail: Did reading Oscar Wilde make you funnier?

Lebowitz: When I first read Oscar Wilde in the mid-’60s, especially his Epigrams, I thought, “Oh, I can do that, in the same way that I thought, I can drive a cab, because I know how to drive.”

Rail: What about irony and satire, which are very closely tied to humor and wit?

Lebowitz: Well, the thing is that everyone says that, for the last 30 years our culture has been a culture of irony. But it’s not real irony; it’s a kind of ersatz irony. Irony is not just a tone of voice. People will say that Jon Stewart is ironic, but Jon Stewart is a parodist, or he’s a satirist, not ironist. It’s different. Real irony is harsh. This is not an age where any type of intellectual harshness is welcome in our culture. There are two reasons for that. The first one is that most expression has become so personal. Even politics have become so personal. Things that really should be more abstract have become really personal. People respond personally to everything, and people are encouraged to be really solipsistic. Secondly, our culture has become immensely democratic, but the society has become much less democratic. For me, I would prefer the opposite. I’m not saying it used to be perfect; it didn’t. I’m saying that the way it is now, where there’s this idea that everybody’s expression is as good as everyone else’s, is absolutely not true. It’s a lie. You can pretend it’s true, but some people are just simply better writers, better artists, and musicians than others. So the idea that everyone is an artist is an absurd idea, by the way. Okay, there are a zillion more writers, artists, musicians than there used to be, but that doesn’t mean there are higher percentages of good ones than there were in the past. To me, it’s very interesting that there are only two things allowed to be elite in our culture: one is athletes, and the other is soldiers. Everybody can just say, “These are the elite athletes,” which is allowed because it’s not a subjective thing. It’s a fact, like arithmetic. No one argues about arithmetic like, “No, two and two is five.”

In the case of soldiers, their objective is to kill the enemy. And the Navy Seals are the most elite people of the military. No one ever says, “That’s not fair to the bad soldiers.” Because if you are in a war, you want the best soldiers to do those things so you can win the war. No one ever says, “You know this guy who’s like really a bad soldier, but he feels bad, so put him in the Navy Seals.” We no longer have important art critics for a number of reasons—one of which is that it’s politically incorrect to be an art critic. It’s funny, now we live in a world where people think there can be experts on tacos, pizza, and other foods. There are one billion food bloggers and one million food critics. Everyone forgets it’s very easy to know about food. It is not very easy to know about painting. When I was young, the art world was called the art world and not the art market. I didn’t live in the Renaissance, but it’s hard for me to imagine that there were a thousand people saying, “Oh, Michelangelo, I can do that.” There are also very strict ideas about what art was. It’s very easy to break things, but it’s very hard to build them. So before people break things, it would be pretty good if we asked: “What will we put in its place?” But no one ever thinks that. When I was a child, I used to love that on my birthday my parents would let me choose something to do. I always chose to visit the Museum of Modern Art—this was two renovations ago, when all museums were like churches. The second you walked in you could tell it was a very important place. Things here are very important. They also were not very populated. There would be a line at a movie theater. There wouldn’t be a line at the Museum of Modern Art. This whole idea of museums being entertaining places really got started by Tom Hoving.

Rail: The Director of the Met in the ’70s?

Lebowitz: Yup. He really succeeded in getting one billion people come to the Met. I would like to live in a world where one million people love to look at art, but I don’t. No one does, and no one ever will. But they did figure out how to get people into the Met. What this means is people who would actually like to go to the Met, can’t go. It’s a nightmare. Do you remember when the Guggenheim had a motorcycle exhibit? Do you remember when that was?

Rail: Oh, yeah. Thomas Krens, the director at the time curated that show in 1998.

Lebowitz: So I went to the opening and I was in a car with someone and she said, “People love motorcycles, so this will be a huge hit.” I said, “People love free beer. Why don’t they put up a big sign at the Guggenheim, ‘Free Beer!’ They’ll get way more people than if you just have motorcycles, but motorcycles and free beer, combined, believe me, it’s going to be packed!”

Rail: So what did it come to?

Lebowitz: I’m simply saying that the Guggenheim, which to me is one of the most exquisite public buildings in New York, should not be used as a motorcycle showroom. If you want to have a motorcycle show, have it at a convention center. This goes the same for shows of designed clothes in museums. I once saw Diane Vreeland’s first show, The World of Balenciaga in 1973, like a year after the Met hired her as a special consultant. I love clothes, but no matter how good they are, clothes are not art. My definition of art would be the most important definition of art: art is useless. Clothes can be artistic, so can jewelry and furniture. They all have a useful purpose and are functional therefore they are not art. Art doesn’t have a purpose and is not functional. That’s why art has always been regarded as a higher expression of humanity. Why do we all forget it so easily?

Rail: Like you once said in reference to your disapproval of so-called creative writing programs, “It’s not a profession; it’s a punishment from God.” Most people just want to take short cuts, and miss out on the glorious experience of self-challenge. I was blown away by the episode of a salesperson at Sotheby’s, who showed you Mark Twain’s manuscript with scribbled numbers in the margins, and said he was going to have a Mark Twain expert look at them and figure out what they were about. It only took you a second to realize that they were his word counts—not because he was conscious of being paid by the word, but to gauge how many words he was writing per day.

Lebowitz: That was all true. Mark Twain, in addition to being truly a genius, happened to be the most commercially successful writer of his era. He also was very interested in money. He also did the opposite of what almost every writer in the world did: he made a lot of money writing and speaking and he lost it all in investment schemes.

Rail: How would you describe the pace of your writing?

Lebowitz: I am the complete opposite of every writer I’ve ever known. They write long things and then cut down. My natural writing is very short. Though it takes a long time to write it, I always just automatically boil it down to its essence. And since I write by hand on legal pads, I always count the words. That’s why all of my original manuscripts have numbers on them.

Rail: What is the advantage of writing by hand, in your case?

Lebowitz: When I was in high school, there were two different courses offered. One was college prep for those who were going to go to college and the other was for those who were interested in secretarial skills. And I didn’t want to know how to type because I didn’t want to get a job where you had to type. Do you write on a computer?

Rail: No, I don’t know how to type either. I type with two fingers, and it takes forever to type up what I wrote by hand. Otherwise, I like writing by hand mostly because the speed of my thinking and writing unifies the mental and the physical.

Lebowitz: I just think all of these things about the process are habits that we come to believe, which become an intrinsic part of our work. Of course, it isn’t objectively true. But we believe it to be true so it feels true to us, like the way I feel smoking is part of my writing. So if you ask me how I conceive of the act of writing, here is literally how I conceive it: I inhale cigarette smoke, the smoke goes to my brain, down my arm and finger, out the pen. You could give me a list of one hundred brilliant writers who didn’t smoke cigarettes, it wouldn’t be true. It’s not meaningful in an objective way. It’s very personal. For a long time I was very interested in all the painters I knew who listened to music while they painted. I never ever understood it until I was in my 30s and I realized that the state of mind a painter wants to achieve is the opposite of the state of mind of a writer. Most writers, me especially, prefer absolute silence. If someone sneezes 10 blocks away from me, I can’t write! It’s too noisy. Because the level of concentration that you have to have to write, the direct relation between your cognitive abilities and writing needs to be in complete focus. For painters, they are trying to, I believe, disconnect from all of that. They are trying to get to a state of mind that is unconscious, while writing is hyper conscious.

Rail: Let’s talk about two of your great loves: books and reading. On the one hand, there are writers like Mark Twain who said, “A man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” Or, as, Ezra Pound proclaimed, “No one could understand a deep book unless he has seen or lived part of its content.” On the other hand, Voltaire lamented, “The multitude of books is making us ignorant.” Or Oscar Wilde: “We live in an age that reads too much to be wise.” What are your thoughts on this predicament?

Lebowitz: They may all have been right because they were talking about their own time. No one can really imagine a time other than his or her own. I know that I don’t really understand their time or any other time in the past because I’m only seeing these bits and pieces that are left. But I would say that this era, our time, I do know about because I’m living in it. All we know for certain is at the moment we have many more people who write than people who read. Here’s what’s not on the list of writing school programs: number one is talent, number two is reading. Because that is really how you learn to write. You can have talent, but you still have to learn how to write, because writing is a craft. I assume that’s what they teach in writing school, but I have no idea. But you can’t write a good book until you have consumed a thousand good books written before you. So the two things are inevitably connected.

Rail: Fran, I know you spent a lot of time with friends who are older than you. I do the same actually, but it’s easier for me since I was brought up to think of it as a given to seek out advice and wisdom among the elderly. I feel that it’s my duty to bring the older generation of artists, writers, and thinkers together, mostly because I strongly feel that while youthful energy is conceived of as positive and productive in the business world, we, as cultural workers, have our own functions, which are to protect and keep culture alive by preserving all that we can of history.

Lebowitz: I feel the same way. In earlier societies, which were contingent on survival, a 6-year-old kid would ask an older member to teach him to kill a buffalo, and he’d be taught how to do it. But endless technological evolutions have evolved, like the one we’re living through at the moment, in which technology simply rules. It’s a form of power. I even see this among my friends who have children. They hand over the most updated apparatus to their children and ask, “How do I do this?” and you see the kids rolling their eyes—“This is how you do it, Ma.” It’s a complete reversal of, “How do I kill the buffalo, so I don’t starve to death?” I happen to think that technology is a way to distract us from seeing the actual political and social changes in our lives. Now, I am not capable of understanding these technological changes or maybe I’m not interested in them, but I am capable of looking around me. Even when I walk down the street, I always see how people are dressed, which building was taken down, which one is being built, and so on, while everyone else is talking on their cell phones. You can say that technology does improve, but humans do not improve.

Rail: Another way of saying it is that technology and science make progress, but progress isn’t art’s main concern.

Lebowitz: No one knows why those unbelievable cave paintings were made. People invent all kinds of explanations behind each image, from spiritual or religious symbolism to other political or social meanings, but truthfully, all we can do is speculate. One thing we all can agree on is how sophisticated those paintings are. And they were painted 30,000 years ago.

Rail: Yikes! We tend to forget that only in the 20th century have we learned to appreciate cave paintings and other older art.

Lebowitz: Yup. When art critics announce the death of painting over and over again, I always think that it is absolutely not true. The reason it’s not true is because those deep impulses are embedded in human experiences. They come from their interiors, not from the outside world. They weren’t painted by your adorable little puppy. Telling stories, making pictures, making music comes from human beings, not technology. I’m not against technology as long as human beings don’t depend on it. But then again we live in an era where people are nostalgic for eras they didn’t even live in! Nostalgia used to mean for your own era, your own youth. For example, a 50 year old would say, “Oh, how I remember life was sweet when I was 10 years old”—that’s personal nostalgia. But now, kids say to me, “Fran, I wish I had lived in New York in the 1970s.” This is someone who was born in the 1990s. I never thought, I wish I were in the 1940s when I was young. That is very bad for the culture. One of the things about computers is that they give you everything as images. Not the thing; a picture of the thing. Sometimes a picture of a picture. We are so removed, and some people believe they have the same ethics but they don’t. The image of a painting is not the same as a real painting. One of the big advantages of being young is that you’re not looking backwards. That’s for old people. It’s funny to me how young people have taken so many of the things of old people, like an interest in food. This upsets me because food is a pleasure of middle age. When you’re young, sex, music, art, philosophy, poetry are what you should be interested in. Kids always ask me, “What restaurants did you go to when you were young?” None. I don’t even remember eating. I mean I ate in order to be alive, but the importance was the conversations I had with people I really admired. Again, to me art made of other art isn’t art. We live in an era of collage, which is the opposite of originality. Of course it’s fashionable—it’s not only easy to make, it’s easy to understand. That is why people like Pop Art, because they can recognize what they see. People did not like abstract art because it’s harder. They often felt insulted by abstract art because they couldn’t understand it. It’s too demanding, too contentious. So it’s not true that there was tremendous resistance by the average person to Andy [Warhol]. Andy’s work became popular much faster than, say, Jackson Pollock’s. I’m sick of looking at Andy’s work, and even sicker of his disciples. It’s the artist’s duty to make something new. That’s the job.

A version of this interview appeared in Riot of Perfume in Fall 2013.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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