Search View Archive
Art In Conversation

DONALD KUSPIT with Alex Chowaniec

I sat down with renowned art critic Donald Kuspit, in an unsuspectingly loud coffee shop, to begin a conversation that I had thought about having for many years prior. The result, framed by the end(s) of art and of life, debates profound issues that shape our ways of being in the art world and beyond. Fleshed out through art as body (and vice versa), and its political, environmental, and socio-economic intersections, our exchange embodies inherent fragmentation and wholeness. These concepts exist simultaneously, a tension that marks critical questions seeking meaning in art and life.

Alex Chowaniec (Rail): I want to talk about the state of art but I want to start specifically with the entry point through which I came to know you and your work.

Donald Kuspit: How did you come to know me?

Rail: Through The End of Art. We’re coming up on ten years of its publication. In terms of the phenomena that you discuss in the book, in the context of a response to a post-modernist condition, where are we now at this point in time?

Kuspit: That’s an interesting question. First, let me just say, the book is still selling, in a number of languages. It touched a nerve. Where do we stand now? Well, a lot of art has become a version of show business entertainment, so what strikes me as significant is that you have the Whitney giving a show to Jeff Koons, you have Damien Hirst as the star of it all, the man who says he has no integrity, explicitly. You have two pseudo gurus, Marina Abramovic, who I think is very dangerous, and Yoko Ono at the Museum of Modern Art. So you have what you might call celebrity art. To me it’s “non-art” and the key to the book—an idea I expanded on—is Kaprow’s idea of post-art. He views it positively, I less so. The situation we are in—in terms of what receives attention and prominence (the greatest gift you can give someone or something is your attention)—is post-art, of all kinds. You can call it performance art, you can categorize it any way you want. It can be painting, or anything socially sanctioned as “art.”

Lynn Stern, Skull #45a , 1991. Selenium-toned gelatin silver print 20 x 24 inches, edition of 8. Courtesy Lynn Stern.

At this time, and in social space, art is basically an adjunct of the entertainment business. Entertainment is the biggest art business, which is why art must be entertaining. (I like the distinction between entertainment and art made by the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal: you don’t have to do much psychic work to get entertainment, in contrast to art, which demands psychic work to be “gotten.”) I think there are many talented artists who are not fully attended to because their work is not entertaining enough, by the standards of the entertainment industry. So I see developing on the sidelines a kind of resistance. There’s something that has been called “New Humanism,” not my term exactly. There’s also David Foster Wallace’s idea of “New Sincerity.” I think the most interesting—shall one say seriously meaningful?—art is happening on the outskirts of post-art.

For me, the larger issue, which wasn’t entirely clear in the book, is the fact that modernism is over. What we have is endgame modernism. Its ideas have been assimilated and standardized. One definition of postmodernism, which I and others have used, argues that it is an attempt to integrate the so-called Old Master tradition and what Harold Rosenberg, following Baudelaire, called the tradition of the new. The point is that all art is now traditional. In a sense, everything that can be done has been done. I’ve been waiting for an artist to hang himself in a gallery. Schwarzkogler supposedly cut off his penis, to no great effect. It was certainly one way of getting attention, but only for a moment. It is not exactly what I would call art, namely, the imaginative transformation of lived experience.

The problem the contemporary artist faces is visually presented by Vincent Desiderio, an artist I greatly admire, in his piece called Cockaigne in the Hirshhorn Museum. It’s a huge painting, using Bruegel’s The Land of Cockaigne, the land of instant gratification, as its point of departure. There’s the table that Bruegel painted, but instead of his four figures on the ground around it, there are innumerable books of reproductions of art, their pages open to famous works of art of all kinds, symbolizing the information glut, the encyclopedic chaos we are in now. There’s no clear sense of relative importance or value. One might say we’ve always been in a situation of radical pluralism, not what is called the contemporary situation of permanent pluralism.

So the question is, for an artist, how do you ground yourself in that rich and endlessly complicated tradition? What are your choices, what are your decisions, what traditional/historical ground do you stand on? And can you stand up to it, hold your own in it? To me, one’s choice of orientation and perspective has to be informed by what I would call lived experience, resulting in a vision of life. And with that, “visionary art” and aesthetically significant art. I think my argument holds up.

I think what used to be called high or refined art, in all its variations and avant-garde form, is over—which doesn’t mean it isn’t being made. But so is post-art, the dead end of avant-garde art, the failed desperate attempt to save it from its self-destructiveness—eloquently described by Renato Poggioli—even as post-art is the final installment of that self-destruction. The issue is how to snap art out of its death trance—living its own death, so to speak—and make it once again a living and lived experience.  

Rail: Yes, a living and lived experience resonates. I came to your work with a desire to explore and understand the context and lineage in which I was making my own work. So I’m interested in the idea of the broader cultural context and “vision,” from which we have become alienated as an exclusive art world, and the opportunity to synthesize the humanism and tradition of the past with the avant-garde of the moment. We are creating a hybrid that becomes something completely new unto itself. What fascinates me is the idea that we require a new language to synthesize that.

Kuspit: That’s right.

Rail: In trying to understand mastery, in your context, as the synthesis of aesthetics, materiality, and concept, as well as lived experience, I read and connected with Melanie Klein’s work on reparation symbolism. How has that happened or not happened in practical terms? Do you feel that the concept of New Old Masters has evolved, or mastery has emerged since you wrote the book? Was it successful?

Kuspit: Let me answer you two ways. First, always dialectical, always more than one way. I regard art apart from its mode of practice, as a mode of individuation. I think the more convincing art becomes, the more we recognize and experience it as the signifier of an individual existence—the communication, record, memory of an individual’s self-experience and life-world experience, which are finally inseparable. When we look at a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh or a Picasso, we realize we are, in some uncanny way, in the presence of a particular person who lived in a particular life-world and at a particular time in history. We have an “a-ha” moment of intimacy and transference: we projectively identify ourselves with the work; it becomes part of us—internalized—and we become part of it, externalized by way of the work. A “signature painting,” to use Harold Rosenberg’s resonant term, becomes, in some paradoxical way, our “signature.” 
Secondly, I regard art as a mode of what might be called projective embodiment, that is, it makes us more or less conscious of our usually unconscious sense of being or having a body. That is, the work becomes a signifier of an individual existence by embodying it, or, reincarnating it, in some material medium. The work of reincarnating the sense of bodiliness—universal compared to anyone’s particular experience of the life-world, particular time in which one lived, and particular body—is to my mind the most basic creative work an artist does. It doesn’t matter whether the body of something, human or nonhuman, appears in some representational or abstract mode of art: what matters is the sense of bodiliness conveyed; or, if one wishes, what matters is the “body” of the work. It seems no accident that we speak of an artist’s “body of work”—implicitly we expect a work of art to have a bodily presence. The more convincing a work is, the more it seems to have body as well as personality or individuality—to be full of body as peculiarly “soulful,” or, as I would say, psychosomatically convincing. Freud and others have called the body the “first ego,” the foundation of the self: the essential imaginative task is to make primary bodiliness manifest—to give the work “body,” so that it has a bodily presence. Minimalist art seems anorexic, and Conceptual art has no body, which is why I am not especially interested in them, except as symptoms of a certain attitude to bodily being that seems increasingly, if subliminally, commonplace. Namely, the body is too much trouble, which is why we should all become inorganic machines or robots, an idea that Futurism, among other movements, embraced without realizing its dehumanizing consequences. I think it is also inseparable from José Ortega y Gasset’s idea of the dehumanization of art in modernity.

Some of the most interesting art being made today deals directly with the human body, Without the human body there is no human being, and without human being there is no human art, that is, art that conveys the human way of being-in-the-world. I have also seen a number of contemporary still lifes, pictures of animals, and landscapes that convey the non-human body, and the earth’s bodiliness, in a convincing way. 

Alex Chowaniec, A Good Death / A Kind Kill: Planets, stars and atoms..., 2015. Watercolor on paper, 8 x 8 inches. Courtesy Alex Chowaniec.

The New Old Master artists return to tradition, in recognition of the fact that it takes the body seriously, that its works have body, that it has much to teach us about being-a-body and making an enduring body of art. The shock of the new wears thin in Minimalism and Conceptualism, which is why the Old Masters look better than ever. I’m a firm believer in Winnicott’s idea that there’s no originality except on the basis of tradition—and, I would add, no originality without technique. One can make art with a paintbrush, a blowtorch, or a computer. You have to master the medium with your technique, but I don’t think the medium is the message. It’s a medium for some message, be it social, emotional, or broadly psychosocial. It’s a vehicle rather than an end in itself. What finally matters is the imagination and vision of the artist. Frank Stella said, “what you see is what you get,” a stupid tautology that implies you get mindless perception rather than mindful art.

Rail: Have you ever thought about the concept of the “New Old Master” in the context of feminist figuration or female artists painting the body, like Joan Semmel, Lisa Yuskavage or Jenny Saville? I think that there could be a very interesting and critical relationship by looking at that successful coexistence of aesthetic, concept, and craft.

Kuspit: I think the female artists you mention use the female gaze and the female body to repudiate the male gaze, which implicitly regards the female body as an object of sexual gratification and pleasure, and by way of that repudiation reminds us that woman’s body, from her perspective, is the “embodiment” of her self-experience, “represents” her sense of herself as a subject. I have written about Semmel, Saville, Nancy Spero, and May Stevens, among other artists, because they engage with woman’s body, and through that her self-respect and suffering. They are different kinds of New Old Masters. 

Rail: I’m interested in what it means to be a “master” from the standpoint of the construction of history itself. Here, traditions are inscribed within a specific Western European understanding of history that’s both exclusive and delineated. The more I look into its construction, and what tradition means in a cosmopolitan world, the more I think about how we can evolve and move forward. That investigation is critical.

Kuspit: What I think is happening, and will continue happening, is representation of the figure from all kinds of sources. I think the distinction between Eastern art and Western art is breaking down. It seems clear that what T. S. Eliot called the “individual talent” is anchored in some tradition that is now explicitly international rather than national, cosmopolitan rather than provincial, global rather than local, however affected by local conditions. How the artist chooses to anchor herself in this grand tradition will make all the creative difference for her art. The individual talent needs a relational matrix to flourish, and the relational matrix seems to extend infinitely, which makes it all the more difficult to make an individualistic art—a signature art, which is the paradoxical end-goal of absorbing and accepting whatever non-individual ideas of art and methods of art-making there are. Hard choices are necessary, and whatever the artist chooses will give her art its “inner necessity,” to play on Kandinsky’s term.  

Also, I accept the idea, wittily conveyed by Aristophanes and more soberly by psychoanalysts, that we are all psychically bisexual. That doesn’t mean we necessarily behave bisexually but rather that we have the same affects, however differently we may express them. Affect strikes me as absolutely crucial. What the affect is, and the object that you project into your art, that you use your art to convey, that brings it alive as well as brings alive whatever you are representing or whatever mark you are making. The line between male and female, male sensibility and female sensibility, is not hard and fast. The most intriguing art overcomes the split. 

Rail: Do you believe that language re-inscribes those divisions in our understanding of gender and sexuality? How can we create a new language or rethink, either from a traditional sense or technological sense, language that is based on this understanding of greater fluidity or both/and simultaneity?

Kuspit: Language does re-inscribe, as you say, but language is not fundamental. Language is a mode of communication—I accept Bion’s idea that projective identification is a mode of communication. Any language can be broken, destroyed. Cubism breaks down, smashes, destroys longstanding, traditional (and supposedly old and stale) languages of representation. But it can be renewed, revised, and re-used, as Picasso himself did in his so-called “Ingres period” works, famously in the Vollard Suite of etchings. There are different languages, each affording a different perspective on external reality and internal reality. There is no one perfect, ideal language, artistic or otherwise.

The larger issue, as I would see it, is what does it mean to paint the human body. It is really quite discombobulated. It’s got this trunk, arms, it’s just sort of nuts! There’s something absurd about this group of sort of incommensurate parts that hang together and convey the sense of the wholeness out of that mess. Interesting task. The whole body, the whole object, is the key issue for me. The New Old Master deals with whole objects rather than fragments, however much they’re fragments of nature. The general existential problem is to see the other as a subject and the other’s body as subjectively significant. I agree with Adorno’s remark that “when the subject is dead, the object is dead.” I think what the psychoanalyst Michael Balint has called “the dissolution of object representation in modern art” has finally led to the loss of the object, and with that reached its nihilistic limits, which is one reason modern art has had its day, and pre-modern art, with its representation of whole objects, has once again become meaningful and influential. Adorno talks about the fragment. I’m tired of fragments. I want wholeness. I think it is easier to get the point of Picasso’s fragments than of Rembrandt’s nuances. Reparation is now the issue, as you suggested earlier: time for art to move out of the paranoid-schizoid position into the depressive position, to allude to Melanie Klein’s distinction.  

Rail: Rhizomatic learning, deep, interconnected threads, can enact the reparation—

Kuspit: I think the way of the rhizome is the way to restore depth. I think Rembrandt has a rhizomatic sensibility, as his use of various costumes and Jewish models suggests.

Rail: I appreciate how you to speak to this idea of wholeness and wholesomeness, I understand it as a deeply individual thing. Can we talk about that?

Kuspit: Fullness of being, ripeness is all, that old idea. I’m tired of so much unripe art. The new is like green grapes not yet ready to be crushed into wine. It’s an old age point of view. You want to ripen into wisdom.

Rail: Speaking of ripeness and “old age-ness” and things to come in the future, you are writing a book about skulls and death?

Kuspit: Yes, it’s done. I’m fairly death-obsessed. I have been for a while. I’ve done a series of poems called “In Homage to Death” which will be published together with photographs of skulls, treating Death as an abstract form as well as reality. I greatly admire the photographer Lynn Stern, who has made seven series of skulls over twenty-five years. I went through the whole history of the representation of the skull, comparing Stern’s treatment of it with that of various painters, sculptors, and photographers. Her work is absolutely distinctive, painting the skull—often composites of human and animal skulls—in nuanced tones of light and shadow, staging it in various ways, to exquisite aesthetic effect. There’s nothing like them in the history of art and photography. I don’t know any other living artist who deals with death so brilliantly, exhaustively, and exclusively. Her skulls are worthy of the skull in Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors, which is also anamorphically abstract and has to be seen from the right perspective to be seen for what it shockingly is. It is much more shocking than any shock of the new. Death is the most difficult subject to deal with, but there’s nothing that concentrates the mind so much as death, as the saying goes, which is why making art that addresses it tests the limits of imagination and consciousness. At this stage in my life, the issue is how to meet death. I wrote several articles on the representation of the noble death in Western Art, pointing out that there is no noble death when we get to the modern period. It’s an idea that comes from Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius. My issue is how to have a noble death, all the more important in an ignoble society. Death has been trivialized in our society. I’ve seen t-shirts, jackets, pants, even sneakers and shoelaces imprinted with designer skulls. The skull has become a trendy empty signifier. I believe that unless you face the fact you’re going to die, even though you have to deny it to survive, you don’t understand what the hell it’s all about. Lynn brings death alive by bringing the skulls alive.

Rail: In addition to this experience, what insights have you gleaned from a cultural standpoint about death and how we deal with it?

Kuspit: We don’t know a thing about it. We just know it will happen. It’s a biological fact of life.

Rail: To be specific to our context, in North America, I feel that we don’t know how to talk about death—

Kuspit: You’re absolutely right. Jessica Mitford was right on target in The American Way of Death. Also, a striking instance of our denial of death—a cultural denial, ironically defended against by its prevalence in the movies—occurred during one of America’s endless wars. Coffins, draped in American flags and containing the bodies of soldiers killed in action, were flown into an air force base in Dover, Maryland. The American government did not allow the coffins to be photographed—they didn’t want the human cost of war to be acknowledged—but some photographs were made and appeared in the media, to the consternation of the government. Our society stinks of death. I think the United States is a killer country. Writing about James Fenimore Cooper’s novels in his Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence said the “essential American soul” was a killer. There’s something to that, if you think of all the guns out there and all the shootings that occur. I think this society is crazy, if you really want to know what I think. It’s stark raving mad on a certain level but very sane on another level.

Rail: Can art bring us to greater consciousness of this?

Kuspit: I think art only works for and on individuals. There are communal monuments acknowledging the war dead, but I think they are apologetic tokens rather than confessions of social guilt. I think that Stendhal had a point when he said art is for the happy few. What larger social good it may have is not clear to me. But it can certainly make a difference in the environment. I happen to like some of the art in subways, it’s not the greatest but it’s better than looking at some dumb wall. Anything that will alleviate the—

Rail: Apathy.

Kuspit: The apathy, the visual boredom, anything that can give a little spark, even kitsch, is better than emptiness. But I still believe in that old-fashioned thing called “high art.” I believe in “refinement,” “sensibility,” subtle emotional expressions, nuance, all those old-fashioned things. Art can make what I would call a psychosocial difference but I doubt whether or not it can change the world. I do think artists are socially important to the extent that they “raise consciousness.” But it’s not clear all art does. Stern raises our consciousness of death more than any other artist working today, which is high praise, considering that we’d rather not have our consciousness of death be raised. To me, that’s more important than raising our consciousness of art, which a lot of modern art, especially so-called pure art, does. Art should do much more. It may be the last place, whatever the mode, that your individuation can take place. You’re an individual. That’s very hard. That’s it, and you’re there!


Alex Chowaniec

ALEX CHOWANIEC is a painter, filmmaker, and new media artist based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 15-JAN 16

All Issues