An Interview with Donald Kuspit by Diane Thodos — New York City, April 29, 2009 — Part 1

Donald Kuspit 2009

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most important art critics. He is a Distinguished Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and has received fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the NEA, and the Guggenheim Foundation among others. He is a contributing editor to Artforum, Sculpture, the New Art Examiner, and Tema Celeste Magazines as well as editor of Art Criticism. He is author and editor of hundreds of articles and books including The End of Art published in 2004. He frequently writes for

Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic and was a student of Donald Kuspit at the School of Visual Arts in New York City from 1987 to 1992. She is also a former student of Stanley William Hayter and Sam Gilliam and received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2002. She has exhibited most recently at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago and is represent by the Paule Friedland/Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, The Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City, and the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago. She will be exhibiting at the Kouros gallery in New York City in 2010.

Diane Thodos: I believe, as you do, that postmodernism represents an inextricable cultural crisis: a collapse that cannot repair or heal itself. I wouldn’t want to be an artist if I had to be, ideologically speaking, a postmodern artist.

Donald Kuspit: There is no direction. They don’t know what art is. We’re in a nihilistic endgame. I was reading a review about Bruce Nauman, a piece in Newsweek by Peter Plagens. It begins by saying that he’s perhaps the most influential American artist since Warhol, and I thought now what does this mean? Everyday he was trying to redefine the art “ex-nihilo” – out of nothing – and my thought is even God started with something. But also that means that he does not know what art is. He believes you have to redefine it, reconceptualize it. So what is it? Does it exist? It is annihilative: perpetual redefinition, unstable, etc.

DT: It isn’t ex-nihilo, it’s ex-nihilism. It is consciously nihilistic in its intent.

DK: I think it’s over for a lot of those people and one of the things I see happening is a return to tradition in a variety of ways (without mimicking it).

DT: Regarding the postmodern problem I remember you once raised the question in class about why is it artists don’t allow themselves to go back to being influenced by a tradition. I really have to pose the question why have we come to the point that an artist doesn’t even think about being influenced by some of the artists we have seen exhibited today – like the German Expressionists at the Neue Gallery or Francis Bacon here at the Met.

DK: Well they are. Lucian Freud was influenced by Bacon. The change in his art was due to his friendship with Bacon. There are a lot of repetitions, quotations, and appropriations. There is a sort of Duchampian mode/conceptual mode that’s still operational. I think of the art of the spectacle – the British sensationalism is related to that.

DT: It’s gotten very academic and old by this point. It’s a very narrow road extremely well traveled.

DK: That’s correct.

DT: And at this point when you think of the incredible diversity that occurred (I remember you talking about the “Big Bang” of Modernist creativity at the beginning of the last century around 1905 – 24) we still have these rich aesthetic Modernist traditions that have barely scratched the surface of their possibilities in a sense.

DK: Well, part of the whole idea of Modern is “make it new” so there’s this momentum of novelty until then this becomes a cliché itself. But I think there’s a deeper reason. We look at this Expressionism show [Brucke: The Birth of Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin 1905 – 13 at the Neue Gallery, Feb. 26 – June 29 2009]. What we see is artists who are people who have certain life experiences. It comes through certain attitudes and ideas. They are responding toward objects: Kirchner toward women, or landscapes, or African art. They are engaged in life enhancing experiences and then they are making the art as part of it. It’s not exactly reifying it but the art becomes part of that life experience. So they go to the coast and are excited by the waves. They’re taking it in, they are receiving it, they are very open to all this that is happening.

DT: Open to life in that sense.

DK: They are open to life, and the art becomes part of this openness. Now art is self-ghettoized. Think for a moment there has been no adequate response to 9-11. Compare that to other responses from the World Wars, or even Rosenquist’s painting F-111 responding to American power. But a lot of this has been taken over by photography – documentary photography. These guys who are right up there with the troops and quite a number of the images are just stunning. So it is a kind of “artistry”, not what we call high art. That’s part of it. The events are outside the art world and may be too overwhelming and they just don’t know how to deal with it, or they don’t want to partly because they are “in on themselves.”

DT: Is this a tremendous inadequacy to connect with life? A denial?

DK: A narcissism.

DT: And a fear of the emotion in life?

DK: That’s right, it’s a fear of the emotion in life.

DT: Why is there a tremendous fear of emotion when it should be part of life?

DK: They probably do have emotions in their lives – I don’t see how they couldn’t – but they split it off and deal with “official “ issues of art.

DT: Hermetically sealed off.

DK: Right.

DT: That is a bizarre state.

DK: It’s a split state. It’s pseudo-rational art. To me it goes back to something that T.S. Eliot wrote about – what he called the disassociation of sensibility. This is a famous distinction – set in art of the Modern period – between the separation of cognition and feeling. The issue is to get them together. So these guys are on the side of cognition – Nauman turning to instrumental reason, technology, theory machines, neon – rather primitive technology though some of it is sophisticated. The emotions have been flattened.

DT: You have often written about the exclusion of experiential depth in the great morass of conceptual art that dominates today’s art world. To use a strong term, do you see the art world projecting a kind of “indoctrination” as a means of control and as a means of destroying humanist and expressionist tendencies in art, or is it something else?

DK: Well, as you know certain groups – for example October most notoriously – have attacked humanism quite explicitly. I think they have a naive idea of the human. But the larger issue is – I think it’s something Greenberg once said – that in the Modern period there’s no clear idea of what it is to be human. We are not sure anymore so you have all this talk about cyborgs – semi-robots, semi-humans. The other day I had a computer repaired and I went to a tech serve which has a place on 23rd Street. While I was waiting they were showing videos. These were videos made by “avant garde” artists and there was one that was quite fantastic. It showed a robot female with a kind of pretty face but with a body made of pipes. She’s underground with all these other big pipes surrounding her and she’s plucking some sort of artificial flower and very tenderly looking at this flower. I thought – now look, there’s this image in front of me, she’s a robot with this mask on her and she has simulated feelings – it’s all simulation. Or it’s like in Japan where now they have made robot pet dogs which are very useful for people who are terminally ill. They feel companionated by them. To buy them actually it’s about $4,000. So you have this world of this technological society.

DT: Yes – referring to the title of the book written by Jacques Ellul “The Technological Society”.

DK: Yes – that’s very important. So in such a society the question is what is the fate of feeling – that’s one way to put it – and what is the fate of the human? Now certain analysts who I admire argue that the problem of being human is to create a “margin of freedom” within determinism. There are all these determinisms – biological, social – so how do you create this margin of freedom in which you can be human and have feelings? And I would say now we have technological determinisms. For example let’s take this little machine you have here [digital camera/tape recorder] – a brilliant incredible invention. In five years it will be half the size and do twice the work. The question is what is it for? I have seen some people get hung up on gadgets – they have got to have them.

DT: Yes – they are playing video games all the time, they are on the cell phone all the time, or constantly texting.

DK: But what do they think? These are just transmission machines – like television, a terrific invention, or the telephone – another terrific invention. But content is not there – the human content. It’s like the technology is slowly overwhelming, even replacing the content. There is a fascination with the technology for the sake of the technology.

DT: It is replacing the emotive affect and communicative element of the human being.

DK: That’s right – and people think Aha! If we follow the mechanical model then we are emulating the “zeitgeist.” There is this old debate which comes back in various forms – including in existentialism and psychoanalysis and in the 19th century – between the robot model of man and man as an organism. So the Modern period pushes us to more and more robot models.

DT: Like what Picabia was talking about when he had his Orphic ideas in painting and then transformed them into the Dadaist idea of the machine?

DK: Right. But let’s take the famous statement by the surrealist poet Leautremont – the meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.

DT: He was a very strange poet.

DK: Yes but that’s his metaphor for sexuality which was picked up. But think of that – it’s all machines: umbrellas, sewing machines…

DT: Sadistic really.

DK: Sadistic, absolutely. That’s what the opening of “Les Chants de Maldoror” is all about. The point is it’s all inhuman. It’s perverse. It breaks down the barriers. So now you have this sort of closed system. Now you have the computer model – our brains are like computers. Well, maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. Computers are not as plastic as brains.

DT: No – brains are far more subtle.

DK: Most subtle, and the most complicated organ apparently ever created by nature from what I have read. All of this militates against affect and yet I believe affect is there unconsciously and it erupts from time to time. There are mass murders and you get these sudden enactments – and a lot of art is about that enactment. People like this guy at the MOMA, writing about himself in every little enactment in different modes – a “happening”….

DT: Like Paul McCarthey?

DK: No – though McCarthey is another one of these horrors.

The second part of this interview will be continued in a subsequent posting on Neoteric Art.