An interview with Donald Kuspit by Diane Thodos — New York City, April 29, 2009 — Part 2


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.

Continued from Part 1

Diane Thodos: Based on the German Expressionist art show we just saw [Brücke: The Birth of Expressionism at the Neue Gallery, February 26 – July 29 2009] I have an important question. Do you see any parallels between what is happening now and the circumstances that created the “Degenerate Art” exhibit in Germany in 1937 – that is – the individual vs. the doctrinal? If so is there a kind of covert censorship going on as to what art gets shown and what does not?

Donald Kuspit: Oh yes.

DT: Can you relate this somehow to what is meant by the individualistic vs. the doctrinal regarding the “Degenerate Art” show? To put this issue another way I read a wall text written by Jay A. Clarke from the recent exhibit “Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth” at the Chicago Art Institute that exhibited from February 14 – April 26, 2009. Here are the critical parts of it:

The Edvard Munch of popular imagination – a tortured bohemian rebel who seemed almost a living version of the famous figure in “The Scream” – was in fact a myth, carefully constructed during Munch’s lifetime by critics, historians, and the artist himself….The Norwegian art critic suggested that he suffered from the psychological condition known as neurasthenia…otherwise known as nervous exhaustion…Adopted and adapted by social commentators, the disorder was connected with decadence and degeneration and applied to the visual arts….Munch deliberately embraced disturbing subject matter and the personality of the sick, socially aberrant artist…[he] adjusted his emotional pitch at precise moments in order to achieve the outcomes he desired. Munch’s self portraits, such as the brooding blue hued “Self Portrait in Moonlight” and “Self Portrait with Cigarette”, offer a rich opportunity to explore this persona in the act of construction, reminding us of the artist’s central role in the process of his own mythmaking and reputation building.

I feel this writing reflects a historical “revision” of Munch’s work that intends to desublimate the power of his work by making him into an everyday huckster.

DK: Like contemporary artists – like the Jeff Koons of his day. That absolutely fascinates me – what the curator did, why the curator did it, what’s the argument behind it, what’s the proof?

DT: This brings me to the question – do we have historical revisionism today that’s working as a means of not merely avoiding the presence of emotion in art, but being destructive of the importance of emotional sublimation in art? Does this revisionism assert itself as a means of supporting a postmodern/postart agenda that keeps the emotions out of art?

DK: What you say is exactly right.

DT: Do you feel it is like, in a sense, the way the Germans with the “Degenerate Art” show degraded Expressionist/Modernist art and displaced it with their own doctrinal kitsch that was the official art?

DK: What I would say has happened is the avant-garde – avant gardism – has become institutionalized. It has become a tyranny. It’s become a dogma, and for all the art world’s talk about diversity – echoing the social diversity – it’s not diverse. It’s an inertial system. So we go to a Whitney Biennale and we do not see the range.

DT: You see the opposite – a very narrow path.

DK: Exactly. The mandate of The Whitney Biennale is to show the range so you see different things.

DT: But it is not the case.

DK: It’s not. It’s a party line. It’s Fascist.

DT: I was just getting to that. Fascist is an interesting word because when we speak of the “Degenerate Art” show we are speaking of the condemnation of Modern art by this doctrine.

DK: But there is something else going on. Let’s go back to the “Degenerate Art” show. I have this theory which I have written about. I argue that the Nazis were perceptive; they saw something that was there in the art; but what they did not understand what was there in the art was in the society. The artists were talking about – if you want – the degeneracy in the society: the savage etc. So the Nazis – in their corrupted notion of purity or Aryanism – felt threatened. They did not like the underside showing. They did not like their own underside showing – their own aggression, their barbarism. But there it was in the art, so they called it “degenerate” because it was threatening. It was threatening because it touched them on the inside. The fascinating thing about the Nazis is that they had a passion for art. Do you know the book “The Rape of Europa” [Lynn H. Nicholas 1995]?

DT: Yes. Göhering stole a lot of art.

DK: Hitler wanted to turn Linz his hometown and Berlin into big art centers. Speer assimilated a lot of Modernist ideas to make his art. He tried to subsume it, or dialectically sublate it – and some of the structures are still interesting like the Olympic stadium.

DT: He was part of the Modernist movement even though he was complicit in horrible atrocities.

DK: You know he was an “organization man.”

DT: Yes, he was in on the Nazi slave labor too.

DK: Right. He was denying the slave labor.

DT: But he knew all about it.

DK: Sure.

DT: There is an interesting duplicity here.

DK: It’s a blindness. It’s a blind side. It’s not that they are duplicitous.

DT: Well I mean in his reaction to the press.

DK: Yes.

DT: The way he appeared and what he was.

DK: I don’t think he knew there was a difference. I think Hitler knew there was a difference, I think the major anti-Semites knew there was a difference. I think he believed in the cause, he believed in Hitler, he believed Hitler was fine for Germany. He began to realize it was all going to hell, and he was one of the first to perceive it. There’s a fantastic book by Gitta Sereny – a thick book some 700 pages [Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth 1996]. It’s interviews she did with Speer after his imprisonment. He just had no perception. He was just like; organization – let’s do it…

DT: Do you think it is because in the culture there is structure before there is emotion?

DK: They are obedient. The Germans are obedient.

DT: But was it structure before feeling, structure before perception? Was there a structural element that was built into the culture that made Speer that way?

DK: That’s a difficult question to answer. I think there are Nazis and there are Nazis. They weren’t all uniform. A lot of them were military men.

DT: Prussian.

DK: Prussian. A certain notion of honor – that’s why they turned against Hitler.

DT: Yes. I have heard about these things too. But the interest I have is also that there was enough of a presence in the culture that had a strong structural element.

DK: Their obedience. Mitscherlich writes about that. “Gehorsamkeit.“ Put them in a line and they just keep going. They are brought up that way.

DT: In the Leni Riefenstahl film “Triumph of the Will” it is interesting how rigidly the soldiers march in tight box formations.

DK: “The Authoritarian Personality of Adorno” [first published in 1950]. Part of the new Germany is to go against that authoritarianism. Transparency of government – that’s why the Reichstag has a glass dome. The young people are very different. Now the Nazis were not unperceptive about Modern art – it’s just that they did not like what they saw because it was really a split off part of themselves.

DT: Yes – it had power because it was.

DK: Yes, exactly. Unless it had that power they would not have responded to it so negatively.

DT: And they would not have wanted to destroy so much of the art. That’s why people hid the art both during and after the war, which is why a lot of this art did not surface at auctions for so long. Right after the war people kept the art hidden because they were afraid it would end up being destroyed again.

DK: Sure

DT: But getting back to my original question – do you feel that when we speak about the relationship between Fascism and the “Degenerate Art” show that this has a parallel with the contemporary postmodern censorship that seems to enforce itself against the validity of an emotional relationship to art…

DK: That’s a good point.

DT: For example the way emotional or expressionist art is downgraded; how this text from the Edvard Munch exhibition focused on casting his art in the light of a marketeering strategist. This was profoundly distorting and in my opinion shameful.

DK: I’m really curious. I’ve never seen anything like that before.

DT: This is the creepy part of my question: It’s no longer about just the ignoring of expression, but trying to marginalize and degrade it. It is a different program.

DK: It’s saying Munch is inauthentic. It’s just an act.

DT: And that he’s a hustler, that we are all the same, and that this is an everyday kind of thing.

DK: And we all understand it because we are all the same – exactly. Unbelievable.

To be continued in Part 3