An interview with Donald Kuspit by Diane Thodos — New York City, April 29, 2009 — Part 3


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 2

Diane Thodos: Do you see shades of George Orwell’s book “1984” when the Whitney Museum claims there is great diversity in art when there is just the opposite?

Donald Kuspit: That’s right.

DT: Claims that are false and made up…

DK: Well there are a lot of things happening, but they are not showing it. Anyone who takes an ordinary stroll through the range of galleries in New York can casually see all kind of different styles, different modes etc. The real power today is the power of money. Money is heavily invested in what used to be called avant gardism –and that controls it. Also there is the need for fodder for the machine.

DT: Novelty, entertainment.

DK: Look at Capitalism; it’s so wonderfully inventive and innovative…

DT: And it’s only interested in its own self-sameness.

DK: Oh for sure.

DT: It’s only interested in the absolute mirror of its own image to itself and what is projected outward by the power of it’s capital, its money, patronage, connections…

DK: That’s it. What really needs to be studied is not so much the artist but who’s buying the art and why they are buying it – even more than the galleries. Like who is buying Koons, who is buying McCarthey. Why is McCarthey getting the Sculpture award from Skowhegan this year?

DT: That is a profound perversity.

DK: I am telling you he is getting the award this year – or why is Bruce Nauman in the Whitney Biennale? Or let’s look at it another way; let’s go to the Museum of Modern Art. Why do we have pride of place, simply in terms of quantity of works given to Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman? You come into the Pollock room and you have almost a dozen. You turn another direction and there is large Barnett Newman piece. Then you have one or two Gorkys and you have a few deKoonings. Why is this shown the way it is? No doubt they are moving their collection around but there are certain fixtures that are there. Why coming, into that third floor, do you have a Wyeth, Christina’s World, a few other “American Realist” works, and then boom – you come into Modern art. [Before that] you have a Scheeler and a few other things – what happened to Ben Shahn for example? You have a Hopper that is a small example. Why are these artists not shown in depth?

DT: Right. Hopper is a very significant artist.

DK: When you look at their selection of German Expressionists they have a few Beckmanns; they have The Departure. I’m talking about what I’ve seen the last time I was there when Kippenberger was showing.

DT: There is a prejudice for certain artists that follow a particular historical view.

DK: That’s right. A certain reading of history.

DT: Getting into a big subject here – on your suggestion I have read Jacques Ellul’s book “The Technological Society” [first published in 1964] and was struck by his prophetic insight about the present. Can you briefly outline the most salient aspects of how technique, that is, “creating systems of ever greater efficiency” manifests itself in the current art world culture?

DK: I think it is, in a way, very simple. There is all this focus on video. My understanding of the Nauman show is that there are going to be sound pieces, with all this high tech, low-tech computer art. For me this is just an instrument. Look – it is like the invention of the paint tube – the paint tube made Impressionism possible. You could carry the tube out in plein air, where you didn’t have to make sketches and then go into the studio. All kinds of people were using paint tubes, but not everyone was a Monet: artists who we honor and admire. I think there is now a fascination with technology for the sake of technology. Technique for the sake of technique. This paradox was already pointed out in the late 19th century by the so called proto-existentialists – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and so forth – that the very success of instrumental reason in industrial society reduces reason to simply a matter of technique.

DT: Yes. It’s more and more efficient; it gets down to a formula.

DK: Not only do you get more and more efficient, is shuts out what you call the “dark area” – it shuts out emotion, because emotion is inefficient.

DT: Well right. It’s very inefficient, because its uneven, its unpredictable, it cannot be streamlined.

DK: Yes, and it can’t be short-circuited. If it does it will kick back, it will come back. You can’t throw it out. You can’t say, for example, typewriters are obsolete and computers are in, so this kind of fear is obsolete and here’s this new kind of fear. You can’t do that.

DT: No.

DK: It is too unpredictable for a lot of people and also involves what psychoanalysts call a “need for observing ego.” If you are looking inside – what broadly what is termed introspection – in a “Technological Society’ you do not want to be introspective. That’s the last thing you want.

DT: That’s the last thing a “Technological Society” wants.

DK: It doesn’t want introspection. You turn inward and you forget the techniques. Think about these Reality TV shows. All these people confessing what they have done – they had a bad relationship with someone etc. Think for a minute what is going on. What happened to privacy? What happened to the need to do what analysts call the working it through. Instead of working it through they are acting it out – performing it. They have real and serious problems.

DT: Reality TV can be very exploitive.

DK: That’s a good word, but it’s not the whole story. They are performing and they think if they perform that will solve the problem.

DT: In other words they feel the need to do this in front of Judge Judy or whatever.

DK: Yes, exactly. Say there is a problem of somebody swindling someone else or they did not pay back a loan. They think if they are performing it in front of a camera somehow that’s going to solve the problem. They are very exhibitionist.

DT: Which is totally deceptive.

DK: Exactly, but that is part of the technology. Spectacle is connected to technology. You can create these fantastic Hollywood spectacles that are dazzling.

DT: But they seem to be about nothing…

DK: Well that’s the point.

DT: It’s not like watching an Andre Tarkovsky film where you get this incredible Dostoyevskian poetic depth. Have you seen his films?

DK: I have seen some of them.

DT: Like “Andre Rublev”, “Solaris”, “My Name is Ivan”, “The Sacrifice”…

DK: Yes.

DT: And also Ingmar Bergman has extremely profound films. You don’t walk out of a Bergman film without being affected…

DK: Well you see there the camera is a means. He uses it very subtly – for example with the use of dark shadows – and he focuses on certain issues, and those issues aren’t going away. He works them through in a process. It is interesting you mention him because recently I saw his film The Virgin Spring.

DT: That’s an amazing film.

DK: Yes. It just goes on and on and on, and you are working it through. It’s not just an act.

DT: He holds the traumatic moment with this tremendous tenderness and anguish at the same time…

DK: The key word is Trauma there

DT: He is very traumatized…

DK: He is willing to express the trauma of existence, even when he is lighthearted.

DT: Even so.

DK: The camera becomes part of the experience. It is dominating the experience, or becoming the spectator of the experience.

DT: It is a witness to an internal experience that is amazingly constructed.

DK: Thinking of that what comes to mind is Robert Redford in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”. It’s all pose, you get the profile, and there is no depth or sense of internal life. What the camera’s doing – actually something I like about the film- is it’s highlighting all the secondary features. There is no human being there.

DT: You mean all the sets and the lighting….

DK: It’s very interesting to see this – the sets, the clothing, the environments they create – this Americana scene.

DT: It’s quite a formulaic kind of film.

DK: It’s formulaic, but the formulaic is true to the American values!

DT: That is what America is very much based on.

DK: When people talk about Americanization they are talking about standardization with a vengeance.

DT: Very much so.

DK: And even customization which grows out of standardization.

Continued in Part 4