An interview with Donald Kuspit by Diane Thodos — New York City, April 29, 2009 — Parts 4 & 5


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 3

Diane Thodos: Do you feel, in reference to Jacque Ellul’s book “The Technological Society”, that technique as an absolute standardization of means also relates to how artists have become these sort of glorified commercial producers of brand name products: in other words formatting the product to streamline the marketing system? For example there’s hundreds and hundreds of these post painterly abstractions all equally looking like slightly decadent wallpaper patterns of some sort or other…

Donald Kuspit: That’s one way of putting it. Let’s put in another way. Let’s take Mr. Koons who is always a good example: a sort of capitalist art about Capitalism. Now here’s a commodity; taking something we know – a vacuum cleaner – and it’s new. So there’s newness, and it’s American, and it’s “art” which is supposedly to “make it new. “ What he is doing by putting it in a vitrine and exhibiting it as art is he gives it this exhibition value, which is the only art value now. What he is doing is highlighting something that is meant to be exhibited, initially, to get you to buy it – and then it has certain use value.

DT: A janitor can use it to clean up the museum later on.

DK: That’s right, but he’s not interested in that. What he is interesting in is the exhibition value – a term that [Walter] Benjamin uses…

DT: …is that the “aura” of an object, or something different?

DK: It is a different theory. It subsumes what Marx called use value and exchange value. The thing acquires its use value and exchange value by being exhibited. The moment it is exhibited it becomes this technique of exhibition, of staging. Think for example of Warhol who begins by doing windows for Bonwit Teller. Rosenquist begins by doing advertising posters. That is staging a product – a commodity – in some way.

DT: Right.

DK: It’s now called “incentive marketing.”

DT: It’s like you could put a pair of shoes in a thrift shop and no one would see them. If you put them in a window for Bonwit Teller and surround them with all the right accoutrements you can sell them for $500.

DK: Right.

DT: So it is all contextually based on how it is presented.

DK: That’s exactly it. There was a very decisive moment in the sociology of art, in our business culture – generally – the Warhol idea…

DT: He said, “Business art is the best art”…

DK: Yes – but remember when there used to be the Soho Guggenheim that was at the corner of Prince Street and West Broadway? It closed and was replaced by a Prada store. It is still there. The Prada store was designed by Rem Koolhaus – a very hot architect – you know who he is.

DT: Yes.

DK: I don’t think they do this anymore, but the shoes are brought out every morning and exhibited like precious objects. Remember [Hiam] Steinbach who showed sneakers…

DT: Yes, garbage cans and masks and things on display shelves…

DK: Well he did sneakers too. He had a whole exhibit of sneakers and I showed this to my class. A student said “Oh God I wish I had those; those are collector’s items.” They were brand new sneakers from a certain period – the 70’s – and they were 50 years old.

DT: A collector’s item – even though they are everyday kitsch stuff.

DK: That’s right. That’s what happens; everything becomes collectable. So the point is here was this place which had been an art site but now becomes, shall we say, another art site that is fused with business and the product.

DT: A quasi museum/store.

DK: Yes, quasi museum/store. I don’t know whether these shoes are worth whatever the price is. Another example; you may remember up in Chelsea there is a Comme Des Garcons store that looks like a hole in the wall from the outside.

DT: Yes, I was in there.

DK: You go in this high tech metal tunnel, and then you enter. There are these dungarees with tears in them for $350 a shot.

DT: You are paying for an experience I guess.

DK: You are paying for aesthetic marketing and the people who are the salesmen are more like Maitre d’s that are doing you a favor by showing you to your table…

DT: It’s extremely pretentious garbage.

DK: Yes, but you see that’s an outside judgment; you are not becoming part of the spectacle/exhibition.

DT: No, I don’t trust it, but it works.

DK: It is the art industry – it works…

DT: Yes, it obviously wouldn’t be there if it didn’t work. It’s all about sales.

DK: Marketing is the term that is used.

DT: Is marketing as you see it – the way this American Capitalist marketing system operates – part of the efficiency of “technique” in a sense?

DK: That’s very well put, yes. I think it is part of the efficiency of technique; but it also may be technique running away with itself. You finally have to ask what’s the value of technique?

DT: Is it a sort of absolutization of “technique” for its own sake?

DK: Well – let’s talk about cameras. Everybody’s got a camera. Taking photographs is useful, but when you think about it you got the camera so you got to take the photograph because if you don’t take the photograph then the camera is useless. So you have to use the technique to get the value. There is the person of the American tourist. They go to Versailles or the Eiffel Tower and they take their photograph. They look at the photograph – not at the building or structure. They don’t see it. They don’t have a perceptual experience.

DT: They don’t linger and wonder about qualities of what is before them.

DK: They say “ I have been to the Eiffel Tower, here is my photograph, I took it at this particular date: look there’s proof, it’s printed out on the side of the film”. So technique takes over the experience when it is meant to serve the experience. You need technique; but if technique takes over the whole process then what is the point of it?

DT: So the question is who is in control, which leads to the next question. Has “technique” become so all encompassing that individual initiative is completely excluded within the context of the art world would you say?

DK: No, I think agency is still possible, but I think the agency has to fight. It has to somehow break the compliance to the technique. That is a paradox because in the Modern Art movement the artists broke compliance to every Old Master technique around – then any piece of junk could become art.

DT: So all the rules were broken and then there were none.

DK: And that was the rule: break the rules.

DT: And then there were no rules. So we now have chaos.

DK: That’s right.

DT: It’s total chaos and it’s all up for grabs.

DK: What is the meaning?

DT: There is no meaning left. On that point, what advice would you give an art student entering a university program regarding what you refer to as the “organic” and “existential” necessity of art? I know this is a very generic question, but in fact I have met a lot of people in art programs who find themselves bumping around lost in a labyrinth without a light. They do not really understand why they are dissatisfied with their school experience.

DK: The only thing you can get out of art school – the main reason art school should be around – is it should teach you every technique that has ever been around; from stained glass to carving stone to working with video. You should learn every technique.

DT: Painting, printmaking…it should be a pluralistic experience of all media.

DK: Exactly – of all media.

DT: And it isn’t anymore in many places.

DK: They want to get rid of the “hand”…

DT: They want to get rid of drawing, painting, and traditional art. So what would you say to a student to be on their guard against the kinds of programs that may wish to have them narrow their scope?

DK: Stay away.

DT: Stay away and don’t enroll.

DK: Unless you want to have success for five minutes after getting out of the program – it’s shorter than 15 minutes these days.

DT: There has been a tremendous degradation in a lot of art education.

DK: Yes. I think it’s a disaster.

DT: And what has brought this about?

DK: Conceptualism.

DT: Conceptualism wants to create it’s own self-fulfilling propaganda and have no dialectical relationship outside of that?

DK: There are certain modes of stylistic dominance as well as technological dominance. I remember [sculptor] George Segal who went to art school here in New York. He was very interested in German Expressionism and figuration. His professor told him “You’re an idiot – you don’t want to go that way; abstraction is the way to go.” It’s the truth. He writes about this. I’m quoting him now.

DT: Incredible.

DK: He just stuck with it and made this special amalgamation of expressionism and the figure – but he had the strength of will to do that.

DT: So you need the strength of will to separate yourself from the things that do not give you the diversity of experience you need?

DK: You cannot fall for any party line. There are always professors who say, “This is the way to do it.” But that’s the way they’re doing it, and usually when they’re doing it, it’s reified. It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. There are people like Ad Reinhardt who was a professor at Brooklyn College for a long time. He had his own ideas of art but from what I understand he sort of encouraged other modes. I don’t know how it works that way. I have seen a lot of works by one student of Hans Hoffmann, a woman student, and he went over [her work] and in fact turned everything into a Hans Hoffmann – so there’s a problem.

DT: There is the problem of this sort of a dogmatic overlay?

DK: You have professors who are very concerned about their own identities and want…

DT: …the perpetuation of their own system?

DK: Right. Students reinforce it the more students you get – and that will end up with the kiss of death. A famous example of this is Frank Lloyd Wright who developed a school of architecture, but no significant architect of similar stature to him has emerged from it. You got some very good architects working in the Frank Lloyd Wright mode, so it’s very good to have a master but…

DT: …individualism becomes subsumed by the larger purview?

DK: And there is the argument that Harold Rosenberg made in relation to Arshile Gorky, that his apprenticeship was good – Picasso to Miro – and his work was quite different from theirs, derivative but an interesting derivation at that. So it’s tricky. You have to be an apprentice somewhere and learn thoroughly one mode that you are inclined to, but then you have to have the guts to sort of break with it but develop it, move it somewhere else or get to your own creativity on the basis of it. But In art school you also have a great opportunity for a real learning experience: to learn all the media and to learn art history.

DT: So you have to be very selective about the school you choose: that it offers the range that gives you an opportunity to learn.

DK: I think the Bauhaus had a good idea. That seems to be, from what I have read about it, the model. The first year of apprenticeship you had to learn all the properties of all kinds of materials and all kinds of techniques. Then if you finished this you were admitted and you worked with a master – but that didn’t mean you had to work in the master’s manner. He would just sort of critique you, if I understand it correctly.

DT: So we have a problem today with there being this attempt by the art world to canonize the past and rigidify it…

DK: …A certain limited past…

DT: Yes, a certain limited past. There is a lot of censorship which disallows students from going back to learn certain modes of art making. Is this because there are a lot of teachers who don’t know these techniques are just trying to, pardon the expression, “cover their asses” because they lack the knowledge?

DK: That’s one way of putting it but I don’t think so. They just don’t believe in the art techniques.

DT: They don’t “believe” in them?

DK: They don’t believe in them. “Who wants to paint? It’s obsolete. The death of painting. Who wants to paint? I can do it all on video.” I have heard students say this. I have heard teachers say this. You must know this.

DT: We really are in a “post-art” age.

DK: Yes. Exactly.

DT: That is precisely the point.

DK: It’s all conceptual.

DT: Producing pseudoistic stand-ins for what art was.

DK: And also art doesn’t become a learning experience anymore.

DT: No and it’s not connected to life. It really has to be “disconnected” from life for – as you have written – a student to become a card-carrying member of the “contemporary art” party. It has to be “disconnected” from emotional life, which is really the death knell of art ‘s potential.

DK: Or your emotion can be focused through this mode. I think it is still possible for example to make very interesting Abstract Expressionist works today. I have seen some.

DT: I myself as a critic have always tried to find artists who have that emotional connection to what they do, whether it is figurative, surrealist…

DK: And that the emotion somehow comes through the work.

DT: Yes.

DK: There is a transference in fact.

DT: Well, the work can stand on it’s own. It does not need texts. A single image can arrest you and engage you because of the power of what is inherent in it.

DK: I’m with you completely.

DT: Getting back to the issue of exclusion and censorship I remember once you talked about – and I think it’s absolutely true – in the late 80’s how women were starting to enter the art world more and more but their work was very novelty oriented in the neo-conceptual art mode.

DK: I think that has changed.

DT: You have found different types of women artists today?

DK: It has been a lucky experience that I have met women artists in their 60’s who have been working for years and who I think are making pretty profound art.

DT: Wonderful. Name some names.

DK: Lynn Stern is a first rate photographer. She’s done incredible images of death heads in black and white. When she was shown in a New York Gallery the images were too strong. Nobody wants to look at skulls.

DT: Well, I don’t know. For me it was hard to look at the Otto Dix “War” series but the fourth time I looked at them they sunk in. For me his skulls made a reverberation over time.

DK: You have to be in touch with death inside yourself first of all. So she is one. I have supported these people and we just sort of met. Maybe it has something to do with the fact of my age. I am interested in older artists, older women artists, and women artists who know how to work with materials, whatever their material is – paint or black and white photography – and who have a certain serious intentions.

DT: Like Alice Neel?

DK: Some of these people are even more interesting.

DT: Really? That’s good to hear.

DK: That’s my opinion – but Alice Neel is fine. Maybe it ‘s because these are people of my generation.

DT: That is a very important point because their schooling would have dated from a time when you could learn techniques.

DK: Yes. That’s quite true

DT: And now I don’t think you can. When I look at my alma mater Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, students aren’t producing anything like the variety of art that was there in the early 80’s. I was very lucky to get the figure drawing and painting training that I did; it is no longer available at the same school.

DK: What these artists have is also a persistent curiosity about learning and are knowledgeable about many other things. They completely develop themselves. They are not resting wherever they have been. They have open horizons.

DT: So it’s like the stream of life is the effective force that brings the art along, as witness to it.

DK: That’s part of it, but also there’s a very solid sense of what it is to make art.

DT: Yes. There’s no confusion; no jumping on the trend wagon.

DK: No. They know their history and have a certain way of doing things. They keep developing it and the works are fairly stunning.

DT: So there is a concentrated essence that keeps evolving.

DK: Yes.

DT: When I was a student here in New York at School of Visual Arts from 1987 – 1989, one thing that confused me tremendously was how trends occurred in the art world. The artists who would hop on the bandwagon to imitate these trends kept changing their style. Then you’d get weird hybridizations of the last trend with the present one. For example you’d get Neo-Expressionism with some conceptualism mixed in.

DK: They had no identity of their own.

DT: Yes, it was very confusing.

DK: But of course SVA has always been about being au courant about whatever is “hot.” I haven’t been there for a while. There are always certain places that think that it is important to attract students because they are a place that is “with it.” You got to do latest “thing” and this will help you “make it.”

DT: I was in the graduate painting program.

DK: What year were you there?

DT: I was in New York from 1987 – 1992 starting with two years graduate school when you were my teacher. I continued taking your class because I worked for SVA and was allowed one free class, so it was for five years total. Frankly I wanted to continue because you were the only person I knew who could answer the questions I had about what was really going on in the art world. It made a big difference in my life.

DK: That may be before I was disillusioned.

DT: Well, yeah, before the art world completely destroyed itself – before it imploded. I remember you saying back then that the art world was like a jet without a pilot. It had powerful force but had absolutely no steering to determine its course.

DK: The pilots are now people like Saatchi who invent whole movements.

DT: They have hijacked the plane.

DK: Yes. There is a book you should read called Supercollector: A Critique of Charles Saatchi by John Walker and Rita Hatton. It’s really worth looking at. I did a review of it years ago when it first appeared. Walker is a sometime artist and admits that the book is sort of Marxist in orientation; but what he and Rita Hatton have done is an absolutely brilliant piece of investigative reporting and documentation of the Saatchis from the very beginning and with artist’s comments about what it is like dealing with them; just well researched like you’ve never imagined.

DT: I’m going to want to read this.

DK: I reviewed it years ago for

DT: I will certainly be checking it out.

DK: Walker also did a first rate little book about media and art. He has a very smart mind and as researcher is very perceptive. The book on Saatchi is just incredible. Sacchi got where he is through advertising. He invented Margaret Thatcher. Walker documents this.

DT: Yes, he ran the ad agency that put Thatcher on the map.

DK: Whatever you may think of Thatcher, Saatchi understood the connection of art and advertising in a way that even Warhol didn’t – the connection of art and publicity. Did you ever read from the series I have on, A Critical History of 20th Century Art?

DT: Yes. I’m about three quarters of the way through.

DK: I have a whole section on publicity. Henri Lefebvre wrote Publicity is the Only Ideology of our Time. It is the quote heading one of the chapters. He’s a French sociologist and very brilliant. He wrote the book Everyday Life in the Modern World. But Saatchi knew how to take over publicity, just like Damien Hirst does.

DT: He’s got his own auction going. You’d think it’s about the efficiency of technique brought to a hyper level of being.

DK: Plus the power of money. I was in Amsterdam not too long ago and I went to the Rijks Museum – a classic museum. The Rijks was being restored and rebuilt but they kept one section where they had a number of their older works. When I went there – and I didn’t know this would be the case – they had Damien Hirst’s diamond skull on display. Not only did they have the diamond skull, but also at the beginning of every room – and it’s no exaggeration – they had a little plaque that said something like “if you keep on going you will get to the Damien Hirst Skull.” I didn’t ever see anything saying “if you keep on going you will get to Rembrandt’s Night Watch.” So then you got to a room that was roped off like for a movie marquee with a velvet rope which you stand behind. Then you went into a room, and there it was alone. I was really irritated by this thing.

DT: That is just perverse beyond imagination…

DK: This is not the end of it. The signs lead through a circuit because there was a part of the museum that was cut off. There was one last room where they had arranged a nice selection of old master works, relatively small, with a little text explaining provenance etc. discreetly next to each. Above each of these works in bigger lettering and in a different coloring (I think it was pink) was a commentary by Hirst on each of these works. The most insipid banal crap I have ever heard as comments: so he gets the voice over this old master art and then people read it. When you exited, following the circuit, you noticed on the side there was a big black Damien Hirst tent, and if you liked you could go in there to buy catalogs and write your comments. So I met the director of exhibitions at Gemente Museum in The Hague and I said “what is going on here? Has anyone protested? Is that what the Reichs Museum is about?”

DT: It destroys the credibility of the institution.

DK: Exactly. He said there was a new director and he wants to bring in more people.

DT: What a total joke.

DK: But that’s what it’s about. He told me that Hirst had a contract – something like a hundred page contract – that everything had to be done just so. The assumption is that the museum got a lot of money for this, and they just followed the contract to the letter allowing the artist to control. The artist took control just like he did with the auction. What are we interested in here? We are interested in the demonstration of power. We are interested in the spectacle and what he as done is degrade the other art with his insipid comments. It is not historical interpretation of any kind or critical consciousness. There is a skull with diamonds in it for 20 million dollars: everybody is looking at the money

Continued in Part 6