An interview with Donald Kuspit by Diane Thodos — New York City, April 29, 2009 — Parts 8 & 9


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 Parts 6 & 7

Donald Kuspit: From a New York perspective the money seems to veil the art – to be the clothing of the art.

Diane Thodos: So there is no sociological “history” of the artwork being shown and having a real engagement with an audience. It’s all been completely skipped over and is now reduced to only the patron/dealer relationship.

DK: Well Hirst carried it further – he got rid of the dealer. Now he goes directly to the collector. And of course he’s a democrat – selling something for every pocketbook. Put out a bid of a dollar or a million dollars. It’s very shrewd. It’s really a sort of marketing brilliance how people fall for it.

DT: But it’s all a denigration of the potential for art to have a life in the sense of art’s relationship to life. This is all completely antithetical.

DK: It blurs the boundary between art and life – but the boundary has to remain intact. Art makes a certain difference and that difference is lost. But it connects it up to social life and to Capitalist life – to the life of the commodity.

DT: To hype, to marketing, to business…

DK: The money creates the value. I think Hans Haacke got it absolutely right in this piece he did many years ago where he showed a little work by Seurat – a dancer. The artist had given this work to a friend of his who loved his art – a civil servant. When the friend died the family sold it for some nominal sum. All that Haacke did was track it right through to when the price went up in the 1970s and who owned it now. All this was documented. There was some Swiss consortium that owned it and it was valued at that time for several million dollars. Now I am sure it is even more than that. Seurat has become a “brand” name. That’s the whole thing – you become a “brand” not by selling to the mass market like Coca Cola or Campbell’s Soup. You become a “brand” by selling to certain collectors that will make you – that have a lot of money. They may have the power to create exhibitions and so forth.

DT: That’s a fascinating point because these people are pretty different from the kind of collectors who donated art for Alfred Barr to the Museum of Modern Art in New York when it was just starting up in the 1930s. There was a lot more intellectual guidance given in terms of the commitment to Modernist ideals which became the basis for the collection.

DK: Capital is always looking for the rare item. The one-of-a-kind thing. It’s willing to pay for that.

DT: Even if it is a total fraud?

DK: Yes, or like it’s a fake one-of –a-kind, like the one-of a kind Hoover vacuum. It’s a mass produced product presented as one-of-a-kind, standing by itself in a pristine room in a glass case with a label. There is a whole strategy to this – the aesthetics of reception. It’s only a small part. We are talking about it so much because it’s so conspicuously in the news. Art is big business, big money.

DT: This is the “technological society” where the media is in collusion with the promotion of this art.

DK: The media wants sensation, excitement. Big money always generates excitement.

DT: The ones who contribute to the magazines and advertise want to get the “bang for their buck” so there’s this collusion…

DK: Well look at Artforum

DT: Actually I rarely look at Artforum. I stopped reading it! It’s over for me. It got to the point where there was only maybe only one article I might read in a whole year’s worth of magazines. It’s not even worth the trip to the library to read.

DK: Look at how thick it is with advertisements filled with current art images with nice color and all that – so there’s marketing.

DT: Yes but it is homogenous and boring too. It gets repetitious.

DK: It’s like the Sear Roebuck catalogs but upscale, like Tiffany. It features the “rare item.” What is this month’s “really different” jewel? What’s the “Hope diamond” of the month?

DT: Which means, of course, that if you are seeking for such a thing you could be taken by many a huckster on the way. Regarding Bernie Madoff and how he ripped off his clients, do you think this is a lot like how these “hot “ artists are also financial/spiritual rip-off artists as well? Aren’t they running a pyramid scheme?

DK: All I can say is I know and respect those who know the money side and they say the whole thing is a Ponzi scheme.

DT: I agree – the art world can act like a Ponzi scheme like what is happening on Wall Street. So there is a reflection of how the financial structure is within the art world itself.

DK: However let me emphasize, for the record here, that it doesn’t mean that all the works that are assimilated into this Ponzi scheme are not works that may also serve an existential or aesthetic purpose.

DT: You are right. I recall you made that distinction once in class.

DK: There are major and, I think, very important works that certain collectors pursue.

DT: Certain ones, yes…

DK: And there are collectors and connoisseurs with conviction. If there were not then we might as well just go home and culture would be Hollywood movies and the like: what star actor is this year and what star actor is next year.

DT: I agree with you. I recall you made this important distinction in class. I remember this from over 18 years ago, when you said that art had two different lives. One was based on the market value, for example when this Willem de Kooning painting recently sold for 137 million dollars. But the social history and aesthetic life of the work, the import it has on the average person who is not involved in this market transaction, is on a completely different track. I do understand and appreciate this distinction.

DK: A long time ago Meyer Schapiro very simply said that you got to make distinctions in the spiritual value in a work of art – values of consciousness for all time – and it’s market value; it’s very expensive stuff. Now he didn’t explain why it became so expensive, why it became this hyper-commodity, why an investment in art can pay off better than an investment in General Motors for sure. So that’s missing, but there is this double life that it has. The problem, maybe, today because of both the society of the spectacle and because of the anti-art tendency anti- aesthetic tendency, is that it’s become confused.

DT: Profoundly confused.

DK: So you can look, let’s say, at our Hoover vacuum cleaner man and you can analyze that – you can do a very interesting interpretation of what that’s all about. Do you know what I’m saying?

DT: The phenomenon, the sociological phenomenon…

DK: You contribute to a real interesting certain social meaning. It makes a certain statement about life in the 20thcentury – attitudes in the 20th century. This accords with a certain spiritual value so that we get a certain value of consciousness – so that we pay attention to it for that reason that it lives on in interpretation, in critical consciousness. And that gives us meaning. Now maybe there will come a time when it will simply become a symptom of the times or a symptom of Capitalism. It will just recede into becoming another product. I once wrote a piece years ago called The Short Happy Life of the Work of Art: From Artifact to Art to Arty-Fact [Idiosyncratic Identities 1996 p.48]. Art is the certain moment when you reach an idea of the transvaluation of values, and the thing acquired a certain value. Now, whatever else is going on, say, with Mr. Koon’s object, it had a certain kind of value. But then it becomes an “arty-fact” very quickly. It’s something like what Leo Steinberg said (I have used him as one of my jumping off points) when he says it takes today only 3 to 5 years for an enfant terrible to become an elder statesman. So the way I put it is the creative period is very narrow and small…

DT: This art today.

DK: Yes, today. There’s no development. Koon’s had a moment of “inspiration” or whatever you want to call it: let’s take this vacuum cleaner, let’s put it in a vitrine, all nice, clean and new, let’s put a label on it, let’s exhibit it, let’s sell it as art- the old Duchampian “Emperor’s New Clothes.” So he’s done that, and at a certain moment everybody says “Wow! That’s terrific. It’s not a urinal; it’s a vacuum cleaner –goddamn genius to make the change! It’s innovation!”

DT: I think the janitor would have still seen it as a vacuum cleaner.

DK: Well, of course – that’s the point. In my book The End of Art [2004] that’s the quote I gave. But the point is we payattention. We say “Aha! This is the Duchampian mode for the umpteenth time but it’s new, so it’s better than Marilyn Monroe’s face. It’s a vacuum cleaner, it’s another commodity with star value, it’s a popular product.” OK? Then what will happen is this, in my opinion anyway: critical consciousness will move away from it. It will say, “OK, I got it – I got your “game. “ For a moment it was “art” because it appealed to my critical consciousness and I can interpret it in a certain way – it had certain implications. When that moment passes the way it’s going to survive is as an expensive commodity. The paradox today for this kind of art, and I don’t think anyone is even aware of it, is the only way art will survive now is as a commodity in Capitalist society. It’s not going to survive any other way.

DT: You mean Koon’s art?

DK: No everybody’s art.

DT: Only as a commodity?

DK: It has to go through commodity value. In my article Art Values or Money Values I pointed out that David Geffen sold to Steve Wynn, a de Kooning for about $137 million and a Pollock for something like $140 million. In my opinion, if this had not happened, if they had not been turned into extremely expensive commodities…

DT: Far beyond any market value they had before…

DK: More than Rembrandt. My God…

DT: Ridiculous

DK: …or any old masters. If this had not happened their reputations would level off. People might not look again.

DT: So their time may have been passing.

DK: Their time may be passing. They become part of our history, they settle in. I remember here in this museum, and I remember this very distinctly, when this museum…

DT: The Met?

DK: Yes, the Met bought two works – I remember this happened with two works. They bought Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt. When they first purchased it there were lines of people line up to see it like a first run movie or something and there were interviews as to why people came to see it – “Did you love Rembrandt? Were you very interested in Aristotle or Homer? What does it mean to you, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer – a philosopher looking at a poet?”…

DT: But it was the auction price.

DK: That’s right.

DT: Just like with Van Gogh. I remember in the 1980s before the sale of the Van Gogh Irises painting sold for $49 million there were no ropes cordoning people to distance them from the Van Gogh painting section in the Met, but the week after the auction they set up ropes and there were tons of people in the room. It was just a bizarre mass phenomenon. It was like this commercial I remember seeing on TV where they ask the viewer “Do you want to invest in oil?” They show a Van Gogh painting on the wall. Then they take the painting off the wall and this giant avalanche of money comes pouring out of the wall from behind the painting, and then I said, “My God, they’ve really said it exactly the way it is!”

DK: That’s extraordinary. That was an ad in TV?

DT: Yes – from sometime in the 90s.

DK: So no one is looking at the Van Gogh – it’s a cover.

DT: Right, it’s a cover for this giant pool of money…

DK: It’s a symbol of money. The same thing happened when they bought the Velázquez painting of Juan Pares. It was the first work they purchased by Velázquez that had a sort of Hispanic, not exactly black man, but a mulatto, and it cost a fair sum of money. People came to see it not because of that, but because it was an item that cost so much money.

DT: Well now they will go see a kitsch skull by Damien Hirst and it will be just as sensational, which is really a sad thing.

DK: Well, there is a wonderful thing – there is this Bonham Gallery and they are selling meteorites….

DT: Hilarious! Now that’s out of this world…

DK: Yes, it is, literally – $100,000 at auction just last year.

DT: That’s so bizarre!

DK: I looked at this stuff and I said to myself this is a terrific expression of sculpture…ha!

DT: Well, you know, you could get a bunch of rocks together and call them meteorites and sell them…

Here is a 9/11 question – very important. The occurrence of 9/11 in New York City was a profoundly traumatic event. Given its unforgettable reality have you found any art by artists in the city that gives an emotionally reflective response to what happened or has there been nothing much that has resulted?

DK: I would say the artwork that has come to be responsive to 9/11, as a symbol of that, is the upward projected beams of light on the footprint of the building. That was shown again, and so the building is a ghost of light. I’ve seen some work by an abstract painter that shows some emotional response to it. Somehow the social trauma of 9/11 linked up with some personal trauma in.

DT: What’s the name of the artist?

DK: A woman named Ruth Friedenthal – and this connects up with the fact that she comes from a family of Holocaust survivors. So you have this background…

DT: Of catastrophe…

DK: Yes, but there’s also something else that’s extremely interesting. I received from an astronaut who was on the moon – this is not directly art – he sent me aerial photos made by the air force of the 9/11 disaster.

DT: They must be really intense images.

DK: I thought to myself, what art can equal this? What handmade art? It was made by photographers – very cold, crude…

DT: What about what the artist Otto Dix experience in WWI expressed in his War Series prints?

DK: It was conveyed right through there. They had everything from the planes hitting to the people running on the streets. The whole thing…

DT: Like a film?

DK: It’s a series of stills and they are official air force US government photographs of this event and I assume they culled through all kinds of imagery but it was also recorded live on TV. I was actually on the street when it happened. I saw the first plane go in. I immediately thought “Oh God – this is what happened with the Empire State building years ago where a plane went right into it.” Nobody expected the building to come down. There was just some dumb pilot who didn’t know where he was going.

DT: Yes, I remember seeing a picture of that.

DK: It was a bright sunny day I remember very distinctly.

DT: And so you experienced 9/11.

DK: Yes. And then all these people started running up 6th Avenue all covered with soot.

DT: You saw this…

DK: Oh yes! And the subways were out.

DT: It must have been extraordinarily shocking.

DK: It was shocking. I knew it was a disaster. The whole city was in lock down and there were police all over the place. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Was this the beginning of something? People had to figure out what was going on here. And Giuliani was magnificent in what he did.

DT: He was the man of the moment.

DK: But he really kept things together. He set up offices right down on the site and then had to move out. Of course he realized these buildings were all coming down…

DT: The city needed someone to carry the standard at that time.

DK: He had Ego strength. He did not disintegrate. He did not fall apart. And I remember what was striking about it was all these people who were trudging uptown…

DT: or over the Brooklyn Bridge…

DK: They all walked together…

DT: Yes, there was solidarity. Even in Chicago you felt more connection with people as you passed by them…

DK: People did not emotionally fall apart. There was a delayed trauma, a so-called post trauma – I am sure this happened. One says “My God, I am lucky enough to have my life,” and then they begin to realize the horror of what happened. It takes time to realize what is going on.

DT: Well at first you feel that you have got to survive it…

DK: Well here is this terrific catastrophe…

DT: Unthinkable, unthinkable!

DK: Coming back to the art scene, what can art say that these photographs haven’t said? What can artists add except maybe though some means of gesture the sense of force, the sense of trauma? I don’t know, but what would it mean to re-represent the buildings or the event that had been captured very adequately in these photographs?

DT: Another question- you had Theodore Adorno as your teacher and a very strong background in philosophy. Can you comment on how this enriched your approach to critical interpretation in a nutshell?

DK: Basically through dialectical thinking. It has been understood as pushing to the extremes under the assumption that eventually the two will meet, like two parallel lines in infinity. The assumption is that opposites are implicated in each other; one without the other is incomprehensible.

It’s thinking in terms of antinomies. It’s a dialectical integration of opposites and it carries forward into psychoanalytic thinking which is where a lot of Adorno’s ideas come from – conflict theory. He was very influenced by psychoanalysis.

DT: So in the Frankfurt School Adorno’s approach had a lot to do with dialectical thinking in philosophy and psychoanalysis.

DK: Yes, it is called the dialectical imagination.

DT: My last question is not about art criticism at all. You sent me a book of your poetry a while back. I’m very interested in your poetry and the profoundly personal and emotional Symbolist space which it inhabits.

DK: That’s exactly what it is.

DT: It certainly is a voice which I find is distinctly different from your art criticism. How did your interest in writing this poetry develop and what were the motivating forces that brought it out in you?

DK: I began as a poet.

DT: You began as a poet? How far back?

DK: In college.

DT: College? My goodness, this was a progenitive source.

DK: I thought the art world was a little less noble than the poetry world.

DT: That’s true.

DK: What books did I send you?

DT: Apocalypse with Diamonds in the Distance [1999].

DK: Was that the only book I sent you? I have another one called On the Gathering Emptiness [2004]. Also some new things have been published on an online magazine, Per Contra, run by a wonderful literary person named Miriam Kotzin. She asked me to write. I wrote something about Rilke there and she published some of the later poetry.

DT: Rilke is one of your favorite poets?

DK: Yes, and Novalis. The whole Germanic poetic tradition is very important –the better side of the Germans.

DT: Yes, and frankly I am intrigued by the kind of engagement you have the poetry because it shows such the rich multitalented and multidimensional ability that you have. For myself I write art criticism but it obviously lies in a different direction than my visual artwork.

DK: It needs to be – yes.

DT: I am always intrigued that there are different parts of oneself that have different needs that somehow extend themselves into other forms and types of spaces. Was it the growing up with the Germanic tradition in poetry that began your motivation? Was it French Symbolist poetry?

DK: No, it was just there.

DT: Your poetry is truly remarkable to read because you have a way of moving the reader into spaces that that are between distinctions, and that is very original, very unique. Maybe that is what the Symbolist element does.

DK: That is the highest compliment that I have ever received. Thank you.

DT: Well it really does that.

DK: I am working on a new series called THE GODS and Other Beings [2010}

DT: I think reference to gods was also the title of some of your poems in Apocalypse. I am interested in your reference to the Greek mythological figures in your poetry.

DK: I am interested ekphrastos [dramatic description of work of art] in the poetic translation of visual work. You will notice in the book I write about Bronzino or Durer.

DT: It is remarkable to see that you can occupy different dimensions of space within writing.

DK: I don’t think of it that way. I think of my writing in criticism as poetic.

DT: Well, right, yes it is. There are moments in your writing when your critical interpretive abilities “turn a corner” so to speak – where this gem of perception comes out.

DK: I try to restrain that because I want to keep the accessibility.

DT: Right. But you build to it and then it comes out as a crescendo all in a moment. Certain of your essays are unforgettable for that.

DK: You have to keep the intelligibility going. That’s where I have a big difference with Adorno.

DT: Adorno is hard to read.

DK: Well it’s sort of deliberate in a way. I want language with more and more accessibility. I think there are enough verbal knots around. You want to communicate something that is already intuitively known by somebody, but you sort of bring it out and try to have a language that is accessible on a variety of levels.

DT: I enjoy the freedom that the poetry gives – the emotional breath about it, the atmospheric breadth it has.

DK: Thank you.

DT: It gets into a spatial element. I cannot explain it but verbally but you create a special element that stays with one, and there is a great deal of longing and mystery embedded in it. That’s a very generalized term, but everything you write is different.

DK: You are very sensitive. I appreciate your saying that.

DT: Well, it takes sitting down and reading poetry too, and sometimes the spoken element is different from just reading the words.

DK: Yes.

DT: So there is this participatory projection of it…

DK: It has to be spoken out loud.

DT: Yes. But one can read from the poetry and get the sense of your cadence and your shifting tenses and meanings in how the words are spaced on the page. It is remarkable work because of the amount of emotional space it occupies.

DK: I just want to say I am really grateful for your interest in my work because your are very intelligent, smart, sensitive, and you are very serious, and it is quite amazing to find that you have these qualities – it’s quite unique. I mean I know a lot of serious students but you have a kind of calm about your own seriousness and going your own way, which I admire. You’re very perceptive and articulate.

DT: I really care about these things.

DK: Yes I know. And actually your caring makes me care. As I get older I get tired of caring.

DT: Well you live in a place that is extremely brutal. I notice there is a difference between the Chicago Midwest and New York. In a sense I never really fit here because of the intensity of the place and the way that the classes are structured in a very hierarchical fashion.

DK: It’s a very harsh city.

DT: Very harsh with very much of a hierarchy. You don’t have a horizontal exchange between people, a kind of “middle”.

DK: Here people rub shoulders and there’s tension. It’s what is spoken about as Modern alienation, really, right on the street there. Depersonalization. It’s like you don’t exist. Everybody is encapsulated in their own little hell.

DT: It’s survival. They need their iPods just to get through the day.

DK: Close out the world.

DT: Living in New York was very hard for me. I lived here for five years [1987 – 1992] but New York is the kind of city that does not give you a break. You really get crushed like a bug if you can’t “float” in this environment.

DK: What you need to have in this city is an interior space. You need to pull away.

DT: A reflective inner space. The Buddhist’s say exactly the same thing – that you can endure any suffering in the world, but you need this moment of the private inner self. You need a way of nurturing that. You need a contemplative point.

DK: You need interiority, and you have to realize that it moves in a different way than the outside. Look at what you see here. A lot of traffic, its street traffic and people and cars. Otherwise there is a very strange silence about this city.

DT: It’s a very lonely place.

DK: It is a curious environment. It is really the epitome of what Berlin was supposed to been and was not. And also it’s very private.

DT: Extremely.

DK: You don’t know what is behind the facade. I remember going to a place with fairly prominent people and it was down in Soho and the building was like a wreck on the outside and when you went inside – total luxury. Utterly beautiful. The whole point is you don’t want anybody to know what’s going on inside. You don’t want anybody to know what your private life is, particularly in those days in places where a lot of crime used to happen.

DT: People protect themselves in their shells.

DK: Very much so.

DT: And there are very strong cliques and groups and there’s no entrée into them. There is no sense of this “horizontal” exchange of things. It’s different in the Midwest. For example it would be ridiculous to do a protest against the MOMA because they are not supporting certain kinds of art. You would be laughed out of the media. In Chicago we had a protest of the Museum of Contemporary Art [when they were on Ontario Street before 1996] because they were getting rid of their local [Chicago] art space. In their new building they were going to be showing all out of town artists, many from New York. We were taken seriously: we had an article in the local newspaper and a spot on a local radio – and the word got out. I remember talking to one of the Chicago art dealers Paul Klein and he ended up doing something by funding a room for Chicago artists in the new MCA building. In the 90’s there was still a sense that you still could do something – but it is worse now because there has been a degrading of the art education system. There is less a sense of initiative in the art world than had occurred in the 1970s and early 80s when there were more independent movements and when students took more initiative.

DK: They have been assimilated into the system. I always thought about a wonderful moment in New York when they had a show of art that was anti-museum. There was an Ed Rusche painting showing a museum burning. And it was in a museum!

DT: That is hilarious!

DK: I mean you have to be institutionalized to be recognized. And then the question is what consciousness remains after the moment of recognition.

DT: There is a betrayal as well. I think that one thing that artists are not careful about is to guard against the attempts that are projected on them to censor themselves. They are enacting self-censorship at a very early stage when they have not developed. It is self-censorship is bolstered by a system, so that even from the very beginning you are at a tremendous disadvantage. I feel pretty lucky that I was educated in the early 1980s just before conceptualism pounced and destroyed the pluralistic art environment that had existed beforehand.

DK: It’s more than self-censorship – it’s self-ignorance. People don’t realize what potential they may have – that they may be able to do this rather than that.

DT: Right!

DK: This may not be what the official system loves, you may never get a museum show, but it will have its validity.

DT: I have this internal environment that is absolutely jam pack filled with things that have to be created.

DK: But you can do it. You see this is what interests me about you. You can do it and you are not disillusioned.

The conversation is not over! There is a planned continuation of this interview for Neoteric Art between Diane Thodos and Donald Kuspit. Keep aware of new postings.