Interview with Donald Kuspit by Diane Thodos – New York City, February 12, 2013 – Part 1

Donald Kuspit





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, New Art Examiner, and Tema Celeste 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 The Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City, and the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago.

Diane Thodos: You said something recently that made a lot of sense: that the power involved in the art world today is more insecure today than it ever was before. The bigger the amounts of money invested in art the more insecure it becomes. This insecurity involves censorship because you cannot allow debate to happen: it does have the potential and power to change minds.

Donald Kuspit: The insecurity is also because the art world is decentered so you don’t really know who’s got the power. Who is the economic power behind someone who is buying? I think that is the issue. You have a few art magazines that have been around for a certain amount of time and they’re trying to survive. They have a certain amount of staying power, so everybody believes whatever they publish must be important. I do remember there used to be several magazines that were central in the 70’s an 80’s that are no longer around.

DT: In previous times art magazines used have some critical questioning. There used to be some interpretation.

DK: I once met an editor that said you are not allowed to have any negative criticism.

DT: Not allowed?

DK: Not allowed to say “something is wrong with this artist.” It’s happened to me.

DT: In my last years writing for the New Art Examiner when Kathryn Hixon was the editor she and others wanted to make the NAE into a replica of Artforum and began to narrow the platform of debate. I decided to write a negative review about an artist I considered weak – a conceptual/revisionist type who made sloppy art – just to test my editor. They ended up censoring out one third of my review.

DK: Without telling you?

DT: They changed it without even notifying me. I called and complained about the omissions. They retorted that they did not have to consult me.

DK: That doesn’t sound right

DT: No it doesn’t. But it is unfortunately a sign of the times – the power to censor dissent and reorient the art press’s whole agenda. It was done to avoid the displeasure of the Renaissance Society in Chicago that was exhibiting the show. I noticed the New Art Examiner was going down the tubes. The editors typically rejected most of the non-conceptual artists that I recommended for reviews. They simply responded “we don’t like the work.” Getting back to our previous conversation, what vision would you have for a new art magazine or internet webzine?

DK: To have writers with the best minds give a variety of points of view grouping several articles around a particular a theme. I would not just cover Chicago but would do what all the magazines do – cover different cities. I always thought that the ideal type of magazine would be a kind of journal that consisted of nothing but feuilletons – it’s a French term. These are pieces that are maybe 1000 to 1500 words and would cover the entire territory. Every artist would get the same space whether they are unknown or with a famous name or gallery. The article would deal with the current exhibition, the history of the artist’s development, and then locate their work in art history/intellectual history, presenting the work in a kind of double context.

DT: To give historical depth.

DK: French and German journals do this in their newspapers. It’s very serious and informative.

DT: It also cultivates a sincere audience.

DK: It appeals to an educated public and is not condescending, but it’s also not in a private language where you have to know “the code.”

DT: In other words the private language of theoretical jargon.

DK: Yet it has to have ideas for sure

DT: I imagine the French may also be good with a broader cultural perception because they invest so much in their cultural history.

DK: The Germans do it too. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is excellent if you read German. The publications on the European continent do this and they do it very well. There is no condescending to the audience and there is no sense of feeling superior.

DT: And no dumbing down.

DK: I always thought this would be the perfect magazine, like an international art journal. Everybody gets the same amount of space so it’s egalitarian.

DT: It’s democratic that way.

DK: Exactly. It could be a young artist showing for the first time, or an older artist, or whatever. That would be my model. I do not know if it’s possible to create in our present times.

DT: There is a large audience that is not being served by the current magazines. Many critics today have a sense of disgust about what’s going on. What is offered is boring and does not offer substantial, or in the case of theory even comprehensible, engagement. A reading public does not want to have to read Foucault or Derrida in order to “understand” an art show. Most art which is written about in todays art periodicals are based on tastes that reflect marketing/commodity and/or conceptual/theoretical imperatives. During a previous conversation you mentioned that the interests of some 70% to 80% of the art viewing audience is being left out – not served – by the publishing industry at this time.

DK: There is also another matter that touches on this art/culture audience issue and how that engages certain very smart people. They find a lot of what they see in the galleries is tedious and irrelevant to anything. It is perceived as an “in house” kind of phenomenon: artists speaking for artists. They see it as having no larger resonance.

DT: Does this have to do with being caught in the machinations of an all too deterministic art education/museum/market/gallery system?

DK: I’ve heard various people say there are too many artists, that it’s easy to become an artist, that many of the works are knock-offs of other works. I don’t think that’s completely true, but the point seems to be how to make sense of all of this production, and why, apart from acknowledging and respecting the artist’s assertion of his or her creativity, why it is worth the trouble.

DT: Not everyone can say they run a dance company (like my sister) but just about anyone today can say they are an “artist.” It’s an epidemic…

DK: It’s uncreative.

DT: It has become a blasé kind of catch-word.

DK: It’s trendy.

DT: I have also noticed how corporations use it as a tagline “be imaginative, be creative” but the agenda they push for is often to create the opposite, to create conformity, perhaps even a kind of groupthink, which is dangerous.

DK: Well, that’s a big issue. I don’t know. But if you really want to create a new publication I think the core issue is to get intelligent writers who are sophisticated and who take the trouble to look at what is interesting.

DT: A good writer needs to substantiate their claims. You cannot do what Douglas Crimp does and hide behind walls and walls of theoretical text. You have to talk about the work in a way that the audience can comprehend.

DK: In fact I have found that people are sort of conservative. They have an idea of what they know in some sense. It’s really about a kind of an inertial system in some way, where intuitive knowledge keeps going in the same direction until something knocks it off its track.

DT: Historically Chicago has some of that conservative inertia. We still have a lot of artists influenced by Imagism and fantastic/narrative imagery. Jim Valerio still remains one of the most interesting nationally recognized realist painters. On another subject Blake Gopnik wrote in a column for wrote for Newsweek [Pop Goes the Art Bubble Dec. 10, 2012] that claimed that because of the commodification of art everything has changed. Every gallery show needs to pay for itself, which means their artists feel increasing pressure to make commercial work. This is not just happening in the art world, it is happening everywhere. You have already discussed with me the insecure nature of power. Can you speak more specifically about how the commodification and business of art appropriates everything in its path? Projecting from the time you wrote the essay Art Values or Money Values in 2007 what has changed?

DK: Well, my thinking has changed in a number of ways but first taking this statement by Gopnik, it’s an overgeneralization. You can look at it two ways. There has always been a connection between art and power. Now it is not the same [historical] power of the church or the power of the state, though those are big economic powers still, but it is capitalist power.

DT: Are we going through the stages of late capitalism now?

DK: I don’t know. It’s like the late Roman Empire. It went on for a hell of a long time. There was an article in The Economist a few months ago called “State Capitalism.” We’re back to state capitalism. The state is pouring in lots of money to support social institutions. The other day on the CNN News they stated that if the government did not have quantitative easing the market would be down about 20% to 30% so there’s all this money being poured by the government.

DT: The Fed’s moving on these issues…

DK: Just like in China only it’s a different political structure. So first of all my own perception is I would make a European distinction between a dealer and a gallerist. Sometimes the line gets blurred. A dealer is someone who can sell anything – shoelaces, works of art, whatever the market will have. The gallerist has a certain point of view, a certain perspective. Kahnweiler is a classic example of that kind of dealer.

DT: And Ambrose Vollard.

DK: Vollard and Thorsten Walden. These were people who were, shall we say, on the early wave of 20th Century Modernism. They rode the crest. They saw something important was happening. They saw what was significant, why a certain artist was important and they tried to write about it.

DT: They were engaged in a very rich artistic praxis that could be identified. The artists could find each other. They were not lost in a crowd.

DK: They had to sell. Money was the lubricant. And the question is whether the money is the means of getting the art out there, getting it across, or whether the money wants to invest in money in another form.

DT: In other words whether or not it’s going to be part of a market structure first.

DK: Well exactly, whether the value is based on making an investment that the purchaser expects will increase. There was an article I recently read about a collector who said his art was an investment and he expected it to go continually up in value. If you look at past 19th Century art you will see it had gone up and come down in value. This collector made it quite explicit that he was investing. The question is what are you investing in? If you are investing in Google or Microsoft you got a certain product that has a use value. People like the product. Now the question that haunts all of this is what is the use value of the art? Aesthetic use value? Human use value? Social/communal use value? Status symbol? Or is it just for the profit – the surplus value? Let’s go over the famous Marxist distinction between labor value, use value, surplus value and then add to that art’s exhibition value.

DT: Interesting…

DK: Let’s say you want to make a Nike shoe. You have a materials cost – rubber, leather etc.- and the cost of assembling the shoe – the labor value of let’s say $1.50. Then you have to advertise the product – make it a spectacle and sell it. That’s part of the labor value. Then you get a use value – you can use the shoe for running which will last several years. Then there is the profit – the surplus value. After assembly and advertising costs I have spent $10 per pair of shoes. I can sell it for $100. I have got a surplus value of $90. I take this money and plow some of it back into the company to improve it. When it comes to art there is in addition an exhibition value.

DT: Yes, that’s the claim.

DK: It looks good. Somehow it evokes a different look. It is integrated into design and design features, whatever. Now the question this comes down to is what is the use value of exhibition value?

DT: (laughs) yeah, we’ve gotten back to that!

DK: So an artist wants an exhibition to show their work to people who are officially interested in art, to historians, or to aficionados. But what are they getting out of it? What’s the use? I once knew a very prominent collector who said to me “I buy two of everything.”

DT: No matter what the art was?

DK: Anything new. Two of everything.

DT: For what reason?

DK: In case something “flips” in the market. The real deciding place for the “value” of art today is the auctions.

DT: That’s right. Are the auctions the only decider?

DK: Well galleries do set a price. There was a very smart student of mine who got a Masters in art history. He realized there were virtually no jobs in his degree field, so he decided to work for a gallery. He is now the director. He started out working for a gallery on the Lower East Side. All kinds of collectors would come there. And – this is a true story – he told me all that the art they wanted they considered precious, but they wanted their 15% off. So lets say for work worth a million and a half dollars they would state “That’s fine but give me my 15% off.”

DT: (laughs)

DK: I think the point is, according to him, they were going around the Lower East Side trying to find some artists they might collect rather than on the Upper East Side or in Chelsea.

DT: They were shopping around for hot commodities?

DK: They were shopping around at the 5 & Dime in hopes of finding a diamond in the rough.

DT: (laughs) Yes – they do that in art schools too.

DK: That’s right. They go to art schools and look around…

DT: They check out the graduating class…

DK: The New York Academy of Art has an exhibition at the end of the year. One of their studios is used to raise money for the school. They exhibit new or small pieces. The maximum price for any work is $500. The artists set it. If you got $500 to spare, and a number of people do, they will buy the art.

DT: About this famous collector you knew. Why was he buying two pieces at a time?

DK: Hoping it would “click” economically although she had a very brilliant curator who knew “what was hot.”

DT: Getting back to what Blake Gopnik had said…

DK: He’s overstating it. I think there are a lot of dealers who really do believe in the art they show. They feel it is important BUT they also have to make a living. It’s a business.

DT: It’s true we do live in an intensely market driven society today.

DK: It connects up with style, with prestige, and with status. If you look at the background of the Frick Gallery it was established as a way to convey art as a high creative attainment.

DT: A lot of the Robber Barons would polish their image by buying another Holbein or Rembrandt.

DK: They collected art that was certified, that stood the test of time.

DT: Right.

DK: One of the problems now is that there is no test of time anymore.

DT: Right now critics are turning away from the money oriented art culture underpinning the art world. The argumentative and interpretive contentions that used to exist between and among critics seems to have been overshadowed by the power of the market.

DK: Who said this, Mr. Gopnik again?

DT: No, this is just a general observation of what seems to embattle critics today, for example David Hickey, Peter Schjeldahl…

DK: You know David Hickey has quit? He’s made this statement that he’s not going to be dealing with art anymore.

DT: He is just going to dump it.

DK: Maybe he has nothing more to say from his point of view…

DT: From his point of view, right. There remain plenty of questions and criticisms about what that was. There does currently seem to be an exodus of art critics from the art world, something they had traditionally always been a part of. In the 1970’s and 80’s critics used to argue for and against art world positions, something which writers for the New Art Examiner always did.

DK: Right.

DT: You would get one article supporting a claim and the next article countering it. The debate would begin. But now there seems to be a confrontation in the publishing industry against anything that offers critical debate. The power of the art market seems to have overshadowed critical conversation.

DK: I would agree with that.

DT: I noticed this division developing over time. You saw it long before it became an epidemic. It seems that older art critics often feel disgust with the current art system – whatever the issues, debates, and arguments between themselves used to be. Do you feel too may writers and critics have empowered the destruction of engaging historical meaning in art through their own participation and trust in questionable aspects of the current art world systems and institutions? Is this in part of the reason why the art world today finds art critics so dispensable?

DK: It’s an interesting question.

DT: In other words did art critics former trust and engagement in a system that they did not adequately comprehend undermine their role as critics? In many of your essays you discuss the big changes that happened in museum culture, the roles of curators, artists and dealers throughout the 1980’s and into the 2000’s. Several of these seminal essays in your anthologies are The Phenomenological Approach to Artistic Intention, The Artist in Soho, Art is Dead Long Live Artistic Management, and Art Values or Money Values? You trace a critical trajectory that is almost diagnostic in a kind of way.

DK: That’s right.

DT: You seem to have always maintained the necessity of maintaining critical distance in order preserve critical consciousness as a necessary way to perceive what was happening, even way back in the 70’s. I am interested in your view of why it seems many critical voices are leaving the field of engagement with art. Did they lack the critical depth to perceive what was coming, or is there something else that I am leaving out? Has there been a big cultural shift that goes beyond the scope of what I have been discussing?

DK: That’s a very interesting question. The first thing that comes to mind is considering two great critics connected to Abstract Expressionism: Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. They had serious convictions in society and politics as well. They came from a certain point of view. They were educated serious minds at a time when American art was “taking over” from European art. The art world was smaller than it is today so critical voices mattered at that time. However lets remember this: Greenberg also worked for a gallery. He did that for one year.

DT: Was that in the 40’s?

DK: It was in the 50’s I believe. He supported Abstract Expressionism. It was a time when art was important and desperate. There was this thing called the Avant Garde.

DT: At that same time America had a vision of itself as having an inferior culture when compared to Europe. The Abstract Expressionists were in thrall to the European Surrealists from whom they had learned abstract automatism. The creation of own identity was something of an ecstatic revelation even to themselves.

DK: Yes I agree with that.

DT: It is interesting that DeKooning was practically a homeless pauper at the time he made his famous painting Excavation in 1950. It in brings to mind the sense of steely self belief you needed to survive as an American artist before the 50s.

DK: That’s a good way to put it. But what I want to point out, getting back to the economic question, is that Greenberg, and a lot of American art in general, was supported by the United States Government. The US sponsored a big exhibition of American art that went through Europe. It resulted in this sense that America was now very important, even more so than Europe. The US had nationalist motivations which were tied up with socio-economic intentions. So economics were always part of it. But Meyer Shapiro pinpointed an important issue when he said you have to distinguish between the property/ commercial value of art – what you can sell it for – from its spiritual value: its civilized meaning, its cultural meaning, its psycho-social meaning, its giest, what it does for consciousness. Now there is no question that art has always been “precious property” for whatever reason – a rare item. It is unique and not everybody can create it. What I think has happened is the balance between let’s call it the socio-economic-property/spiritualist value of art has tilted toward the property value of art.

DT: And this has happened since the 70s?

DK: I think it has something to do with the larger society. This may seem strange to say but I think it’s connected with things like the national debt, the devaluation of the dollar, and the devaluation of the United States in general. You many have heard the statement “money is worthless, equities are worthless, and art is the new equity.”

DT: Yes, collectors are pouring money into art as a form of equity.

DK: That’s right, because there is always somebody around, some oil-rich Eskimo, that wants to decorate his home. What’s happening now is art is a prestige item. I read an article in The Economist about a prince from an oil rich middle eastern country who is going around buying art for $30 or $40 million a painting because when they run out of oil there has got to be a reason to go to the desert.

DT: (laughs) Yes, similar to what Frank Gerry’s museum did for Bilbao in Spain.

DK: Yes, exactly. So I would say that since the time of Vietnam there has been, despite all the bluster about American power, uncertainty about what has been going on. In the 60’s you had Vietnam, then the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, and then the whole Selma business. 1968 was quite horrendous and the country ended up being shaken. Later on you had 9/11, followed by the 2008 economic shock called the ”Great Recession” which is a fancy word for another depression.

DT: It’s a slow motion depression in fact.

DK: We are in stagnation, where’s the pickup?

DT: It’s been a jobless recovery.

DK: So the art is thought of as an equity backup.

DT: Right. It’s a monetary “guarantee” within our unstable economic system.

DK: And that’s why critical discourse outside of the academy has become a subsidiary to it. Still it’s important to have some nice words said about art…

DT: So long as they are not bad ones…

DK: Not bad words. In my view the way around this is to analyze and interpret art. You need to pick your choices judiciously for some reason.

DT: You need to have enough of a cultural scope – to get some distance from the circumstances surrounding work and how it exists situationally in the art world – in order to get real critical distance from it. Perspective is wanting.

DK: Right. Exactly. In addition, generally speaking, there is also another thing that a critic must do. You really have to keep your eyes open to the range of what is there.

End of Part 1