PRINT May 1982

Necrophilia, Mon Amour

(THE COMMENTS I’VE WRITTEN HERE were written in one sitting and basically as you find them. I’ve tried to be as chatty as possible; it seemed appropriate to the form of this project. Needless to say the excerpted portions of the conversation that accompany my text here, in gray, become only a quasi-factual account; not that people didn’t say what is attributed to them, but the transformation of an oral discussion into a written text is nothing less than radical. Often, because of multiple voice-overs, the transcriber is obliged to approximate or reconstruct with only parts of the dialogue. I’ve tried to leave such parts out, but it is always a pity: they tend to be the heated or excited parts of the conversation. Also, I’ve tried to choose portions in which people other than myself speak, since I have the last word here.)

I have friends, whose opinions I respect, who maintain that for me to consider the work that I discuss here is to lend credibility to it. They say if we all remain silent it will quietly disappear, like photo-realism or pattern painting. I disagree, for two reasons. First, the issues at stake have become too crucial to ignore any longer, and second, because I don’t really think the, uh, ‘shelf life’ of weak work can be terribly extended by even reams of verbiage; but I do think that relevant work can suffer from a lack of a critical dialogue. Artists who don’t risk asking themselves hard questions about what they are doing,1 and about what others are doing, can’t grow. The dialogue is necessary in order to see the work, and find out its relationship with the world. Simply looking at work won’t do it; we’re just too close to it.

We set up a discussion situation with people—other artists—who share a community and a problem. In some sense we are defined by our relationship to that problem—the problem being, from my point of view, the aftermath of what is unhappily titled ‘The End of Modernism,’ or, to be more upbeat, ‘The Beginning of Post-Modernism.’ Some of us around that table, I suppose, have been participants in one, the other, or both. But no one would want to press such claims; art historians jealously guard their preserve—when we’re as ‘smart’ as they we just get called self-serving. What is more relevant is that we are functioning artists, now. And we know Ad Reinhardt had a point when he said, “In art, the end is always the beginning.” The locus of the conversation was the effect we’ve had on each other’s present work because of, rather than in spite of, the kind of baggage we brought with us to that table. This wasn’t discussed, but it organized the discussion.

Anyway, as I have repeatedly said—and those who understand the value of hyperbole will appreciate it—artists work with meaning, not form (if such a separation were possible). To think the reverse is tantamount to saying that when you speak you think in terms of grammar (let’s see: I need a noun, a verb, a subject) rather than in terms of what you want to express. The analogy, once stated, is limited; language functions instrumentally in a way art does not. In art, the tradition of organized meaning functions as authority; it speaks louder than any individual can. The individual artist must rupture the forms of that authority; that is, he or she makes meaning by canceling, redirecting or reorganizing the forms of meaning that have gone before. It is in this sense that the art of this century—the ‘avant-garde’ tradition—is associated with the political. Since the demise of that historicist discourse called Modernism, a kind of generalized vacuum of meaning has seemed to develop. The discourse previously framed and gave meaning to work, but it now appears to have disintegrated. The art of the late ’60s bared the mechanism of Modernism, in a sense, and much of the self-reflexivity became, as a style, simply self-consciousness. Many younger artists, a couple of whom participated in the discussion which is the subject here, as art students naturally found some of us to be the representations of authority, and therefore of institutionalized meaning. The antithesis to what we appeared to represent, the rupture-device, seemed easy: use painting.2 To speak positively first, the better work in this category is more complicated than that; often it’s not simply painting but a reference to painting, a kind of visual quotation, as if the artists are using the found fragments of a broken discourse. (One thinks of the beach scene in Planet of the Apes).3 Such work has critically internalized the issues of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and in some ways, even if through negation, is tied to that earlier work. (One of the more charitable things I could say is that when the best of the work of certain younger artists is compared with the worst of the art that preceded it, the latter could be described as a test posing as an illustration and the former as an illustration posing as a test.)

I’m often asked what I have to say about this ‘rebirth’ of painting, since I have always maintained that painting was dead. Actually, when I first described it as dead I was a kid—and I was projecting into the future. Let’s just say that it’s dying—although a slower and more agonizing death than I at first thought. Of course, what one is talking about is the death of a particular belief-system, the death of certain meanings. In fact, this continuation of painting as a kind of ‘painted device’ is a necessary part of that ‘dying’ process. Work that had a critical relationship to painting external to it provided painting with a kind of meaning from the outside, as the other half of a dialectic. Obviously, such work couldn’t directly eclipse it in any widespread or permanent way because the dynamic of painting, due to the power of its rich history, had been established as a cultural institution for too long; customs can live on as formal conventions long after they’ve lost their meaning. I think the work of this period that will remain with us will do so in spite of the fact it’s painted. As for the rest, it continues the death of painting through its uncritical extolling of painting’s past virtues while it simultaneously devalues those same traditional qualities through bad craft and an intentional undermining of an earlier era’s concept of ‘quality’ through the confused identification of formal invention with the use of what becomes too simply ‘what those other guys left behind.’ In other words, such work devalues those same qualities that provide the authority from which it speaks—as a process it is in an entropic tailspin. Such work, unlike my generation’s critique of painting, is neither reflexive nor external, but becomes naively internalized; in short, it becomes actualized in practice as a kind of terminal illness. It seems that many artists are cannibalistically revisiting the earlier art of this century and canceling it through inflated but empty celebrations marketed as ‘formal invention.’ This erasing of earlier meaning seems destructive, rather than creative, precisely because the critical relationship is lacking. By using the earlier work as ‘nature’—something found, to be used—and not ‘culture,’ it is being depoliticized as an institution with economic and social meaning. It is through that (missing) critique and reflexiveness that one historically locates oneself and takes responsibility for the meaning one makes, which is the consciousness one produces. It’s that distancing that describes one’s own historical location; self-knowledge and the production of knowledge itself is impossible without it. The power of the work we see in museums is exactly this. It is the authenticity of the cultural production of a human being connected to his or her historical moment so concretely that the work is experienced as real; it is the passion of a creative intelligence to the present, which informs both the past and the future. It is not that the meaning of a work of art can transcend its time, but that a work of art describes the maker’s relationship to her or his context through the struggle to make meaning, and in so doing we get a glimpse of the life of the people who shared that meaning. (For this reason, one can never make ‘authentic’ art—in the sense given here—by simply attempting to replicate the forms of an earlier powerful art.)

In this sense all art is ‘expressionist.’4 But one must understand the complexity, even delicacy, of the way in which a work of art must be so singularly the concrete expression of an individual (or individuals) that it is no longer simply about that individual, but rather, is about the culture that made such expression possible. Because of this, Expressionism, as an institutionalized style, by focusing on the individual artist in a generalized way (abstracting that which must remain concrete) has become the least expressive art of our time. It is the preferred art form for the artists who have the least to say, because they count on the institution of Expressionism to do their talking for them. The “Wild Ones” couldn’t be tamer.

Let’s talk about money. The art market, which by nature is conservative—particularly in this country—loves paintings. Every illiterate, uncultured dingbat (rich or not) knows that paintings are art, are great investments, and look swell over the couch. Forget whatever historical necessity was thoughtfully felt by some artists for a return to painting; the market is delighted to have paintings hip again; it can pretend that the last 20 years didn’t happen, celebrating old hacks and new opportunists indiscriminately. How has this happened?5 That ‘vacuum of meaning’ caused by the collapse of the previous discourse (Modernism) and the, as yet, noticeable nonarrival of a replacement (‘post-Modernism’ is more of a notion than a discourse) has meant that new work is increasingly given its meaning by movement within the art market. Careers are made, not on new ideas, but new taste: as the cliché goes, art has begun to function in earnest as expensive fashion. Artists unheard of three years ago are commanding $40,000 a painting—prices it used to take artists a whole career to arrive at. Once, the idea of art historical importance stabilized the market value of an artist’s work, but prices no longer reflect this—how could they? Now they reflect speculation on short-term market scarcity; and the mode of painting is ideally suited to marketing scarcity. However, there may be problems in paradise. Sales at those prices are either between dealers (who don’t seem to keep the work for very long) or to, well, people who know little about art and take the dealers’ advice on à la mode investments. At those prices people get nervous, and when somebody else becomes chic, the newly arrived will unload (since their relationship to the work is superficial to begin with) and prices will most probably come crashing down—something not unlike what happened to the Greenberg gang in the late ’60s. The pity is that all this has very little to do with the art; certainly very little to do with the artist’s relationship to his or her work. But in the end it does because such pressure makes it very difficult for artists to go in the direction that their work is taking them. In such a situation there isn’t sufficient time for the work to be evaluated on its own terms and establish its own meaning. How many of us can be unaffected in our evaluation of work that got too hot too fast and then too cold too fast? When a work goes from $40,000 to, say, $8,000, will we still be able to see the ideas of the artist, or will we be looking instead at lapels too wide—or simply at ‘failure’? I think there is a certain responsibility of the artist to fight for the meaning of her or his work. It is as much a part of the making process as the manipulation of materials; without that struggle art becomes just another job.

The inarticulate murmurs of the art critical/historical establishment in the face of this market onslaught is noteworthy. Most of the ‘criticism’ is promotional, with the critics, like the dealers and collectors, trying to pick the ‘winners.’ Now this is certainly not new; some form of it is how careerism works. But with all the hoopla in the market and public media the dearth of analytical writing about this ‘new art’ isn’t just appalling, it’s frightening. I used to talk, in quasiconspiratorial terms, about an art critical/historical market complex (to mangle Eisenhower), but I’m willing to put that away in order to appeal to those critics (well, anyway, people who like to write about art) who fancy themselves as intellectuals (is that illegal yet?), to speak up. Sure, money talks, but it doesn’t have to be a monologue. I used to complain that artists had to struggle with art historians and critics for control of the meaning of work, but at least they have a name, a face, and ideas for which they can be held accountable.

There is something going on in the art world; it’s taking different forms in various countries, but its implications for this country are potentially profound. In America we tend to see cultural events in international terms: we can have no ‘national’ character yet, not in the profound sense, and so we made Modernism itself our culture. By exporting our provincialism we re-formed other cultures and made the mess look ‘universal.’ Our conception of Modernism spread with our economic and political power. Because our culture didn’t evolve from one place on the globe, we increasingly saw our location as a place in time—this century—rather than a place on Earth. We have exported a synthetic culture without a history—McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Hilton Hotel environments, and so on. To the extent that local cultures gave up their culture for ours, they of course lost control over the meaning-making mechanisms within their lives, and became politically and economically dependent on us. But both here and abroad something happened in the late ’60s—maybe the Vietnam war broke the bubble of our sales pitch. More and more, I think, artists in other countries began to re-examine the context of their life and their art—as the art we were making at the time necessitated—and they began to look less and less to America for ‘guidance.’ Nonetheless, experimental or ‘advanced’ art—the remains of what an earlier era called ‘avant-garde’—in this country has been supported by Europeans for the past 20 years. But it’s all rather paradoxical, at the least. While we were dependent on Europe for not just money but that discourse that provides meaning (the heavier intellectual production), they were dependent on that relationship to feel anchored in the 20th century, at least this half of it. It seems to be changing.7 The significance of, uh, ‘bye-bye to Modernism’ is that the European can look to his or her own culture for a context in which to work, but the Americans, as usual, will have to start again from scratch. The alienation our popular culture breeds hasn’t just turned off the Europeans, it’s turned us off. Making art, even just being involved with it, is one of the least alienating activities in our society. If that is subsumed by the forces of our economy, it’s a very bad sign—not just for our cultural life, but for our political life as well.6 Beyond the value of the work itself, the reason that Clemente and Chia will have an easier time of it then, say, Salle and Schnabel, is that even while addressing the issues of Modernism, the best contemporary Italian art has always indexed itself to its own history and culture. Contemporary Italian art never seemed to export well before; outside of Italy it always seemed less ‘international’ than the work of other countries. Some of the chauvinistic painting going on elsewhere in Europe is, of course, simplistic and vulgar, but whatever our judgment of it, one thing is certain: it will force a radical re-evaluation of American art, not just there, but here.

In our sociopolitical system, cultural engagement is expressed in economic terms; we can’t get away from that. Thus it won’t do to cast all art dealers and collectors as ogres. There have been great, creative dealers in this century who have been essential to the art being in the world; the warning being issued here is about the direction and character of a system, not a moralizing about individuals. (Regarding the moral problem, it is up to you, dear reader, to consider what your relationship is to the problem.) Beyond the obscenity of the present government administration, artists seem demoralized. I’ve seen, and I keep seeing, artists who have been working for years lose the personal meaning of their work as they begin to doubt their own history: it’s as though the value of their work is only the commercial value set by the market (if that were the case LeRoy Neiman and Andrew Wyeth would be among the greatest artists of our age). Denied the historicism of Modernism, denied the culture and history of an older nation, how will artists in America—and those who care about art—resist the almost total eclipse of meaning? The art market has been there all along, as has criticism of it, but what I’m discussing is a significant change in the quality of the relationship younger, supposedly radical, artists have with it, and the effect it is having on their work. Who we are, both as individuals and as a people, is inseparable from what our art means to us.

Joseph Kosuth


1. Richard Serra: “It’s interesting because in the ’60s the definition of an artist was open. What’s happened in the ’80s is the definition is determined and the framework’s determined, the galleries are determined, the institutions are determined. All you have to do [now] is satisfy the extension of what’s meaningful within this framework, but the notion of challenging is over for these people, they don’t even know about it. . . . You can look at what that work [of the ’60s] implies, right. Then you can look at the recoil, the reaction to that work. . . . So now we have Chagall.”

David Salle: “Looks good, he’s very hot right now.”

Richard Serra: “Yeah, Chagall’s hot. What I’m saying is that this generation right now accepted all the structure of making painting. The structures were already determined. Symbol, sign, iconography is up for grabs. Who can do it better than whoever. Whether it’s Keith Haring or David Salle or whatever. The movement will be as good as the people are to express it. . . . This movement is a little bit like the child of Pop Art dealing with the ethos of Abstract Expressionism, so there’s a contradiction. How do you get your feeling out in terms of contemporary iconography? I mean how do you love Pollock and Warhol and make a connection? There are two mythological figures in the culture—Pollock and Warhol. You have a lot of young painters and a few sculptors actually, but you have Warhol and Pollock standing for enormous notions of model figures for young painters to come up to. I mean, that’s what we’re talking about. What do they do about that contradiction . . .”

David Salle: “Are you asking me who my mythological figures are or are you imposing them on me?”

Richard Serra: “I’m not asking you, this thing is an accepted fact.”

David Salle: “Not to me.”

2. Sandro Chia: “Each artwork is a personal research for a certain identity. The work is the materialization of this research. Each painting, each sculpture is just a step that you reach in this opera, in all the work you do during your life and this is why art is more interesting than politics or society or anything else. Because this is the physical proof of metaphysical existence. This way is better than politics, because it doesn’t make up your mind.”

Kathy Acker: “What sort of tools and mechanics are you using now to keep on working?”

Sandro Chia: “I try to give as little importance to materials and tools as is possible. If I use brush and canvas and colors, I’m doing painting, and I find them to be the less paradoxical, the less sophisticated means of achieving my step in the big world because they are obvious and already assumed by the tradition in the work. So there is no investment in the materials. Don’t be distracted from the real substance of the work, which is not in the materials you use. The materials must be very secondary and marginal.”

3. Kathy Acker: “I was just asking David Salle how he worked—I was just saying I saw a painting of his that totally interested me. . . .”

David Salle: “On the most banal level it’s just deciding to identify with a certain image, even if the image is something which is an abstraction. The image of abstract painting . . . and then reacting to it by putting something next to it or adding something. That’s just the obvious. Now, I mean why that color bar? And the color bar came first. I had an idea that I wanted to make this painting that looked like a painting that you’d see in a movie, a kind of hip movie where the decor was from the ’60s or the late ’50s. That really was the starting point . . .”

Barbara Kruger: “When you said you identified with the image you didn’t say you presented this specific image, you said you identified with it.”

David Salle: “I said, after I decided to do it, then it was a process of identification, and then wanting to in a sense make visible why I thought it might be of some good in the first place. Because by itself, somehow, it’s not really visible . . .”

4. Lawrence Weiner: “We were just talking about Expressionism before you came in.”

Barbara Kruger: “Expressionism?”

Lawrence Weiner: “Yes, and what it constitutes. Joseph [Kosuth] was explaining what it constituted for him and I was questioning whether there was any way to say that the difference is that the Expressionism that I find a bit socially distasteful is the Expressionism that uses the idea of expression as the content rather than the context since all art is expressive and all art is a form of expression.”

Barbara Kruger: “Expressionism is identified with a history of work and to me that is the expression. It's the expression of where someone chooses to locate themselves within a particular practice more than it is a very valorized feeling.”

5. Richard Serra: “I’m talking about the weight of the content on the money. I never thought of the copper penny as being political. It’s got Lincoln’s head on it. I never thought of it as being political.”

Barbara Kruger: “Well, I do. Just the placement of Lincoln’s head is a specific indicator in terms of electoral processes, who we pick as our heroes, who we choose for our fathers.”

Richard Serra: “If you want to make the copper penny political you can make every painting in every gallery political. I think there was probably art on the money before there was money on the art.”

6. Sandro Chia: “During the 1960s an implicit and often explicit declaration in works by artists was that politics was a universal critical method applicable to everything. Artists wanted to open up art and politics for everyone. So you had an inflation of art, as well as of political, production. The result was that the artists actually ended up depriving people of the specifics of art and confusing practical political action with ideology. I think art is useful, socially useful only when it maintains distinct boundaries and intensifies itself rather than diffusing itself into everything.“

Barbara Kruger: “But what I’m saying is that what is that power that names the specific thing as a political event, rather than an ongoing sort of unraveling of events.”

7. Philip Glass: “I had a piece in Stuttgart where people returned the tickets because it was written by an American. The piece had been staged by a director from East Berlin and he had highly politicized the content of the opera, which wasn’t anything to do with me but that was the way he wanted to interpret it. That happens in the theater all the time, I had no objection to it but people didn’t go. There were some people who turned the tickets back because it was written by an American. That had never happened to me before, it was bizarre.”

Kathy Acker: “I know in France the publishers are cutting down on their publication of American authors. I’ve heard Mitterand has given some publishers money to publish French fiction and poetry.”

Philip Glass: “A lot of the people here began working because of a kind of internationalism in art—it seemed to be great for a while.”

Joseph Kosuth: “I think for a long time Europe was sending tickets for exhibitions and supporting the art of American artists and it was not reciprocated at all. I mean there were very few invitations to come here. Now, it’s different. It was really one way, one direction for a long time.”

Lawrence Weiner: “They’ve got national quotas in some of these big shows now. They say no more than 6% American, no more than 2% American, no more than 2% Canadian, no more than 3% Italian. It’s not a joke. And I’m totally astounded when I hear it and of course you can never get anybody to write it in print. There is no proof.”