PRINT February 1988


The following conversation is an excerpt from the editorial discussion that explored some of the reasons for doing this issue. It preceded our meetings with our guests in this project.

Ingrid Sischy, 35: I think the place for us to start, just so we get our ground, is to try to roughly sketch out why we want to take on these three letters a g e in the first place.

Thomas McEvilley, 48: Well right away we’d better talk about the problem of using the word “age.” I mean for one thing, when you bring this up to someone and you say We’d like to have a conversation with you about age, they immediately think you’re saying that they’re getting old. Plus the word has got this multiplicity built into it, which Wittgenstein called its language game. Wittgenstein pointed out that every word has a number of usages, and he said there would not be any consistency among these usages. We’ve got that in extreme with the word “age.”

35: That’s good.

Germano Celant, 47: In a way, the idea of age is implicit in the idea of modernity, the idea of constantly making life new, the idea of the new as a propulsive system for change in design, creativity, and so forth. Age is, or has been, a way of judging, a way of deciding what is new and what is past and what is present. And we now seem to be at the end of modernity’s certainty about such an agist framework.

48: Yes, phenomena like the pluralism we’ve had, both in art and beyond, are signs that our culture has lost its dominant self-definition and now is seeking around almost randomly or wildly for some redefinition. For me, this is what post-Modernism is about. And the need for a new shape or idea or self-image is really strong. It seems to me that the great question that our culture faces now is whether it’s going to have the resilience to redefine itself and take off again. Instead, it might rigidify, or, as we’ve already seen, attempt to revive a definition that has really lived itself out. So it’s a disorienting time, but I don’t think this situation of a loss of definition in meaning and so forth is gloom in itself. Quite the contrary. For me, the ’50s were gloom, when our culture was really strong on a certain unified ideological basis.

I experience this loss of definition as a liberating opportunity. Chinese culture, for example, was old already in the Han dynasty; then it managed to incorporate outside influence, redefine itself under that influence, and really take off again in the T’ang dynasty. It has gone through about three or four of these cycles. The same kind of incorporation of outside elements took place in ancient Roman culture, when it became Greco-Roman—again it took off, went on for centuries, and finally ended only because it was knocked off by external forces, by migrations and conquests.

Lucas Samaras, 51: I think it’s difficult and presumptuous to say we are at the end of an age. Who the hell knows? We can’t know. I was looking at some expressionist painting two days ago and I thought, that’s kind of dead at the moment. Or, if “dead” is too strong, it’s sleeping. But twenty years from now it may be vital again, or have some kind of other meaning. Whatever we had yesterday may be “dead” already, but these are quick deaths, quick little things, quite different from the grand thing that you are talking about.

48: No one here is suggesting “end” in any epic or apocalyptic sense—quite the reverse. The structure of Modernism is what implied that. I’m talking about the loosening up of that structure that we’re witnessing. Look at all the nouns we put the words “post” and “late” in front of—late capitalism, late Modernism, postindustrial, post-Modernism, posthistorical. According to Claude Lévi-Strauss, an aged culture enters a period when it primarily produces and processes information rather than goods. I think this is happening in the West. Our material goods are being produced in Tokyo and Hong Kong, our manufacturing is in decline, and we are producing and processing information in extraordinary quantities. There’s a proliferation of books, a proliferation of documentation and storage of information. It may be unnecessary or duplicated or even pure fiction, but nevertheless it’s all information. The culture has become its own archivist.

47: Yes, and look at the storage situation in art. Right now I’m studying the quantity of artwork that is not on view in museums. Typically only three percent of a collection can be seen by the public today. I calculate that every ten years there are 30 million pieces made. You do your multiplication, and that’s the quantity of work arriving on stage. I’m not even thinking about what doesn’t make it into the system. Where do these works go? Lately we talk so much about the weight of the past; what about the weight of the present?

48: Art has been produced in this kind of bulk before. The Romans did a flood of imitations of classical Greek statues, tens of thousands of them.

51: To talk about the production of art in terms of tonnage is to reject the idea of art. I mean Germano, you say there are 30 million of however many artworks produced every year. I say there are five works of art made every year. Still, I won’t argue that the system’s bursting. It’s art education that causes the shift. Education is the foundation of an information culture.

48: This phenomenon of a so-called “new generation” arising every year or so, this quick turnover, like on a chicken farm or something, seems another sign of an aging culture seeking freshness.

35: To me it is interesting to look at age in terms of how our idea of it as a process is changing right now. There are a lot of contradictions: the unglorified image of human age is still pushed away by our society, the old are still treated as outsiders, whereas the idea that an object has aged seems only to increase the culture’s sense of its esthetic value. On so many levels age isn’t witnessed as a “natural” process anymore. Generations don’t age together under one roof. And look at the cosmetic market for de-aging. Then there’s the new/old art. Some obvious examples of the accelerated old look in painting today are old-style varnishing of brand-new canvases, a practice that our times had until recently reserved for academics and Sunday painters; forced distressing of surfaces, so they look as though they’ve really “lived”; predating of art works, and copycatting of the masterpiece styles or works from before.

35: I’d like to ask if any of you agree with this idea that the drama of today is the projection of age, not the process.

47: In a certain way the late ’40s and ’50s mark the beginning of the contemporary discussion of age. It’s to do with the acceleration of pleasure, the speed of consumption. After the war, people accelerated their knowledge of sex and of the body. It was in part a reaction to the wartime fear of death and of physical privation. There was the famous baby boom, and then eventually the youth culture. Relating the concept of age to the concept of pleasure might seem a contradiction, but actually it’s interesting to think about them together. The word “decadent,” after all, is another buzzword of our culture.

Also, to wear age like a costume the way so much artwork does today is another way of looking like an expert, as though looking back over the culture the way you might look back over a long full life. Watch today’s advertising: in the recent past you practically never saw anyone over twenty-five, but now there are all these incredible ads with older people saying, I’m in great shape. All this is becoming sexy. Of course, it’s partly because of that phenomenon of a growing percentage of older people in the population and the growing market of older consumers, but there’s something more to all this. Today age is prestigious in a theatrical way. The objects and people who have known how to glamorize age are looked at and admired; the others remain in the low esteem in which modernization has always held age.

The projection of age today is a cosmetic operation, in reverse of how we usually think of such a procedure. It speeds up the image of maturity. The traditional symbols of age, of “having arrived,” are achieved through the museum’s early retrospectives, and through the galleries’ intensified showcasing of young artists not once every three or four years, but, it seems, as often as possible. Today you don’t age in private and then appear; you age in full view, and in terms of symbols.

Look at retrospectives and how different they are now. They used to be a way of looking back at certain artists and doing a reading of a certain period. They were an attempt to make an interpretation of something past—often a kind of tombstone. You still get that sort of show sometimes, but you also get the retrospective being used as a guaranteed label that you are mature. Once, the retrospective looked back at your maturity; now it announces it. Maybe, if it comes when you’re young enough, it even anticipates your maturity. It says not that you are a good artist but that you will be a good artist. It’s like gambling that a horse will place.

51: Doesn’t that come into the picture in the ’60s or late ’50s? Rauschenberg and Johns were young when they became forces to be reckoned with, whereas de Kooning and Pollock matured without vast media attention, or an international audience looking in. Yet Pollock died in his early ’40s, so he was also a young master, particularly since his best works were done maybe ten years or so before he died. So we’ve already had almost a history of artist postprodigies. Let’s not forget Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, not to mention a whole slew from the 19th century, and further forward to Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo.

However, the retrospective is less dangerous physically than it used to be. In the old days a retrospective for a mature artist was really the kiss of death, because they actually died. The excitement was so much.

35: Do you mean they died in the mind of the world?

51: Physically dead.

35: Really?

51: Grave, you know, died, dead, done. There is the problem of what all this mediafication and publification does to a person when it comes with such rapidity as it does today. When artists begin they sell their work for practically nothing, and then if they happen to be good, within ten years or something there is an astronomical increase. Which is a terrifically difficult thing to absorb. It just boggles the mind. How can that be? Because the object doesn’t change, just its perceived value does. It was always a masterpiece, you know, or else it wasn’t. This is enormously disturbing. It’s almost as if in the beginning society says, you’re a thief, you know, you’re a murderer, you’re nothing. You’re a black sheep. You’re a nonentity. And then five years later they say you’re the genius of the age. You’re sublime. You are the aristocrat. You are the king. It’s extremely disturbing for the artist.

47: I have another thought about art in this age, especially about the work that quotes past iconography, past masters, past styles, et cetera. Can we gather from all this that the arts at this moment are “conservative,”—in the sense of “conservation”? They’re keeping a value going. They’re going to extremes to do so, in terms of money, in terms of the public image of the artist. Art is also very “conservative” now in comparison with technology. Computers have moved the familiar schedule of time out of our control—you know, there are these incredibly fast computation processes that our minds can’t follow—and art is also keeping the subject of time on the surface and visible.

35: In fact it’s mixing up time, contradicting the limited view of age that we live with in Modern life. It’s throwing in as many wrinkles as it can to mock that horrible tick tock of the punched clock.

Another place where you are enveloped by the play on before and after is architecture. I was amused to see the new theater extension of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a cultivated ruinedness where plaster drips à la go-go Rococo. So apt for their series, which is titled “The Next Wave.”

47: Since a lot of avant-garde art disappears, you have to find traces of it, reconstruct it, and so although the ruin you describe sounds like a weird site for a program self-described as avant-garde, there’s a certain harmony to the two together: Although it was probably meant as a clash.

51: Well, a desire for ruin is in a way a desire for youth—for something from a younger day. In a strange way, you can take the decrepit object to stand for youth.

35: Do you think the construction of pseudo ruins is also a subliminal attempt to avoid a war? Because one of the things you get with war is ruins. So wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could preempt war, skip its actual event?

48: When artists and architects, and writers too, appropriate or incorporate some prior or ancient element into their work, part of what is happening is a redefinition of it, a shaking it loose from its former meaning. Before a new meaning can be formed, the old one has to be exorcised, as it were, its definitions confused and scattered. If the past is shown as a ruin it may fertilize the soil out of which a different concept of the future will grow. So that the ruin can be a kind of metaphoric picture of a present in transition.

47: Age is becoming a mark of distinction. Money value and social prestige are still high on the power list, but to “age well” is a form of survival.

35: You know, I’ve been thinking about the switch in collective romance. There was a period when our cult figures, I’m speaking Woodstock generation, were the renegades, often with a profile of being deeply self-destructive. It was as if the bigger their defiance of social mores, especially of what to do with the body—who was allowed to love it and how, what not to put in it—the more we loved them, because they were soldiers on the same battlefield. And now the long shadow of death, the giant hole of loss, has us almost repelled by anyone who would willfully self-destruct. Our romance, our dream, our desire is on the side of survival.

51: There’s another aspect to the survivors. You know what they do, they make you tremble, tremble with this fantastic warmth or emotion or whatever. I’m even thinking of the World War survivors versus the dead ones. The dead one is dead. It’s a closed book, you know. The survivors are in front of you and you tremble at that whole magic of them having escaped death and also containing death within themselves. It’s similar with artists who were great thirty years ago and are still alive, you have this trembling feeling.

35: And perhaps that’s why people love old art so much, and why they always ask about new art, But will it survive? And now, with the masterpiece quoting we’re seeing, we get instant masterpieces that don’t have to age in the old way: they don’t age in time. They can race time before they fall into the traps of changing fashions and quick turnover.

48: But it’s peculiar that there’s more of a positive value put on age, because at the same time we know that certain types of respect and admiration and success are coming younger and younger.

51: It’s an age of power that’s fashionable now. If we talk about an age of age, we also have to keep in mind how much power is in the hands of old people today. You have the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Pope, Reagan. In Russia now there’s an attempt to lower the age of the rulers, and it is extremely dramatic to see the relative youth of Gorbachev.

48: Joan Collins power.

35: The Golden Girls power.

51: Isn’t self-preservation also a sign of wealth, or at least of financial well-being? Wealthy people are often cosmetically attractive, while the poorer ones may find it harder just to stay healthy. Those who can afford it get their tucks and lifts and whatever. Physical betterment is in a sense the highest form of cosmetics we have. Why buy a jewel? Make yourself into a jewel. And isn’t age always what happens to other people, or what happens in the mirror? It doesn’t happen to you. As long as I’m not looking in the mirror, I forget about my aging.

47: Yes, but today the mirror of age is everywhere. The photograph, the gym —our reflections proliferate more and more, as do the reflections of the past.

35: And each sign of aging well becomes a sign of the luxury of time. It’s almost become like what Tom told me about Lascaux: the life expectancy of those ancient people was about 27. In the shadow of AIDS old age becomes a very precious thing again, very, very precious.

51: Strangely, I think I don’t differentiate between an old person dying and a young person dying. When they die, all I know is I lost them. And they have the same impact. There are these individuals that I want to talk to, and I cannot talk to them anymore except in my mind.

48: Although they’re both almost always too soon, I’m not sure their deaths have the same impact. In the last couple of years I have experienced the deaths of a 15-year-old relative, a 21-year-old relative, and a 75-year-old relative. And my feelings were very different. They were all people I valued enormously and loved. In terms of the older death, it’s hard to feel cheated or deprived if someone who is 75 years old dies, who has had a rich and full life. But when someone who is 21 years old dies, I think one has the feeling, or anyway I did, that one almost hadn’t had a chance to know him yet.

47: Since the end of the war, the idea of controlling death has been symbolically very strong. We’ve had partial peace, we’ve had medical advances. Now, in this immunological age, death is starting to be part of our collective lives again, as something we cannot control by holding it in abeyance. And so there are many wrinkles in what we thought was going to be our perfect culture, our miracle of science, our utopia of progress and order: There is now a crisis as we move from our phallic culture into another condition of—

51: Why call it phallic?

47: It has to do with the emphases on a perfectly rigid cultural body.

51: I still say, why call it phallic?

35: It’s a metaphor. He’s reaching, I know, but there was this element of rigidity that pushed away all wrinkles in the system, that wanted progress, that wanted at all cost to “keep it up.”

51: Oh. Why didn’t he say it that way?

35: I’m his translator.

As you were talking, I was thinking about the wrinkle that the copycat artists bring to ideas about dating, and the whole way that we’ve come to categorize certain ages in art. Why do you think that for some it is more exciting to see the copyist artwork than the actual one? Is it a voyeurism, where the viewer becomes part of a ménage à trois, or, more violently, becomes the witness watching a rape?

47: There are so many possible answers to your question. But one is that we’re glued to the magnetic force that we sense motivates this generations attraction to what already exists, and more specifically to works that have age.

48: Also, the copy artists are somehow freeing us from the originals, which had almost lain like a weight over our heads as some kind of inherited tradition or obligation. And quotationalism brings out into the open what was always a fact, namely that all art to a great degree is constituted of influences—whether through rejection, acceptance, memory, et cetera—concealed by other ingredients.

35: Right, but these artists also reverse our understanding of influence. The choice of what to copycat influences what we remember of history, and how we feel about the work that is copied, so it’s as if they’re influencing what came before rather than the other way around.

51: But seen another way, this work continues the adolescent battle against the old.

35: Or the love affair with it. Many of the sources chosen or styles appropriated had been as good as dead, as it were, in the mausoleums of the museums, or had even been cast aside as “over”—Op art, for example. Thus they’re keeping the dead alive. And that’s not a little thing.

51: What about the craft fanaticism of some of these copy artists? They take the accident out of art. That kind of order reminds me of people playing soldiers, putting uniforms on and going out in the woods training. But then there’s an area of cynicism or awareness in it that places it on a higher level.

47: It puts a question to change for change’s sake. When what you get in the ’80s is superficially identical to what you got in the ’50s and ’60s, that deliberately screws up the deterministic art-historical schedule, which had been running as efficiently as a Cadillac. Both the dating system and the planned obsolescence are blown open. Also, when everything changes so fast, when everything has to he new in order to be consumed, to be new is not rare, is not “original.” To be old has become “original.” That’s another reason age is glamorous.

48: Suddenly any time we want can jumble in on us. All of history seems equally accessible and equally present, as it were.

51: We wanted to dominate our age. We wanted to put our stamp on it. You know, for certain periods of art history you think of certain artists who define that age for you. But I think a lot of people today want to live in a kind of state of litany again, a repetitive moving song. So this is a kind of dance, almost an animalistic thing, repetitious but soothing, extremely soothing.

If I may again disturb the sequence a little bit, it’s also interesting to me that the same kind of art activity can present itself at one time and not be taken seriously and then present itself again and be taken very seriously. To name just one, Elaine Sturtevant was doing this kind of quotation in the ’60s. We didn’t take it seriously, you know. Then twenty years later somebody else does exactly the same concept, and kaboom, it becomes mysterious and magical and has power.

48: Don’t you think that it was too early for it to seem to make sense in the ’60s, when much of American culture was still driving optimistically onward? Also, I imagine the work was made then out of a different understanding than it is now. I suspect that for Sturtevant to do a Warhol in the early ’60s is quite a different thing—it was a simultaneous presentation—from artists today who may feel excluded, by accident of age, from participating in a kind of golden age, and who by copying earlier art participate in a kind of replay of the period. That to me, incidentally, is an extremely despairing and diluting view of their work. I prefer the view that they are not so much replaying the past as relativizing our perceptions of it and assumptions about “what’s next.” But I think each of these views is true in individual cases.

51: The art that Sturtevant aped had been produced literally a moment before. She was actually a friend of all these people, and she would go into their studios and see their work and then go and do her copies. And it was intriguing, but it was a little bit like a sophisticate’s thing to do. It was almost dandyish.

There’s something funny in talking about the originality of a copying process. Copying is as old as Adam. There’s something that’s equally old, perhaps even emanating from the garden of Allah, which is the snake—

35: The magic flaw—

51: Permitting a mistake. Imperfect things are vehicles for our own escape into knowledge. Witness the freak. We might want to think of the idea of the freak as being outside of time. So that when you look at some paintings, for example, in the early 20th century, they don’t belong to the 20th century. Who knows where they belong? The freak tends to have greater mystery than the style of a time.

35: It’s like missing a plane that crashes. You survive by being off schedule, or what Lucas calls out of time. Why else do we want to throw the idea of schedule off in this issue of age that we’re planning? We must want to, because we keep on talking about art and ideas that contradict the cells and bars set up around age.

48: What the Modernist schedule did was strip itself down into such a high streamline that it excluded everything that wasn’t scheduled. And we got a schedule that seemed too limited and tight, that didn’t recognize enough options. And now that the schemes are showing their schisms we want to magnify the open space that they suggest.

47: If history and time can be deterritorialized, then numbers and dates can take on a different meaning. They can disobey any preconceived structure in order to challenge it—so age can be underlined and then blanked. Why would we want to underline and then blank ◼︎? Because the way ◼︎ is used has become a judgment, and a way to exclude, to cut away, and make everyone and everything obsolete. The term “old ◼︎” excludes the young, and the term “young” excludes the old. The term “middle ◼︎” is the crossing point, the dash in language—perhaps a good place to see both sides from, and therefore the core of the explosion of ◼︎ as a petrified system, both in history and in personal life. The explosion can involve a whisper, a word, a number a magazine—perhaps even, say, a pagination. Deterritorialized numbers can serve to exorcise dates/schedules/◼︎, and they can open up the enigma of the imagination.

51: To a magma of contradictions.

Special thanks for this issue to Germano Celant, David Frankel, Melissa Harris, Tibor Kalman, Andy May, Thomas McEvilley, Emily Oberman, Nicole Potter, Lucas Samaras, and Virginia Braden.—I.S.