When dreams turn into a dark nightmare, a small flickering flame extinguishable by a baby’s breath. It’s the realization of a nihilistic endgame, but its causes, and controlling forces are not always tangible, the reality is not transparent and the conjunction of circumstances leading to domination, humiliation and death, is a process of the volatility of the pathological enacting a bizarre settling of accounts. The happily ever after, the trite, bland expectation of something happy, the sense of entitlement crashing down in the false belief that beauty, the sense of perfection, exists beyond the merely angelic to encompass the lives of those believe to have been “the chosen.” Better to be radiant but broken, grasping for something to cling onto in the darkness, another hall of famer in the society of the de-familiar, that space out there marked by the detachment and estrangement of the self to be “without” and let everyone fill up on. There is a need for the broken and unredeemed, a ready-made urinal like Duchamp’s pissoir to vent into; signed R.Mutt, which lucky dog gets to lick the bowl?
Interview with Donald Kuspit by Diane Thodos:
DK: Well, part of the whole idea of Modern is “make it new” so there’s this momentum of novelty until then this becomes a cliché itself. But I think there’s a deeper reason. We look at this Expressionism show [Brucke: The Birth of Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin 1905 - 13 at the Neue Gallery, Feb. 26 – June 29 2009]. What we see is artists who are people who have certain life experiences. It comes through certain attitudes and ideas. They are responding toward objects: Kirchner toward women, or landscapes, or African art. They are engaged in life enhancing experiences and then they are making the art as part of it. It’s not exactly reifying it but the art becomes part of that life experience. So they go to the coast and are excited by the waves. They’re taking it in, they are receiving it, they are very open to all this that is happening.
DT: Open to life in that sense.
DK: They are open to life, and the art becomes part of this openness. Now art is self-ghettoized. Think for a moment there has been no adequate response to 9-11. Compare that to other responses from the World Wars, or even Rosenquist’s painting F-111 responding to American power. But a lot of this has been taken over by photography – documentary photography. These guys who are right up there with the troops and quite a number of the images are just stunning. So it is a kind of “artistry”, not what we call high art. That’s part of it. The events are outside the art world and may be too overwhelming and they just don’t know how to deal with it, or they don’t want to partly because they are “in on themselves.” …
The tragic and fatalistic is probably the default position of the Society of the Spectacle, where the modernism of Duchamp and Breton aimed at a resurrection of the spontaneous it just became the contrived and pseudo of manufactured emotion: the psychotic society with an easy boundary between taste and fetish. Publicity is our ideology, the dope dealers of cheap easy post-modern fetish and fantasy. Everything becomes “pseudo” and the spontaneous is buried in a world of fake emotion. Kitsch is our modern context, in the name of democracy its the easiest avenue to dignity easily flattened by the ease of arriving at it. No wonder, Kafka was so perturbed by the concept of non-arrival and non-belonging; perhaps preferable to the shock of the modern, and why Fellini’s movies never have endings. An ending is an arrival, a false realization of the desperate anguish to be with, to fall into Baudelaire’s trap of the flaneur and his belonging to the crowd, the psychology of the lynch mob. There is a certain immorality in telling a story that has a conclusion, it infantilizes the crowd to be smug in a madness of the disquieting normal. The madness of the ordinary, the madness that lurks behind what appears to be mundane and banal nervousness of the slightest panic and anxiety which becomes erotically charged like a flash fire.
DT: Is this a tremendous inadequacy to connect with life? A denial?
DK: A narcissism.
DT: And a fear of the emotion in life?
DK: That’s right, it’s a fear of the emotion in life.
DT: Why is there a tremendous fear of emotion when it should be part of life?
DK: They probably do have emotions in their lives – I don’t see how they couldn’t – but they split it off and deal with “official “ issues of art.
DT: Hermetically sealed off.
DT: That is a bizarre state.
DK: It’s a split state. It’s pseudo-rational art. To me it goes back to something that T.S. Eliot wrote about – what he called the disassociation of sensibility. This is a famous distinction – set in art of the Modern period – between the separation of cognition and feeling. The issue is to get them together. So these guys are on the side of cognition – Nauman turning to instrumental reason, technology, theory machines, neon – rather primitive technology though some of it is sophisticated. The emotions have been flattened.
DT: You have often written about the exclusion of experiential depth in the great morass of conceptual art that dominates today’s art world. To use a strong term, do you see the art world projecting a kind of “indoctrination” as a means of control and as a means of destroying humanist and expressionist tendencies in art, or is it something else?
DK: Well, as you know certain groups – for example October most notoriously – have attacked humanism quite explicitly. I think they have a naive idea of the human. But the larger issue is – I think it’s something Greenberg once said – that in the Modern period there’s no clear idea of what it is to be human. We are not sure anymore so you have all this talk about cyborgs – semi-robots, semi-humans. The other day I had a computer repaired and I went to a tech serve which has a place on 23rd Street. While I was waiting they were showing videos. These were videos made by “avant garde” artists and there was one that was quite fantastic. It showed a robot female with a kind of pretty face but with a body made of pipes. She’s underground with all these other big pipes surrounding her and she’s plucking some sort of artificial flower and very tenderly looking at this flower. I thought – now look, there’s this image in front of me, she’s a robot with this mask on her and she has simulated feelings – it’s all simulation. Or it’s like in Japan where now they have made robot pet dogs which are very useful for people who are terminally ill. They feel companionated by them. To buy them actually it’s about $4,000. So you have this world of this technological society….
But what brought rise to our particular form of post-modern pretenses. The so-called morality, expressed as a form of invidious comparison? Or the fear of what other’s think, the anxiety of reproach and the expectation of praise. As Veblen said, most of our superior feelings are informed by this, the desire to win favorable regard from those we admire, and advance up the pecking order. The spending of social capital in a psychological version of Keyne’s Paradox of Thrift. However, any ethical vision of individual life involves a work-in-process of criticism and emulation. Unless we choose to be mystical desert hermits like Rumi, unless we judge and be judged, our higher emotions are numbed: artificial unless animated by judgement. But to adopt an ethos of letting go, as the Nazis did, where they viewed one another as animals, pieces in the machinery of nature,”liberated” and emancipated from moral imperatives and controlled only by natural law, then the higher emotions are replaced by complete barbarism. The higher emotions are necessary, painful and assimilated with great difficulty, but they do eventually endow life with meaning, connecting the individual with a durable bond with society. At least that is the goal. Our present predicament is a dangerous one; The emotions we need cannot be faked; but the vision on which they depend; freedom as subject and object of judgement are disappearing in a technological world completely mediated by images which gives rise to a tendency, a path of least resistance, to replace a better life with a masquerade, a swindle, an insidious conspiracy, corporate values, that obscures the superior and attainable with the incessant obsessions and panics of the herd, the running of the bulls 7/24.
…DT: Yes – referring to the title of the book written by Jacques Ellul “The Technological Society”.
DK: Yes – that’s very important. So in such a society the question is what is the fate of feeling – that’s one way to put it – and what is the fate of the human? Now certain analysts who I admire argue that the problem of being human is to create a “margin of freedom” within determinism. There are all these determinisms – biological, social – so how do you create this margin of freedom in which you can be human and have feelings? And I would say now we have technological determinisms. For example let’s take this little machine you have here [digital camera/tape recorder] – a brilliant incredible invention. In five years it will be half the size and do twice the work. The question is what is it for? I have seen some people get hung up on gadgets – they have got to have them.
DT: Yes – they are playing video games all the time, they are on the cell phone all the time, or constantly texting.
DK: But what do they think? These are just transmission machines – like television, a terrific invention, or the telephone – another terrific invention. But content is not there – the human content. It’s like the technology is slowly overwhelming, even replacing the content. There is a fascination with the technology for the sake of the technology.
DT: It is replacing the emotive affect and communicative element of the human being.
DK: That’s right – and people think Aha! If we follow the mechanical model then we are emulating the “zeitgeist.” There is this old debate which comes back in various forms – including in existentialism and psychoanalysis and in the 19th century – between the robot model of man and man as an organism. So the Modern period pushes us to more and more robot models.
DT: Like what Picabia was talking about when he had his Orphic ideas in painting and then transformed them into the Dadaist idea of the machine?
DK: Right. But let’s take the famous statement by the surrealist poet Leautremont – the meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.
DT: He was a very strange poet.
DK: Yes but that’s his metaphor for sexuality which was picked up. But think of that – it’s all machines: umbrellas, sewing machines…
DT: Sadistic really.
DK: Sadistic, absolutely. That’s what the opening of “Les Chants de Maldoror” is all about. The point is it’s all inhuman. It’s perverse. It breaks down the barriers. So now you have this sort of closed system. Now you have the computer model – our brains are like computers. Well, maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. Computers are not as plastic as brains.
DT: No – brains are far more subtle.
DK: Most subtle, and the most complicated organ apparently ever created by nature from what I have read. All of this militates against affect and yet I believe affect is there unconsciously and it erupts from time to time. There are mass murders and you get these sudden enactments – and a lot of art is about that enactment. People like this guy at the MOMA, writing about himself in every little enactment in different modes – a “happening”….
DT: Like Paul McCarthey?
DK: No – though McCarthey is another one of these horrors.