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Donald Kuspit Interview with Diane Thodos — New York City, April 29, 2009 — Parts 1 & 2

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

Originally published on the art website

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.

Diane Thodos: I believe, as you do, that postmodernism represents an inextricable cultural crisis: a collapse that cannot repair or heal itself. I wouldn’t want to be an artist if I had to be, ideologically speaking, a postmodern artist.

Donald Kuspit: There is no direction. They don’t know what art is. We’re in a nihilistic endgame. I was reading a review about Bruce Nauman, a piece in Newsweek by Peter Plagens. It begins by saying that he’s perhaps the most influential American artist since Warhol, and I thought now what does this mean? Everyday he was trying to redefine the art “ex-nihilo” – out of nothing – and my thought is even God started with something. But also that means that he does not know what art is. He believes you have to redefine it, reconceptualize it. So what is it? Does it exist? It is annihilative: perpetual redefinition, unstable, etc.

DT: It isn’t ex-nihilo, it’s ex-nihilism. It is consciously nihilistic in its intent.

DK: I think it’s over for a lot of those people and one of the things I see happening is a return to tradition in a variety of ways (without mimicking it).

DT: Regarding the postmodern problem I remember you once raised the question in class about why is it artists don’t allow themselves to go back to being influenced by a tradition. I really have to pose the question why have we come to the point that an artist doesn’t even think about being influenced by some of the artists we have seen exhibited today – like the German Expressionists at the Neue Gallery or Francis Bacon here at the Met.

DK: Well they are. Lucian Freud was influenced by Bacon. The change in his art was due to his friendship with Bacon. There are a lot of repetitions, quotations, and appropriations. There is a sort of Duchampian mode/conceptual mode that’s still operational. I think of the art of the spectacle – the British sensationalism is related to that.

DT: It’s gotten very academic and old by this point. It’s a very narrow road extremely well traveled.

DK: That’s correct.

DT: And at this point when you think of the incredible diversity that occurred (I remember you talking about the “Big Bang” of Modernist creativity at the beginning of the last century around 1905 – 24) we still have these rich aesthetic Modernist traditions that have barely scratched the surface of their possibilities in a sense.

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.”

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.

DK: Right.

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.

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.

Diane Thodos: Based on the German Expressionist art show we just saw [Brücke: The Birth of Expressionism at the Neue Gallery, February 26 – July 29 2009] I have an important question. Do you see any parallels between what is happening now and the circumstances that created the “Degenerate Art” exhibit in Germany in 1937 – that is – the individual vs. the doctrinal? If so is there a kind of covert censorship going on as to what art gets shown and what does not?

Donald Kuspit: Oh yes.

DT: Can you relate this somehow to what is meant by the individualistic vs. the doctrinal regarding the “Degenerate Art” show? To put this issue another way I read a wall text written by Jay A. Clarke from the recent exhibit “Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth” at the Chicago Art Institute that exhibited from February 14 – April 26, 2009. Here are the critical parts of it:

The Edvard Munch of popular imagination – a tortured bohemian rebel who seemed almost a living version of the famous figure in “The Scream” – was in fact a myth, carefully constructed during Munch’s lifetime by critics, historians, and the artist himself….The Norwegian art critic suggested that he suffered from the psychological condition known as neurasthenia…otherwise known as nervous exhaustion…Adopted and adapted by social commentators, the disorder was connected with decadence and degeneration and applied to the visual arts….Munch deliberately embraced disturbing subject matter and the personality of the sick, socially aberrant artist…[he] adjusted his emotional pitch at precise moments in order to achieve the outcomes he desired. Munch’s self portraits, such as the brooding blue hued “Self Portrait in Moonlight” and “Self Portrait with Cigarette”, offer a rich opportunity to explore this persona in the act of construction, reminding us of the artist’s central role in the process of his own mythmaking and reputation building.

I feel this writing reflects a historical “revision” of Munch’s work that intends to desublimate the power of his work by making him into an everyday huckster.

DK: Like contemporary artists – like the Jeff Koons of his day. That absolutely fascinates me – what the curator did, why the curator did it, what’s the argument behind it, what’s the proof?

DT: This brings me to the question – do we have historical revisionism today that’s working as a means of not merely avoiding the presence of emotion in art, but being destructive of the importance of emotional sublimation in art? Does this revisionism assert itself as a means of supporting a postmodern/postart agenda that keeps the emotions out of art?

DK: What you say is exactly right.

DT: Do you feel it is like, in a sense, the way the Germans with the “Degenerate Art” show degraded Expressionist/Modernist art and displaced it with their own doctrinal kitsch that was the official art?

DK: What I would say has happened is the avant-garde – avant gardism – has become institutionalized. It has become a tyranny. It’s become a dogma, and for all the art world’s talk about diversity – echoing the social diversity – it’s not diverse. It’s an inertial system. So we go to a Whitney Biennale and we do not see the range.

DT: You see the opposite – a very narrow path.

DK: Exactly. The mandate of The Whitney Biennale is to show the range so you see different things.

DT: But it is not the case.

DK: It’s not. It’s a party line. It’s Fascist.

DT: I was just getting to that. Fascist is an interesting word because when we speak of the “Degenerate Art” show we are speaking of the condemnation of Modern art by this doctrine.

DK: But there is something else going on. Let’s go back to the “Degenerate Art” show. I have this theory which I have written about. I argue that the Nazis were perceptive; they saw something that was there in the art; but what they did not understand what was there in the art was in the society. The artists were talking about – if you want – the degeneracy in the society: the savage etc. So the Nazis – in their corrupted notion of purity or Aryanism – felt threatened. They did not like the underside showing. They did not like their own underside showing – their own aggression, their barbarism. But there it was in the art, so they called it “degenerate” because it was threatening. It was threatening because it touched them on the inside. The fascinating thing about the Nazis is that they had a passion for art. Do you know the book “The Rape of Europa” [Lynn H. Nicholas 1995]?

DT: Yes. Göhering stole a lot of art.

DK: Hitler wanted to turn Linz his hometown and Berlin into big art centers. Speer assimilated a lot of Modernist ideas to make his art. He tried to subsume it, or dialectically sublate it – and some of the structures are still interesting like the Olympic stadium.

DT: He was part of the Modernist movement even though he was complicit in horrible atrocities.

DK: You know he was an “organization man.”

DT: Yes, he was in on the Nazi slave labor too.

DK: Right. He was denying the slave labor.

DT: But he knew all about it.

DK: Sure.

DT: There is an interesting duplicity here.

DK: It’s a blindness. It’s a blind side. It’s not that they are duplicitous.

DT: Well I mean in his reaction to the press.

DK: Yes.

DT: The way he appeared and what he was.

DK: I don’t think he knew there was a difference. I think Hitler knew there was a difference, I think the major anti-Semites knew there was a difference. I think he believed in the cause, he believed in Hitler, he believed Hitler was fine for Germany. He began to realize it was all going to hell, and he was one of the first to perceive it. There’s a fantastic book by Gitta Sereny – a thick book some 700 pages [Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth 1996]. It’s interviews she did with Speer after his imprisonment. He just had no perception. He was just like; organization – let’s do it…

DT: Do you think it is because in the culture there is structure before there is emotion?

DK: They are obedient. The Germans are obedient.

DT: But was it structure before feeling, structure before perception? Was there a structural element that was built into the culture that made Speer that way?

DK: That’s a difficult question to answer. I think there are Nazis and there are Nazis. They weren’t all uniform. A lot of them were military men.

DT: Prussian.

DK: Prussian. A certain notion of honor – that’s why they turned against Hitler.

DT: Yes. I have heard about these things too. But the interest I have is also that there was enough of a presence in the culture that had a strong structural element.

DK: Their obedience. Mitscherlich writes about that. “Gehorsamkeit.“ Put them in a line and they just keep going. They are brought up that way.

DT: In the Leni Riefenstahl film “Triumph of the Will” it is interesting how rigidly the soldiers march in tight box formations.

DK: “The Authoritarian Personality of Adorno” [first published in 1950]. Part of the new Germany is to go against that authoritarianism. Transparency of government – that’s why the Reichstag has a glass dome. The young people are very different. Now the Nazis were not unperceptive about Modern art – it’s just that they did not like what they saw because it was really a split off part of themselves.

DT: Yes – it had power because it was.

DK: Yes, exactly. Unless it had that power they would not have responded to it so negatively.

DT: And they would not have wanted to destroy so much of the art. That’s why people hid the art both during and after the war, which is why a lot of this art did not surface at auctions for so long. Right after the war people kept the art hidden because they were afraid it would end up being destroyed again.

DK: Sure

DT: But getting back to my original question – do you feel that when we speak about the relationship between Fascism and the “Degenerate Art” show that this has a parallel with the contemporary postmodern censorship that seems to enforce itself against the validity of an emotional relationship to art…

DK: That’s a good point.

DT: For example the way emotional or expressionist art is downgraded; how this text from the Edvard Munch exhibition focused on casting his art in the light of a marketeering strategist. This was profoundly distorting and in my opinion shameful.

DK: I’m really curious. I’ve never seen anything like that before.

DT: This is the creepy part of my question: It’s no longer about just the ignoring of expression, but trying to marginalize and degrade it. It is a different program.

DK: It’s saying Munch is inauthentic. It’s just an act.

DT: And that he’s a hustler, that we are all the same, and that this is an everyday kind of thing.

DK: And we all understand it because we are all the same – exactly. Unbelievable.

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Comments from frost posting on 2009 Neotericart website

Part 1

Victoria Webb October 7, 2009

I’ve heard Carl Plansky (painter and founder of Williamsburg paints) suggest that the fear of emotion in current work is palpable and the opposite of how he paints. Robots computerized ‘painting’ reminds me of Leger’s work, referencing the industrialism of Europe…but it seems somewhat sterile compared to some of his contemporaries. I wonder whether future generations of art historians and criircs will even cite emotions as a criteria.

Eve Alfille October 7, 2009

Not fear of emotion, but embarrassment: a concentrated effort to extricate emotion in any guise, and deal solely with what is left, hence the poverty, the sere soil. No emotion, no heavy breathing, no ornament, no historicism. There are those who appreciate having been witness to the extreme end point, from which we may now seek to return, reclaiming what is most human.

Mark Staff Brandl October 14, 2009

Great Interview. Hi Donald – if you read this. As always you are analytically amazing

Norbert Marszalek October 14, 2009

Superb interview Diane…I am looking forward to Part 2

David Richardson October 15, 2009

Excellent. There’s an argument for craft here somewhere.

Judith Mullen December 18, 2009

“Feels” like a breath of fresh air! Great interview, I’m looking forward to the next part.

Anwar Shaikh April 13, 2011

Ugh…finally a critic who makes sense. I could cry thinking of all the wasted years and talent that has been diverted in the last 20 years…including my own..

Jay Zerbe May 13, 2011

I couldn’t agree more with this discussion. Thanks!

Ruth Aizuss Migdal May 14, 2011

It is great to finally be confirmed that my inability to respond on any level to so much of the so called “cutting edge art” is shared by artists and critics of substance.

Part 2

Mark Staff Brandl November 8, 2009

Wonderful insights here by both of you. “feel this writing reflects a historical “revision” of Munch’s work that intends to desublimate the power of his work by making into an everyday huckster.”Perfect Diane

William Conger November 8, 2009

I agree with MSB. Excellent interview. I noticed the revisionist wall text when I saw the Munch show. By “marginalizing and degrading” the expressive in art; that is , quality embodied as form, the critical and curatorial establishment reduces art to quanitifcation and reassigns quality to marketplace valuation. Nowadays art is only as good as it price. It’s “antique roadshow” aesthetics and whoever controls the price also controls the expressive content.

Victoria Webb November 18, 2009

Really enjoying these conversationsbetween the two of you. And you’re bringing up points that several artists have noted. Carl Plansky, before he died, suggested that the perverse irony in current art was really a fear of showing passion and emotion. It makes me wonder if someone like Joan Mitchell or even d Kooning were painting now, if the work would be recognized.

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