From Criticism to Complicity – Koons, Halley, Steinbach, Bickerton, Levine
PETER NAGY: In what ways does this new work depart from or elaborate upon work done by the Pictures generation of appropriators (that being the group associated, early on, with Metro Pictures: Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Troy Brauntuch, etc.)? Haim, would you address that question, because your work is in many ways an elaboration of those strategies …
HAIM STEINBACH: […] Whereas most of the Pictures-generation artists have been lifting images to make their work, I have been using objects. The discourse this art has been engaged in questions the position of the subject in relation to the image/object. There has been a growing awareness of the way that media affect our viewing of reality in a pictorial fashion. In a sense, the media have been turning us into tourists and voyeurs outside our own experience. The Pictures artists have been involved in questioning their own position as producers of art in relation to the mythic baggage of subjectivity and individuality, of which they have become acutely self-conscious. There has been a shift in the activities of the new group of artists in that there is a renewed interest in locating one’s desire, by which I mean one’s own taking pleasure in objects and commodities, which includes what we call works of art. There is a stronger sense of being complicit with the production of desire, what we traditionally call beautiful seductive objects, than being positioned somewhere outside of it. In this sense the idea of criticality in art is also changing.
ASHLEY BICKERTON: If we’re going to draw a difference,^ it’s going to have to be between the original program, as outlined by critics such as Douglas Crimp and Craig Owens, and the tendencies now beginning to emerge with the younger artists. A key operative word that may be useful right now would be ‘truth’: I feel the Pictures group was after a particular deconstruction or breakdown of the process of the corruption of truth, whereas at this point I feel we are utilizing that process of corruption as a poetic form, a platform or launching pad for poetic discourse in itself. Through tactile choices and presentation, the art object has now been placed in a discursive relationship with the larger scenario of the political and social reality of which it is a part. In a self-conscious and ongoing dialogue with the social, political, and intellectual climate of the time and place it will operate in, and with the entire process of its absorption. Much of the work produced by the Pictures group was essentially deconstructive and task-oriented in its spectacular didacticism. It was a cool approach to hot culture, whereas this new work of which we speak has more to do with information in general, specifically the schism that exists between information and assumed meanings, particularly how the formal elaboration of information necessarily affects its possible meanings. This work has a somewhat less Utopian bent than its predecessor.
PN: So we’ve learned some strategies from the Pictures generation.
AB: We’ve consciously learned and incorporated strategies from a lot of art-historical sources. I tend to think that right now, at least from this vantage point, with the wash of contrary information we have witnessed in the postwar period, with the comings and goings of all sorts of different isms, we’re now able to step back and merge, in fact to implode a variety of different strategies and epistemologies into the total art object that is capable of speaking of its own predicament as well as in general. This would oppose it to the directed programmatic operative of original Pictures practice.
PN: How integral are notions of leftist politics or cultural subversion in the work?
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PETER HALLEY: I think that Marxian thought really has to be integrated into one’s thinking, but I identify myself more with a New Left position, in which an absurdist or existential position is integrated with Marxian concepts. In addition, I’d like to bring in figures, like McLuhan, who are also involved with a kind of political thinking. I think it’s difficult nowadays to talk about a political situation: along with reality, politics is sort of an outdated notion. We are now in a post-political situation. As an artist, one ends up aspiring to make an art object that is a situationist object, in and of itself, in the way it’s put together. Rather than addressing topical issues, I think that a work of art has to address critical issues: the topical political issues of the day, to the extent they exist, are certainly of concern to people as individuals, but in a work of art it is the structural questions behind those topical issues that are important. For me, the most political component in a work of art – and it’s a component that the work of everybody on this panel shares – is the idea that the work be conceived in such a way that anyone could do it. That’s what I’ve always admired about Warhol or Stella – that one has a sense that one could actually participate in the making of the work. Finally, I find myself strongly interested in addressing postindustrial issues: the issues of the situation of the suburbanized middle classes in postindustrial countries. That’s not to say that what’s going on with other classes that are in even worse shape isn’t of interest, but those situations seem to me more clear cut. It’s precisely the ambiguity and the sort of unknown quality of life in the subdivision that seems worth addressing.
PN: […] It seems to me that (and perhaps this accounts for the great success that so much of this work has achieved so quickly) in each of the individual works of art, there are two separate dialectics operating: on one hand, the work is appealing to an audience primarily composed of artists and intellectuals, and on the other to an audience primarily composed of collectors and dealers. I’m wondering how conscious the artist is of designing a work of art for audiences that are, in fact, very different, very far apart.
HS: In my case, I spend a lot of time shopping, and I find the commodities that I look at to be very often addressed to a general audience, of which I am a part. On one hand there is an art context, out of which I come, and through which I think about what it means to present an object with another object or with another form. On the other hand I use groupings or arrangements of objects that are already pre-set for a general audience.
PN: So you’re saying it’s pretty unconscious on your part.
HS: I am conscious that in many ways today the distinctions between an elite as opposed to a more general audience are becoming blurred. There is an equalizing factor at work in the way things are produced now giving an illusion of a shared freedom, of one audience. This kind of dynamic interests me, and I attempt to deal with it in my work.
PHILIP TAAFFE: Generally, I’m opposed to a difficult level of hermeticism within a work. I want the work to be as open as possible. I want my work to be freely experienced.
JEFF KOONS: To me, the issue of being able to capture a general audience and also have the art stay on the highest orders is of great interest. I think anyone can come to my work from the general culture: I don’t set up any kind of requirement. Almost like television. I tell a story that is easy for anyone to enter into and on some level enjoy, whether they enjoy just a little glitter of it and get excited by that or may be, like with the Equilibrium Tanks, they get a kick out of the sensationalism of seeing basketballs just hover. The objects and the other images that are interconnected to the body of work have other contexts and, depending on how much the viewer wants to enter it, they can try to get more out of it and start dealing in art vocabulary instead of just sensational or personal vocabulary, and start to deal with abstractions of ideas and of context. So, I purposely always try at least to get the mass of people in the door, and if they can go farther, if they want to continue to deal in an art vocabulary I hope that that would happen, because by all means I am not trying to exclude high-art vocabulary. [. . . ] I would like to offer up a term that has had vital currency in the process of my own thinking: contingency. I think that through this procession of contingencies, discourses are being pulled together into the object itself, promoting an awareness of the fact that all meanings are contingent upon some other meaning, where meanings are appropriated for their relationship to external forces, the larger social schema in which they’re involved.
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PN: Finally, much of the new sculpture can be understood specifically in terms of the idea of the anxiety of the object, whether consumer commodity, fetish, or art object. I’m wondering if this anxiety is actually the anxiety of late capitalist culture, and the anxiety of the situation of the artist within late capitalist culture, as well as perhaps the anxiety of the collector’s complicated and conflicting relationship within capitalism.
HS: The anxiety of late capitalist culture is in us: in the futility we experience in value systems when faced with our reality; in the futility we find in moralizing as a way of determining what’s good or bad. Is there such a thing as a consumer object, a fetish object, an art object, or is it our relation to it that concerns us?
JK: As far as the relationship to the object, in a capitalist society we’re repaid, for the work that we do, with objects. And in the objects we can see personality traits of individuals, and we treat them like individuals. Some of these objects tend to be stronger than we are, and will out-survive us. That’s a threatening situation to be confronted with. AB: It’s not just sculpture that is concerned with this development. After years of pulling the object off the wall, smearing it across the fields in the Utah desert, and playing it out with our bodily secretions, the artwork has not awkwardly but aggressively asserted itself back into the gallery context: the space of art – but this with an aggressive discomfort and a complicit defiance
SHERRIE LEVINE: I think there is a long modernist tradition of endgame art -starting with DADA and the suprematists (if you like), and a lot of artists have made the last painting ever to be made. It’s a no-man’s land that a lot of us enjoy moving around in, and the thing is not to lose your sense of humor, because it’s only art.
Flash Art, no. 129, Milan, Summer 1986.