Per Contra

Summer 2007


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Donald Kuspit, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin



PC:  How would you describe the relationship of art criticism to art history?


DK: One might say that an art historian is like a general who stays behind the front line, sure of victory, while the art critic is on the front line, and not always sure where the war is, that is, what art is of consequence.  To put this another way, the art historian thinks he knows what the values are, for the art critic they’re all in question.  The art historian tends to think there are no more important discoveries to be made, that history is set in stone, that the past is comprehensible however remote, while the art critic is more open-ended and uncertain, because he works in an ever-changing present, engages living art, and more willing to gamble on significance, look in the back alleys rather than parade down the grand boulevards of art and thought.  I like to think of the art historian as an intellectual administrator of what’s been done, and thus a conformist, someone concerned to establish standards and fix values, and thus create a status quo of thinking and belief, and the critic as a speculator in possibilities, and thus a nonconformist, a disturber of the administrative status quo.


But a good art critic has to know art history, and be expert in the complexities and issues of some particular area of old art.  This affords a sort of stable “foundational” consciousness that allows the critic some perspective on new art, an alternative measure of value to the measures used to legislate certain sectors of new art into importance.   There are some critics who ignore the abundance of art, and who are insensitive to many kinds of art.  They tend to become close-minded absolutists who want to historicize the present while it is happening.  They want to tell artists what kind of art to make, which is the cardinal sin of criticism.  It’s authoritarian criticism, for the critic is more interested in his own authority than in the authority of the art.  If, as Whitehead wrote, every system is brought into question--certainly tripped up--by the facts it leaves out, then a critic shouldn’t leave out any art facts or ideas from his system of art belief and thinking before he knows them.


In short, the art historian tends to closed system thinking, the art critic tends to open system thinking, which includes recognition of the role his own subjectivity (transference and counterfransference, identification and disidentifcation) plays in his critical consciousness.  The art historian wants the authority of absolute objectivity, which means he tends to ignore the influence of his subjectivity on his perception and understanding, while the art critic sees endless dialectical problems, uncertainties, idiosyncratic alternatives, and an unholy mix of the subjective and objective.  For him art criticism is a problem of selfhood, which is perhaps why the art critic tends to problematize art rather than idealize it.  He tends to be more curious than the art historian, as though to compensate for his uncertainty.     



PC: How did you decide to devote your career to art criticism, rather than, say, art history?  Was there a precipitating event?


DK:  I haven’t devoted my career entirely to art criticism.  I think of myself as a cultural as well as art critic and historian, that is, my critical consciousness is informed by my reading and knowledge of art history and my understanding of culture.  I don’t see how any art can be separated from the culture in which it is made and its relationship to the art that preceded it. 


I wrote my art history doctorate on Albrecht Dürer, but I made a decision to deal with the art of my time, because it seemed as alive as I was, although I’ve come to think of a lot of Old Master art as more alive than a lot of contemporary art, that is, more life-giving, which means cognitively as well as emotionally nourishing--ego strengthening.   


PC:  So, your formal education includes doctorates in philosophy (University of Frankfurt) and art history (University of Michigan), and you’ve also completed the course of study at the Psychoanalytic Institute of the New York University Medical Center.  In what subjects were your degrees from Columbia University, Yale University, and Pennsylvania State University?


DK: I have a B.A. with Distinction in Philosophy from Columbia, an M.A. in Philosophy from Yale, and an M.A. in Art History from Penn State.  (I was teaching philosophy at the time I received it.)


PC.  Is it possible to articulate how you choose to use philosophy, art history and psychoanalysis in your writing about a particular work or artist, what’s most illuminating? [Readers will probably be interested in your essay on a related subject, “Discrepancies between Art Historical and Psychoanalytic Interpretations of Avant Garde Painting:  Fry and Greenberg Contra Balint and Fairbairn."]


DK: Hard to articulate.  I like to think I can rise to the challenge of any art, and the challenge is to find an approach that seems appropriate to it--that does it the most justice.  I increasingly think certain psychoanalytic ideas are particularly relevant to understanding modern art and esthetic experience, but I also try to locate an art in terms of some particular historical and cultural issue.  Certain philosophical ideas, particularly those of Whitehead and Adorno, continue to resonate with me.  I use some of them, because they seem relevant to contemporary art, but I have come to think that Adorno’s understanding of modern art is inadequate, and his comments on many particular artists does them serious injustice.  Adorno tends to be more interested in theory than in looking at particular works of art.


PC:  What are some of the shows you’ve curated?


DK:   Hard to remember them all, but two stand out in memory.  In the seventies I curated an exhibtion called “Art of Conscience,” which toured five venues in Ohio.  It dealt with contemporary political art in a wide range of styles.  Last year I curated an exhibition called “New Old Masters” for the National Museum of Gdansk in Poland.  It was an overview of the varieties of what I called New Old Master art in my book The End of Art.  Both exhibitions were controversial, that is, they went against the status quo of accepted art values, and both received a lot of press and drew big crowds.  In both cases the public seemed to enjoy the exhibitions more than the establishment critics, that is, those who endorse the status quo of avant-garde art, which has become establishment art.  Both exhibitions went against the grain of the reigning avant-garde tyranny. 


PC:  How is curating a show related to making decisions on whose art and what art works to include in an article? Are the differences practical and economic?  Political? What sort of pressure (if any) are you under to include works/artists in shows and how do you withstand/deflect it?


DK: I’m used to pressure, so it doesn’t bother me.  Every work of every exhibition I ever curated was chosen by me.  The only serious pressure comes from not being able to get exactly the works one wants, which happens often enough, for reasons that have nothing to do with art.  I have been viciously attacked for many of my choices, but that’s the problem of the attacker not mine.  Articles are usually written to make a particular point about a particular artist, exhibitions are more broadly based, and try to make a general point.  Whether they succeed in doing so is another question.


PC: Your poetry is probably somewhat less well-known than your art criticism. I’d like to spend the rest of this interview asking you about that aspect of your creative life.


How long have you been writing poetry?


DK: .I’ve been writing poems since I was an adolescent.  My first book, published in Germany where I lived for several years, was called “Dirge for a Toy Centurion,” which suggests my mentality at the time.  It still doesn’t embarrass me, although it probably should, but then one can’t repudiate any stage in one’s development, particularly since the so-called creative process is more important than any particular poem.