R.I.P. Mike Kelley
Phillip van den Bossche interviews
Pay For Your Pleasure (reprise), 1998
Dye transfer ink on polyester poplin with velcro
1 pair 1st edition Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes (1985)
2 IKEA Billy bookcases (altered) (2002)
1 Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic assault rifle, (1947)
Phillip van den Bossche is Director of the Provinciaal Museum voor Moderne Kunst (PMMK) in Oostende, Belgium. He has written extensively on contemporary art, including contributions to Aprior magazine (Brussels), Raw Among the Ruins (Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture, Maastricht), and In & Out of Amsterdam (MoMA, New York). Prior to his appointment at PMMK he was a curator at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, where he organized The Subversive Charm of the Bourgeoisie (2006) as well as solo projects by Tomma Abts, Manon de Boer, Vincent Fecteau and Tino Seghal. He also co-organized About We with Jan Debbaut (2004) and Forms of Resistance: Artists and the Desire for Social Change with Will Bradley and Charles Esche (2007). His most recent project was a survey of the work of Georges Vantongerloo at the PMMK in 2008. He lives in Oostende.
Phillip van den Bossche: How and when did you start with the idea of Pay For Your Pleasure (reprise)?
Joe Scanlan: Mike Kelleys original Pay For Your Pleasure was exhibited in 1988 at The Renaissance Society. I lived in Chicago then, and when I was invited to make a show ten years later at the Museum of Contemporary Art there, I thought it would be interesting to make a follow-up to Kelleys piece, but from an opposing point of view. Where the pleasure to be paid for in his piece is anarchy and evil, the pleasure in my piece is democracy and altruism.
Mike Kelleys piece is a series of portraits in six basic colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. In my reprise I kept that color scheme but added the color white. I call it a reprise because there is one quote, by Plutarch, that appears in both pieces. He says: We admire the work, but despise the workmen. I repeated that phrase in order to draw an explicit link to Kelley's piece, but also to reiterate Kelleys contention that good and evil are not so easily differentiated.
PvdB: Do you have devices for installing the work? What are the things to keep in mind? Are there rules to follow?
JS: There are no strict rules for displaying the banners, just some general guidelines. I prefer that the piece be shown attached to some kind of obviously temporary structure. In Chicago this was done by mounting plywood panels on the gallery walls, as if they were a circular kiosk. At the Insitut d'Art Contemporain in Villeurbanne we installed a kind of curtain rod that circled the perimeter of the gallery that the banners were hung from. The piece can really take any shape necessary, just so long as it gives the appearance of a continuous surface of informationa kind of seamless argument.
PvdB: In Chicago the work was presented with a pair of Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes; in France with DIY, a construction manual for a coffin that you designed from standard IKEA products. Here you have chosen an AK-47 assault rifle. Why such a loaded object? And what is the idea behind changing the object at the center of each installation of the piece?
JS: I want the centerpiece to respond to the situation that each installation presents. I like the idea that an index of popular objects could develop in relation to the constancy of the banners. Already it is an interesting list: Air Jordans, IKEA Bookcases, AK-47s. I first became interested in the Automatic Kalashnikov six years ago, after I had completed Pay For Your Pleasure (reprise) and was mulling over some lingering thoughts I had about culture and democracy and power. I was very skeptical of the notion that anything that is popular must also be good, and I began thinking about things that were popular but not good for people at all.
In this regard the AK-47 is unsurpassed. It is also an amazing technical achievement. At the time, I published a short statement about it in frieze magazine. When the opportunity arose to show Pay For Your Pleasure (reprise) here in Eindhoven, I immediately thought that it would be interesting to display an AK-47 in the same building as so many El Lissitzky works. Both are stunning examples of Russian modernism and, in their own ways, both are very beautiful and innovative and violent. It was only afterwards that I learned about the gun in Joseph Beuys installation, and the fact that every director of the Van Abbe Museum must obtain a gun license in order for the museum to own that piece.
As it turns out, the museums El Lissitzky Praun Room dates from 1923, and the Beuys installation from 1971. The Automatic Kalashnikov was invented in 1947, the exact midpoint between these two dates. So, there is an eerie symmetry, a mathematical inevitability, to these three things all existing under the same roof.
PvdB: I think you did far more than a new application of Kelleys original piece. Could you tell me something more along those lines?
JS: I tried to make my piece the opposite of Kelleys in every way. For example, his is handmade; mine is computer generated. His is site specific; mine is site arbitrary. The form of his is fixed (all the banners must be shown in a single uninterrupted corridor of predetermined proportions); the form of mine is flexible (any or all of the banners can be shown in any configuration whatsoever). The content of his is modern (ideological, critical, avant garde); the content of mine is postmodern (relative, complicit, mainstream). In a word, his is sacred; mine is corrupt.
PvdB: In this context I like what you stated in an interview: I had to go about it in a backwards way, to make it seem too good, to have all these people from history step forward and be so positive about the marriage of art and commerce that viewers would think,Wait a minute, maybe this can be problematic.
JS: Current events would suggest that its hard to tell which motivation does more damage to culture, sanctity or corruption. For all the evil and destruction in Kelleys piece, I think the altruistic content of mine is far more dangerous for art. Mikes piece is safe, in a way: we know that a majority of society doesnt want anarchy, so anarchy is an easy attitude for artists and intellectuals to embrace because theres little competition for it. On the other hand, if artists and intellectuals embrace democracy and popularity and commerce, these are things that most people want. Therefore, entering into them presents the risk of being destroyedif not by the competition of stronger forces then by the consumption of the masses. At bottom, my piece proposes that Michael Jordan and Ingvar Kamprad (the founder of IKEA) are scarier monsters than John Wayne Gacy. But unlike Gacy, Jordan and Kamprad are popular monsters. Thats an important difference.
PvdB: Kamprad is on one of the banners: Once and for all we have decided to side with the many.... What we want, we can still do. Together. A glorious future! His words are shocking when you think about it, when you consider his position but also in combination with the other banners and the art context in which it functions now. How did you go along selecting the different historical and contemporary figures and quotations?
JS: This was a long and luxurious process, since it required me to read works by so many great authors. But I had different goals with different people. Given my general topic of altruism, I wanted to have some humanists in the piece, so that was a matter of reading Erasmus and Thomas More and Rousseau and selecting the most useful observations. Others were more accidental, like listening to George Clinton or watching an Orson Welles movie and suddenly noticing a great lyric or comment. Others were harder. I knew I wanted at least one notable economist in the group, but I didt know the field, so this part of the research was an unknown expedition, reading and reading until somebody said something I could use. In the end, Gary Becker, a Nobel Laureate who has radically transformed the concept of human capital, provided me with a good and very basic observation: why should art become prostitution when it seeks monetary gain?
PvdB: Side by side, some of the combinations lead to confrontational and ironic results: for example, Miguel de Cervantes and Cher alongside Mikhail Kalashnikov and his AK-47. The different quotations seem to circle around art and market issues, the ambiguous position of contemporary art and its potential viewers.
JS: You have picked two of my favorite people from the whole piece. Their remarks are central to my thinking. Can we ever have too much of a good thing? And: do each of us, as individuals, invent ourselves to whatever extent our imaginations allow?
The first question, asked by Cervantes, cuts to the core of contemporary arts obsession with being good for us, no matter its spirit or content. If contemporary art happens to be frivolous, or dumb, or consumable, or mean, or covetous, or downright hostilewhich it often isI dont understand why we need to spin those very human traits into some form of enlightenment in order to accept them as art. Who among us cannot regard mankinds less flattering aspects in an artwork and smile at the pleasure, the accuracy, of them? Who cant look at an artwork and take comfort in the fact that, however contemptuous or vile it may be, it is still an artwork and therefore merely a representation, a proposition?
In many ways we have become slaves to the productivity and utility of protestant capitalist. Even the most wasted and pointless forms of art are rescued by their own inner goodness, exorcisms performed on the public's behalf in order to secure the necessary funds.
PvdB: What do you think of the concept of the benevolent dictator as a model for this scenario? No, seriously, do you have the impression that the context of art or the meaning of some quotations has changed in the last decade?
JS: The majority of people in the film and music and fashion industries do not fret over the greater good of what they do. The reason is that their customers do not care about such anxieties. In the art industry, however, those of us who dont care whether art is good for us or notwho comprise contemporary arts most loyal fanshave been forsaken for a shell game in which the appearance of contributing to the public good covers for the desire to garner major funding. This shell game stems from the fact that, unlike other culture industries, contemporary arts fans and its customers are separate entities. The more this split gets exacerbated by fiscal realities, the more the art we get to see will be determined by the people who actually pay for itin other words, by the paying customers rather than the viewing customers.
I dont have a problem with that. I just think it represents a mistaken perception of where the power really lies. Money might support art but it doesnt sustain itword of mouth does. No matter how big the blockbuster or how broad the publicity, respect is what determines the exchange value of a given artist. Just ask Matthew Barney.
PvdB: Art and commerce, Art and criminality, Art and the everyday... How would you respond to Mike Kelleys remark: I have a problem with the terms high and lowI prefer allowable and repressed, as they refer to usage, whether or not a power structure allows discussionrather than to absolutes.
JS: I agree. But it depends on where you are standing and what context you are talking about. If Mike Kelley wants low culture to be less repressed and more allowable, he only needs to leave the art world and turn on his television. In any case, I would argue that his idea of low culture is much more acceptable in the realm of art than is my idea of commerce, because no matter how debased Kelleys work isor Kippenbergers, or Orozcos, or Kara Walkersit can always be formalized and therefore turned into a safe discussionone rooted, by the way, in the very absolutes Kelley is trying to subvert.
Commerce is the ultimate repressed evil in the art world, Mike Kelley included. I could not say whether I am for or against commerce as art, but I am certainly attracted to the idea of it as the ultimate good (funding, survival, leisure time) and the ultimate evil (idiocy, common denominators, endless pursuit of gain). Deleuze and Guattari wrote that in order for capitalism to be overcome, it must not be curbed but accelerated. I agree. But in that I am in the minority. The art worlds take on capitalism is still dominated by people whose approach to creating a better society through art boils down to it not mattering what happens, just so somebody else pays. The best utopias are always the ones where somebody else pays. In a democratic society everybody pays, and we get what we pay for.
PvdB: In your most recent text, Pay Dirt: A Manifesto (published by IKON Gallery, Birmingham, 2003) you write the following conclusion:
Just as Marshall McLuhan observed that people didnt know they wanted televisions until televisions were invented, how can the audience for art know what it wants until we, as artists, invent it for them? And, given that opportunity, how can any of us believe its in our long-range interest to go on appropriating a popular culture that our customers already know and have? In the end, and quite ironically, a difficult artist like Agnes Martin is a much more profitable role model than her more agreeable counterparts could ever be. Her arcane skills and restrained production methods epitomize such concepts as personal branding, value adding and inventory velocity, state-of-the-art business innovations that she and the likes of On Kawara and David Hammons have never gotten credit for.
The avant-garde lives! Not because its more meaningful or radical than any other activity, but because it fills a legitimate market niche.
David Hammons is quoted on one of the banners as saying My key is...abandon any art form that costs too much. Insist that its as cheap as possible is number one, and also that its aesthetically correct. After that, anything goes. And in your work in the collection of the Van Abbemuseum, DIY (AnnLee), you appear to embrace IKEAs ideology. Could you tell me something more about your idea of commerce in relation to popular culture but also craftsmanship?
JS: That is a great question. I have been asking myself that for eighteen years. My first artworks in 1989 were very design-oriented. Not just because I was interested in design, but also because it was the most efficient way of getting what I wanted. For example, I wanted a bookcase that would be solid and hold all my books but that would also be flexible and portable due the likelihood that, as a renter, I would live a transient life. The only options that the market presented were disposable, generic, DIY furniture like IKEAwhich I didnt care foror a custom one-off fabricated to my specificationswhich I couldnt afford. Through art I could devise an object that would perform exactly the way I wanted at the level of quality I desired and at a cost I could afford. Thats how the Nesting Bookcase was born, out of a mix of desire and necessity and free time. The only catch was that I had to teach myself woodworking and make everything myself.
PvdB: Tell me if I am wrong, but the Nesting Bookcase, a personal product and a series of works you have been working on for more than a decade now, is probably at the origin of all this and a very interesting way to deal with these (and other) issues?
JS: Over that time a very interesting evolution has occurred between myself, the Nesting Bookcase, how it gets made, who it is for, and the status it might have from place to place. In the first several years, I only made as many as I needed. Each time I did, my skill leveland the designimproved. However, when other people started wanting them, different questions arose. When I was making them for myself craftsmanship had no relation to monetary value, since I did not have to buy the bookcase from myself. Or, more accurately, I purchased it with my own human capital, which was exactly equal to the labor value of the piece.
Outside demand puts pressure on craftsmanship as it relates to democracy, because most people cannot afford to have things made well by one person, and one person cannot reasonably make hundreds of the same thing, one at a time. Uniformity and modularity become the only means by which the Nesting Bookcase could be made and still be affordable. And without affordability, the object would never have the dispersion necessary for it to be interesting as a work of art, in order to actually be an indeterminate object that gets defined through various systems of exchange. I went through a period of several years where the idiosyncracies of the design were smoothed out and made more interchangeable. In a funny way, I went through a miniature industrial revolutionmechanization, specialization, alienationright in my living room! And, just like in the industrial revolution, this was good for the consumer but not so good for the producer. Unlike Warhol, I am not interested in being a machine.
In that sense, the Nesting Bookcase embodies a paradox that seems very appropriate to our time: one the one hand, it is an object that I invented and that, to a certain extent, is exclusive to me and is an extension of my identity. On the other hand, once it leaves my studio its fate is determined by private ownership and popularity and word of mouth. It gets used in all kinds of flattering and destructive and mundane ways that have nothing to do with me at all, except for the fact that I created the object that set the events in motion. That, I believe, is my job as an artist: to create desire through objects.
Anyway, that is a very long way of saying my basic aesthetic belief lies in the profound effect that economics have on art. I think economic pressure creates a fascinating, obdurate kind of beauty, and that is what Im after.
COMMENTS (49 Comments):
Give the people what they want
when they want
and they wants it all the time.
Give the people what they need
when they need
and the need is yours and mine.
Temptations can be got rid of . . . by giving in to them.
We live in a throw-away economy, a culture in which the most fundamental classification of our ideas and worldly possessions is in terms of their relative expendability. It is clearly absurd to demand that objects designed for a short useful life should exhibit qualities signifying eternal validity.
It has been said that things hardly exist before the fine artist has made use of them, they are simply part of the unclassified background material against which we pass our lives.
It is the essence of industrial art products, if they are to pass inspection by the adepts, that they must be sufficiently expensive to preclude their use by the vulgar.
What the economic approach calls normal responses of supply to changes in demand, others call . . . prostitution when applied to intellectual or artistic pursuits. Perhaps, but attempts to distinguish sharply the market for intellectual and artistic services from the market for ordinary goods have been the source of confusion and inconsistency.
Today . . . there is . . . a belief in the artificial preservation of a market that is no longer of vital importance.
I, too, wondered if I couldnt sell something and succeed in life.
It is a hard matter, my fellow citizens, to argue with the belly, since it has no ears.
Can we ever have too much of a good thing?
I have only one complaint, which is the all too frequent visits from buyers which often disturb and bore me, although some of them, the only ones who cannot buy, do have taste.
Of all things in the world good sense is the most equally distributed, for everybody thinks he is so well supplied with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters never desire more of it than they already possess.
If, on this ocean of objects surrounding us, there should appear a few that seem to break through the surface and to dominate the rest like the crest of a reef, they merely owe this advantage to . . . conventions . . . that have nothing to do with the physical arrangement of beings.
True, we are straying from the path of utter purity when we consider anything but pure form, proportion, line, and color, but we have larger horizons than the purist need consider.
The doubt felt by the artists who preceded us concerned their own talent. The doubt felt by artists today concerns the necessity of their art, hence their very existence.
For why should I desire a Temple, when the whole world is my temple? . . . Nor am I yet so foolish as to require statues or painted images, which do often obstruct my worship.
We have been present at the establishment of a new Church, with its dogmas, its rites, its faithful, its priests, and even its martyrs . . . Their revolt has become the matter on which their career has been built.
If I love you, what business is it of yours?
The . . . obstinate point of view of the masses, which may seem shrunken and limited, is in the end the most worthwhile and the most efficient mode of procedure.
Perhaps those who learn the great truths of the social travail in the school of life do not need the message of . . . art.
I was sort of raised all my life to do art . . . I just felt like I should be doing music. It seemed to me that this was really the next step after Pop Art, you see, entering directly into a popular form of culture instead of commenting on it.
Abandon any art form that costs too much. Insist that its as cheap as possible is number one, and also that its aesthetically correct. After that, anything goes.
The democracy of it:
can hope for a turn
at being wanted.
The Few assume to be the deputies, but they are often only the despoilers of the many.
Once and for all we have decided to side with the many. . . . What we want, we can still do. Together. A glorious future!
An article Id written . . . exhorted artists . . . to emerge from their academic sanctuaries where they huddle like shivering, runty, sexless, nihilistic miceto emerge into the intoxicating, palpitating, nutrient-rich sunlight of the marketplace, to intermix with the great people of a great nation and to be emboldened by the truculent spirit of the populace.
Whoever is the cause of anothers coming to power falls himself, for that power is built up either by art or by force, both of which are liable to the one who has become powerful.
Without a free exchange of opinions, life dies out in every public institution and only bureaucracy remains active.
So varied are the tastes of mortals, so peevish the characters of some, so ungrateful their dispositions, so wrongheaded their judgments, that those persons who pleasantly and blithely indulge their inclinations seem to be very much better off than those who torment themselves with anxiety.
I have many swift arrows in my quiver which speak to the wise, but for the crowd they need interpreters. The skilled poet is one who knows much through natural gift, but those who have learned their art chatter turbulently, vainly.
On some preference esteem is based; to esteem everything is to esteem nothing.
In every important decision, there is one option which represents life, and that is what you must choose.
The much maligned art scene of the present day is perfectly harmless and even pleasant, if we don t judge it in terms of false expectations. . . . It is . . . just one variation on the never-ending round of social game-playing that satisfies our need for communication, alongside sport, fashion, stamp-collecting and cat breeding.
The common stock of intellectual enjoyment should not be difficult of access because of the economic position of him who would approach it.
There is no use in distinguishing between the mores of a nation and the objects of its esteem, for all of these things . . . are necessarily intermingled.
The faith which art demands is tolerance, the belief that each man may seek quality in his own way.
All of us invent ourselves. Some of us just have more imagination than others.
It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, for kings and ministers to pretend to watch over the economy of private people . . . Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs.
The culture industry speaks for itself.
After all anybody is as their land and air is. . . . It is that which makes them and the arts they make and the work they do and the way they eat and the way they drink and the way they learn and everything.
Instead of dirt and poison we have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light.
As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.
Business Art is a much better thing to be making than Art Art, because Art Art doesnt support the space it takes up, whereas Business Art does. If Business Art doesnt support its own space it goes out-of-business.
The question is not to know whether any intellectual authority exists in an age of democracy, but simply where it resides and by what standard it is to be measured.
In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Art should not try to be popular. The public should make itself more artistic.
The world . . . does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories. . . . Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want.
Mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form.
We admire the work, but despise the workmen.