In Conversation with Robert C. Morgan
Joan Waltemath (Rail): When you said during a recent panel discussion that you thought there was a complete loss of critical consciousness in the art world, that really made my evening, the recognition that what is being written now is not critically conscious and that there must be a reinvestment in critical awareness in order to have art. If market value is really what determines what is being shown and seen in museums, well, market values are really the same everywhere, are they not?
Robert Morgan: It seems to me that we are in an era now where it is not enough to be from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Indonesia, or Mongolia, but you have to somehow take what that culture is about, and your own experiences within that culture, and make it palatable on the level of a kind of global system of exchange. In other words, you have to use the vehicle of some westernized post-colonial political theory to explain it. In fact, to prove it. But there is a fundamental problem here because art is not something you prove. Art is something that provokes, that generates ideas, and hopefully takes you to another level of feeling where you begin to open up and realize yourself as another inhabitant of the world. But that role for art has been temporarily displaced.
Rail: Do you see the relationship between market values and critical values as a causal relationship, or more of a dialectical relationship?
Morgan: I see it definitely as the latter. It is unquestionably dialectical, and at this point it has to be, because what criticism does, at its best, is intervene with the object and how the culture is receiving it. This would have to involve the market and its complicity with advertising and promotional media, including, of course, favorable art reviews. In such a climate, there is no place for a real cultural or critical dialogue. You simply have a facilitation of verbiage. You lose the sense that there is a real conviction or intervention that is going to challenge the way we think about art in relation to our evolving transcultural environment. The problem is that art is not entirely in the moment. Art is simply going along with everything else, rather than provoking a significant dialogue about how we can be moved to think in another way – as, for example, how we think about our lives in relation to the overwhelming influence of commercial media that imposes itself on how we make decisions. Art is not exempt from these impositions.
Rail: So it seems like, after years and years, one of the casualties of the market system has been clear criteria for making a critical analysis of art.
Morgan: I think that the notion of criteria is out the window at this point. I think even Greenberg said, at the end of his life, that he could not state his criteria. He could only talk about what is good and bad taste. He got into a lot of problems of how to define taste. But to enter into a critical consciousness with art—which would have to include other aspects of culture, including the pressures of the new information technologies—requires that we formulate for ourselves a new critical criteria. We have to find a new approach to criteria that goes beyond pure aesthetics. For example, I saw the movement towards beauty that was being talked about a couple of years ago as very reactionary, beyond neo-conservative. What it was trying to do was isolate aesthetics in an environment where we can no longer do that. We live in an environment now where we have to consider sociological issues, anthropological issues, psychoanalysis, multiculturalism, and feminism. I do not like the “isms,” but all of these ideologies and all of these systems of analysis are very much realities and we cannot say that they do not exist. They do exist, but to develop criteria means that we have to work on the inner spaces between art and the culture at large which includes these ideologies, new technology, and direction of science, while keeping a firm grip on the aesthetics. This makes criticism into a dialectical venture. And it also puts the critic’s role at perpetual risk, but this is what makes criticism an interesting and valid occupation.
Rail: Then the criteria used in evaluating art should always be up for re-evaluation in any case.
Morgan: Always, at every moment. Because artists, good artists, will always change pre-existing criteria. And, I think that one of the critic’s responsibilities is to be willing to re-evaluate any criteria that have been put in place in order to understand what is happening in relation to significant art—that is, art experienced on a very deep level. There is some very good art that is being produced today that I experience in that way. Generally, it is art removed from the mystification with pop culture. Today this kind of work tends to be overtly cynical and, in some cases, strangely naïve.
Rail: In the beginning of your book, The End of the Art World, you speak about the mind/body split. You are also talking as a critic, and the fact that, if you have written about conceptual art, and you have written about conceptual art for a long time, then it is taken for granted that you are against any type of formal reading of art. I found the relationship here between the mind/body split as part of the American consciousness to provide an interesting parallel to the problem of positioning, as either a conceptual, or formal critic. I am really more interested in the relationship between the two, and the mind/body connection as a kind of whole experience. I mean, you can bring together all of these things that you just mentioned if you connect your mind to your body. I am wondering if you have seen in the present time artists who are really focusing on how to overcome this mind/body split? Do you feel that this is the direction we are moving into in the art world?
Morgan: Well, the reason I wrote about his mind/body split is that I feel it is indicative of our current culture and the kinds of pressure that the new information technologies are forcing upon us. Our minds go into the computer, and our bodies go into the gymnasium. The idea is: how can we bring the mind and body back together. You cannot have a strong sensory reception only in the mind, nor can you have it only in the body. Just as good sex is about the mind and the body being connected, an awareness of beauty exists because there is some type of cogitation that occurs through feelings generated in association with the object (of desire) being observed. There has to be some kind of holistic awareness in all of this, some kind of communication, in order to know what and how we feel. If the experience is too fragmented, it will not be satisfactory. When I look at art, I am looking for something of a higher standard. I am looking for a heightened sensory reception that puts me in touch with myself in relation to the world. The object may become a mirror or a kind of fetish, but not to the extent that the fetish becomes an obsession.
Rail: Which artists have you seen recently who give you this type of experience, what experiential work that you have encountered recently?
Morgan: Well, I don’t want to start naming names; I’d rather stick to the thought—at least, for the time being. I think that all good art should transmit some kind of experience, and the reception is always subjective. I don’t feel that there can be objective criticism, and this is one of the problems I have with the transcription of certain types of theoretical propositions into art, because the criterion tends to be stoic, dry, puritanical, and uninteresting. I believe that the subjective awareness of one’s inner relationship to the object is what is important. Earlier you mentioned conceptual art, or the art of the mind. The best conceptual art always takes the body into account, and always refers to a type of physicality. I believe in the best conceptual art there is something I call a tactile idea, in the sense that you can feel that reality beyond the object itself. I am not saying that everybody should be doing conceptual art, but I am saying that the best conceptual art has a type of criterion like any other art, whether it’s Expressionism, formalism, or even digital art. I think that one should speak about any type of art from the point of view of a criterion.
Rail: Robert Smithson stated that, for him, art is the embodiment of the idea in the material. For me this is a great example of how one heals or melds the mind/body split.
Morgan: I think Smithson clearly understood the point you are raising. The title of one of his really great essays from 1968 is “The Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects.” He referred to art as a kind of metonym, as opposed to a metaphor. The cerebral cortex functions like the stratification of the earth. As the earth has a geological past, so the mind has an historical memory, and there would be some kind of linkage—a process of infinity—between the two. In an oblique way, this suggests a strong desire for tactility, and at the same time, not throwing away the possibility of the virtual. I think Smithson was very involved in creating a virtual sense of the self. It was always the conjugation of how he could laminate the virtual in relation to the tactile.
Rail: Every essay he writes is an explanation of another aspect of the dialectic or another dialectical pair. In an interview, he talks about his idea of the expanded dialectic where his work embodies any number of dialectical conditions and polarities happening at the same time. It is really beautiful. I have always thought that, as Americans, we for some reason are not predisposed to dialectical thought. I have often wondered if it was because we are educated towards true or false questions, or A B C D choices, which gears us toward thinking it is an either/or situation instead of understanding the relationship between things.
Morgan: Well, this is puritanical thinking which is—you are absolutely correct—not dialectical thinking. It is the opposite of that. Whenever you have a good or bad situation presented in simplistic terms, the results tend to appear puritanical. This is the American way. Now I caught myself because designations of good and bad art are presumably what critics are about, at least, in the traditional sense. But, today, given the complexity of culture, what can we say is simply good or bad? It is much more of an analytical proposition, and analytical propositions lead to dialectical thinking. And therefore the process of critical thinking, for me, has to be dialectical. This, however, should not alleviate the responsibility of the critic to make reasoned evaluations. But these evaluations are always subjective. They are ultimately emotional, never theoretical or intellectual.
Rail: Why is it so difficult in America?
Morgan: Well, I think that it is the Puritan culture we are still struggling with. Politically, we are after the “bad guys” now, which means that if we are after the bad guys, we must be the good guys—which is very simplistic.
Rail: Is that banal?
Morgan: It is very simplistic. According to the Puritans, if you worked hard on Earth, you go to Heaven. This is what the members of the Plymouth colony believed. Your neighbors would make sure you did the “right” thing. If you were not doing the “right” thing, then you would be in trouble. You would be put in stocks and humiliated publicly before the community. If you think about it, this is close to what is going on right now, particularly in the case of our former President. But, I should also say that America is not the only puritanical society in the world right now. There are essentially three ways in which puritanical thinking can exist: one is through religion, which is definitely the case here; another is through social restriction, which is to some extent the case in East Asia; and another is through ideological oppression, which we can talk about in terms of the former Baltic States and the People’s Republic of China. I think that political, social, and religious puritanism all have the same result. It puts the individual citizen in the position of thinking right or wrong, black or white, us and them. There is no analysis in that. There is no joy. There is no subtlety, charm, or humor. There is no real quality of life. But, getting back to the point—you are right. I would agree that, in general, Americans are not predisposed toward dialectical thought. However, there is another aspect to American social history that interests me—the breadth of philosophy in American life, ranging from Transcendentalism in the 19th century to Pragmatism in the early 20th. If you deal with the spectrum of thought in American culture from a historical point of view, it is a dialectical exercise—and a rewarding one.
Rail: I know you have been working on a book about Clement Greenberg. I’ve never considered Greenberg to be a dialectical thinker, though I haven’t read his writings as extensively as you have. But, I always thought this was one of the problems with his analysis of abstraction: he went for the idea of flatness, but he couldn’t understand the relationship in the dialectic that had supported painting through generations, which was the relationship of depth to flatness, that the dialectic was in the plane.
Morgan: Well, the book that I in fact just finished is an edition of Greenberg’s late essays, things he wrote for magazines, some commissioned pieces, mostly what I would call aesthetics. There are greater complexities in the later writings as he is struggling with ideas from the 1930s and ’40s. Many of his ideas are being re-evaluated. Although the complexity is greater, his position is not a fully dialectical one. Greenberg came out of a Trotskyist position in the ’30s when he started to write with the Partisan Review. He didn’t like to refer to himself as a Marxist at the time. Eventually he revised his thinking of what it was to be a Trotskyist and began to think of Art for Art’s Sake. He went into a complex argument that we do not have time to get into today, but it is discussed in my introductory essay for this collection, which will be coming out with the University of Minnesota Press in December.
Rail: Do you think that, let’s say from the Marxist point of view, the direction the art world has been going will reach its apotheosis and evolve into something else? From my experience being in New York for about twenty years, which is somewhat less than your tenure here, I just see things getting more and more commercial, and the possibility of a true dialogue diminishing—with the exception of my own colleagues. Do you think this will reach an end point? Do you think it is more incumbent on the artists themselves to try and change the situation?
Morgan: Well, artists can change the situation if they really want to. It is not going to happen by the galleries or the magazines unless it is an artist-generated magazine. But artists still have the power to make a change, and the collectors will come to them. This is the way it should be, rather than the artists going to the collectors, which is the way it seems to be now. I think that artists need to realize their self-worth through a type of inner-directed awareness of what they are trying to do, and to re-evaluate why they are doing it. Artists should retrieve and learn to enjoy the inner sanctuary of their studio. Or wherever it is that they are working – the sanctuary of their minds, and get rid of the overload of information. There is too much interference right now.
Rail: In a way it is a type of self-perpetuating situation. If I think about what it meant for me to come here in the late ’70s and get a studio in New York, and then I think about what it means for someone coming now, faced with the same astronomical rents, and trying to enter the system and show their work—how much time are they going to have to sit there and de-brief themselves and then relax and actually get to the point where they can hear the resonance of the space? Perhaps it is the moment to question if it is not any more about being in a centralized situation. The conditions people are living in now are so extreme that what you are describing is almost impossible for any artist to achieve who does not have a trust fund.
Morgan: I am saying that we allow a lot of interference into our world and that as artists it is important to have the time and the space to reflect on what one is doing. By interference I am not talking about taking care of the pragmatic necessities that we all have to deal with, or most of us have to deal with. Right now I am teaching three classes instead of six. I resigned from my other teaching position over the summer. For 12 years I was teaching five or six classes over a semester. It was too much.
Rail: It is insane.
Morgan: In the meantime, I was writing for five different magazines, plus the catalogues and books, and the international travel. I was working to help raise my daughter who is now in college. I had to be extremely focused and organized, and finally, I had to let something go. For years I tried to maintain a balance between art, teaching, and writing. I even directed a SoHo gallery for a year. After working with objects and photographs for 15 years, I decided that my writing and lecturing would become my art. It was where the energy was. That was ten years ago. Things keep changing, but for the time being, I am traveling a lot and getting back into organizing exhibitions. I am always fighting for time to write. It is a busy life. There is no easy way.
Rail: In a recent lecture, you talked about what you thought would be the museum of the future, where all the pieces would be stored on a CD or another type of disc, or a memory storage device. And when you were speaking about that I began to realize this assumption I have that the museum is really a repository for the gaze. I have often gone to a museum and gotten really angry when they moved a painting, because what has accumulated while the painting was in that location has been disturbed. And I was wondering, about these storage discs, would it be possible to quantify the gaze?
Morgan: The receivership, the process of receivership, is subjective, and I do not know how could quantify something that is so subjective. I think you should find the means to store art that is somewhere in the means of information storage. And as I mentioned in that lecture, it can be retrieved. I think that works of art can be virtually recreated. It will take time and expense, but then other expenses could be alleviated, such as insurance and shipping charges. This will, of course, change the business of art. Whether or not this is going to happen in the next fifty or one hundred years is questionable. There’s an overload in terms of the fetish in art; it is not so necessary that we feel the artist’s hand in relation to the work. I think that what is important are the idea or the type of setup that is capable of transmitting the experience. I do not think that all art could be dealt with in this way. Much conceptual-based art involving installations would benefit. I think a lot of this work could be stored without having to hold on to the materials. When it becomes relevant within the context of an exhibition to re-do the installation, the software could be transmitted to the site like any other information. Why not? Even the legal aspect of the work could be handled electronically. Even though I said earlier there is a kind of necessary fetish involved in art, I think we have to reduce the role of the fetish in relation to material. The future of the art object within this evolving culture is really just beginning, in terms of an information-based society. At the moment, things appear more regressive that progressive. As a culture, we have recently regressed a half a century in one year—economically, politically, socially, culturally, and maybe even in terms of art. We will have to see.
Rail: It seems like if you would try to, just conceptually, store work as information and in order to figure out how to do that, you would really have to come to terms with assumptions you make about art when you look at art. I realized through reading your book that I always assume art is going to give me some kind of experience, and I want that experience. So, if it doesn’t, it does not count for me. But, to become cognizant that you have certain assumptions when you look at work, I think, is very important. Have you ever thought about what your basic assumptions are when looking at art?
Morgan: Assumptions are problematic because they can really stand in the way of clear thinking and clear seeing. The writer William Saroyan once said, “If you want to learn how to write, read the bad books.” And I think it is important to see the bad shows. Sometimes what you think will be a bad show, based on hearsay or your own assumptions, will turn out to be quite interesting, maybe even quite remarkable. For example, this last summer, no, this last fall, I was in Istanbul, and I saw a work by Chris Burden that was absolutely exhilarating. I am certainly not fond of the work in the 80s where he was dropping beams into wet cement, or, in the 90s, when he put the police uniforms around the gallery. But the work in Istanbul last year was something else. There were these Arab tents that Burden set up in a kind of quadrant with these beautiful textiles and colors, and light with music inside, and soft pillows. The whole thing was so sensual and happy, and I thought to myself, this is one of the great works in the show.
Rail: It’s a long way from shooting yourself in the arm.
Morgan: A similar experience happened with Julian Schnabel where I had seen three consecutive shows—all bad—and then suddenly, I was walking down Fifty-seventh Street and these two gargantuan paintings hanging in the IBM center caught my eye. They were terrific, really first-rate. Such things happen—at least they happen to me. It makes me think that criticism has become too invested. It works better when it is uninvested, when critics are free to articulate what they mean without the support of Deleuze and Foucault. But to have a real critical dialogue carries a certain responsibility. The critic should be responsive to change and alert to the reality that something might be happening beyond what the media tells us is good or worthy of investment. In such cases, it is far better just to let the baggage drop, and say what you mean to say.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.