Art Historian Cary Levine has just published the first in-depth scholarly analysis of artists Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, and Raymond Pettibon, adapted from his dissertation. Pay for Your Pleasures (University of Chicago Press, 2013) is one of the few “contemporary art history” books that feels absolutely relevant (my copy has been traveling between friends with urgent relish since I finished it.) Levine sat down after walking through the Mike Kelley retrospective at PS1 to discuss his book, aspects of Kelley’s thinking, and responses to the recent McCarthy “White Snow” installation at the Armory.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Your book is grounded in the artists’ biographies—how did you negotiate writing biography and criticism?
Cary Levine: The three biographical chapters are about avoiding the pitfalls of “zeitgeist” and grand narratives by dealing with the very close specifics of time and place. This approach also captures the serendipity of these artists’ lives and artistic and intellectual developments. The problem with conventional biographical art history is that it presents the events of a life as a foregone conclusion. I hoped to avoid that while still retaining the individuality of their stories.
Rail: I believe that artistic-intellectual biographies of artists are the best way to write art history. Art necessarily depends on where it comes from. So I think Dore Ashton’s books on Rothko or Guston or Noguchi are actually the most useful books for understanding their art.
Levine: Take Mike Kelley for instance. In Catholic school, he’s exposed to Mary Corita Kent and a kind of craft-based, didactic art making. That was his understanding of art, and it needs to be acknowledged. An “artistic-intellectual biography” is indeed what I’m after—what were these guys interested in? When speaking to the artists themselves I found, for example, that both Kelley and McCarthy were interested in the writings of psychologist R. D. Laing, someone that is not often discussed today, but whom both artists independently cite as an early and important influence. Laing offered blistering critiques of social conditioning, the politics of the family, and the true “madness” of what we call normalcy—along with the processes by which we internalize these structures and reproduce them when raising children. This kind of thing runs through both artists’ work, of course, but a reference like Laing is too often foreclosed by the overemphasis on trendier thinkers such as Georges Bataille.
Rail: Your book does a good job of incorporating Kelley’s writing as part of understanding his practice. Could you talk about the shifting awareness of him as a writer and how he viewed it?
Levine: He very much came to writing out of necessity because he was frustrated by the things that critics were saying about his work. Obviously, this is a guy who was hyper-focused on what people were saying and thinking about him, maybe to an unhealthy degree. To me, looking seriously at his writing comes out of respect for the artist, though of course we shouldn’t take it as gospel. His essay “Foul Perfection,” for example, is one of the great pieces of criticism of the last 30 or 40 years. And yes, you’re right, I think of his writing as part of the same practice; in writing, he executes the same kinds of strategies as he does in his visual work. The links he makes—his ability to not only jump from one realm of culture to another, but to draw connections between them, so that by the end you’re thinking of, say, B movies and high modernist sculpture and pornography all as part of a single ideological scheme. Now, that’s really subversive—undermining a lot of what we hold to be precious. He’s doing the same thing in much of his visual work, forcing contradiction and exploding cultural categories from within.
Rail: I thought the reception around McCarthy’s “White Snow” was strange. I think it’s really a major, deep, substantial thing, and Holland Cotter kind of said that, but there were a lot of people who were saying: “this is Paul McCarthy doing the same thing—dirty old man—with a lot more money.”
Levine: It was the same kind of response to Kelley’s “Day Is Done” (2005), that it was hyper-indulgent, as though the artist was not aware of what he was doing, as though it was devoid of self-critique. Moreover, such criticisms preclude an engagement with the specific subject matter of the works in question. No one said, “He’s reproducing these high school musicals as scenes of trauma linked to both mass media and pedagogic institutions, and this is consistent with virtually his entire oeuvre.” Both “Day is Done” and “White Snow” are culminations of 30 years of work. This doesn’t mean they’re above criticism, certainly not, but it’s more than that these artists simply got a lot of money and decided to blow it out and have a big circus. I thought one of the more poignant criticisms of “White Snow“ was by Glenn O’Brien, who suggested that maybe Snow White and Pinocchio and all these themes that McCarthy has worked with since the 1980s are things people don’t really think about anymore—that Disney has lost its iconic role in our society, it’s pop.
Rail: I completely disagree. I talk to a lot of artists in their 20s and many of them talk about Disney as relevant to their work. If anything it makes McCarthy more relevant than ever to younger artists—it’s just the mediocre middle-aged writers who don’t see that.
Levine: To go back to how these artists are written about, if you’re going to dip your toe into the subject matter—which critics too often do not really want to do—then you’re going to have to go all the way. And you might not like where you wind up. As Kelley once said, “If you resist it, that’s understandable, but if you try to argue with it, you have dealt yourself a losing hand.”
Rail: I wonder if one of the paradoxical reason why writers don’t want to go into the content is that it can’t be neatly pinned “over there” on the artist’s biography. Everyone is so happy to follow Louise Bourgeois’s “my father and the mistress” story so that as long as the work is read within her family psychodrama it’s “safe.” They don't have to deal with the disturbance on any other level. But because McCarthy and Kelley disavow a personal reading, it’s much harder for people to approach what is going on without looking at themselves.
Levine: Yes, it’s deeply provocative and seductive at the same time. With all three of the artists that I deal with in the book, but Kelley especially, I think it’s crucial that they deliberately and self-consciously efface the political positioning of the artist—their own “voices,” so to speak. These artists refuse to take a clear position vis-à-vis the issues they raise, and this gets them into trouble at times because people assume certain things about them that may or may not be true. But ultimately, the work is calibrated to turn the tables on the viewer. It is designed to trap you: again, if you give a finger, it’s going to take an arm.
Rail: You do such a good job of situating all three in their times and places. Yet there is the present moment at which your book is published, and such exhibitions are mounted, in which these artists are getting a lot of attention. Can we situate some of the currents that are elevating them?
Levine: It’s funny, when I started the project back in graduate school, Kelley, McCarthy, and Pettibon were still somewhat marginal, at least within academia, and there was some resistance. One peer suggested that I would never get a job with that kind of topic. But, are you talking about their recent market success?
Rail: No, I’m not interested in the attention as something more than an index of something else. Right now seems to be marked by unraveling institutional structures of authority and of validation—no one who is supposed to knows what the fuck is going on with art. Which is actually great. So what I mean is formally, or as ways of thinking, Kelley, McCarthy, and Pettibon represent strategies of making and being that feel exceptionally relevant for engaging that situation.
Levine: You can argue that this relates to our 21st-century world of dislodged values and contradictory bedfellows, with a lack of faith in institutions writ large—not just art institutions. That their work reflects a lack of belief, a general uncertainty in all realms of life, and a lack of clear paths forward in the post-post-post world. The de-mystification of society’s institutions and ideological modes of thought—on the Right and the Left—really holds an appeal for people who want to be engaged in the politics of today without resorting to black and white, us and them, good and bad, perverse and normal. People are increasingly realizing that they are “paying for their pleasures” with every move they make in the world. These artists’ work is as relevant today as ever.
Rail: I also wonder about the ways in which Kelley and McCarthy tried to critically navigate the art market in relation to spectacle and object-making. I wonder if part of what draws our attention is that they were working in a way that became highly sellable and increasingly spectacular but didn’t undermine the critical force of the work. Rather, it heightens the work’s potency.
Levine: I think so—especially if we compare them with an artist like Jeff Koons. Someone should write an article about Koons and Kelley in the 1980s and 90s. They’re both dealing with similar kinds of ideas, about repression, kitsch, craft, high and low. There are several overlaps. But Koons himself is not really implicated in his own work, and that’s the problem with it: there’s no self-incrimination. Koons’s art points in one direction; it is designed in such a way that the artist is always one step ahead of the consumer, whether it’s the viewer or the buyer. It’s as though he’s saying: “Every time you buy it, you’re proving my point, and the more you pay, the more you prove my point.” For Kelley, McCarthy, and Pettibon, that is an absolutely false (and deeply cynical) position—placing the artist in some ideal, autonomous realm and inoculating him from criticism. Instead, they essentially say: “Yes, I’m going to make work that conflates high and low but in a way that calls the whole structure into question—not just calls ‘you’ out as an individual consumer, but points to the ways in which we are all implicated, together.” And they offer no resolution.
Rail: Exactly! Even as I loved it, I was deeply troubled by “White Snow” in trying to understand if it is misogynist. I don’t think it is, but I appreciated being put in the situation to ask, “Is it okay for him to be shoving this mic down this girl’s throat?”
Levine: I would say “entrapment” is the key metaphor for a lot of this work, because when you’re trapped in something it still allows for your own personal navigation. The objective is to make the viewer grapple, obstructing recourse to fixed categories and preset solutions. For someone like Koons, it’s about being put in a box—there is an answer: the art world’s a joke, art is pornography for the wealthy, whatever. It’s completely contained, closed, prescribed, packageable. And as a result, the viewer has no agency, no voice, no opportunity for retort. The open-ended qualities of Kelley’s, McCarthy’s, and Pettibon’s work allows for nuance and negotiation. It doesn’t so much label or point fingers as allow the viewer to rethink his or her own beliefs and values. This makes the work not only more expansive, complex, and messier, but more discomforting for all involved.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.