Scholar and critic David Joselit, is perhaps most known in the recent discourse of art for his 2009 essay “Painting Beside Itself,” which appeared in October, where he also is an editor. Inaugurating a new Art Books in Review interview series, David Joselit recently visited the studio of Greg Lindquist, artist and Art Books in Review co-editor, to discuss Joselit’s new book After Art (Princeton, 2012) and ideas about the circulation of images and art within a global network.
Greg Lindquist (Rail): So, how did this book come together?
David Joselit: It started as a set of lectures that I gave when I was the Kirk Varnedoe Professor at the Institute of Fine Arts at N.Y.U. The problem I set for myself was to understand a methodology for dealing with art in a networked context. What happens when images begin to circulate as populations, as opposed to single works, and how can we value works of art in a different way from, on the one hand, the way the market values things, giving them a price, and on the other hand, the way more traditional, art-historical perspectives do by assigning a work of art a meaning. Instead, I wanted to think about the behavior of groups of images, and how sets of things operate and how the circulation of images become thematized in the works themselves.
Rail: Would you say that your main argument is a broadened extension of the “Painting Beside Itself” argument?
Joselit: Yes. I think that in many ways what I’m trying to do is to understand the form of networks as they are aggregated or concentrated in objects. Objects and networks are not separable, they’re linked in a variety of ways, and I wanted to think about how they intersect, very materially, in various kinds of contemporary art practices. In “Painting Beside Itself,” I write about the most traditional sort of art object, and some would say the most market-corrupted, which is painting. In terms of how conceptual art’s notion of the circulation of propositions, the dematerialization of work, and the understanding of how meaning migrates could be folded back into that object status. So, in a way, After Art is a kind of expansion of a set of themes within painting to a broader economy of art practice.
Rail: You begin “Painting Beside Itself” with Kippenberger’s network of painting existing in an installation of the architectural space. Where do you see this idea of the circulation of images fitting in recent art history? Sixties and ’70s art was heavily influenced by Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of space.
Joselit: Minimalism sought to make blank or typological versions of objects. So, in Minimalism, the thing itself, or its qualities, is less important than the way it operates on a viewer in a space, whereas painting suggests a kind of virtuality. It occupies a strange middle ground between the phenomenological and the virtual.
The art and criticism of the late ’60s and ’70s allowed for a kind of divergence of phenomenological experience from virtual experience—in part, perhaps, as a response to the explosion of new media like television. But now, what in fact has happened in this image-saturated world that we live in is that the virtual is phenomenological, or embodied, in ways that I think the earlier generations of artists you refer to hadn’t yet recognized. The whole question of video art is an interesting example of how the virtual space of the monitor—in the work of Joan Jonas for instance, or Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, and Lynda Benglis—is rendered as a phenomenological space full of contradictions. But it’s really later in the ’80s, with appropriation, that notions of simulation enter into this phenomenological debate.
Rail: And notions of dialectics, which were really important to understanding the era of the ’60s and ’70s, especially with Robert Smithson’s writings. The physical experience of art is really decentralized in this current state of globalization and networks. You have discussed the importance of the circulation of images to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. Would you agree that the idea of the network could be traced back that far in art history?
Joselit: Yeah, I do. The readymade strategy is contemporaneous with strategies of reenactment—or at least in Duchamp’s career—that have to do with circulation. What is very important about Duchamp is that he divided what I like to call the diagram—the visual figure—from its discursive meanings, in the “Large Glass,” by providing a series of notes to interpret a very arcane and difficult work. But what was interesting was that he made the notes themselves into a work, in the “Green Box,” where he reproduced them exactly, and with great effort, and which circulated separately from the diagram, from the “Large Glass” itself. The usual topography of meaning in a work of art is that the meaning stands beside or below the work. In this case, those meanings were sent off as a separate work, so that figure and discourse each had their own lives, sometimes crossing and sometimes not. That is one way Duchamp physically demonstrated the different rates of circulation of image and discourse.
Rail: Right, but he also understood sculpture and the object as a possible of multiples being circulated. For example, “Bicycle Wheel,” which is remade several times.
Joselit: Yes, I think the production of multiples is a very interesting, under-acknowledged history within 20th-century art, such as the multiples published by Daniel Spoerri, Dieter Roth multiples—there are a number of artists who thought in terms of the multiple.
Rail: I’m also interested in what contemporary theory and philosophy you’re reading. There was a review of After Art that argued that your book was in response to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory.
Joselit: Latour’s notion of assemblages as networks embedded in everyday social interactions was very important to me. I was trying to displace my practice as a critic from the search for meaning to, instead, a search for how a shape or form of connection occurs. And also, how different scales are transited from, for instance, a mark on a canvas to a globe. It seems to me that the problem of globalization is really a problem of scale disjunctions. In a certain way, the middle ground is what’s left out. We’ve got the microcosmic “local” and the macrocosmic “global,” but how do they find a common space? In terms of thinking about scale, someone like Rem Koolhaas was very important to me.
Rail: What about Jacques Rancière’s idea of the distribution of the sensible, or Giorgio Agamben’s What is an Apparatus? Or even Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion? In the 21st century, we’re very aware of constellations of ideas and multiple levels of consciousness and power structures. We’re very keen to what happens outside of the experience of the artwork, whether it is a framed image or an immersive environment.
Joselit: Yes. This whole question of, What is the status of an apparatus? I end the book stating that the art world is in fact an apparatus that artists, and critics for that matter, should use. But I prefer the term “format.” It suggests, through its allusion to a kind of digital object, that content can be reformatted. Content is not the most important part of an art practice, but rather the qualities of its formatting.
The format moves from the level of medium to the level of the globe, which is almost impossible to conceptualize, moving through all these various kinds of material, layers, or strata. Our conception of art has to take in this entire scope. Here is where Latour becomes very important. Instead of thinking about these things as giant entities, which is overwhelming and impossible, he thinks about material connections—passages between these different scales, moments of linkage. That’s where I think art practices, even on a very formal level, can make these sorts of crazy links between scales visible. And what we have to admit, and really carefully consider, is that the artist is not necessarily a disempowered actor in this apparatus known as the art world.
Rail: You talk about site-specificity in terms of native art object, but also beyond the relationship of a specific place, a landscape, or environment. Do you consider site-specificity now as a more global, virtual space?
Joselit: I think the museum, in a way, becomes site-specific through accumulation. One of the fundamental concepts facing anyone interested in contemporary visual culture or art is Guy Debord’s idea of the spectacle as basically the accumulation of capital to the point where it becomes image. We need to think more carefully about what accumulation is. I’m interested in how accumulation actually works. The museum, for instance, is a very complex site of accumulation, which at a certain point does become site-specific. It becomes a place through its accumulation of objects and also of meanings and associations. This is where, in a network setting, asymmetries occur through densities of hits, of connection. Once a place becomes a kind of saturated core, it’s self-perpetuating to a certain degree. Here is a way of thinking about a site not exclusively geographically, but through the richness in density and scale of connectivity.
Rail: Right. I’m interested in the examples that you give throughout the book. Alex Bacon wrote a piece the December 2012 issue of this publication about the diagnostic essay. He argued that a critic has to gain a bit of historical distance before you can fully grasp perspective. Maybe the artwork that best exemplifies some of the ideas that you are synthesizing hasn’t even been made yet or is not considered art.
Joselit: Yeah, or maybe I don’t know about them! Even though I am trained as an art historian, I was a critic first and I think about my practice especially when I’m working on contemporary art, in the context of criticism. Which isn’t to say historical rigor shouldn’t be brought to bear, but criticism is future-oriented. It’s recommending as much as it’s diagnosing. A historian doesn’t generally propose strategies—not always—but a critic does. There is always a kind of tension between what you’re proposing as important, which is based on some diagnosis of what you’re seeing at the moment. In fact, the ideas that I write about are generated from my experience of looking at a lot of art.
Rail: Of looking rather than coming in with an idea and then trying to find examples of that idea.
Joselit: Right. But the fact is you can’t ever survey an entire rich field, even in New York, let alone around the world. To some extent the examples are always opportunistic: they’re things that I’ve been able to see and think about carefully. But it’s a very complex problem, ethically and philosophically—what is exemplary? It’s one of the issues that’s most important in trying to deal with these questions of globalization and I think it hovers in my book. But almost every book on contemporary art has to cope with what it means to choose X versus Y. And is it just opportunism? Is it just a kind of effect of what my travel itinerary might’ve been versus someone else’s?
So it’s an uncomfortable situation, and in order to really come to terms with this vast scale, work like ours has to be more and more collaborative, whether directly collaborative or indirectly through building on the really excellent work of others who have worked more specifically on various regions of the world that I, for instance, will never get to know as well as I may know parts of New York. And I’ll never know the New York art world as well as a curator who’s spending his or her entire working life meeting artists.
Rail: I thought about this in terms of Donald Judd’s “Specific Objects,” in which you can clearly see him looking around at work being made in the 1960s and applying the way he’s making art in how he is seeing art. He’s projecting ideas of literality and materials of his own art onto such a diverse group of artists that will, in the course of the art-historical narrative, be sorted out into completely opposite or directly different categories.
And so I thought, what’s the value of that? Because even in the way we look back at that essay, we tend not to think about, for example, him trying to talk about Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures in terms of some anthropomorphic quality.
So, how were you thinking about the examples in terms of balancing the concepts and the ideas with some kind of visualization or conceptualization of them?
Joselit: I think it’s a kind of cyclical thing where you begin to recognize a pattern based on a broad experience of looking, where you might see the same sorts of strategies recurring, not even necessarily remembering every instance of them. But it begins to emerge as a pattern. And then, once that becomes conscious, you look for the artists whom you think best exemplify that pattern. In other words, you find an example.
Rail: Did it happen where you found an artist that helped articulate some of the ideas you already had?
Joselit: Yeah, I think that, for instance, my experience with the work that Tania Bruguera did in 2009 in Chicago, “Generic Capitalism,” was initially very irritating to me but later very productive. She invited Bernardine Dohrn and her husband, Bill Ayers, to give a talk on the state of radicalism and had secretly engaged hecklers to criticize them and accuse them of selling out.
And so there was an intense conversation that was, to a certain extent, manufactured. This was part of a conference, “Our Literal Speed,” where the next day, there was a discussion among the participants about the ethics of Bruguera’s tactic. And in the book I discuss the work as an instance of where the kind of presumption about who one’s community is and what we expect from it is ruptured.
Rail: There was a whole discomforting self-consciousness to the situation.
Joselit: Yeah, but also the irritation I felt and then the sense that, well, actually Bruguera showed me how we’re constantly circulating in worlds where we make assumptions about who it is who’s talking and what their values are and what the behavioral norms are. And she made this structure visible by breaking the rules, transgressing them. My goal is to learn from the works I see, but I think when you want to try to generalize, it’s inductive. And so, it’s hard to do it from only one practice.
Rail: And so maybe it’s the point that the examples exist in our own personal experience of these interspersed networks.
Joselit: Right. What I was trying to do was to think, well, why do we have these works that look this way? Because I think that just interpreting, let’s say, a Sherrie Levine piece that presents a grid of identical, individually framed postcards as a kind of allegory of mass production, we leave out the performance of the image in real time—the fact that repetition, in fact, induces a kind of liveness which is linked to performance when one has to look over and over again at the “same” image, while, going back to our discussion of phenomenology, the experience is always different.
When you repeat something, what you’re saying is that the content of that image is less important than its enunciation. And so how do you make that point? How do you make the point about the liveness of the image? It’s through forms of repetition and reenactment, but so much of the discourse around serial or so-called appropriation-based art has to do with Walter Benjamin’s notion of repetition as a form of disenchantment of the world.
Rail: How so?
Joselit: Well, that mechanical reproduction involves the destruction of aura, for instance. Whereas, in some ways, repetition precisely creates aura through accumulation, through making a place a kind of destination.
Rail: Or would you say saturation?
Joselit: Yeah. So I got very interested in qualities that don’t always have to do with aesthetics per se, such as speed, saturation, scale—things that have to do with quantity in some ways and how quantity creates shifts in quality.
Rail: Sure. On some level, one could argue that for any artist who engages with social media or engages with some kind of perpetuation of their work in reproduction beyond the work itself, or a performative thing that they’re engaging in the network. The question is whether and how that’s inherently part of the work or not.
Joselit: Right. What I’m interested in asking is, what is the form? What are the forms that a network can assume? And that may or may not be addressed when one is actually using such networks. Sometimes it might be better to use an outmoded medium, like painting, to think about multitudes of images or populations of images in some way.
Rail: Where has this text taken you, and what are you doing now?
Joselit: Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about postcolonial theories and trying to understand the global in terms of its unevenness, and how one can theorize different rates of connection, how modernization, development, and modern art work together on different chronologies in different parts of the world. Sometimes, modern art is imported fully blown, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s derivative. So I’m thinking about how to write about repetition or seriality on a global scale. And I’ve been considering doing a project on spectacle which would address forms of accumulation in a more specific way than Debord and his followers wanted to do. For instance, I’m interested in the apparatus of museums in terms of guards, storage, and conservation. And what it costs. Museums are nonprofit, but most of what they hold is inaccessible to the public. So I’m curious to find out how much museums are subsidized, for instance, by a city like New York, as opposed to how much money is spent for various other forms of public amenity, such as housing for people who can’t afford it. I mean, is the art world actually doing harm?
Rail: And whom does the art actually serve in the community?
Joselit: Yeah. But with regard to works of art, I also want to think about different scales of intervention. I mean, art is more modest than other social or political expressions like, let’s say, the Occupy movement. But while it may be more contained, an artwork has a very long timescale and in theory it could live forever. And so, that needs to be thought through a little more carefully because works of art are not always so good at intervening in the kind of daily fray of politics and economics, which have a short-term time horizon. Do we have to give up our sense of art’s political agency, or do we need, again, as always, to be reconceiving it according to these different scales and opportunities of circulation?