In the Studio with John Miller
by John Miller
October 10, 2018
John Miller is an artist and critic living in New York and Berlin, and is a Professor of Professional Practice in Art History at Barnard College in New York. This interview was conducted and condensed by frank news.
To begin, how has teaching fine art and critique changed over the last 20 years?
It's become more bureaucratic and less free. A lot of it has to do with computer technology and the ability to monitor things, just as elsewhere in other parts of the economy. Everybody wants feedback on everything, and I'm not always sure that providing that feedback really improves the quality of education. There might be subjects that benefit from that, but especially teaching studio art, the evaluation process can be restrictive.
The way I taught in the beginning was much more free form, and some things were done in a seemingly primitive way. We got as much, or more, done then as now, with all these different website-based evaluation processes. Because you can access things remotely, everyone feels that they should participate in different feedback operations and that more of them should be put into place.
Have you seen a shift in your students making more work about identity politics and politics in general?
Yes. And, that's a very US-centric thing. A lot of it is in response to our current administration. But not only that – The Black Lives Matter movement was gaining traction before the President was elected. Technology of course plays a role in that, going all the way back to the Rodney King beating. The police abuses that could be swept under the rug before, are less easy to do so now. It's brought a whole history of injustice to the forefront. That's just one strain of identity politics.
I think we are in a period where many are laying claims to identity based on a set, and it's not even ill-intended, but it just seems natural that some sense that identity is trans-historical or something. That's one of the problems of that.
We like to think of identities as permanent, but I think they're in large part contextual, and historically relativistic.
One thing I often think about is the definition of black that we ordinarily ascribe to skin color. But, if you go far enough back in U.S. history, Irish and Italians are categorized as black. It shows how it has to do with social hierarchy and shifts in that.
One funny thing that happened to me over the summer was that we have friends who teach in Koln and Dusseldorf, we did visiting artist spots with them and when we were in Chris William's class, we spoke to several of his students, and they did presentations. Interestingly, none of the work was about identity. Not even the work of a trans-woman in the class.
In the US, it would be like, oh, if you're trans, you would have to do work about your identity, but this woman wasn't. It's not what her focus was at all.
You're bringing up a great point, which is I think young people and young artists feel the need to respond to something.
But, is that in some ways counter-intuitive to the practice of making art that could potentially have a different value; a different intrinsic value? Do people feel like it has to be art for everyone, everyone, everyone, everyone, everyone?
There's two things that are happening that might seem to be at cross-purposes. On the one hand, there was the ideal of modernism that the work spoke to a universal subject, and then,
one of the big imperatives of postmodernism was to say that different audiences; different demographics; different people can look at the same work and draw different conclusions from it.
I think that's a pretty important point because if you kick the John Dewey definition of the artwork versus the art object, that the artwork includes the process of a social reception; that it's not just a thing independent of those who look at it. I think that John Dewey's notion of art as experience anticipates where we go with postmodernism with the best parts of postmodernism.
Did you see the Adrian Piper show at MoMA?
Yeah. Cried for a while.
She's someone who positioned herself against postmodernism, which would seem counter-intuitive, but you have to remember that she's also a Kant scholar. She's holding out for a certain ideal of a modernist address, where everyone's included. There was even a statement on a wall text at the beginning of the show, where she was talking about this modernist paradigm as a heuristic paradigm, and one that hasn't yet been completely fulfilled because of racism. So, that's another way of looking at that.
Back in the 1970s, for example, the art world was minuscule compared to what it is now.
Now, I think it's even a misnomer to say that we have an art world, but we have art worlds that overlap in different ways, and they have different constituencies, and it's become a much bigger thing that's globalizing.
As a result of that, in terms of a public response to art, there's probably more broad interest in visual art than there ever was before, and oftentimes, I think of that passing by the New Museum on any random day, and seeing a line of people waiting to get in. I remember when I got out of art school, if you went to a museum, it was almost always empty, unless it was a show of impressionism or something like that.
Now, audiences are really engaged with contemporary art. Art is speaking in a much different tenor now than the days of Greenbergian formalism, that artists are speaking a language that is open to a broader public. The notion that visual art is necessarily difficult, is something else that's kind of withered away.
It's funny. Just today, I was up at the NYU windows at 10th Street and Broadway. There was a guy who had a Ready, Willing and Able shirtshirt on, and he's clearly been doing sanitation work. And I was photographing my window and he was really curious and he asked me what was going on. But, he didn't feel he was excluded from it. He told me he really liked the piece. He wasn't coming from a privileged background. He wasn't an art specialist. He said, "Oh, a lot of people have been stopping at these windows. I don't know if you'd know that.
So that was a fairly positive experience today. I like it when people have access to what I'm involved with. I think that broadly, in terms of art as a discourse, I think that that's something that's really changed in the U.S. in the last 30 or 40 years.
There's also a counter-point to that, like what's going on in the art market, where it's becoming much more polarized. Mid-level galleries are going out of business. I looked at technology and the internet as a network that tends to create cartels and monopolistic relationships and that's happening throughout the economy as a whole and the art market isn't exempt from that.
We're seeing more and more strata blue chip artists who do super well, and then, a lot of project spaces, and then this middle area that's sometimes crashing. Not completely crashing, but it's really depressed compared to 10 or 15 years ago. I was talking to Nick Guagnini about that, and he had this very concrete model in his head where capital is globalizing, you're getting CEOs and high ranking corporate people now all over the world who not only have a house in the city, but a country house, and if they're to have cultural legitimacy, they have to hang artwork in those houses. But, they all want works that their peers will recognize as prestigious.
They're not so prone to discovering something on their own. They want something that has a uniform recognition factor.
Cultural signifier to their friends.
That's a tendency that's working against the democratization of art. Or, maybe it's some kind of dialectical counterpart or something.
I mean, the classic, trite example at this point, would be an artist like Basquiat, where he is now very trendy amongst the wealthy tech elite.
Because they're seeing him as a cool artist, which of course now, he sort of lost his relevance because of the collecting. His prices have shot way up.
But, he's such a visually arresting, immediately recognizable artist that he sort of ushered himself into that group of Koons and Warhol, where if you have a huge scale Basquiat other techs CEOs will recognize it.
It's crazy. I have a New York Times app, and it was a lead story one day.
I think about this a lot, you get this New York Times push notification. If you take step back, and you think about art and access to art, that's a great example. Every New York Times reader is getting Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for 50 million dollars, or whatever.
That gives a really warped perception as to what art is, how art is made, how the art world or world's function, and how the art market functions. One of the things we're trying to do is break down this perception of the fact that that's very rarely reality.
I think there is a broad public fascination with the art auction. Jacques Alain Miller who was a Lacan scholar, discussed the psychology of the art market, on the one hand, the mythology of the priceless work of art, and then, trying to represent that through ever-escalating prices, which, in an auction situation, is enacted through bidding. Each bid has to be higher than the previous one.
It's trying to raise the prices for something that is quote unquote priceless.
There's that fascination on the part of non-specialists. Also, that art is something unconventional in economic terms, something that's useless.
It somehow promises to reveal the arbitrariness of everyday prices and everyday economics.
Kind of like why people go to Las Vegas, where the rules that govern their lives day in and day out seem to be magically suspended, when in fact, in Las Vegas, they're even worse than the day to day rules, but they appear to have evaporated or something.
It's a great point, in that art is seen as useless, but more important, art is seen as separate from your day to day life. In a world where I'm being inundated with images, I'm left wondering, where are we drawing the line as to how art does and doesn't enter my life? I see a hundred photographs on my phone a day, that are professional photographs, that I wouldn't have seen otherwise. That's a change.
Another part of that too is, what people are doing who aren't professionals. A lot of things people are doing, back in the 1960s and 70s, would have qualified as conceptual art projects.
You think of Alan Kaprow's trying to think himself out of the institution of art in some way, with these different anti-art, un-art, non-art categories. And now, there's a whole flood of activity that Kaprow envisioned as a sort of Utopia or something; that people are just doing for it's own sake. Most don't care if it's recognized as art or not.
There's this whole outpouring of activity, and it seems like it ought to be good. And, parts of it are, but it's not just that. There's other things going on too.
With social media, it used to be seen as a chance to represent yourself, but it's become kind of an obligation to represent yourself. You have to account for yourself in some way.
This is a bit of a pivot from our current discussion, but we were speaking about the academic side, and access entry points through writers starting in that 60s legacy. Are there people you look at that are looking at art and access to the institution regularly, and who would you say are the best people to be looking at as the general American public?
Starting in the 60s. Can I sort my own favorites out from who would be important?
I still think Dan Graham's work is incredibly important, and I think he's probably at this point underrated, and I think part of it has to do with, especially the work that he did that dealt with feedback, and it was partly a parody.
There was a whole generation of video artists who were working with video feedback, which was a brand new and mind blowing thing when it appeared. And, you could get that by hooking up a video camera to a monitor and then, if you point the camera into the monitor, you get an infinite regress. It's like putting a mirror in front of a mirror.
Dan Graham played with that, and one of his famous pieces was continuous past's present, where he did time delay feedback, so every frame as you went back was five seconds into the past. But then, he took that into a piece called Performer Audience Mirror, where he described himself in front of an audience, then he described the audience, then he did the same thing looking into a big mirror where he and the audience could see each other, and I think that that's kind of a model for our current media situation.
Part of what he did in that piece that I think was ingenious was that he completely removed the technology and boiled it down to language.
It's funny too, because I think it produced a state of identification and alienation simultaneously. Alienation through the attempt to articulate how you saw yourself exactly in the present moment in formation.
And then, Dan Graham being who he is; he's off on a jag now, about how he doesn't like conceptual art and how his work doesn't have anything to do with it, and he'll just say, "All my work has always been about comedy." And, at first, it seems like he's just pushing your buttons, but then, when you go back and look at it, and if you listen to the recordings in these performances, it is like a very dry standup comedy.
There have been times that online technologies have helped. In my art criticism class, I started having everyone post discussion questions. That way I know they read the material, number one. But then, I found that the level of the written questions is much higher than what our verbal discussion is in class. That's one of the things I'm wrestling with, but I'm pleased that there's this online forum where people can post their questions, read other's questions, and it goes fairly deep into the material, and it does open it up to multiple perspectives. That's been something that's good. Although, now I feel like I should try to make that happen in the actual classroom discussion.
Has there been a lot of interest in doing fine art? Have you noticed in the last couple of years?
It's funny. Our numbers have gone down a little bit, but for a couple of years, we had too many people, and it was hard. If the numbers had kept up, we would have had to restructure. But then, at Barnard, it's hard because there's the committee on academic instruction, so it's not just the simple supply and demand. Like, the studio courses have to be kept in proportion to academic courses. You can't just grow the studio to whatever. So, we're always up against that.
For a while, we were bursting at the seams. Now, it's gone down a little bit. Two or three years ago, enrollment in Art History really dipped. It was just the lowest it had been since I had been at Barnard. Now, it's bounced back and nobody knows why there was this dip.