Given all the handwringing over whether the art system as we know it will emerge intact from the pandemic, it’s in our interest to take a hard look at just what it is we seem so intent on preserving. Accrochage, a newly published script in book form by artist and writer David Robbins, accomplishes this indirectly, by framing systemic crisis in other (and, to our relief, funnier) terms. Written over the course of several years in response to a spate of feature film and television entertainments purporting to depict the art world, Accrochage distills the author’s four decades of experience as an internationally exhibiting artist to get at some of the unspoken contracts that underwrite the armamentarium of contemporary art. Appropriately for a book whose title is French slang for a gallery exhibition made from inventory, Accrochage comprises three separate scripts sandwiched together, beginning as a detective story (a famous artist has vanished!) before twisting (twice!) into other subject matter given other treatments, the whole lent unity by the artist’s instinctive search for a way to protect imagination, even, if need be, from the art system. Matt Cook spoke with the author for CAW.

Matt Cook: One character asserts, by way of explaining the global appeal of contemporary art,  “The background changed. We were a manufacturing society, now we’re an information society.” He argues that where, during modernism, which corresponded to the industrial phase of civilization, “useless things seemed perverse. Today that tension is gone.” 

David Robbins: I agree with that character! Set before this changed backdrop, art becomes just one more class of information. The background has changed more than has art.

Has ‘contemporary art’ suffered a loss in potency when set against this new background?

If modern art was a giant leap, contemporary art is a hop. Modern art didn’t look anything like what came before it. Contemporary art looks a lot like modern art — building on modern art’s discoveries about how a picture might be organized, about abstraction, material investigations, exhibition strategies, and so on —  while attaching contemporary interpretations, conditions, and ambitions to these ingredients. If considered only on that basis, contemporary art doesn’t pack the same wallop as its more revolutionary predecessor. No one objects to contemporary art in principle, as people did with modern art. Contemporary art is just fine with everybody! Consequently contemporary art plays out more along the lines of entertainment. I said decades ago that art is the show business of intellectuals. In a business civilization art plays out as a kind of entertainment; my piece Talent delivered that news back in ‘86. At the same time, the audience for contemporary art is much bigger than the one enjoyed by modern art — due to the aforementioned background change — and audience size is its own kind of potency. More people are paying attention to art and thinking it something necessary or valuable to their own lives. We’re really only at the beginning of this development and still don’t quite know what to do with it, other than to sell art to more people. I’m simplifying but not by much. It will be up to artists to make something more of the current opportunity. We can’t look to dealers or collectors to do that work

You say the audience is much bigger, yet as your screenplay points out, “a perfectly minor film star is more ‘famous’ than the greatest painter alive.”

The audience for art is much bigger than it had been, yes, but there’s context for the line you’re quoting which comes down to distribution systems. The distribution system for art objects hasn’t changed all that much from the nineteenth century model of the gallery. Hang the thing on the wall or set it on a pedestal and send out invites — at one time printed, now digital. (Obviously the pandemic has forced art enterprises to develop more of an online presence but sooner or later things will return to business as usual.) Whereas stuff like film, television, radio, and pop music — twentieth-century stuff — is designed  from inception to travel fast and far. Also, art “appreciation”’ is based on learning a specialized language. Art is a specialized language. Learn it and you can “unlock” art and enjoy yourself. It’s not that entertainment doesn’t also rely on specialized language — a TV show is as particular a form of communication as a painting — but the distribution systems for pop stuff achieved such penetration that since 1950 or so we’re all more or less raised by entertainment forms. Pop culture is the third parent. By the time we’re five years old we’ve already absorbed its grammars. 

A gallerist in the screenplay is looking for artists who have the “success gene”; another character, a ruthless art-striver of sorts, says, “success-ism is the only art movement that matters today.” Surely there have always been artists who were madly ambitious. Is the game really so much different now, and if so why?

All you have to do is read Balzac’s Lost Illusions to know t’was ever thus! That said, the art context does evolve and, along with it, how success is configured.

First, look at contemporary art’s success as a communication form. Modern art “won,” as a character points out in the book; today its heir, contemporary art, reaps the rewards. As an artist you can now do just about anything you want and, since an information society positions all art as just more information, no one is going to object. If you can “do anything you want,” though, can it really matter all that much what you do? The existential dimension of art-making flattens out to an endless plane. With many thousands of artists working from the same fairly narrow band of education about modern slash contemporary art, does “contemporary art” become at some point the visual slash material equivalent of pop music? Will we recognize that point when we reach it?

Second, there’s the sheer volume of contemporary art objects to consider. There’s just so damn much of the stuff now — thousands of artists producing hundreds of thousands of paintings, sculptures, drawings, what have you, all intended for the “contemporary art” market, in unending supply. Now “success” is no longer measured in terms of content or “meaning” or aesthetic breakthroughs but, rather, in the rate and range of absorption. Was this thing you made absorbed — by the audience, by the market, and lastly by the museum, the stand-in for history? Did it sell? If it has then your art has “succeeded.” In a way, success in art has quite a simple measure: if somebody else has responsibility for storing your work, you’re a success! The cynicism isn’t mine, I’m just reporting it. We may have adjusted to the hollowing-out effect that money has on high-priced artworks — when you look at a 100 million dollar painting, what are you really looking at? — but the idea that money could now be said to be hollowing out contemporary art itself is actually rather shocking. We’d experienced this kind of hollowing-out not too long ago, with motion pictures. Where once even mainstream critics like Siskel & Ebert discussed the content and form of movies, and appraised these on TV, today we get news of box office receipts instead. That’s our movie news, now, even on NPR: the weekend grosses. Just what import the news of movie grosses has for the average citizen, I couldn’t tell you, but that’s where we’re at. In contemporary art, a similar quantification supplants content — which is likely indication of some seismic shift in our relationship to material culture, but I don’t understand this development well enough to address it. 

A distinction needs to be made between success and successism. Success in art is desirable — although not required to justify a life, certainly, at least not by me — while successism is an ideology. Successism is the idea that you do art in order to succeed at doing it rather than for its own sake. That’s not natural to the spirit of art. Successism, a virus which has infected the art world, is a condition that is only possible when there’s a clear career path to follow, and a career path only becomes possible when the supply of something is guaranteed. As contemporary art now is. Fifty years ago the communication form we call “contemporary art” was a fragile, tentative thing, made by small groups of people in a few cities. Today it’s globally accepted and globally produced, endlessly. Why that is, a character in the book addresses at one point. We’ll never run out of contemporary art — how mind-boggling is that! As a result, the matter moves from sustainability of a discovered form to, instead, control of the flow of products derived from that form. Consequently the art world is no longer controlled by artists but, instead, by flow-controlling non-artists — dealers, collectors, auction houses, and such. So many people living off the art system! That’s a credit to the system’s success but at the same time this system is shaping artistic behavior. What an artist is, now, is so overdetermined by the art system that our imagination of the wider possibilities of that role is flattening out. The Duchampian model of the artist, with its emphasis on innovative explorations of the use of time — so last century! — has been supplanted by a branding and marketing model. That’s quite interesting to artists like my Marko Parker character, but for many others, who don’t think that way and don’t want to think that way, it couldn’t be more wrong.

In the auction house scene, art is mocked as a religion, as a belief which is never questioned by its participants. The detective is the only character who questions the faith. How do you situate yourself in this discussion? Is this ‘belief’ in art something you find restricting, limiting?

For a lot of people art does function as a pseudo-religion. I once wholeheartedly shared their belief but I evolved away from that view. I passed through art and came out on the other side, wherever that is! From that vantage I came to see art as fundamentally faith-based. In order for the art to “go,” the viewer has to bring belief. You power the art with your belief, and if you do then you get the payoff — a feeling of transcendence or whatever —  just like in religion. If you deny the art your belief, then what you see before you is just a pile of stuff or an accumulation of marks. After you’ve looked at your ten thousandth painting you may find yourself asking about the art transaction itself. “Just what am I agreeing to, here?” I don’t have a problem with other people believing but personally I came to be uncomfortable dedicating myself to something that requires belief. As the detective in Accrochage says, I prefer to choose what to believe in.

I’d sort of stumbled into the art world in the early ‘80s. I didn’t go to art school but instead gained admittance through the Factory door when I worked for Warhol. Finding out about art was quite thrilling in those early years — that feeling of mind-expansion, of human-possibility-expansion. “A life can be this? How wonderful!I threw myself into it. By the end of the decade, though, after a number of solo exhibitions in New York and Europe, I’d identified that I actually didn’t believe. I stopped believing in ‘89, while making a show — called “Signs of Faith,” appropriately enough — for Xavier Hufkens in Bruxelles. I didn’t arrive at my apostasy from some theory but empirically, from repeatedly butting heads with the art world regarding the way my imagination worked. It became clear I had a different value system. From there I developed supporting arguments for this difference.  

Do I still enjoy art? Some of it, sure, but something doesn’t get a pass just because it’s art. At the same time, I don’t want to be ruled by my disbelief, so I can turn that down when I want to, and some objects are so impressive, just as made things apart from whatever is claimed for them, that they argue convincingly for the achievement — the ingenuity, the conception, the craft. But we must separate art appreciation from dedicating one’s life to its production! I needed to find or invent another path. That is an artist’s job, too, isn’t it? Aren’t artists supposed to invent how to be an artist? I always thought making a model of the artist was the primary job. From day one I was always more interested in the mortar than the brick. For those who have found my professional narrative trajectory interesting, that, I think, is the value I’ve had for them: I figured out another way forward, other arguments. I believe in imagination, not art, and imagination can apply to a lot of forms and contexts and goals. Imagination is sacred. Art, which in the modern era and ours has doubled down on the “do you believe or don’t you?” principle to “make it go,” merely represents the sacral. It isn’t itself sacred.

Do I find the belief component of art limiting? Definitely. What does it limit? One’s access to one’s own imagination. If you haven’t full access to your own imagination, what’s the point of living as a quote unquote artist? I don’t want to perform David Robbins for the art system, I want just to be David Robbins. Look, a modern kid is raised on TV, movies, pop music, comedy, theater, fashion, and so on. Rather than integrate those influences into a new synthesis, that kid is asked to limit their response to this cultural lode — limit access to their own imagination — in order to make a living from some angle of their response to it, not for reasons organic to the way imagination functions but for inorganic reasons: the market, professionalism, academe, and other systems imposed from without. Yes, some kids will be naturally drawn to a single form — painting or sculpture or whatever — but to me limiting the imagination this way to serve what I came to understand was a pseudo-religion became an unsustainable artifice, and I wanted out. In art you can do “whatever you want” — so long as you agree to call it art! That’s the catch — and it’s an enormous one! So, in that sense, to me art represents a false freedom. I had to find another way forward, to give myself full access to my imagination. But you have also a responsibility to structure that freedom, otherwise you’re a dilettante. You need an organizing principle. I’ve done that structuring work, in essays and books and works. That’s been a big part of my work for the past thirty years. It’s what saves me from being a dilettante! It took me a few years to understand what to do, and during that time I continued to make objects and exhibitions, but I was no longer addressing art in these objects and exhibitions. Instead I was making comedies in material form — putting the theater first, then packaging the theater in objects and images.  And that decision sent my promising art career off the rails. “Whatever happened to…?” He found a way forward that he liked better, that’s what happened to him. To thine own self be true and all that jazz.

In Accrochage you make an argument for the suburbs as a sort of new frontier. A character says, “The suburb isn’t respected by the avant-garde. Never has been.” Another says, “The suburb isn’t perceived as a place of experimentation.” But this shouldn’t be a surprise, right? Isn’t the whole point of suburban life the comfort and safety of the nuclear family? When has the avant-garde ever needed an excellent elementary school?! Etc. Persuade me a bit more on this theme.

The avant-garde isn’t as unconventional as you think. Not anymore. We discovered that we too like having health insurance! As a self-defined demographic the avant-garde is much less a band apart than it used to be. There’s only one economic system now, after all. For better or worse the world has given up on trying to create an alternative. At least for the present. 

It’s interesting: response to my use of the suburb seems split between “of course” and your own, more skeptical view. The “of course” chorus tends to be readers from Los Angeles, where the blended, city/country hybrid — the suburb — is the model for the whole place. Do you think all the art kids have been flocking to LA just for the weather? No, they’re attracted to a kind of landscape. LA is like where they grew up, only interesting!

The book is about the relationship between imagination and context. That’s the through line, which I only discovered when I sandwich the three scripts. In the first section I draw on my own experience in the art world, and depict imagination — professionalized imagination — within the context of that world. In the second section — the so-called “suburban” section — I remove the supports that the art context provides. The suburb is the correct choice for that experiment since the suburb has always been disparaged and dismissed by the avant garde. Within the context of the avant-garde, the suburb is the perfectly “wrong” place. I’ve put that wrongness to work. The third section is something else again.

Will you still be an avant-gardist if you can’t move to the city, meet up with your tribe, get a big gallery, and get attention for performing your avant-gardism? Is that the purpose of the avant-garde spirit — to entertain an audience by performing avant-gardism, and maybe grow rich from doing it? By moving to the big city and participating in the art system, you are agreeing to format your imagination to produce for that system. What if you were to distance yourself from the formatting mechanism? Will you still be an artist if you are removed from that reinforcing context? And what kind of artist will you be? What kind of art will you make? Will it resemble gallery art? Are you strong enough and inventive enough to be an artist without also pursuing the conventions that are part of the package of the art system’s support? 

These become valid questions because big impersonal forces are reconfiguring long-standing cultural arrangements. First, the decentralization that the web is effecting hasn’t spared avant-gardism. When I moved to New York in ‘79, you had to move to New York to get the New York information. That’s no longer the case. Because of the web, living in suburban Milwaukee I have, say, 70% of the same information they have in Manhattan at the same moment they have it. The remaining 30% is who was at the dinner — also important, of course, but having more to do with networking, deal-making, and the market. The web has put an end to a major cultural pattern that had been in place in this country since the 1870s, when New York began superseding Boston as the nation’s cultural center. That pattern is over, and we’re not going back to it. Ever. The question then becomes, what comes next? Some people actually have to demonstrate the “what’s next”! 

Then there’s the economic argument. As the population grows and cities become too expensive — Paris, London, New York, even LA are already prohibitive — artists will be forced to disperse to other, more affordable landscapes, among them the suburb. The mid-century baby boomer rejection of the suburb is going to evolve and artists are going to start moving there. We’re already doing it, in fact, I and others. And it’s doable because of the web’s information dispersion. The old line between provincialism and cosmopolitanism has broken down. I can guarantee you that I’m more sophisticated and advanced in my thinking and output than the majority of the artists in New York City, and I reside in a suburb of a third-tier American city. 

Long story short, disparaging the suburb in the traditional avant-garde way is out of synch with reality. 

One of my favorite lines is when a character asks, rhetorically, “Why does the pursuit of truth and beauty bring out the monster in so many?” It sort of seems like the essential line of the whole piece. If you had to answer this question in twenty-five words or less (or more!) what might you say?

Yes, it’s quite mysterious, isn’t it? The book poses as a mystery story. Maybe the question you cite is the real mystery! 

I don’t have an answer but I can point to suspects. Art is a thing of the will, a thing of ego. It only exists because someone has insisted, for whatever reason, on making this functionless thing. Lots of perfectly mediocre art makes it into art history because of the sheer ego force of the artist who made it. So, people who make art are already under a certain psychological strain. They’re vulnerable. Then, all these people, artists and non-artists alike, are trying to get as close as possible to the hard evidence — objects, pictures — that seem most likely to represent this time, your time, our time, in history. The effort activates concentric rings of exclusivity; there’s a lot of “us but not you” energy in the art world. Mix in big money, another stratifier, and behavior can turn pretty monstrous. 

The art world is healthy and it also is unhealthy. Healthy in that the art world accepts the full person, warts, frailties and all. What other context does that? Certainly not the straight business world, yikes. At the same time, many people in the art context have displaced their inner lives onto objects. How healthy can a concentration of that psychological type be? Both of these forces are going on at the same time. 

When I first read your book I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist,” which is a dialogue between two Victorian aesthetes, where theoretical notions of art are delivered as a conversation. One thing you always notice when reading that text or any of Wilde’s plays is that some characters are clearly speaking in Wilde’s voice, while others play a straight man role. In Accrochage, I could hear the Robbins voice in many characters, while others, the Detective, and Marko Parker, and Lycra Duvall, for example, are not in your voice. Who are the characters you are primarily “speaking through” to deliver the main “arguments” of the screenplay?

Glad to hear they don’t all sound like me!

Accrochage is a skeptical work so it’s fair to assume that the author shares something of the detective’s skepticism. He is in the business of asking questions, after all. In the mystery genre the detective is a device that gets everyone else talking and revealing their positions. Here his job is to determine what’s happened to a famous artist who’s gone missing. In that effort he represents the audience’s position, as the detective usually does; the detective is the audience’s proxy. However experimental the book’s structure — it’s three different scripts sandwiched together — it is written for a general audience. Accrochage uses plain language and eschews specialized art knowledge. I proceed from the assumption that the general audience does not know how the art world works, and use the detective as the vehicle for their education. But who knows? Maybe the detective is only playing dumb about his knowledge of the art world, since he does make a sophisticated, “conceptual” move or two himself.

So much for “twenty-five words or less”!

How do you anticipate the art world responding to the critiques put forth in Accrochage? Surely anytime one criticizes success in art one opens himself up to charges of ‘sour grapes.’ Did you work to counter that or is it simply unavoidable?

I’ve always worn two hats — artist and writer. In Accrochage, my seventh book, the writer is simply relating what the artist has observed. Just doing a writer’s work. File it under “institutional critique”! I don’t expect it to convince anyone in the art world of anything, nor am I concerned to do so. It’s meant to play in the wider world. Because of my own professional history the art world will be its first audience but I wrote it for people who have no stake in the art world, at least none that needs protecting. 

I wrote Accrochage to counter the recent spate of movies and TV shows “about the art world” penned by professional screenwriters who know nothing about the art world. It was time for an artist to sort of set the record straight, in an artful way, and as I’m one of the few artists who has the combination of experience, chops, and inclination to do such work, I volunteered. So I think it’s something of a distortion to suggest that I’m not fundamentally fighting for the home team. At the same time we cannot exclude the possibility that the truth about the home team might be, at least in part, ugly. Many of the things said or done in the book are things that have been said to me by dealers, curators, collectors. If you find it ugly, take it up with them! I think I was even-handed about things. My experience of the art world is uglier than what I wrote. Which is not to suggest that Accrochage is a roman a clef. It isn’t. 

We have to make a distinction between art and the art system. The art system is narrowing the model of the artist, to “an artist makes art objects and has exhibitions.” In whose interest is that narrowing, ultimately? Art’s? Artists’? As artists are we just supposed to keep our mouths shut and cash the check? 

You mustn’t mistake self-possession for sour grapes, Matthew. I didn’t go to art school yet ended up having work in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How can I be sour when I quite exceeded my expectations for myself? Look, I went into the art world, I did what I wanted to do in the art world, and when at last I came to understand that the model of the artist reinforced and celebrated by that world was inauthentic to my own imprinting and imagination, that it was in fact a kind of mutilation of the more entertainment-imprinted way my imagination naturally functions, in order to protect the health of my imagination I worked my way out of “art thinking”– which, after all, only ever results in more art — to seek instead wider, more various applications of imagination. End of story — or rather, beginning of another, to me more interesting story: I stopped performing David Robbins on the art world’s terms and started being David Robbins on my terms. 

For reasons I suspect I’ll never know, art’s arguments didn’t sustain my imagination. Would that they had: today I’d likely be a richer man. But isn’t much of what we’re supposed to want in life ultimately someone else’s idea of a good time? “Be a famous contemporary artist. Get rich. Be talked about.” Uh, no thanks — for the reason that as a professional contemporary artist, to meet a schedule of several exhibitions a year you must be in constant production of art, which means you end up having your imagination hijacked and formatted by the art system. Not remotely my idea of a good time, it turns out. What if you also like to write books — little, enormously time-consuming projects like that? You don’t find out whether some professional context or another is a good fit until you’ve gone into it, and deeply. So, I evolved out of that context — carefully, in a disciplined way, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in writings and experimental works. There are, for god’s sake, other uses for the imagination than the terms put forth by the visual art context. Such as writing a screenplay that raises questions about the uses of avant-gardism, as I have in Accrochage

The final section “Offroad,” with characters Keith and Sarah, strikes a very different tone than the proceeding sections. The themes addressed are confidence schemes, a critique of America’s preoccupation with sports, and a monument to “the middle of nowhere.” Keith tells of his becoming ensnared in an elaborate con, and yet concludes that it was ultimately a positive experience. This seems significant. Also, we’re suddenly very removed from the art world context in this section. I’m assuming this was your intention, right? How do you see the arguments in “Offroad” linking back to the main themes in Accrochage?

Subtextually the book considers avant-gardism and what it’s for. In the first section — the art world section — avant-gardism is shown within the urban, cosmopolitan art system established to celebrate and promote it. There the avant-garde spirit is something performed for an audience. It’s entertainment. The second section, set in the suburbs that the avant-garde historically has rejected, presents the avant-garde spirit playing out without institutional support. There it’s more a way of life, a way to be in the world on your own, invented terms. It’s not done for entertainment or sales but for its own sake, as a way to invent experience. In the third section, set in yet another landscape, the countryside far from any cosmopolitan center, I remove the remaining element of institutional avant-gardism by making anonymous and authorless the object that Keith and Sarah discover. You’re left to puzzle out your own reaction to what it is they’ve run across. 

“What avant-gardism is for.” A good question. We know what it used to be for; it used to be for challenging the conventional modes of expression. But in addition to challenging the old ways, you also needed a stage, a gallery, a press, a venue where it would exist. Now that everything exists on the web, such “IRL” spaces are not economically sustainable. We’ve talked privately, you and I, about the disappearance of the underground, and the disappearance of the avant-garde would seem to follow logically from that. A question I always asked myself when I roamed the underground was: where do all these people think they’re going? Is the idea to remain in the underground and dwell there as an uncompromising purist? Or is the point to break out of the underground, to become “discovered,” to become “a star” to make  “a hit?” There have been and always will be successful artists tied to powerful galleries, but as you say in the text those artists represent only a tiny number of people working in the arts. Is the avant-garde something of a proving ground where ideas are tried out? Or is part of the avant-garde’s very function to challenge “success” itself?

Don’t we need to differentiate between the underground and the avant-garde? I agree that the idea of the underground has faded in an age where a click of the mouse sends your ideas all over the world the moment after you have them. Ideas don’t cook long enough now to form undergrounds, partly because people feel compelled to monetize their ideas as quickly as possible, before somebody else gets to it. In the classic underground, ideas percolated for a while, long enough to fold in not just aesthetic positions but also the social, economic, and political ones implied by the aesthetic. We may not see that again.

But “underground” isn’t synonymous with the avant-garde. In the art world there’s very much a completely above ground, well publicized, heavily promoted, insistently visible avant-garde that’s no less valid, as an avant-garde, than the old version of the underground. I’m speaking of artists riding the market for their work to a global scale of presence — Damien Hirst, Murakami, Koons, Sterling Ruby….  In the book, the Marko Parker character is one of these. Why should you have to be obscure or invisible to, as they say, push the envelope? You don’t. It’s a matter for debate, but the spirit of avant-gardism appears to have either migrated, or at least spread, to artists who are exploring the outermost contours of capitalism, through hyper-production and ubiquity — which, in a world with only one economic system, is an entirely valid site of exploration. I think it’s fair to ask, though, who benefits from that version of the avant-garde? Anyone other than the artists themselves, and their dealers? Are the ideas that attach to that avant-garde transferable? They’re consumable by buyers, yes, but transferable to anyone but another artist who shares that ambition? That isn’t so clear. 

It’s fair to ask what is the fate of this very important kind of human energy. Is it just for entertainment, just to entertain the rich, just to become rich oneself by entertaining? Is that what the avant garde spirit has become? Is it supposed to be something more than that or not?

You refer to “a completely above ground, well publicized, heavily promoted, insistently visible avant-garde…” and I’ll defer to you on this, but I have a hard time believing it’s culturally visible to many people at this moment. If you were to show one hundred works by major contemporary artists to a group of educated, sophisticated people who pay attention to the culture, how many would be able to identify which works were avant-garde and which were not? I know I wouldn’t be able to see it. So yes, there is still this big above ground business going on, but what makes it avant-garde? Is it simply that it’s rarified and expensive?

Since when is an avant-garde in the arts something that the masses can identify? It happens every once in a while, sure — Warhol in the ‘60s was certainly a figure talked about in the broader culture. He appeared on popular TV talk shows, for example — on Merv Griffin. But this is rare. Oscar Wilde was known to the general public and talked about in his day, as was Hemingway in his day and Dali in his. Today, it’s Banksy. That certainly isn’t meant to suggest that the avant-garde only manifests when such a figure appears. Avant-gardes exist in relation to some specialized field or another. Art is a specialized field. If you know the specialized language, you will likely be capable of identifying what is “in advance” of other things. 

The “above ground” avant-garde to which I referred is defined by their hyperproductivity, which corresponds to the hypercapitalism that has taken over the world since the fall of communism. For Hirst, Murakami, Koons, Ruby, and other artists of that ilk — it isn’t just men — hyperproductivity becomes a material …. This hadn’t happened previously because we didn’t have the kind of income inequality we have now. Once upon a time there was William Randolph Heast, touring Europe and buying up all the art in sight. Now we have thousands of William Randolph Hearst, who keep their art stored in freeports, out of the public eye and away from the tax authorities. Artists and their dealers today have a lot of Hearsts to sell to.  

If, on the other hand, you want the opposite — a figure who is known to the masses and definitely avant-garde but not recognized by the art world as such — that’s an easy one. I give you Kim Kardashian. She, or her managers, correctly identified certain contemporary materials of celebrity construction and media presence, and cannily manipulated these to make her a billionaire, or whatever-aire she is. She takes no position on anything, other than to be in front of cameras. The Mona Lisa of Moolah, she says nothing, smiling inscrutably. She grants access to her voluptuous presence. This is in the tradition of Jayne Mansfield or Marilyn Monroe but now the woman at the center of attention is in control. We’re making progress! None of Kim’s materials are traditional artists’ materials, nor does she use the art context’s specialized language. Working from the “nowhere” of a Los Angeles suburb, an outsider, she is a folk artist. An avant-garde folk artist, self-invented.

You’ve gone from being an art world insider to an outsider, by choice. After decades in the art circles of New York and Europe, you now live in Milwaukee and have little to do with the art world. Initially that move was due to family matters, but you’ve opted to stay. How much is Accrochage informed by a midwestern perspective?

It’s definitely there, in the skepticism toward the big cultural machinery centered on the coasts. I like your line, Matt, about how it’s an advantage that “we know more about them than they do about us.” Not only don’t we automatically buy into the belief systems of either Hollywood or the New York art world, from here we can see more clearly their parochialism.

Since I’ve set up camp midway between the art and the entertainment capitals in my work, it’s probably appropriate to live midway as well. Independence of mind is more important to me than success, turns out. I’d rather get it wrong my way than get it right their way. I didn’t move to Milwaukee to replicate the New York art world on a tinier scale, I moved here because the art system had no presence that could interfere with the development of “something else.” For a while there was a strong “something else” going on here in Milwaukee but, ironically, that very activity attracted a stronger art world presence. I keep my distance.