Brilliant, brilliant interview with Mike Kelley by Glenn O'Brien, touching on everything from repressed memory syndrome, the art market, open source culture and the yuck factor of current copyright law and lawyers...
via Interview magazine (the "Art" issue) [excerpt]:
Glenn O'Brien: How did you get onto the subject of repressed memory syndrome?
Mike Kelley: From the response I was getting to my works with stuffed animals and craft materials-people went on about how the work was about child abuse. What was my problem? Why was I playing with these toys? Had I been abused? Was I a pedophile? I didn't understand what they were talking about. But when I did a bit of research, I discovered how culturally omnipresent this infatuation with child abuse was. Since everybody seemed to be so interested in my personal biography, I thought I should make some overtly biographical work-pseudo-biographical work. That's when I decided to build the Educational Complex-the model of every school I had ever attended. I was thinking of it specifically in relation to the McMartin Preschool child-abuse scandal. I would leave out all of the parts of the schools that I could not remember and then these areas would be filled in with recovered "repressed" memories-which would simply be personal fantasies.
GO: As the work progressed, did you remember more and more?
MK: No, because the project wasn't about that. It was fiction to begin with; I wasn't interested in remembering anything. There's not much to remember anyway-my biography is fairly dull. It's much better to fill in these empty spaces with fiction than the boring truth. I filled in the blanks with pastiches of things that had affected me when I was a child: cartoons, films, and the kinds of stories one finds in the literature of repressed memory syndrome-horrible stories of sexual abuse. I just mixed all that up.
GO: I've remembered an event and thought I'd said something when actually it was somebody else who said it or vice versa. I think, especially in writing, so much of plagiarism is completely unconscious.
MK: I have experienced that often. I've stolen ideas, and people have stolen from me. I'm all for it. That's the way things get created. That's how culture grows. When there's an amazing idea, you take it and run with it. I mean, you're going to take it someplace else than the source anyway. There are a lot of artists who've worked at that specifically. One of my favorite writers is the Comte de Lautréamont, and much of his writing is constructed from plagiarized texts. Who would claim that his work is no different than what he plagiarized?
GO: One thing that the Internet seems to be doing is eroding the idea of copyright and originality. People are just taking bits of things and using them in a very free way.
MK: That's great. And the corporate entertainment industry is trying to stop it from happening. Think about it: Andy Warhol could not have a career now. He would be sued every two seconds.
GO: It's given a lot of work to the lawyers.
MK: Copyright laws are terrible for culture. It's illegal to respond
to the imagery that surrounds you; you're bombarded every minute of the
day with mass-media sludge. It should be the opposite: Everybody should
have to respond to it. This is what should be taught in the public
William S. Burroughs should be a major role model: All students should be given tape recorders and cameras to constantly record the gray veil that surrounds them, so that they can recognize that it's even there-and manipulate it. Most people are not aware of the white noise they exist in. Tape recording and photography allowed people to become aware of what was invisible to them for the first time. We're surrounded by invisibility. That's what I think art can do-make things visible.
GO: You put together a book of interviews a few years ago which I think has a lot of interesting things in it. There's an interview with Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth], and she says, essentially, "One can never have a crush on art."
MK: She said you can have a crush on art, but it cannot be of the intensity of the infatuation one has for a pop song. I really disliked that when she said it, though I understood what she meant.
GO: But I have had somebody say to me within the last year that kids today don't want to be rock stars anymore. They want to be artists.
MK: Well, that's so they can make more money. It used to be the other way around.
GO: It wasn't about money. It was about getting laid, I think.
MK: Rock stars do get laid more than artists-at least they used to. Right now, because there's a boom in the art market, there are a lot of people in the art world who would not have been there before. Young people who would have previously gone into careers in indie rock-which is one of the few arenas where a young person with no particular talent can make some money-can now accomplish the same thing in the art world. And perhaps it's easier to be an artist because fine art is not as defined, in terms of quality, as pop music is. But, with the economy collapsing, maybe this will change now.
GO: After Robert Rauschenberg died last May, we republished an interview that he did for us, and he was talking about a conversation he had with Brice Marden. Marden told Rauschenberg that his students had changed so much that when they'd come to class, the first thing they'd say is, "Tell me how to get a gallery." Or, "Tell me how to get a loft."
MK: Now, if a student doesn't have a show by the time they graduate they think they're a failure. And they fully expect to make a living from being an artist. I chose to become an artist because I wanted to be a failure. When I was young, if you wanted to really ostracize yourself from society, you became an artist.
GO: What I didn't like about the rock scene was what happened to punk: It became a cliché of itself, this glorification of immaturity, whereas, in the beginning you had James Chance being influenced by Ornette Coleman and James Brown simultaneously-a lot of really sophisticated stuff going on.
MK: I feel very lucky to have grown up during that period, where you were surrounded by a lot of people doing very innovative things. And because of a strange fluke in the culture industry, a lot of this stuff made it onto records, and you could hear it because you had to kind of ride the youth culture. And so, with the success of the Beatles-which nobody expected-all of these record companies went out and put basically anybody who had a band onto vinyl and into every Kmart in the country. That was a fluke of history. And those people weren't trying to make a living. They were artists working in some folkish way-some of them very, very intelligent people who were trying to do interesting things. It's interesting that it became a kind of very professionalized youth culture. And then there was this whole shift in class with the rise of heavy metal-rock became sort of right-wing instead of left-wing. And punk was a reaction against that, trying to go back to this earlier model, but more nihilistic. Punk also happened in the '70s when there was a big economic crash. I know that I was very bitter that I had missed the hippie thing and all of that fun. All I was surrounded with were empty factories and horrible, shitty country-rock. And I wanted to make something really, really ugly. That was my plan.
GO: Do you think this crazy art market boom that's happening now is temporary?
MK: I can't see how it cannot be. An inflated market like this cannot last forever. Though, I do believe that class distinctions have changed to such a great degree that we might now be in a permanent situation of having a super-rich upper class, like royalty, who are not affected by economic shifts. Such people can continue to buy art even if the market is bad. So, potentially, this boom could continue-although I think most of these people are only buying art for investment purposes and they will stop buying it when other means of investment become lucrative again.
GO: What leads me to think that it might continue is the fact that the art market is a sort of perfect market. It's kind of impossible to regulate because it's inscrutable. I mean, the government could never figure out how it works.
MK: You can't control it.
GO: But you can influence it if you're smart enough. It's sort of like magic.
MK: But, then, art objects don't necessarily hold their value.
GO: No, they don't, so it becomes about buying and selling.
MK: And doing that at the right time. Though there is the attempt to position certain artists, like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, as modern "masters" whose work is supposedly unaffected by market shifts. But, you know as well as I that masters don't last forever. Anyway, the boom is not going to last forever. There are too many artists making too much work right now, so any notion of quality is lost. Collectors are just buying everything-hoping something will pan out.
GO: Do you think that the boom has expanded the idea of art as something that requires explication?
MK: I see it as the opposite. I don't think that art needs explication now. In fact, there is very little serious writing about the most successful artists of the moment. This new art is very anti-intellectual-it doesn't need explication-the market is its explication. It's interesting, there are very young artists whose works are selling at auction for tremendous amounts of money and I've never heard their names before. There is some kind of internal machination of the market going on that has nothing to do with critical acceptance. These artists are coming out of left field. I used to understand why artists were successful-critically or economically. Even if I disagreed with these success stories, I understood them. Now, I'm clueless.
GO: It used to be that rock stars had to be young and sexy, and artists could still be kind of old and overweight-and it was okay because they had achieved this mastery. But now that same kind of star system seems to be infiltrating art.
MK: The art scene now is almost a mirror of the entertainment industry. The YBAs [Young British Artists] set the model for this trend. But England is a very different culture where art has a different social position than it does in America, and so such a thing is possible there. In America, artists, traditionally, are peripheral, unimportant, un-glamorous figures. But if things continue the way they are going, I can see that changing.
GO: There was a cover of New York magazine in 2007 with the headline: "Warhol's Children." It was all about that idea of artists as rock stars.
MK: I think that's why the Juxtapoz magazine art world is so popular now. This "low-brow" art style has overtly cut any ties to the traditional avant-garde. The posture is: "We're just plain old working-class folks making sexy art for the people." And young people really glom onto this stance. Mark Ryden is probably one of the most popular artists in the country at the moment, and many Manhattanites probably don't even know who he is. That's something that could not have happened before now.