Meaning in Art, Transitions, & Why We Should Care: An Interview with David Raskin

By Katie Geha


David Raskin is the chair of the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). His studies focus on the relationship between art and realism, ethics in artistic practice, and behavior and belief in the work of artists from Jackson Pollock to Kara Walker. His recent publication, Donald Judd, examines Judd’s work, among others, in arguing for a credible art that “keeps existence open.” Over e-mail this spring, I interviewed Raskin about writing on art, reality, and what makes art “credible.”

Katie Geha: In the beginning of your new book Donald Judd you assert that his works engage polarities that “help keep existence open.” This begins an argument claiming that Judd’s art creates “transitions” not fixed “meanings,” as well as relates the experience of his art to a lived life. I might argue that this is the larger thesis of the book. How does life in art keep things open?

David Raskin: I’d agree that my most basic position is that art should add to reality rather than simply reflect or picture what we already hope life is. This type of art risks what we already believe by providing experiences that we can never master. I think it is open-ended feedback that helps us move from one circumstance to another, and that’s what I mean by “keeping things open.” Really, it’s a view that any credible aesthetics is emergent rather than transcendent. (Meanings just freeze us in place, while transitions are always only temporary.) The challenge for any work of art is to help people live better. In this sense, I wouldn’t say I’m quite arguing for life in art, I’m arguing that a certain kind of art makes more demands on us than things like furniture or football games—it makes us change, and change is what it means to thrive. Of course, plenty of art is just plain irrelevant, wrongheaded, or silly—like any other type of conversation.

KG: Judd often wrote on art for different art publications, and you mention his assessments in discussing his work. Do the ways in which Judd made critiques influence how you came to conclusions about Judd’s work?

DR: Yes, in at least a few main ways. Broadly, I think that what Judd believed is worth considering, and while his art shows that best, his art criticism and other types of writing get at his values and criteria in other ways. He is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, and you could learn an awful lot about a lot of things by studying Picasso, Pollock, and Judd. Not everything, but plenty. More specifically, the first chapter of my book discusses what Judd admired in the art of his contemporaries, including the New York School, and shows how he tried to get those qualities into his own practice; though he was always an artist, he was initially known for the review articles he wrote on a near-monthly basis from 1959 to 1965. In looking at what Judd wrote and in developing a broader early ’60s context, I wanted to move Judd away from the Minimalists for whom he is exemplary (Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt), and reposition him with artists whose ambitions I believe he shared and whom he himself recognized as important—Jackson Pollock, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, Roy Lichtenstein, and Lee Bontecou, among others. Judd’s early writings are a part of the history to his own single practice, and something of a “user’s guide.” Finally, I took to heart Judd’s demand that art be credible, and explained what I think he meant by that term by looking at his writings and art. And I developed credibility as a critical value in the terms we discussed above—credible art keeps the universe open, providing transitions rather than meanings.


KG:  Your writing style in this book is direct, clear, and, for the most part, to the point. Does the formal appearance of an artist’s work influence the style of your writing?

DR: I hope that the formal appearance of a work of art doesn’t change how I approach it, if only because it’s too easy to hope that your writing somehow captures the essence of someone else’s art; if it did, it would really be an act of translation through metaphor rather than of analysis. All analysis is dependent on some type of trope, but art doesn’t need poetry for decoration.

In terms of Judd’s art, I think it is always direct, whether the sensations are durable or ephemeral—it’s steel and Plexiglas, but just try describing what steel and Plexiglas looks like! Judd himself wrote in very clipped sentences, and while I hope I don’t sound too much like him, I have spent the last decade reading his 600+ articles, essays, reviews, and interviews; every so often I’d toss in a run-on sentence (those must be the ones you say aren’t to the point!) simply to let people know I was aware of some similarities.

I hope to be clear and direct partly for partisan reasons—academic or critical—history has been dominated for the last few decades by people who hide their thinking behind impenetrable prose following models from poststructuralist philosophy. I think these second, third, or even fourth generation writers are often not quite sure what they believe, or not sure how to express their belief, so they swill their words around and around. I just wanted to say what I think, and I wanted to be understood. Actually, instead of Judd, I’m hoping I sound like Cormac McCarthy. He was really the writer I had most in mind. Him, George Saunders, and Raymond Carver. I was also thinking a lot about music, about Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Cypress Hill, and the Grateful Dead, especially, and how they are all extreme in their own ways. I wanted to be extreme without being an extremist.

KG: You make a pretty amazing claim at the end of your chapter on Credible Art: “I believe that reality has no purity and cannot be abstracted.” That is, the work of Judd and others reminds us of our lived lives. Is there a credible art that make us leave reality?

DR: I don’t think that’s amazing, unless you mean you were delighted to read it. It’s not flabbergasting in the sense that of “how could anyone think this,” or at least I hope it isn’t. The claim is just that life is bigger than any explanation, that there’s always more than meets the eye, that words fail us, that no single answer gets to all the questions, that each of us can’t possibly know everything, and so on. It’s, again, a partisan claim against totalizing worldviews, against anything that hopes to give a reality a master narrative. No, nothing can make us leave reality, except death. We dismiss incredible art, because it doesn’t fit our experience, but it’s also important to remember that I define reality as both physics and fantasy, as both matter and spirit, our daily bread and our daily dreams.

KG: Okay, yes, you do define reality as physics and fantasy, and maybe I’m being too literal with this, but I’m stuck on this idea that reality cannot be abstracted. Are our daily lives, dreams, encounters with credible art, etc., only concrete and tangible? Have you ever done drugs? Or, maybe just experienced the feeling of being taken away by great music—say, the reverie of getting lost in a Grateful Dead jam? Or, dare I say it, the emotion of love? Are these realities not abstract?

DR: I think these issues turn on what my conception of abstraction is. Your examples, love, “Space,” and drugs, aren’t abstract even if they make everything appear fuzzy. They’re just moments we live in that are hard to explain or define with words, or even to communicate to other people. In this sense, I’d call them ineffable rather than abstract since these experiences are free from the conceptual conventions that bind them. Once living is locked up tight, it’s as good as dead. Abstraction is a secondary level of meaning that stands in place of direct experience—it’s part of the fantasy and physics mixture. When a dog barks, it either barks or goes “woof.” “Woof” is an abstraction of an actual bark; so too is the word I’ve typed, “bark.” bark is infinitely richer than these abstractions of it. Abstraction is just the icing on the cake.

KG:  Good. I like that. But my misunderstanding of abstraction also brings me to another question about how you write on art. In your book you take many concepts and stretch them in such a way that they lose their original meaning. Most notably you use the term “scale”, but you aren’t necessarily only discussing size when you use this word. That is, you offer various definitions of scale, but most hinge on the “transitive experience shaped by interest.” Essentially you create your own theories. Why do this if clarity is important to you?

DR: Size and scale are two concepts artists distinguished in the 1960s, and Judd, Andre, Robert Smithson, David Rabinowitch, Barnett Newman (most famously), and others thought that the former was quantitative and the latter qualitative. By investigating the historical and critical framing of this distinction, in effect, by asking, “What is the quality of the experience any particular work of art provides?” I stressed a way of engaging art largely absent from current conversations about the works I consider, which date from the late 1940s to recent years, from Jackson Pollock to Kara Walker. Any theory, whether created by me or not, is only as clear as its explanation or as valid as its arguments, and the entire purpose of the book was to discuss why works of art are both facts and values. This combination is what I said gives art its scale. If art doesn’t have credible values, all it has is size.

KG: On that note, this afternoon I was reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s theories on the New Novel and something he said reminded me of your work. He said, “The work of art, like the world, is a living form: it is, it has no need of justification.” If meaning is constantly tangential, would you agree that it is always contingent on the viewer? That the quality of a work of art changes as we change?

DR: Robbe-Grillet was working out those ideas half a century ago, and while there’s a lot I like, I wouldn’t say I’m 100% on board. I just think the world’s moved on, but I would agree that the best works of art “live” in that they remain relevant and dynamic, and demand that we constantly reorient ourselves in relation to the experiences they provide. The worst works of art instantly disappear, since they are completely innocuous. What I wouldn’t want to let stand is any distinction between art and the world. I think that’s a false division, since they are fully part of each other. It’s an old-fashioned idea that there’s somehow a distance between art and life, and that the value of art is that it better shows us what life is like. I think that’s completely false, and it’s an anti-realist stance made famous by Robert Rauschenberg, but it’s also central to most aesthetics, including Arthur Danto’s. In this sense, instead of saying that meaning is tangential, I would offer that it is, at strongest, conditional—just a provisional idea that may or may not prove useful in retrospect; lots of things we think will work out just don’t. Because of this “provisionality of meaning,” then, yes, the quality of a work of art changes as we change because some prove helpful and others don’t. You can never know in advance, though our successes and failures begin to pile up on each other and hopefully we learn from them.

KG: Hmm, now I’m a little confused. Okay, so if art is supposed to add to reality but not tell us what life is like, how are these two ideas distinct from one another? One is experiential and the other is explanatory?

DR: We’re back to the difference between direct and indirect. Think of it this way: credible art is another carrot added to the stew; indirect art is just the recipe card. It’s the old “mirror of nature problem,” and I don’t believe art stands removed from reality, which I think is continuously evolving and emerging. The name of my new band is “Darwin and the Big Bang.”

KG: Okay, so if when art adds to reality we are changed, or we have an ineffable moment, how do you write about this? Other than to explain that it happens. I guess what I’m getting at is: Can writing on art add to reality in the same way you suggest credible art does?

DR: There are lots of ways to write, and lots of ways to write about art. But almost by definition, analytical writing cannot add to reality except weakly: it’s more smoke than fire. While I hope I turn a nice phrase or two, I think that nothing logical or practical, when it remains as such, creates the productive nudge we all need.

KG: Finishing your essay, “Artistic Atheism,” (an essay in the exhibition catalogue to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s fall exhibition, the language of less: then and now it strikes me that while you are discussing a type of art after God, or meaning in art after God, you are still very humanistic. For instance, you talk a lot about human existence, thriving, and art helping to “shape a better future.” Do you see yourself that way?

DR: Yes. At one point not so long ago I was thinking a lot about Luc Ferry’s defense of humanism in Homo Aestheticus, and I approvingly quoted William James on humanism in my Judd book: “The essential service of humanism, as I conceive the situation, is to have seen that though one part of our experience may lean upon another part to make it what it is in any one of several aspects in which it may be considered, experience as a whole is self-containing and leans on nothing.”

KG: You also argue in “Artistic Atheism” that art should be “dangerous and stand at odds with expectations.” I’ve been thinking a lot about Giorgio Morandi lately. I think his still lifes are profound but do not see them as dangerous. Must the art experience always be “disruptive”?

DR: I think dangerous is one of the requirements for anything to be profound, since the kind of experience I’m calling for is one that stands however briefly beyond every sort of control. I need something that forces me to question my beliefs. Are they right or wrong? Helpful or harmful? For the good of the many or only the few? While I love a Morandi as much as the next person, I wonder if some of what I feel is projection on my part. Profound art creates experiences we simply cannot name or master so easily. A good test might be to look at 20 works. Is each profound? Or are you bored by the 7th? Every single Jackson Pollock from 1949 to 1952 is profound.

KG: Yes, looking at twenty or more Morandis might be slightly boring. But I’d like to argue for boredom! I talk to my students about this a lot—I like the idea that maybe art does not always have to be “a-ha” moments, but can also work on a smaller subtler level. Or leave you completely bored out of your head (my favorite day is when I teach John Cage’s 4’3″—they can barely stand it!). How have your interactions with students at SAIC shaped the way you think and write about art?

DR: Katie, this is the easiest question by far! I’ve taught at an art school for 11 years, and have spent plenty of hours not just in seminar with art history students but in critiques with artists. Some years I’ve been lucky enough to do studio visits with MFA students instead of teaching an art history survey. SAIC students, and I’m guessing I’ve taught 1,000 give or take, have shown me that what matters most about art is that it must matter now. If it’s not relevant today, it hasn’t stood the test of time. The most basic question everyone should ask when thinking about art is: Why should we care? It’s not a matter of when the art was made; it’s an issue of its values. A Giotto is every bit as relevant in 2011, and maybe more so than plenty of works by our art market stars. Every major collector has a lot of trash in the closet. My SAIC students want to know why they should care, and I’ve taken on that challenge as my job. In my book, I worked hard to show why Judd matters.


This interview first appeared in MAKE #9, “Neither/Nor.”


Katie Geha received her PhD in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently the Gallery Director at the Lamar Dodd School of Art Galleries at the University of Georgia, Athens.

Johnathan Crawford is a photographer and the Director of Domowit.

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