TWO FEET ON THE GROUND
Lynne Cohen has been photographing interior spaces for over 40 years, ranging from living rooms, men's clubs, banquet halls, and retirement homes to spas, laboratories, classrooms and military establishments. Andrew Lugg is a philosopher who has worked mostly on Wittgenstein.
AL: In the mid-1960s when we met, abstract expressionism was on the wane if not played out, and Pop Art, minimalism, conceptual art, performance art and land art were clamouring for attention. At the time existentialism, the house philosophy of the abstract expressionists, also seemed shop-worn. It was time for something less individualistic, more political and, as we saw it, less indulgent. The civil rights movement was in full swing and the US, to its shame, was fighting in Vietnam. People forget this background when they look at the art of the time. For us Pop Art wasn't a celebration of consumerism and celebrity. It was a radical move which showed a way out of the personal quagmire and into the world. I remember calling up a painter friend and asking whether I was disturbing his inspiration. In those days, inspiration and private struggle were ridiculed. We didn't think that modernism was on its last legs and postmodernism just around the corner.
LC: A lot of us wanted to get out of the studio and do something more engaged. I felt this when I was still a print-maker and before that when I was, for a short while, a sculptor. Some people began to do video – that was a big thing among some of our friends – and some, me included, turned to photography. But I wouldn't say it happened overnight. It had been building up for a while. My welded steel sculptures were constructed from car parts collected from automotive "cemeteries", and my prints juxtaposed images borrowed from consumer and how-to-do-it catalogues. There was a lot in the air about art and life, life in general, not just one's own life.
AL: Many artists were still struggling with the "inner self". That didn't die out overnight. You see it even today, perhaps more so. But back then "hard-edge" seemed the thing. When I was dabbling in film-making at the end of the 1960s, I remember hating Stan Brakhage's films for just this reason. Andy Warhol's "Empire" and "Sleep" seemed the way forward. The importance of Warhol's work was something to be fought for. In the mid-1960s it was rubbished by many people, including artists, and Warhol was regarded as a charlatan. Minimalism was the same. It was something to fight for. I remember reading Michael Fried's attack on minimalism in "Art and Objecthood", which ends with the words: "Presence is grace". I had no time for that. Sometimes I wonder what young people today think when they see Judd's boxes or Warhol's coke bottles. They see them without the background. They don't see them as a next big move.
LC: Duchamp was also a factor later in the decade. Like a lot of people I was influenced by Duchamp – even if, as I now realise, I got his idea of the ready-made wrong. I took there to be something ready-made about the pieces of the world I was framing. As I saw it, there were works of art out there waiting to be photographed and I was photographing ready-made installations. I also had a Guillaume Bijl-like idea of roping off highly charged areas and giving people directions to them. I even exhibited a small table with a goose-neck lamp attached and placed it on a linoleum base exactly as I'd seen it. Where I got Duchamp wrong – I wasn't the only one – is that I ignored his attitude of aesthetic indifference. I saw my found installations as politically and aesthetically charged.
AL: It's strange how badly Duchamp is misunderstood, both what he was doing and what he is responsible for. Of course, he is enormously influential. But he wasn't the instigator of it all. The idea that we have Duchamp, then Rauschenberg, then Warhol, then post-1970s art is just silly. It's forgotten that Duchamp only really came on the scene in the 1960s – there was something but not much in the 1950s – and Rauschenberg, as he himself says, learnt from Josef Albers at Black Mountain. I have always regarded Duchamp, not too wrongly I think, as a dandy who made one-line jokes ("Fresh Widow", "In advance of the broken arm"). For me it isn't by chance that he was close to Joseph Cornell, whom most of us regarded back then as a surrealist bricoleur. It's instructive to read art criticism of the 1950s and 1960s. Things weren't seen then as they are seen now.
LC: Another difference is that the notion of the avant-garde was celebrated rather than pooh-poohed. Making a move was prized, and the pigeonholing of people as minimalists or colour field painters was secondary. The various different things artists were doing weren't regarded as antithetical to the modernist project but as a development of it. Nobody took advanced art to be anti-modern or "postmodern". There were all sorts of developments and surprises, but there wasn't a clean break with the past. Is there ever a clean break? We didn't think of Pollock, de Kooning and Newman as reactionary. We took them to be on the same side of the fence as Warhol, Stella and Smithson. For us they were all, in their own way, continuing the tradition and doing something new. None of it fell from the sky.
AL: There was a lot of talk about the end of art, at least the end of painting. This isn't an idea we subscribed to. We didn't feel it necessary to reject painting to accept installation or video art. Soon after coming to the US from England I went to the Museum of Modern Art and was bowled over by the colour and scale of the work. And you too have always had much more than a passing interest in painting and art history. When you were in London you spent a lot of time in museums and galleries looking at old as well as new art. I think it surprises people how often you refer to the history of art when you talk about your own work. In this way, at least, I am sure you are committed to the idea of the avant-garde.
LC: I have never felt the need to choose between Rubens and Newman. I do, though, have a special place for linoleum, plastic laminate, naughahyde and fake wood, and I am drawn to Artschwager's use of these kinds of material. The spaces people create for themselves has been at the centre of my interest from the start. I find the contradictions in the world endlessly fascinating and have never been at a loss for a subject. While there are changes in my work, there is an underlying basic idea and "look", at least I hope so. That said, I'd agree the idea of the avant-garde is as important for me as it's unimportant for many younger artists.
AL: I should say a word about philosophy. When I started, a degenerate version of logical positivism was the big thing in the US. But it soon came to be seen as a deadend and in the years that followed people began looking for something else. Some tried to breathe fresh life into the old pre-positivist philosophy while others opted for postmodernism and focused, like some artists, on issues of gender, identity and so forth. That wasn't the route I took. I was taken by the logical positivism of the 1930s and tried to retain what I saw – still see – as the grain of truth in it. Logical positivism is seen, especially by artists and not a few philosophers, as reactionary. I don't deny it has its problems but they aren't the ones it is usually berated for. The 1930s logical positivists were close in spirit to the Bauhaus. In fighting against old-time metaphysics, they took themselves to be fighting a similar battle. Carnap railed against mystification and aligned himself with those striving for meaningful forms of personal and collective life. He wasn't one to insinuate himself with the Nazis.
LC: When it comes to the question of whether we should support the Bauhaus or "our house" (to use Tom Wolfe's dreadful comparison), we come down on the side of the Bauhaus. I find critiques of high art tedious. Is that elitism? I don't think so. The Bauhaus wasn't snobby or exclusive. It simply denied that middlebrow and lowbrow art, to say nothing of tabloid art, are the be-all and end-all. Some people accuse us of art-for-art's-sake modernism, which is finished. But I think it condescending to treat people on the street as if they can't get it. That's not my experience. All kinds of people come to exhibitions and there is no telling who will look hard and have interesting things to say. "Easy art" isn't something I favour, and I find it insulting when museums and galleries treat people as if they can only appreciate watered-down work. My sense is that people will come to thought-provoking shows, especially if they are intelligently promoted. But say more about philosophy.
AL: I didn't mention Wittgenstein, the person who most influenced the logical positivists, especially their critique of metaphysics. I never believed there was such a thing as "philosophical truth". The idea that philosophers tell us about the true nature of the world or how we should be living or what is aesthetically good seems to me daft. I don't rule anything out in advance but I find a lot of philosophy little better than self-help. I don't study existentialism or structuralism or hermeneutics. I think a particular way, and I have no trouble explaining why I gravitated to working on Wittgenstein, the greatest critic of the idea that philosophy tells us what's what.
AL: I'd have to admit that art influences how I do philosophy. Wittgenstein said nobody knows how much music has meant to him, and I'd say the same about painting and photography. Nobody who has a feel for art can, it seems to me, think philosophy is the last word in how we should think and act. To be a halfway decent metaphysician you have to be willing to close your eyes to a lot, and I often think it would be good if metaphysicians spent ten minutes every so often looking at a great painting or a great photograph. I know philosophers who go to the opera but there aren't many who listen to Cage or Feldman, let alone appreciate Pollock, de Kooning and Newman, artists who aren't that hard to get. And philosophers of art are the same. Some of them have interesting things, at least odd things, to say, but you rarely learn anything about visual art reading them.
LC: This goes along with what we were saying about the avant-garde being a big thing when we started out. We were both influenced by minimalism, pop art, art and language and video. It seeped into my work and in a different way into yours. It must have made a difference that while you were still a scientist, you made some short experimental films. Actually I believe we both did what we did and were taken with avant-garde thinking because we saw something radical, at least potentially radical, about what photography and philosophy had to offer. It was not solely a matter of favouring something more social and modest. It was also a political move. This may sound naïve now but it didn't then. Avant-garde art was widely believed, not least by us, to go hand in hand with radical politics. We linked – some would say confused – politics and aesthetics. For us art contributed to the much bigger project of changing society. We had the idea of advanced art as politically in the vanguard. And it was – at least in the sense that it was denounced by political conservatives.
AL: This will strike people who know your work or who know what I do in philosophy as strange. Looked at from the outside, we are unlikely radicals. We don't say: "Sit up, change your views". Your work could hardly be more different from what a radical artist like John Heartfield did, and there is a world of difference between my philosophy and the philosophy done by leftwing Latin American philosophers. You present your interiors in a very restrained way and I am very much against philosophers pontificating. But I'd agree there is something radical – at least counter-conservative – about what we do, and we'd not do it otherwise. It's hard to pin-down. I think of your claim that only someone concerned with social justice would do what you do.
LC: One argument I reject is that my pictures can't be social or political because there aren't any people in them. This seems to me simplistic and it's partly why I speak about social justice when I discuss my work. The absence of people doesn't make the work inhuman, alien or cold. I see my photographs as full of life and touching on the human condition. There are traces of people in them as well as manikins, signs, stick figures, chairs with human attributes, strange shadows signalling that we are not alone. As I see it, the everyday in contrast to the exotic (and the other-worldly) is a good subject for a socially-minded person. You are forced to look out rather than in. Indeed I think there's something potentially radical about scrutinising the familiar world from the outside with an attitude of disbelief. Framing it with an eye to the ordinary and everyday is altogether different from framing it with an eye to the bizarre or spectacular. While pictures taken from a scaffold or the top of a mountain can take your breath away, I prefer to have two feet on the ground and let things creep up.
AL: You can see something similar in philosophy. A lot of philosophers go for the mysterious or exotic, and like you I resist that. I am often asked: "What's the good of the sort of philosophy you do?" My own view is it's no more humdrum, inconsequential and unworldly than other kinds of philosophy. And anyway who knows what makes a difference? It's the same with art. Who can say abstract painting doesn't have a bigger effect than overtly political painting? It certainly had a bigger effect on me. It's hard not to preach in philosophy but I try my best. The preachers don't seem to me to get anywhere, and I prefer to work at exposing the enormous gap between the castles in the air that philosophers build and what I call, for want of a better term, "real life". I want the people I talk to and write for to end up more suspicious of what Wittgenstein referred to as "gassing". I don't always press the point and some of what I say and write is quite recherché but that's what I think is important.
LC: We should talk more about the ordinary. Wittgenstein is the great philosopher of the ordinary, and you are attracted to that aspect of his thought, especially the fact that he has an ear for everyday talk – and how it goes haywire. This seems to reflect a concern with the human condition. And I too am drawn to the world in its ordinariness, even when photographing police schools and military installations. Uncovering the secret and forbidden doesn't interest me. It distracts from what I am after. And for the same reason I concentrate on the "middle ground" and avoid photographing shacks and mansions. The idea is to show something that slips away when you try to pin it down. Though there isn't much, if anything, overtly political in my photographs, there is a lot that has to do with our all being in the same boat. This complements your misgivings about head-in-the-sky philosophy.
AL: That's largely what attracts me to Wittgenstein. I read him as a critical philosopher suspicious of philosophical speculation, a philosopher in the tradition of Kant and Marx. Remember Kant wrote Critique of Pure Reason and Marx wrote A Critique of Political Economy. While Wittgenstein tends to be disparaged nowadays as too negative – he is, rightly seen, as wanting to put an end to the whole business – I can't say he was wrong. I'm sympathetic to Wittgenstein because he has a deep appreciation of the madness and deals with it in a very sophisticated way.
LC: Another thing I'd add is that in the early days we were very much taken by Francis Ponge's phrase "le parti pris des choses". I like the idea of taking the side of things and giving them a voice rather than lording it over them. The public life of objects is important to me since it says something about how we want ourselves, collectively, to be seen. Perhaps this is peculiar but I'd like to be regarded as treating objects with fairness and respect. That's not the same as a concern with social justice but it's linked to it. By presenting objects non-hierarchically and avoiding the trap of telling the viewer how to think, I hope to convey something about how the world could be different. I'm not neutral about what I photograph. I have opinions and wouldn't pretend for a minute that a military installation is the same sort of place as a health spa. The seeming neutrality of my pictures is a false clue. I present a spa pool and a practice range similarly, trusting viewers will reflect on what is being done in our name. I don't want people to say: "Oh, that is interesting. An anatomy laboratory is like a banquet room".
AL: The ordinary is equally important in philosophy. The move to the everyday that Wittgenstein recommends provides us with a way of getting off the philosophical merry-go-round. There is, of course, the danger that emphasising the ordinary will be misconstrued and erected into yet another philosophical doctrine. My slogan is: Not this and not the opposite either. The trouble with a great deal of postmodernism, as I see it, is that it overreacts to the discovery that some rather implausible theories aren't on. The postmodernist says: There are no universals, so everything is relative to this or that social group (something like that). Actually, it's worse. If you relativise everything, you can't say anything is better than what is already in place. Far better to say, with Wittgenstein, a plague on all your houses.
LC: I agree with you about philosophy – aesthetics included. Philosophers often pronounce on the world as if they are scientists in white coats. How do they know that what they claim is true? If they made the discoveries they purport to make, they'd be first in line for Nobel Prizes. Aestheticians are the same. I am not sure what I'll do if one more aesthetician asks: "What is art?", introduces the same old example, Duchamp's Fountain, and claims it is or isn't art. In university, I had a professor who tried to pin down what art is once and for all, and I am no more impressed when I read Danto and others pondering the status of the ready-made. Why, I wonder, have so many clever people found the question interesting? It seems more like a puzzle for children.
AL: Like you, I can't abide art writers and theoreticians turning up with a template in advance of considering work. I think discussion should take off from the art, not the theory. Nothing is easier than shoving work into a theoretical framework, especially if you allow yourself the luxury of picking and choosing your examples. In any event I'm sure there isn't enough real criticism these days except perhaps in blogs. People are reluctant to tell you what they think and why they think it. This is a shame since disagreement helps you to get clear about what you are seeing and what you are thinking. At least it helps me
LC: Perhaps my reaction to theorizing about art is different from yours. As an artist I may be more tolerant. Reading art theorists I have discovered links and resonances between my work and culture in general as well as between my work and other work. It has sparked a lot of thoughts. I am interested in how people try to get a handle on art. But I agree nobody should be saying what art has to be and ruling out anything in advance. I suppose both of us think that discussion about art should pivot on the work and not fly off into the stratosphere. Benjamin was surely correct when he said the language of aesthetics should be the language of artists. I prefer to hear artists talk about their work without warmed-over philosophy being prayed in aid to give the work a pedigree.
AL: Unfortunately many critics and curators are reluctant to stick their necks out and hide behind jargon and ill-digested philosophy. It's quite remarkable what one reads on the walls in some museums. You find statements totally disconnected from the work. A line on a square is, amazingly enough, said to be a critique of capitalism or to question patriarchy or to reference someone or something. I can understand artists saying they want to give more weight to the conceptual than to the retinal. But it is just not true that if you have the one, you can't have the other. As Kant said, concepts without percepts are empty, percepts without concepts are blind. What counts is how the ideas are worked up.
LC: Theory-based work can be good even when the theory on which it's based is wacky. The trouble is that the accompanying theory is sometimes all there is. You don't have to have a theory to make a contribution. And for better or worse photographs don't theorise. I make a point of editing out any that can be summed up in a few words and don't have some sort of edge. When someone says of a photograph that it's about this or that, I want to say: "How do you know? Might it not be about something else, perhaps this, perhaps that?"
AL: I am not fond of irony in art. It can't be the only thing left. When I see a photograph of a fashion model next to a tank in the desert, I don't see it as an ironical critique of war. I see an abdication of criticism and, however unintentional, aid and comfort for the enemy. Much has happened in art and society since 1970 for the good – the feminist movement, gay rights, the interest in non-European culture, and so on. But these developments are rarely matched by art that is meant to challenge the powers-that-be.
LC: Making art accessible can be very counterproductive. It is patronising to give people what you think they want. I am interested in involving people who are interested in being involved.
AL: I'd only underline that we aren't nostalgic for an earlier time. The 1960s, like any other ten years, were enormously complex. There was a different ethos then (partly because much more seemed possible), and this made a difference to what we have done and how we think. Someone said the avant-garde ended on 2 July 1970, and it isn't irrelevant that that we started before and were influenced more by earlier art than the art that came afterwards. Your photography wouldn't be the same had you started later, and practically everything I do is connected with philosophy from what I like to call the high tradition.
Lynne Cohen and Andrew Lugg, Montreal, July 2009