ESSAYS Mousse 38

Talk ‘Til You Drop: The Art Conversation and the Communication Imperative

by Isabelle Graw


Fluxus concert on the occasion of the exhibition Happening & Fluxus, on the left next to the banderole Harald Szeemann, Cologne Kunstverein, 1970. Photo: Ad Petersen Fluxus concert on the occasion of the exhibition Happening & Fluxus, on the left next to the banderole Harald Szeemann, Cologne Kunstverein, 1970. Photo: Ad Petersen


Isabelle Graw provides an exegesis of the various types of artistic conversation, glimpsing the politics concealed behind each species of dialogic exchange between interviewer and artist, from the risks connected with the personalization of the work due to knowledge of biographical or professional details, to the production of value as a result of an artistic intention that is revealed through conversation. Why, then, should we save this by now very widespread format? The author comes up with a multiple, wide-ranging and fascinating answer to the question.



The genre of the artist interview has spread beyond the mainstream press to infiltrate critical art periodicals, monographic studies, and catalogues. The journal I edit, Texte zur Kunst, is not excluded from this development. Although interviews with artists are rare for us, and we avoid studio conversations because they generally fall under suspicion of mystifying their subjects, we have adopted since the beginning formats such as roundtable discussions and surveys in order to accommodate the controversial aspects of certain major exhibitions.

I should begin by explaining what I see as the distinction between an interview and a conversation. The interview is a journalistic form that not only presupposes, but also produces, an asymmetry between the partners in dialogue, either through the interviewer posing inquisitive questions in an imputing manner (as is customary in Der Spiegel), or through the interviewer submissively courting the interviewee, as is often the case in the lifestyle press. Whereas the conversation never entirely overcomes these hierarchies, but it does hold out the prospect of an exchange among equals, at least in theory.

The pronounced demand for direct sources in the general media—and not only in the popular press—can be seen exemplarily in the development of European feuilletons, in which since the 1990s reviewing has steadily declined in favor of personality interviews. This form of interviewing a person about their work inevitably leads to a personalization of the work. This encompasses not only the work being subsumed under the person, but also a kind of mutation of the work itself into a quasi-person. The level of personalization varies depending on whether the piece is, say, a lifestyle interview in a fashion magazine, where the interviewer might ask about preferences in cosmetics, fashion designers, or spas, versus a staged disputation, an old favorite that has somehow disappeared since the 1970s in which two theorists undertake a factual dissent at eye level.


Hans Haacke, MoMA-Poll, 1970. © Hans Haacke / VG Bild-Kunst. Courtesy: Paula Cooper Gallery, New YorkHans Haacke, MoMA-Poll, 1970. © Hans Haacke / VG Bild-Kunst. Courtesy: Paula Cooper Gallery, New York


Apart from these predominant formats—the lifestyle interview, often taking the form of a studio talk that necessarily reproduces myths, and the ideal of the debate, which is utterly rare nowadays—a third type exists: the interview conducted for research purposes. In critical art theory and history that steers toward contemporary art, this type has firmly established itself. Here, the direct questioning of art producers offers a potential counterbalance to the risk of personalization. In such conversations, to the extent that the artist’s views differ from the art historian’s, art history presents itself as contested as well as controversial, and canonized narratives and normalized views can be called into question in a productive manner.[1] To me, it is most interesting when there is a real gap between the interpretation of the critic and the artist’s articulated intentions. Critics and artists talking at cross-purposes can be extremely entertaining, and can also lead to real insights and knowledge.

The prevalence of personal interviews in the art field is, I believe, an effect of the extended artistic competence profile (something I will go on to explain) that was generally accepted in the 1960s and since the 1990s has dominated certain segments of the art world. It is both an accomplishment and a curse. Communication as the defining feature of every interview, in my view, must be understood in connection to specific processes of value production. Without talking, no value is produced. This way of centering on the person and lifestyle of the artist, fostered by the interview format, has a long tradition in the history of art, which (as I will argue) perpetuates itself today with many art historians’ fixation on artistic intent. I will also discuss to what extent personal acquaintance (a necessary part of any interview) can compromise and constrain the critic. I truly believe that interviews and conversations perfectly serve the “new spirit of capitalism”—as the sociologists Ève Chiapello and Luc Boltanski often phrase it. But I also believe that the conversation can be saved only when it takes the form of a disputatio.



The crucial reason for the re-valuation of the interview as a legitimate art historical method, in my opinion, lies in the increased importance of the artist statement as an integral part of artistic practice, at least since Marcel Duchamp and Conceptual art. As soon as artists such as Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, or Yvonne Rainer came to consider the production of meaning an integral part of their practices, it led to what I have described elsewhere as an expanded artistic competence profile in which mediating one’s art—writing and talking about it—became just as important as the making of objects. The moment when interviewing and questioning others turned into an artisticmethod, as in Hans Haacke’s visitor surveys, any conversation with an artist correspondingly received a boost in legitimacy. And as artists began to claim responsibility for their discourse, it became necessary to consult them.

In retrospect, there is a clear connection between this extension of artistic competencies and the rise of communication as the “queen of productive forces” in today’s economy (Paolo Virno). And it is a small step from there to realizing the worth of contacts and information in today’s so-called knowledge society, where communication goes to work.[2] The Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi has described our current condition as a permanent availability of communication, using the example of mobile phones: “The entire lived day becomes directly subject to a semiotic activation.”[3] Just as all aspects of our everyday lives must be semiotically activated and communicated, “network capitalism”—as it has been aptly called by Boltanski and Chiapello—is aimed at our communicative abilities, which it renders productive.


Liam Gillick, McNamara Papers: Towards a Documentary, 1997, installation view at CCS Bard, New York, 2012. Courtesy: the artistLiam Gillick, McNamara Papers: Towards a Documentary, 1997, installation view at CCS Bard, New York, 2012. Courtesy: the artist


The emergence of the artist as a hyper-articulate communicator, and hence a producer of discourse, is a historical achievement of great significance, especially since the cliché of the speechless or confused artist is always ready at hand to the media and the art world. But the artist’s discursive abilities have proven to be a curse as well, since said abilities have become practically a requirement. Artists today are expected to claim for themselves the sovereignty of interpretation. What used to be an accomplishment—that they might conceive of institutional framing as part of their work and, for example, write their own press statements—has now turned into the expectation that they will explain their work in full detail, write press texts in the critical jargon of the day, and personally present their work to all those who view and consume it. As if they alone knew their work’s true meaning; as if artworks only ever realized themselves according to the intent of the artist; as if no one could ever understand a work if the artist was not there, live and in person, to interpret it.

This tendency of tapping into the personal, communicative, cognitive faculties of the artist is symptomatic of a post-Fordist economy that aims at ourselves, our cognitive and affective capacities, and wants us completely and utterly. In view of this depth effect of capitalism, an emancipated understanding of “communication” such as the “theory of communicative actions” submitted by Jürgen Habermas in 1981, appears in a different light.[4] Once communication turns into a resource of capitalism, it can’t be emancipatory anymore. As seminal as Habermas’s insistence may be concerning the importance of communication for identity formation, it is difficult to share his emphatic focus on communicative processes in light of the present situation, when communication skills are among the most sought-after resources on the job market. While it certainly was radical in the 1960s for artworks such as Fluxus performances to mutate into speech acts, things had changed by the mid-1990s when many artists were practicing a kind of communication for the sake of communication. Some, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija or Liam Gillick, specifically declared communication to be worthwhile and of value, disregarding the fact that it had already long been a commodity.

The emphasis that Relational Aesthetics places on communication ignores the hierarchic functioning of communication (due to its exclusive nature) as well as the fact that power relationships manifest themselves in each communicative act. Does this mean that we must abandon the historically hard-won model of a discursive artist who communicates his or her concerns? Not at all. First, this discursive understanding of art prevails only in certain segments of the art world: biennials, Manifestas, et cetera. Second, there are many artists who exercise a critique of the naive emphasis on well-established communicative-interactive scenarios in order to pursue more complex and inscrutable communication strategies. And, third, a refusal to communicate is not an option any more, not least because it would serve a conservative and anti-intellectual image of the artist. If it is also true that we are living within Boltanski and Chiapello’s concept of “network capitalism,” which declares communication its highest virtue and contacts as its central currency, then hardly anyone in this situation could afford to live in isolation or fall absolutely silent.



In the art field, speech is gold. We all talk too much, to too many people. This is partly a consequence of the inflation of opportunities to talk; there are always more art fairs, biennials, and symposia, demanding a kind of communicative exertion that can actually lead to physical exhaustion. Traditionally there has always been a lot of communication in this environment, since it is fundamental to the ways in which value is produced. Put differently, the high volume of communication required is directly related to the precarious character of the symbolic values that are being traded. Artworks are not intrinsically valuable. This generally applies to any value of a product that, according to Karl Marx, is separate from its body, a case he illustrated with the nice example of a canvas whose “skirt-like” quality was its form of value.[6] The value of a thing is consequently relational, then, and constituted in “social relations,” as Marx put it.

It follows that value is the result of a communicative negotiation process that never arrives at a conclusion. For the art world this is even truer, since it is dealing with symbolic values that overshoot material value, use value, and production costs. In terms of communication, this means that the art world requires a large amount of speaking, interacting, and cooperating because the values it deals with are, so to speak, standing on feet of clay. They are determined and negotiated only via communication. In this way the incessant networking and communicating typical of the art world may be understood as an expression and consequence of a value system that is particularly precarious and, in principle, relationally constituted. A withdrawal from these processes of value production seems difficult to envisage… unless one wanted to bring about one’s own economic and social death.


Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled 1993 (Cafe Deutschland), installation view at Galerie Max Hetzler, Köln, 1993. Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled 1993 (Cafe Deutschland), installation view at Galerie Max Hetzler, Cologne, 1993



As I mentioned before, it is the nature of the interview that person and matter are presented as interwoven and therefore personalized. Depending on the style of questioning, the person—rather than his or her product—can become the central vanishing point. For this reason, the critic Diedrich Diederichsen recently (and vehemently) distanced himself from the interview format, calling it a disquieting trend that persons rather than objects or projects were being discussed.[7] He declared that personal acquaintance between interviewer and interviewee, which is of course always enjoyable, is downright corrupting.

Diederichsen touches on a sore point: Personal acquaintance and (even more so) friendship can indeed impose a wrong kind of consideration. At the same time, this problem is not limited to the realm of interviews. Critics are often friendly with their subjects, and have not always necessarily felt compelled to disclose this fact. Such was already the case with the early painting treatises of Leon Battista Alberti and André Félibien. Alberti made no secret of having gained insights about painting via conversations with painter friends.[8] And Félibien’s credo in his Entretiens (1688) two centuries later was that one could only acquire a good knowledge of painting by talking to people who knew a lot about it.[9] These writings drew their apparent legitimacy from specific knowledge gleaned from artists via conversations. Today it would be valid to criticize such “insider” knowledge as a kind of secret science that is accessible by few and passed on only by adepts.

The problem according to Diederichsen, of professional consideration being contingent on friendship, is, in my view, not solely attributable to the interview format but relates to the diagnosis of a general “networking imperative.” As soon as the professional and private spheres become blurred—a boundary that in artistic production has always been brittle and now seems destabilized in society as a whole—the boundary between friendship and professional contact becomes fluid as well. According to Boltanski and Chiapello, friendships have lost their selfless character and are now valued for their instrumentalism.

One is a friend because one wants something from another. But this does not mean that one cannot simultaneously adhere to the ideal of selfless friendship. “True” friendship is still possible, complete with a realistic appreciation of its instrumental utility. In a society that prides itself on cooperation, one would not want to spoil relations with one’s friends, since they are always potential colleagues. Every contact is invaluable.

Texts and interviews today are by and large apologetic is because of this networking imperative, which commits us all to continual maintenance of professional (or potentially professional) contacts. And this is happening as the personalization of artistic production is being pushed on all levels, for example in auctions where mentioning “a Koons” or “a Warhol” mutates artistic works into persons. Or in art criticism, where artworks are given agency usually reserved for people when they are said to “intervene,” “reflect,” or “explore.” In the world of curating, too, the relevance of an artwork is conflated with the artist’s personal attitude. On all levels, the fact that critique of a product rarely occurs in interviews is directly related to this personalization. Because the new social rules make it necessarily so, the artist absolutely will take all criticisms personally, and the critic understands that exercising critique effectively amounts to social death. An enemy today could be an urgently needed collaborator tomorrow. Which is why one holds back, whenever possible.



It seems a vain wish to think, as Diederichsen does, that a rigid demarcation between “product” and “person” might be possible, because this boundary is per se unstable. This, by the way, is true also for the beginnings of art historiography, which tellingly was originally a history of artists. Giorgio Vasari recounted biographies in his Lives of the Artists, and in André Félibien’s Entretiens the works are dealt with secondarily. This privileging of life stories is the logical consequence of a central supposition of all artists’ biographies: that the artist is a particular species who devotes his or her whole life to art and manages to bridge life and art qua talent. The life is considered exemplary and ideal, spawning extraordinary works. Appropriately, the anecdotes surrounding the artist’s life rise to become relevant information. When Vasari for instance recounts the jokes of Buonamico Buffalmacco, it produces the image of a quick-witted banterer, which radiates onto the work.

Martin Kippenberger, Wenn Sie mit der Freiheit nicht klarkommen, versuchen Sie es doch mal mit Frauen (If You Can’t Handle Freedom, Try Seeing How Far You Can Get With Women), 1984-1989. Courtesy: Galerie Gisela Capitain, CologneMartin Kippenberger, Wenn Sie mit der Freiheit nicht klarkommen, versuchen Sie es doch mal mit Frauen (If You Can’t Handle Freedom, Try Seeing How Far You Can Get With Women), 1984-1989. Courtesy: Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne


Anecdotes that charge artworks with life and authenticity have been ubiquitous ever since. Consider the posthumously canonized artist Martin Kippenberger, about whom numerous stories circulate regarding his excessively bohemian lifestyle, sexism, and wit. As impermissible as it might ostensibly seem to conflate the work with the alleged persona, we must admit that the work encourages this through its titling and display. A relation to life is constantly suggested, although it does not amount to a tally-up in the legendary person “Kippi,” as every curator calls him by now. However minimally product and person might intersect, in this case, they stay reciprocally related.

Indeed, newer art historiography has distanced itself from the biographical nature of classical legend creation. But this has by no means capped its relation to the life (or the recourse to the life and person) of the artist. Which, by the way, are never readily available but always highly mediated. I would go so far as to say that the life orientation of early monographs is conserved in the belief in intent to which even the most progressive art historians still adhere. Especially in newer studies, such as the brilliant examination of Tony Conrad by Branden W. Joseph, statements by the artist are granted the highest authority, as if the tradition of analytical and critical source and discourse reading never existed.[10] In this ongoing belief in intention, the fixation on the person and living conditions of the artist, a characteristic of ancient legend production, finds its unacknowledged continuation.



If the relationship between the artist as a person and his or her product can be seen as inherently metonymic, characterized by shifting and transferring, then the interview is inevitably the place where the person bleeds into the work and, conversely, the work is charged with the personal. But interviews and conversations also offer an opportunity to perform this metonymic relation between person and product in a specific way—to negotiate and shape it differently. Instead of giving the interviewee a solid opportunity for self-staging, questions concerning the person, for example, can be avoided, and statements by the artist can be contextualized and decoded rather than taken literally.

A conversation could ideally stage the relationship between product and person in a non-reductive manner and make a personal relationship more complex. Instead of a mutual celebration, a factual dissent, a problem to discuss, a conversation can be a productive dispute. Recently, when Achim Hochdörfer and I left a discussion on painting unreconciled, everyone thought we were at enmity.[11] That it is possible to have an objective dissent and remain good friends has become inconceivable. But friendship (since Derrida or otherwise) can absolutely involve being separate, and misjudging or potentially misunderstanding one another.[12] The tie that binds person and product, especially in interviews and conversations, cannot be escaped. But, as interviews inevitably bring the person into play, we must collectively persist in insisting that the product continue to play the lead.



[1] Cf. Dora Imhof, “Kunsthistorische Interviewprojekte in der Schweiz. Ein vergleich aktueller Projekte,” in Dora Imhof and Sybille Omlin, Interviews. Oral History in Kunstwissenschaft und Kunst, (München: Schreiber, 2010), 29-39, 36.
[2] Cf. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Soul At Work. From Alienation to Autonomy (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotexte, 2009), 86.
[3] Cf. Berardi, 90.
[4] Cf. Jürgen Habermas, “Die Autorität des Heiligen und der normative Hintergrund kommunikativen Handelns,” in Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, vol 2, Zur Kritik der funktionalistischen Vernunft (Franfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1981), 69-117.
[5] Luc Boltanski/Ève Chiapello, “Die Neuartigkeit der projektbasierten Polis,” in Der neue Geist des Kapitalismus (Konstant: UKV Universitätsverlag, 2003), 176-188.
[6] Cf. Karl Marx, “Ware und Geld,” in Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1984) 49-108, 71.
[7] Cf. Gabriela Christen, “Zwischen Celebrity Cult und produktiver Kontroverse—Isabelle Graw und Diedrich Diederichsen über Interviews,” in Imhof and Omlin, 59-68.
[8] Cf. Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, trans. John R. Spencer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956).
[9] Cf. André Félibien, Entretiens sur les vies et sur les ouvrages des plus excellents peintres anciens et modernes (Paris, 1686).
[10] Cf. Branden W. Joseph, “Beyond the Dream Syndicate. Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage,” New York, 2008.
[11] Cf. “Die Malerei gibt es nicht. Ein Gespräch zwischen Isabelle Graw und Achim Hochdörfer”, Texte zur Kunst (March 2010): 46-56.
[12] Cf. Jacques Derrida, Politik der Freundschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2000).


Originally published on Mousse 38 (April–May 2013)


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