• Art Criticism and Disembodied Signifiers
  • Jeff Kelley

An Interview with Jeff Kelley

Jeff Kelley is an art critic and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. A professor of art theory and criticism at UC Berkeley from 1993-2004, he has written for publications such as Artforum, Art in America, The Los Angeles Times, and Artweek, and has produced dozens of catalog essays about artists such as William T. Wiley, Deborah Oropallo, Lucy Puls, and Christopher Brown. Kelley is the editor of Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, by Allan Kaprow, published by the University of California Press in 1993, and he recently has authored Childsplay: The Art of Allan Kaprow, published by the University of California Press in late 2004. Essays he has written about Chinese artists Liu Xiadong and Sui Jianguo will be included in two respective monographs due to be released by Distributed Art Publishers, Inc in December 2005. Kelley is curating an exhibition of Lui Xiaodong’s paintings about the Three Gorges Project for the Asian Art Museum, scheduled to open in April 2006.

JORDAN ESSOE I’m going to take something that you wrote wildly out of context, and distort its implications to maybe jumpstart us here. Back in 1995, in an article on Allan Kaprow for Art in America you wrote that, “The medium in which the art/life gap has been bridged [is] advertising.” Is art criticism advertising, bridging life and art?

JEFF KELLEY: Well, that’s an interesting question. I think old quotes like that probably exist to be taken wildly out of context. Let me say that what I believe I meant was that the gap between art and life that Rauschenberg had identified, and that Kaprow tried to fill up with activity, didn’t really become a field of heroic activity for artists, but rather became a surface for banal everyday messages of the most trivial kind that we call advertising. And so, in a sense, I think advertising did bridge the popular gap between what we thought of as art and what we thought of as life. There was nothing profound about the conceptions of art and life, nor the bridging of that gap, the way that advertising, or advertisers, conceived of it. But it was effective and sophisticated, and a kind of art. At that time Kaprow was doing a series of reinvented environments in a commercial art company that occupied four or five stories of a building in New York. I was thinking about advertising as a popular form, an everyday form of artifice that is part of our lives and that we are very familiar with. I supposed a connection between that and what an artist like Kaprow did, which was to try and engage everyday life through his experience as an artist. The connection between that and advertising is that they were both commonplace, but the one is enlightening and liberating and the other is dulling and maybe even menacing.

As far as art criticism is concerned, I am reminded of one of the things that many years ago Kaprow wrote about this interplay between art and life. He said that the extent to which artists began to crossover into the life field was the extent to which critics were no longer necessary. Art critics were often perceived to be educating or mediating for their audience, and bringing them across the divide between life and art. If artists were practicing their work—in traditions that we recognize as being part of everyday life and not part of the art world or the history of art—then we wouldn’t need critics to help us break the code. We wouldn’t need them to teach us how to maneuver through this field of mysterious language.

ESSOE: In that scenario, could the intervening role of the critic suddenly be seen as not only unnecessary, but perverse? In fact, don’t all cases of critics teaching an audience how to maneuver through a language that appears mysterious, like any translation, involve unintentional muddying or muffling effects?

KELLEY: The key word there is teaching. I think when criticism is a tool for teaching it can be very enlightening. I’m not sure whether there is a similarly enlightening, pedagogical effect among the public when they see art reviews in newspapers or other general publications. I honestly do not know to what extent it becomes educational or helpful or illuminating. I suspect that it does for many people. For others, I think criticism simply articulates a cluster of opinions or attitudes or sensibilities that the reader can react against or identify with, which is valuable in its own way. I used to think that art critics were the people who looked at art for the general public, and that they were the ones who had trained themselves and devoted themselves to looking at art and writing about it. That’s probably still true today, although I don’t think it has the same noble ring for me that I used to attribute to it.

There is also a paradox here. We have the sense today that there are more and more people looking at art and going to museums, but also that the growing numbers of critics represent a diminishing audience of people really willing to not only look at, but grapple with aesthetic phenomenon. Very few people are willing to really make something of that grappling, although very many people are willing to have opinions.

ESSOE: As James Elkins and others have posited, we are in the age of ‘descriptive’ art criticism, and have moved away from the grandeur of staunchly polemical, factious argument. Critics aren’t usually in the mood to champion anything without some form of apology. We no longer get statements like “David Smith is the only major sculptor in the United States.” Not that we need or even want statements like that, because they can come off as quite childish, but there does appear often to be an earnest disinterest in clearly taking ideological sides. Is this kind of writing, which could be described as inspection for inspection’s sake, always appropriate? Is it a sign of mature objectivity, or can it be seen to contain a kind of critical lethargy?

KELLEY: Let me be a smartass and just say that I think it’s part of the Dave Hickey effect. Dave, among other things, brought the first person back into a popular usage in art criticism. And to the extent that he did that, even though he argued for big ideas, and for controversial ideas, he seemed to be arguing as himself. That permission to have an opinion that is first person, but to have that opinion be about large, encompassing, contested ideas, had quite a recognizable impact. Prior to that, I think critics were more prone use a language that wasn’t personal, and to identify themselves with ideas that needed to be expressed with more formality and rigidity. Today, when you read the writing of people like Peter Schjeldahl, it is very clear that you are reading his opinion, and its very clear that his opinion is very honed and has taken many years of hard won experience to develop. Another thing worth mentioning is that he appears to have done it as a writer. There’s something about this issue of writers coming more to the surface of art critique, and I associate that with people like Hickey and Schjeldahl. This permissiveness to write as yourself, from your own point of view, is maybe because the arts today are so dispersed, but whether conceding the complexity of that or grappling with that complexity, these writers depend upon themselves and their own first person experience.

ESSOE: Do we, then, benefit from a pluralism of opinion as much as we have a pluralism of art product, and therefore have a partial breakdown of the hierarchical structure for voices of authority and expertise?

KELLEY: Is it opinion that you’re talking about? Because plurality of opinions would have to be about something that is generally agreed upon. I’m wondering, in all of this activity, if there is any agreement on what the subject is.

ESSOE: The expanse of activity seems to increasingly overwhelm consensus in multiple ways. I think what interests me is the effect that that has on the structure of the community of thought. Do you see a reduced validity to singular critical voices?

KELLEY: No, I think the validity is enhanced. You still have people who are writing at the top of their game, and writing for important institutions that make their voice visible. It’s like I said about the first person identity. I think in the wake of identity politics, multiculturalism, and the post-modern sense of disembodied self, critical voices return, and become more noticed.

They become more prominent to the extent that they sound authentic. However, you can live and die by your authenticity. If your thinking is authentically fashioned, people can say why it’s ideologically incorrect, or theoretically insufficient, or politically bankrupt, or impoverished by its cultural point of view—all of that scrutiny is valid enough—but nobody can call into question the authenticity of one’s own honest experience. If you’re being honest with yourself, the authenticity that results is interesting. It’s even often more interesting than what you’re writing about. You don’t have to have the correct opinion. I think opinions are defensible if they’re coming from a position of authenticity. But authenticity is also something that can be very mystifying, and you have to concede that just because somebody’s being honest with oneself doesn’t mean that one’s opinions are worth a damn.

ESSOE: I spoke to Andreas Szanto this morning, who was a lead faculty member of the now defunct NAJP at Columbia University. He said that the high theoretical criticism of the 1960s and 70s was, perhaps, an anomaly, and that we are now back to the usual settling point between theoretical academism and accepted clichés. Many people complain about the idiom of certain writers like, say, Catherine de Zegher or Rosalind Krauss. Others complain that now art magazine writing is too watered down. So, in terms of both complexity and jargon, what level of density do you think is appropriate?

KELLEY: It can be dense as long as it’s clear. I think clarity is the issue more than density. And something can be very clear and very dense without containing the kind of academic turgidity that I think you are referring to. And I think most people today, especially artists, think that criticism published in journals like Artforum and Art in America, is still too dense to read. They find it unreadable. Now, that’s not accurate, but you do have to read it seriously, in an academic way. When you do, it becomes something about which to talk, with students and others of like mind, and those discussions are really illuminating. The issue isn’t whether it’s too dense versus too populist or too easy. But, it is difficult reading, and often not very good writing.

Usually people who are writing clearly are writing in their own voice without trying to. A style emerges, but it’s a consequence of clarity. And again, by clarity I don’t just mean a kind of Dick and Jane transparency, but a clarity which is often very involved in a complex use of language. The use of phrasings and odd adjectives that are quite creative and unfamiliar to an audience can provoke a concrete experience in relation to that language. This is a kind of creative clarity that works of art probably aspire to— an eccentric beauty that rings clear. Therefore, I also don’t refer to clarity as simply being the opposite of confusion. Clarity is often extremely complicated, and you can have dense writing and dense academic ideas that are quite clear.

ESSOE: Let me ask you a question about the art that is consistently being chosen for coverage, and given whatever rank is made possible or inevitable by the limelight of print. There is some idea that the critical focus today is concentrated through the lens of things such as auction houses, pre-sold M.F.A. exhibitions, and museum blockbusters. Do the art and artists celebrated within these events receive undue critical attention because of their perceived economic weight in the market, or, hopefully, is a sensitive dialectical model of scrutiny still important, and operating?

KELLEY: I think that the critical focus is now projected through the lens of curatorial activity. I think the curators are now, in affect, the taste makers of our time, and they are operating now on an international, global scale. In the world of the visual arts, it seems like great ideas of our time are ideas that are embodied in major international exhibitions, kunsthalles, biennials, and triennials. Critics are often employed in that process, of course, but it doesn’t seem as important what the critical response to these shows is as much as it matters that the shows are conceived and produced at all. The scale of their conception and production is often beyond the scope of any individual.

ESSOE: These events do get international press coverage, and also certainly generate their own catalog essays. Is that writing somewhat ornamental, is that what you’re saying? That these writings are sort of an ornamental byproduct of an event that has its own pre-wired significance?

KELLEY: Well, at fifty three I’m old enough to remember when the direction of contemporary art seemed to almost turn on the axis of important essays by important writers. Whether it was something that Max Kozloff would say, or a piece by Carter Radcliff, or Robert Morris, or Susan Sontag, it seemed at the time as if pieces of writing were capable of having an extraordinary effect. I’m not even talking about books, but about essays in Artforum. Somebody could post a manifesto up there, and take a position, and it seemed to get around, like these were the village journals. There were essays I remember as being really transformative for my idea of what art was. I don’t feel that resonance today, or see any effect at all of art criticism beyond local newspaper writing, and people like Hickey and Schjeldahl. I can think of exhibitions today that play that role, and that transform our sense of not only what art is, but inform us as to who makes it, and in what language, and with what cultural parameters. The curatorial domain is the domain in which art criticism is being played out by different means. These people have done a lot of writing, though they may or may not self-identify as art critics, and they are quite educated, though they are not just academic curators anymore. They are also heavily entrepreneurial and necessarily tuned in to matters such as international fund raising. It’s extremely different.

ESSOE: You’ve done a lot of work focused on international artists, Central American artists to a degree, and lately some extensive work with Asian artists. Is that global art paradigm innately something of a draw for you?

KELLEY: No, actually its not. What’s always been attractive to me is the experience of borders. Back around the late eighties I did some writing about the Border Arts Workshop, on performance art and other works by new artists like Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who were doing pieces about the experience of being inside or outside of a border. I’m interested in the thresholds that we cross that change our awareness of where we are personally, culturally, linguistically, materially, aesthetically, and geographically. I’ve also always been interested in where the edges of art are, and the extent to which the edges of art correspond to the edges of a legal boundary, the edges of an ecosphere, the edges of a nation, or the edges of an ancient tradition.

ESSOE: Let’s talk about a deliberate crossing of your own. Before you began writing seriously, you began your education as a practicing artist, right?

KELLEY: I was a painter.

ESSOE: Now, in the sciences, clinical practitioners and clinical researchers are the ones that publish in the industry journals, not writers who work outside of the practical field. In the art world, to some extent peculiarly so, the practitioners—the artists—have often been excluded from the sanctioned published discourse. Their texts are handled most often as primary sources, even though there is increased credibility of artist’s statements after the advent of Conceptual art. Between the writing of artists and critics, there is an interesting intersection between artwork and work on art. You’ve been both a painter and a writer. We know writings on art are creative texts, but are they, as Jeff Wall has said, a form of artwork?

KELLEY: I suppose if its really good writing, then you might as well say that it’s a work of art. But, it’s a work of art that has as its subjects some other work of art, and/or the significance surrounding that work of art, and someone else’s process and motivation. All writing is in the service of something. It’s in the service of its subject. Although that doesn’t mean that it’s subservient to it, it is in the service of it, and if has a certain level of animated clarity, we can call it good writing, or we can call it art, or we can just call it criticism. We know where it fits in the scheme of contracts between artists and critics.

ESSOE: Do you consider yourself an artist?

KELLEY: Well, let me respond by saying that most everybody who is an art critic today, at least that I’ve known over the years, didn’t intend to be an art critic from the beginning. They didn’t start out getting educated in order to be an art critic. It was usually a second or third choice, and often was in the wake of some failure. With me the failure was the failure to continue painting. I went to CalArts as a painter in 1970, and by 1975 I wasn’t able to continue the practice. I was just in a situation where it was like I was doing it only for myself. And I know that’s a romantic ideal for artists, i.e. that they should make their work for themselves. The fact is that if you don’t have a support system, especially after school, it gets really easy to drop out. And within a year or so of not painting anymore, just by happenstance, I decided to write about something. The first thing I ever wrote was a review in a university newspaper about a show by Bruce Nauman around 1976 or 1977. And it felt pretty interesting to sort of exercise that part of my brain, and to base that exercise on a lot of practice as a painter. I was somebody who believed he had a physiological sensibility about not only seeing stuff, but making stuff and having a concrete relationship to art materials.

I would say no, I’m not an artist. And I would say that because it’s not something that you can just casually claim. Just like being a writer isn’t something you can just casually claim. Not to romanticize it, but being an artist takes a lot of work and a lot of time. It’s a full time, and probably lifetime, thing. Being a painter, which for me went all the way back to the age of five, was all I ever did and ever wanted to do. I began writing as somebody who was trying to come to terms with my relationship to an experience that I always knew well, which was making art. I found myself as a critic with a studio background, and that foundation helped. If you look at my writing over the last twenty-five years or so—besides the bad writing—you’ll probably also see a sensibility that comes from the fact that I didn’t begin writing from the basis of academic training. It’s hard for me to identify it, but I think that sensibility is available somehow in the work.

ESSOE: Has Kaprow influenced your process?

KELLEY: My process as a writer?

ESSOE: I’m making the presumption that you couldn’t be so intensely involved in Kaprow’s work without some sincere connection to it.

KELLEY: Yeah, but not necessarily as a writer. My life has been very affected by Kaprow’s art. That influence has been very profound in terms of my awareness of the thresholds that we cross, that mark art and life. But I think its not clear to me how, or if, Allan has influenced my work as a writer. Although it certainly required me to become a much better writer, or a much more expansive writer, to be able to write the book, which did take about ten years. I’ve said before, it didn’t take ten years because I’m a brilliant academic. It took ten years because I’m kind of slow and dumb. Maybe it was Kaprow’s influence on me that taught me how to give myself the permission to be slow and dumb, to discover whatever evidence was left by the Happenings, and to move into some kind of contact with everything that I could learn about them. It allowed me to narrate both the career and the works. This was, in a sense, to theorize them, but not from the high perch of academic theory, which is what most people who have written about Allan have wanted to do. They have tried to theoretically place him in relation to everything that he has since influenced.

ESSOE: When you are participating in a public record on behalf of an artist like Kaprow, or any artist or artwork, or zeitgeist, how do you calculate your role as a witness? In terms of developing that narrative, how do you locate the form of your testimony?

KELLEY: Do you mean testifying to one’s experience of the moment, on behalf of the moment?

ESSOE: Yes, but let’s talk about not only testifying about a first person experience of a subject or moment, but moving some distance away from that personal narrative, and giving testimony as a participant in the authoritative record of something.

KELLEY: I think it shouldn’t be a goal. It’s inevitable, if you write enough and if your writing gets read enough. The writing might testify in relation to what seems urgent about its time. But, I think as with most things, you can’t set out to do that. You can’t decide that you’re going to testify to the urgency of your time because then you’ll just sound pretentious and kind of silly.

Another thing is that I don’t write about something in order to offer testimony to what I already know. I write about something because I don’t know about it. What I have pursued over the years is a sense of an emerging enlightenment, illumination, or even a rising sense of dissonance, as long as it is something that grows naturally out of the writing.

ESSOE: You state that you don’t have an academic orientation, yet you were an academic for many years. You taught at the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, California College of Arts and Crafts, the San Francisco Art Institute, and you were at University of California, Berkeley, of course, for over a decade.

KELLEY: There’s a difference between being a teacher and being an academic, and I know that the former is rather disparaged in higher education compared to the latter. We all want to think of ourselves as significant academics. I know a lot of wonderful academics, and they’re the most brilliant people in the world. I came to think of myself as somebody who both wrote and spoke, which are like playing two different kinds of music. Writing is like performing some kind of composition, and speaking is like jazz. I think I became a really good jazz soloist, essentially playing to a small audience of paying customers, day after day, year after year. I’ve written, published, and researched, but I’m not sure that I ever really was an academic. I was just honored that people would listen to me and allow me to talk.

Talking to younger people enhanced my sense of citizenship. I loved being at Berkeley. I was there for eleven years, teaching theory and criticism to art majors. I was part of the art department, not the art history department, and attempting to help people locate themselves theoretically within their own practices was very satisfying to me.

ESSOE: Berkeley cancelled their art theory and criticism program, and Columbia very recently closed their National Arts Journalism Program. Can you read these cuts as a kind of barometer for the state of, or decline in interest in, maintaining art criticism as a serious practice within the institution? Were these programs, and the ones that still exist like them, just beneficial luxuries, or are they more necessary than that?

KELLEY: I do suspect that there is a decrease in the number of people like me who were functioning in the art departments throughout the country. That is, critics talking to artists. I think there is a decline in that, and I think that it can be read loosely as an indicator of a shrinking perception that critics are necessary for the intellectual and theoretical development of young artists.

I think critics have ridden a wave since the early eighties in the United States. It had a lot to do with continental theory, French critics, and the idea that art departments needed to have theory as a part of their program. Just as there was a time many years ago when art departments needed to have video art, for a long time they needed theory as well, and now they don’t. One of the reasons they don’t, I think, is that the idea that artists need to theorize their positions is less urgent than it used to be. When I was in graduate school at UCSD in the early eighties, it was very urgent that all of the students should be able to theorize themselves: socially, sexually, linguistically, and politically. People would say “what’s your position?” or “what theory do you identify with” before they would ask you what you did as an artist. The work was often an illustration of a theory, and it became a kind of wonderfully high intellectual fashion in certain circles. Artists, especially young artists were scurrying around trying to find out what their positions were. Now they’ve grown up, and theory isn’t as urgent an issue anymore. The contemporary world almost makes theory inconsequential because it exemplifies every extreme of every ideal you could possibly have. It does so on the quick step of our society. This pertains to our first topic, of advertising. Exemplification gives everybody a very vague and superficial experience of those extremes without actually having to understand them.

There are a lot of older essays that are still extremely innovative, reading them today, even though they were written at a time before almost anything that we practice today technologically and in the media world existed on the scale that it does now. These same kinds of texts aren’t being produced anymore. What you read today is very different than the kind of writing which you’d see in Artforum back in the 1960s and 1970s. Exhibitions of new art, like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s 010101: Art in Technological Times, are in line with that idea of an exhibition making the announcement of a new position that everyone must continue to address after the exhibit has come and gone. Digital media artists, the ones who do time and presence work, and internet work, have arrogated to themselves the voice of the theoretician. They’ve claimed for themselves the authority of theorizing because theory seems to be embodied in their practices, and in the technology.

ESSOE: In terms of locating yourself within a theoretical spectrum, the sense of theory being assimilated or overwhelmed by our technocrat and mass media environment, as your saying, is profound. One of the peculiar things about this seems to be that you orient yourself against these things without aligning yourself with anything at all.

KELLEY: That kind of floating orientation, as opposed to an alignment, which I think is an interesting distinction, can provide you with an illusory sense, or an unearned privilege. It may just be a reaction to the last twenty or twenty-five years where one felt a necessity to align oneself. We’ve learned a lot of hard lessons along the way, concluding that this or that wasn’t the right position to take, or maybe discovering that we aren’t truly sympathetic to this or that other thing, and don’t really believe in it. I’m not trying to make myself sound just like some kind of free floating, postmodern, disembodied signifier. I feel the opposite. I like concrete experience. But like many people of my age, I am also reacting against Greenbergian formalism, prohibitionism, constrictors, and proscriptions about how and what to think.

ESSOE: I’ve been called stodgy and lacking in postmodern objectivity because I feel that certain distinctions, even in, or especially in, mass media are appropriate and necessary. For example, do you think, like I do, that culture is patronized by that tacky smear between celebrity gossip and high arts coverage in newspapers and non-industry magazines?

KELLEY: I don’t know. It may just be a reflection of the prevailing attitude around art, as it has become a part of everything else. That’s the downside of what we were initially speaking of about the gap between art and life. The gap has been filled up, but mostly with material of a very trivial kind. There is another way of putting this, that I owe to a wonderful historian and critic at UCSD named Sheldon Nodelman. He said that most people think of art as superior to life in some ways, and as a more refined product of, or concentration of, life. When you talk about the gap between art and life, there is kind of an assumption that art is somehow on a more sophisticated plane, and that life is just something commonplace. Nodelman suggested that if you twist the idea a little bit, you could say that life is just a debased form of art. That sounds very elitist on the face of it, but it’s worth thinking about.

ESSOE: Well, at bedtime I constantly think about that essay in The Blurring of Art and Life that talks about brushing your teeth consciously.

KELLEY: Sorry! But I suppose that’s what I think. We live in a time when life as a subject seems to be in the service of commercial artifice and pop culture and fashion. I’m not trying to echo Clement Greenberg, who decried the blurring between art and kitsch, because I think he was wrong. However, the scale of kitsch today is unprecedented. I remember a time before it had completely hemmed in my sense of the world around me, had completely saturated the periphery, and constantly made claims on my attention. It is the scale of this today that is different. We’re not, I don’t think, prepared for it.

ESSOE: I think that lack of psychological preparedness has something to do with why we so readily accept theories on irrelevant action. Critics like Donald Kuspit and, famously, Arthur Danto have groomed themselves through essays about the redundancy and/or futility of contemporary art. When will irrelevance theory itself become irrelevant?

KELLEY: I don’t know when we’ll know if it’s the end of art. Has popular culture superceded art? Has popular culture made what we thought of as high art one of its domains—one of its specializations? I don’t think so, in terms of the practice of individual artists, who usually don’t give a damn about this kind of stuff.

ESSOE: But some of them do give a damn. I think that the threat of historical irrelevancy is a still a depressing force in many artistic circles.

KELLEY: For younger artists that may be the case, and if so, I think they need to be encouraged to do what they do. When I was teaching, the times when the students appeared to be the most interested in what I was saying was when I was describing the ways in which one’s experience of the world has changed. Younger people know that people of earlier generations had a different experience of space, time, tempo, and a different reality of access to things. Space used to be conceived of as dense and physical, like something you moved the tip of a rocket through. Today it is very flat, and it’s a matter of surface upon which a spectacle is played out. A sense that space surrounded your body and resisted it transformed into a sense that space is unresisting and merely a field of reference for the rest of the world. The extent to which the world resists you or doesn’t resist you is one thing that students seemed very, very interested in. Although they have been growing up in a very active field of mediated experience, I don’t think they trust it entirely.

ESSOE: You don’t either. That’s probably why you’re so interested in boundaries and thresholds.

KELLEY: No, I don’t trust it. I don’t think anybody does who’s conscious of the way we represent the world to ourselves via our various media.

ESSOE: Do you think the anxiety about these thresholds, or lack of thresholds, is what causes theories about the end of art to erupt? Is it a way to dismiss, or simply try to blockade an unraveling?

KELLEY: Well, those theories are by older people, people that are a lot older than me. What I mean is that those theories are probably a consequence of a kind of thinking that goes all the way back, as in Danto’s case, to Andy Warhol and Brillo Boxes. Those were moments in which a work of art transformed people’s experience, their sense of what art was, and the difference between art and culture. I think that those ideas are still very important today. It’s revealing to locate those ideas at the time they emerged and to see why they were important then, and to see what was at stake. Why was a Brillo Box so radically transformative to so many people - people who remained transformed? It ends up becoming their life’s work to think about it.

It may be that the same kind of questions, or questions just as significant, are emerging for people now. I don’t know. I learned at Berkeley that the students were really smart, and very sophisticated consumers of the new world. But they also seemed very cautious about the significance of their experience. Therefore, they were very attracted to any scrap of authentic experience that might add to their sense of contemporary authenticity. Incidentally, I don’t mean to use the word authentic too much, because I don’t know what authenticity is. Its just a term, and if you’re trying to be honest with yourself that’s probably as close as you can get to its meaning.

ESSOE: I don’t mean to stab at this one more time, but I have this connection in my head and I’m trying to express it in the right way in order for you to address it. In the quest for authenticity in a field of intense activity that can aggressively deny any systematic understanding of it, what I think I see is that an anxiety over that failure of comprehension is exactly what makes a theory of irrelevancy attractive and feel necessary.

KELLEY: Oh, yeah. So it becomes a little bit nihilistic.

ESSOE: Right. You can let yourself off the hook, and then you don’t have to worry about systemizing it or ordering it.

KELLEY: That’s right. Hence the sense of cynicism around your generation. It’s a way of protecting yourself from a lack of authentic experience. I would say, however, that I don’t think authenticity is a quest. I think it’s just a consequence, or an effect, of just working for a long time. The extent to which I feel authentic at all is very closely related to all of the times that I have felt inauthentic. I think cynicism is the most significant and unfortunate consequent of this stage of mass media experience. Cynicism protects us from what we feel, or from when we don’t feel, and when we can’t feel. It makes what we can’t feel fashionable by giving it an ironic tinge and making it cool. It’s essentially smartass, but it is in a way that is so commonplace that it doesn’t seem defensive. Sometimes I think maybe the best I can come up with is just being the opposite of cynical. And you don’t always know where that’s going.

ESSOE: But you know what it leads away from though.

KELLEY: Yeah, it leads away from the endless loop.


This conversation took place on August 18, 2005 at Kelley’s home in Oakland, CA.


— Jordan Essoe is a visual artist, poet, and a writer based in San Francisco.