Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns, 1985-1988
SculptureCenter, Friday, March 15, 2019
Over two years ago, at the invitation of its curator, Sohrab Mohebbi, ScupltureCenter hosted the New York launch of Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns, 1985-1988, a collection of texts by Gary Indiana, edited by Bruce Hainley, published by Semiotext(e). These texts were published from 1985 to 1988 in the Village Voice, where Gary Indiana, a writer, artist, actor and theater director, was operating as a weekly art columnist. For years, the Village Voice functioned as a platform of sharp criticism which ended in 2018, after having deeply shaken the cultural and intellectual New York life, especially in the 1980s. Vile Days should be read to realize how much we need to appreciate the tone of these columns, all the more so in the current context of conformism and political correctness of language.
Sohrab Mohebbi: I first met Gary Indiana in October 2015 in a symposium organized around his exhibition at 356 S. Mission, the launch of his memoir I Can Give You Anything but Love, and reissue of his novel Resentment. I clearly remember when he took the stage to read he said, “I am not in the business of being honored… I am just another asshole.” I didn’t know about Barbara Ess’ no wave magazine that he was referring to, but either way, it became obvious to me that this was not a self-deprecating feigning of humility either. Indiana was always suspicious of the economy of names and how they operate in the so-called culture industry. I Can Give You Anything but Love, unlike most examples in the genre, does not smack of self-eroticism of the author’s association with who’s who in his/her rise to (or fall from) stardom. In “No Name Review,” a column published on January 28, 1986, we read “I thought if I got rid of the names then I could get rid of the genders. If I got rid of the genders, I could get rid of the hierarchy. If I get rid of the hierarchy, I could demolish the structure. The problem was, and is, that no one can do this without a lot of help, and like-minded people are always fighting over trivia.”
Of course, Kyle Dancewicz and myself are not the only ones who noticed the extreme relevance of this writing today, and how the issues that Indiana talks about in his columns—greedy developers, Reaganomics, the art market star system, etc—are alive and well, on steroids, so there is a prophetic aspect to this writing. But also Gary’s is a kind of criticism that no longer exists; it’s a form of what the Greeks called parrhesia or fearless speech. At Mission Road, when literary critic and radio host Michael Silverblatt asked him, “How did you come to be a person who can stand to tell the truth?” Indiana paused and said: “Perhaps years of disappointment.” Indiana was never one who bemoaned burned bridges. And neither is our other guest tonight, poet, writer, critic, and occasional curator, Bruce Hainley, who among many other things, brought this collection to life. About it, he writes: “joining his novelistic and theatrical gifts with an acute eye and startling political acumen to assess culture, the unruly ecologies that give it context, he turned the art review into a chronicle of life under siege.”
Gary Indiana: I will just start with a kind of public service announcement. One of the great inspirations to me has always been this book by Charles F Adams and Henry Adams, A Chapter of Erie, which is probably the best book ever written about American politics in American society. I’m just going to read the first page because especially now I think it’s good to be reminded that we’re not really living in anything particularly new.
Not a generation has passed away during the last six hundred years without cherishing a more or less earnest conviction that, through its efforts, something of the animal had been eliminated from the higher type of man. Probably, also, no generation has been wholly mistaken in nourishing this faith;—even the worst has in some way left the race of men on earth better in something than it found them. And yet it would not be difficult for another Rousseau to frame a very ingenious and plausible argument in support of the opposite view. Scratch a Russian, said the first Napoleon and you will find a Cossack; call things by their right names and it would be no difficult task to make the cunning civilization of the nineteenth century appear but as a hypocritical mask spread over the more honest brutality of the twelfth. Take, for instance, some of the cardinal vices and abuses of the imperfect past. Pirates are commonly supposed to have been battered and hung out of existence when the barbary powers and the Buccaneers of the Spanish Main had been finally dealt with. Yet freebooters are not extinct; they have only transferred their operations to the land, and conducted them in more or less accordance with the forms of law; until, at last, so great a proficiency have they attained, that the commerce of the world is more equally but far more heavily taxed in their behalf, than would ever have entered into their wildest hopes while, outside the law, they simply made all comers stand and deliver. Now, too, they no longer live in terror of the rope skulking in the hiding-place of thieves, but flaunt themselves in the resorts of trade and fashion, and, distaining such titles as once satisfied Ancient Pistol or Captain Macheath, they are even recognized as President This or Colonel That. A certain description of gambling, also, has ceased to be fashionable; it is years since Crockford’s doors were closed, so that in this respect a victory is claimed for advancing civilization. Yet this claim would seem to be unfounded. Gambling is a business now where formerly it was a disreputable excitement. Cheating at cards was always disgraceful; transactions of a similar character under the euphemistic names of “operating,” “cornering,” and the like are not so regarded. Again, legislative bribery and corruption were, within recent memory, looked upon as antiquated misdemeanors, almost peculiar to the unenlightened period of Walpole and Fox, and their revival in the face of modern public opinion was thought to be impossible. In this regard at least a sad delusion was certainly entertained.
GI: You can’t get the book anywhere, but you should read it, not the abridged version either. It’s about how the railroads were commandeered by these families from the era that we now call the Gilded Age—pirates, Fisk and Vanderbilt and all those people. They even staged a head-on train collision, between two cars near Albany to get away from process servers. So, nothing’s new, but it’s a good analysis. The other good analysis I read recently was that before America was a country, when it was still colonies, people were fleeing here to Canada to get away from the banality and corruption of small towns. Just good to keep in mind. Okay, now we can start. I needed to get that off my chest.
Bruce Hainley: These are very storied columns. I heard about them long before I’d read them, and the only way I could read them, since the Village Voice always had a spotty history with its archive online, was to go to a library and get out the microfilm. The first time I read any of the columns was a review Gary wrote on Sherrie Levine, in which he intersperses his analysis of her exhibit with bursts of synopsis of Bette Davis’s The Star (1952). That was many years before I was tired of not being able to know what these columns were. So, years later, the summer after Trump had been elected, when I just didn’t feel like doing much of anything, I spent a week at the UCLA research library making an electronic document of all the microfilm pages of these columns. A tedious process, but I would take breaks to read what I was making a document of, and it was, from the get-go, so enjoyable, so racing, and, exciting. I didn’t know what to write, didn’t feel like I could write, but I wanted language passing through me, and so I made this document and then started to type up a few of them. I gave the electronic document to Hedi El Kholti—the person who runs, along with Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer, Semiotext(e)—for his birthday. He called me the next day and said, “We have to do this book.” Hedi talked to Gary, and Gary was amenable to the plan, and I spent the rest of the summer and early autumn typing the manuscript up. Two or three columns a day, every day, working through them chronologically, I got to know what that period was like and what Gary’s writing was in that moment, meeting a deadline at that demanding, weekly pace. The book was something I wanted to exist that for whatever reason didn’t already exist and I thought should. So, Gary, there was no way to access this material, which struck me as peculiar, was there any reason why you’re finally amenable to it now?
GI: I was only amenable because I couldn’t believe anybody had gone through that much trouble, because I wouldn’t. First of all, I wouldn’t even know where to look for them. I remember somebody at the Voice cut out pages and had them in a folder and gave them to me, and I lost it. I didn’t hang on to things. Another favorite Bette Davis film of mine is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and whenever I have to look at anything I’ve done I always think of the moment when Joan Crawford is laying in the room and watching one of her own old movies and Bette Davis comes in with a breakfast tray and says, “Enjoying yourself, Blanche?” I kind of read it through, there were things that, you know, you can only see mistakes when you read your own stuff, but there was one piece I had to take out—and I took it out—because it wasn’t nice to someone I should have been nice to. I felt I didn’t want this person to feel this uncomfortable all over again because we know each other better now. I didn’t read the whole thing. It brings back too much of the eighties for me. I was a little scared about how prescient it was. I would so like not to be right about the things I was right about, which had to do with politics and living in this strange country, but I’m really glad the book exists, I would never have done this by myself. Partly because for too many years after I left the Voice—publishing novels, plays, and everything else—people, when they wrote about me would put “art critic, Gary Indiana,” and I said that’s got to fucking stop. I did a lot of other stuff. Finally, they got to putting “novelist” or putting “actor.” If you do more than one thing in this country, you’re considered a dilettante, and I thought, Okay, I’ll cop to that. I’m an extremely good dilettante, however. When they finally stopped putting “art critic” in front of my name, I thought it might be okay to do a book of the art columns.
SM: Did you read art criticism at the same time? It feels like you’re just inventing this genre: you are playing with every possible way of writing a review. I don’t know what your editor’s name was, but it seems like you had carte blanche to do whatever it is that you wanted to do.
GI: Jeff Weinstein. He was very concerned to change the whole art coverage of the Voice. And I was not familiar with what it had been because I never read it. I had hit a point in my career as a theatrical entrepreneur where I just didn’t have any fucking money and one day when I went over to Ross Bleckner’s to collect my welfare check, he said, “Why don’t you get a job?” I said, “I don’t want a job, I’ve never had a job,” and he said, “Well, be an art critic,” and then I said, “Ross, I don’t know anything about writing art criticism.” He said, “Go home, get a bunch of art magazines, and read them. Anybody can do it.” And after reading a bunch of art magazines, I realized that was true. I had started at Art in America—again, because I got pissed off at somebody who will remain nameless Ingrid Sischy. I had asked Ingrid if I could write about John Chamberlain because he was one of the few artists around that I really actually had a feeling for his work. And, Ingrid said, “Well, okay, as soon as he has an exhibition.” I was in Thailand when he had an exhibition. When I got back to New York I saw that somebody else had reviewed this exhibition, and I said, “Ingrid, you promised me.” I got pissed off. So I asked Craig Owens if he would ask Betsy Baker if I could write about John Chamberlain for Art in America, and she said, “Sure.” So, I did that. I never realized there’s a shortage of people to write about art—you wouldn’t think so—or there was at the time, and so they just started giving me assignment after assignment… I was at a stage in my amphetamine addiction that I could really write for days. That led the next year to me getting offered a job at Village Voice, which I didn’t want. I turned it down I don’t know how many times. But then I considered my bleak future as somebody who couldn’t get money for my theater group or anything—and I thought, Well, it might be nice to have a paycheck. It turned out to be an interesting experience. Like getting your sleeve caught in the fender of a car. I was just this sort of underground person—and, suddenly, at that time, to be the art critic of the Village Voice was a big job. I had this big audience. Before I took the job—I said “I don’t know what to do”—Ingrid said, “Take the job and make it about the writing.” It was the best advice that anybody could have given me. Instead of trying to learn the lingo and make sure I didn’t repeat it… Now, we take a bath in it every day. I’m sure you people consume as much news as I do, and the worst part of it is that it’s such an insult to the English language. All the journalism that we have to read just to keep from jumping out the window. We’re living in a universe of clichés. The reason there’s so much experimentation with form was just to try to not be banal. When you’re doing something that lends itself so easily to banality and so easily to cliché and so easily to buzzwords… So, that’s why it’s so variegated. Sometimes I got desperate. They’d send me to a bunch of galleries, and I didn’t have anything to say about any of it, so I would write something that didn’t say anything about any of it, but did say something—in an entertaining way. Because people have to be entertained, also.
BH: Could I ask you to talk about Carlos Clarens. I didn’t know about him until I read about him in the book. He seems like an extraordinary individual.
GI: Yeah, he was. He was in charge of the film department at MoMA for quite a long time and he was a very beautiful Latin—well, I don’t think of Carlos Clarens as being particularly attractive, but Carlos was like an attractive version of Cesar Romero. You could imagine him knowing how to tango and all that. He was a great friend of Werner Schroeter, who was a great friend of mine. I knew him through a number of people. Carlos knew everything about film, but unlike most film people he could talk about things besides movies. Thank god, there’s not morning screenings for art critics because I would have never lasted as long as I did at the Voice if there had been. They all go out after the morning screening to have breakfast together and all they talk about is the morning’s movies and they don’t know anything about anything except movies. The exception being the person I had dinner with last night, I’m going to recommend to you, A.S. Hamrah, who is the film reviewer for n+1. He has a book out called The Earth Dies Streaming. It’s a wonderful book. Carlos was just someone I spent a fair amount of time hanging out with in Paris and in New York and he was always going to South America and coming back and very erudite.
BH: He wrote an amazing book on horror movies, one of the first critical studies of horror movies.
GI: We were mutual friends with a lot of mutual friends. A lot of people around Magdalena Montezuma, Werner Schroeter, Fassbinder… Carlos was very elegant. He always wore these white suits. Not like Tom Wolfe, but sometimes he did wear white suits. Very formal in his ways. Very formal politeness, I always appreciate that in people.
BH: If the circumstances had been slightly different would writing a film column have interested you in the same way, in that moment, at the Voice?
GI: Nope… I was writing for film magazines, anyway. Occasionally, I did stuff for the Voice, reviewing films. Again, it was bad enough having to go to 20 galleries every week, but if you have to go and see terrible movies as part of your job. Well, maybe… If they paid enough. You have to get up at like 7 in the morning to go to a screening in Times Square. Some piece of shit that somebody is pimping for Harvey Weinstein or something. I liked writing about movies for a while, but I couldn’t have done it as a regular thing. I didn’t want to do the art criticism as a regular thing, I just wanted a paycheck. And that got to be its own thing. I never had a deep commitment to criticism of any kind, except intermittently. If you’re a writer, that’s the best you can do—to be intermittently engaged in criticism. If you think about it, the only form of criticism that might escape the reproach, that the person doing it has been doing it too long, is literary criticism. If you’re writing about writing you’re basically doing the same thing as the person whose work you’re writing about. You have to be at least close to their level of, let’s say, limpidity, to be convincing. If you’re not a good writer, you’re not going to be able to convince people that your opinion of a book is worth anything. Whereas if you’re a bad writer you can convince people of a lot of other things. Well, maybe not too many people. And I understand, because human beings hate reality, we don’t want it, we’ll do anything to avoid it. I’m the same as everybody else and I would love not to live in this world. I’d love to keep living in another world, but this is the one we have. The trouble with things like film, especially, is that you can see the blandishments of a lifetime as a film critic. To understand, look at what art fairs are about. A bunch of rich people standing around thinking they’re at the Cannes film festival. Whereas if you’re a film critic you can actually be at the Cannes Film Festival. You can probably even convince yourself that these people that you’re interviewing like you. So I can see the attraction of that, maybe, for a certain strain of self-delusion. I liked writing about films until I didn’t. And I actually liked writing about art until I didn’t. Once you don’t like it anymore—and I think this is borne out by virtually everybody that you read whose had a critical job for more than three years—then you’re in the shit. Because you have to keep turning it out. You have to keep having opinions that you don’t want to have. You have to keep flogging your mind to move in this narrow channel. There are some people who do it very well. People who do it on a daily basis. They’re fine. It’s just that people who want to be known as critics, they are not doing that kind of soggy job. It’s a whole different thing. It has to do with the distribution of power in the cultural universe. Happily, film critics don’t have much power anymore, but when they did… Our job had a lot of power attached to it at the time because the Voice reviewed shows while they were still up, so you could direct traffic to those shows, but it’s all changed. The New York Times and Village Voice were the only places that reviewed shows that were still up. That was one of the reasons I had to stop because I didn’t like the idea of pronouncing and making judgments about other people’s work. It’s dangerous for public mentality.
SM: I also feel you don’t pretend there is a certain kind of objectivity that everyone is pretending to have usually in art criticism and you are very direct about not only your opinions but also who you know, who you don’t know. You are not scared of putting the writer in the text.
GI: It became unavoidable in a way. Ultimately, you have to say this is who I am and this is what I think. And don’t assume that’s the way everybody should think because I don’t believe the Kantian ethic extends to opinions about things. I don’t think I put in that much about myself, except I liked to remind people what a pain in the ass I was. I liked to remind people I’m not here to amuse them, although that was tricky. When I was writing Rent Boy, I had a friend who came over unannounced every morning and she always had a million things on her mind. I’d read them the pieces I had written at night and if she spit out her coffee, I thought, Okay, that’s good. I’ll keep it. What’s Fanny Brice’s mother’s line: “When people pay good money in the theater they want something to look at.” Well, you know you have to do that. There’s so much deadly journalism. I’m completely blown away by how deadly it is. New York Magazine? Number one deadly. The political writing, who are these people? How are they still employed? Jonathan Chait? Matt Zoller Seitz? I’m a junkie for news. I look at it every day. I’m amazed by what a junkie I am… For every fact, there’s twenty tons of people’s embellishments—it’s extraordinary. I like the Australian guy in the parliament who won his seat by 13 votes. I can look at a photo of that guy for an hour. This is what I do, I look at these people and I think, How the fuck does this happen? How the fuck does this person exist? How have human beings fucked up this world that people like this are even heard from? I don’t get it. Not even through eugenics or anything like that, but we’ve had thousands of years of just simple ability to form two consecutive thoughts… I would like to say—just for people who think it doesn’t make a difference—this is the most physically ugly government we’ve ever seen. This cabinet is comprised of the most physically repugnant looking people we’ve ever seen. I don’t care if you fat-shame the president. These people look like they were melted in a wax museum. It’s so extraordinary to me because you look at governments around the world and they all have better looking people. They do. The prime minister of New Zealand is a knockout. I was watching her today, and I thought, why don’t we have someone who looks like that? Now the people that are going to try to run against the monster that we have are all ready for a nursing home. Joe Biden? Bernie Sanders? I’m sorry, I know probably many people love Bernie Sanders, but, to me, he’s like the crazy uncle in the attic or Crazy Eddie, who used to do the frenetic consumer electronics commercials. Why don’t we have some beautiful person as president? Someone enchanted. I don’t mean a Disney princess, but just somebody with some grace and some power to persuade, just on the basis of their face. I’m sorry I got carried away. I spend a lot of time at home. Go ahead.
BH: I was going to ask if you worked on Horse Crazy the entire time you were writing the columns for the Voice or did it start immediately after?
GI: I think I was trying to find a way to that book probably the whole time because I knew I wanted to write a novel and, like many people, I didn’t think I’d be able to ever. And sometime after or just before I started working at the Voice, I met somebody who turned out not to be so good for me, but it was kind of the inspiration for the book. After it was over I thought, At least now I got something to write about. So I did. It’s not that close to reality, but it’s close enough. That was the basis of Horse Crazy. I was trying, trying, trying… But I didn’t know what to write, which is somewhat the position I find myself in now. I didn’t have a subject, and you know you have to have a subject. There’s no two ways about it: you can start with yourself, but you really shouldn’t finish up with yourself. Because that’s too solipsistic, internal and wrong. I think by the time I was finished working at the Village Voice, I knew that the book wasn’t going to change my life, but I did get it done. Actually, I was still there, because I remember Karen Durbin saying, “Oh, everybody says they’re going to do it—and you did it.” That’s about the level of encouragement you got for anything you did.
SM: There is an amazing column called “The Last Cigarette”, on Marianne Faithful, and I think there, in passing, you refer to the relationship that you later write about in Horse Crazy.
GI: Oh, I don’t remember, but I remember the piece—actually Karen Durbin and a bunch of other people from the Voice were at the concert with me. I didn’t go with them but they were there. Marianne Faithful was playing at the Village Vanguard or someplace like that. That is a piece about smoking, giving up smoking. I was very impressed when she played a concert at St. Ann’s because the guy who came out at the beginning to say what’s next said no one is allowed to smoke at the auditorium except Ms. Faithful. But, yes that was rough. All the years that I was around, here, there, and everywhere—you know, I never took heroin… One time we were rehearsing a play, my plays went into rehearsal for eight months because it was like herding cats—the people I worked with were all crazy. We didn’t have any money. You know, if you’re paying people they’ll show up. When we were doing The Roman Polanski Story (1981), I remember we were in rehearsal for like eight months. We didn’t know where we were going to do it. First, we were going to do it at the Squat Theater. That didn’t work because of scheduling, and then finally we ended up at The Performing Garage. I had just gone to Paris and given a reading and someone had just attacked me from the audience and broke four of my ribs. I couldn’t even breathe. When I came back, my assistant director had taken over the whole production and re-choreographed everything, and I had to change everything but I had to retransmit everything through my set designer because I couldn’t talk. Anyway, we were up on this platform—we were running these slides from this platform by this stage area. Anyway, we were getting to the last week or two of rehearsals and I said, “Mark, I don’t understand, we have been rehearsing this play forever and everything is so slow.” He said, “you know why? It’s because you’re on speed, but the whole cast is on heroin.” I just never got into that lifestyle so when I hooked up with this guy he could convince me that he was hypoglycemic. He did this Jekyll and Hyde thing where suddenly he had to go to the bathroom. I mean, I really was naive—and I wasn’t young, either, but, yeah… That was a strange book to do, but I was grateful for it after. Now I have a lot of material, maybe… But at that time I couldn’t think of how to do it. Because I read so many novels, but I still thought, how do they do that? I always feel really skeptical when I read something by Joan Didion and she says her husband was rereading some not very good book to see how it worked. I think that’s a screenwriter’s sort of mentality. I’m pretending you’re all my students and I’m teaching writing now. Mary McCarthy said something like, If you know where you’re going with a novel then you probably shouldn’t be writing it. All you need is a subject, and I finally had one. Schmuck like myself falls in love with a drug addict and thinks that it’s reciprocal and it is or something along those lines… But I didn’t know how to do it, exactly. I remember at some point I told somebody, I think I should just have the novel be in two columns and over here could be the narrative and over here could be how much money this guy was costing me. It would have been an interesting experiment, though.
BH: When did you meet Taylor Mead?
GI: I met Taylor in Boston. Ondine was showing the Chelsea Girls at some place… I think it was in Boston, I can’t remember what year. He had that great poem, “I had the right idea in the wrong brain.” Beautiful…
Question from the audience: Can you talk about your first column “Old Art, No Money,” where you talk about Gaston Porcile Vitrine, who is an embodiment of everything that is decaying about 1980s art world, the 80s being the era when art is being dominated by night sales. Is that what drew you to artists who brought an element of cultural critique into the work?
GI: That first column I did was actually a parody of New York Times Magazine. They had just run a cover story on Basquiat, “New Art, New Money,” so I put “Old Art, No Money.” It wasn’t personally aimed at Basquiat either. I remember one night Jean-Michel came up to me in that night club The Tunnel and said: “Everybody is saying that that column is about me!” And I said not it’s a generic thing — and he was far from generic. I didn’t hate anybody’s art. I never felt the fate of the Republic rested on somebody. I just never felt there was that much at stake. But I was very interested in the repercussions of things like, should we get rid of the Tilted Arc (1981) Because that seemed to concretize presumptions about culture that’s imposed on people. Certain things that happened, certain things that I saw, seemed to be sort of moments of some sort of illumination of larger forces: Who has power, who doesn’t have power? Who benefits from this elite culture that we’re writing about? Who gets to have opinions and who doesn’t? Who gets to be heard and who doesn’t? Those are all issues we have to think of every day.
You would be surprised at the length people would go to be anything rather than nothing. It’s something so horrifying in this culture, and I was reminded of it yesterday. I don’t know how many hundreds of people have been indicted on this college scam, but we only know the names of two of them because they’re on TV series. They’re referred to as Hollywood stars which they’re not, but, I mean, in this case, they are the biggest names. Whoever had that joke about if Madonna had been on one of the planes that had gone into the World Trade Center the headline would have been “Madonna, three thousand others killed.” The deranging in the culture is something we’re all complicit in, as well as, critical of. You can’t exist outside the market, nothing does, nothing can. You can be very idealistic, but at the end of the day, you have to eat. I don’t know, it’s a lousy system. We should change it.
So, I was more inclined to write about artists who seemed to be dealing with those kinds of questions in their work. I didn’t go after too many people. I know I had that reputation, but I don’t know where it came from.
SM: Do you think that the art world has caught up with you and embraced at least some aspects of what you were supporting?
GI: The problem with being five minutes ahead of your time is that five minutes go by very quickly. What always catches my attention is who gets to be somebody and who doesn’t. Whenever I hear about people getting awards, I really don’t even want to know about it. The only place that should hand out awards is a dog show. Best to breed. Because it’s so punitive to everybody else. You can be excellent without getting an award for it. I always figured there is something wrong with the people who got the prizes. Jean-Jacques Schuhl and I have a running joke for about thirty years: Whenever somebody gets the Nobel Prize, we just say, “He deserved it.” You set this fucking thing up where there’s going to be winners and there’s going to be losers. It’s how the president talks, “There’s going to be winners and losers and winners are over here and losers are over there.” It’s such bullshit. There’s so much that has to do with contingency and chance, in any career. There’s so much that has to do with chance and opportunity and connections. Which isn’t to say that the people who get the prizes don’t have any talent or aren’t terrific, but there’s any number of people you could replace them with. I was in the Whitney Biennial and I was glad, but only because I felt vindicated. But of what? I don’t know. Do you know what I mean? It was sort of like okay, that means that I actually exist. A little more than I existed yesterday. And then I started examining that thought. And thinking, you know, you buy into it just like everybody else—that you’re somehow better than these other people. I don’t know, it’s something I’m against. I’m against that whole thing. Also, I don’t admire anybody. I respect people. Admiration and contempt are two sides of the same coin, and they can flip over in an instant. People that admire you will hate you ten minutes later if you say the wrong thing. That’s the way life is. I think admiration is not something we should cultivate. I think we should cultivate self-respect and respect for others, and if somebody does something you admire, you admire the thing they do but don’t admire them. They’re just assholes, like the rest of us.
Question from the audience: Can you really rebel against something you are aspiring to? Like with the prize thing…
GI: First of all, we all have to live with contradictions. I’d like to get a prize—because I’d like to turn it down. I’ve always wanted a MacArthur award so I can be the first person to turn down the MacArthur award. Of course, if they give you something you accept it with good grace. Unless you’re really smart, like Sam Beckett, and you take the money and don’t make the speech. I don’t know. You have to compete against yourself. Try to make what you’re doing the best that you can make it. Hopefully, other people will respond to it at some juncture in your life or maybe not. You have to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time: I have nothing but contempt for this but I want it. That’s not difficult for Americans. In fact, it’s rather too easy for Americans. I’ve never been somebody that lays down the law for anybody.
The most profound thing I ever heard was from Iman after David Bowie died. She said: “Every person that you see is fighting a battle that you know nothing about.” I just think if everybody just kept that in their heads we wouldn’t be so quick to form opinions and judge others so quickly.
Question from the audience: Has your opinion changed about certain artists or topics you wrote about in these columns, and if there are certain things that now you would say differently?
GI: I wouldn’t do this again if I had to do it now. I wouldn’t have this kind of job again, but I wouldn’t change what’s there. It was very productive, the way capitalism is very productive: it forced me to work a lot, forced me to write a lot, forced me to learn how to do certain things with prose, but now I just don’t know. I don’t know who writes about art or what they write about. A lot of the people I was writing about then have become big people in the world. And I’m happy for them. At the end of the day, I did love what I was writing about. I did. I had to. I found it interesting and engaging to try to figure out what someone else was doing rather than me. It was not a negative experience until it started to get redundant. At that point, they wouldn’t let me out of my contract. I wanted to quit after two years, but once two years had passed they wouldn’t let me out. So I started sabotaging the column. I started numbering the paragraphs, literally saying “fuck you,” in the text. It took six months, but I finally persuaded them. I wanted to do reporting pieces, which I did after that. They said, you know you signed on for another year, but I said, I just can’t. It was getting really hard to get amphetamines. I was really engaged with it for a time, but then it passed. And now we have this book, and I am glad.