FEATURES

“The Creative Act Shall Always Triumph Over the Death Culture of Capital”: An Interview with Matthew Thurber

Some cartoonists take 'inspiration' from other media, or are 'informed' by avant-garde practices of the past, while others reject anything that stands outside of the pantheon of comic arts. Part of what makes Matthew Thurber's publication history (now almost two decades long) so notable is his questioning, rejection, appreciation, destruction, and respect towards all types of creative acts, each of those impulses often happening simultaneously. While Thurber's works are full of aesthetic thrills, the main thrust is on characters defending or critiquing belief, his stories serving as charged ensemble cast debates. But since Thurber is a cartoonist, these are not dry thesis statements. Instead, the battery powering the debate is one of incensed humor. There are morals at stake in Thurber's book, but his arguments are both kept in check and amplified by an absurdist vaudeville delivery system. In a sea of graphic novels with one major issue or concern, Thurber offers us endless preoccupations and then inverts them. There is no simple indictment of the art world in his latest book. Instead, Art Comic is an 'enemy from within' document. Thurber knows the world he comments on, and sees it as worthy of contempt, anger, admiration, or joke fodder. Thurber states that the work is mainly about capitalism, and at one point within the book suggests that 'the creative act will always triumph over the death culture of capitalism.' As a reader, I found that to be  one strong statement within a book of many, all of which I tried to address in this interview, which was recorded in January 2019 at Bar Spain on w. 13th St in New York City. Copy editing was done by Thurber and myself. Many, many thanks for the amazing transcription work by Christina Hwang and Emma Levy. 

-Austin English, February 2019

(The subject of money in the arts is discussed as recording begins)

Matthew Thurber: There’s potentially money in every practice. There’s money in cartooning, for sure. There’s money being exchanged. There’s potential. There’s potential in everything. Like a bookstore—most books do not make money, but one book might make money. It’s just an idea that the idea behind Harry Potter makes money. Or the myth behind, you know, Twilight makes money, or Elena Ferrante. So, there’s potential money in communication.

Austin English: The art world, though, has different tiers of financial compensation. Art Comic focuses on the more ridiculous examples—Koons, Barney—and rightly so. But what about painting, made with expressive, personal, idealistic intentions, however you want to term it, where the artist might also make a decent living because that market is so large and wide? Whereas in art or literary comics, the ratio is much smaller, with maybe a handful of cartoonists with similar intent making a living from their comics...

They’re all subsidized.

But somebody like Clowes is making a living from his ideas. His films are still based on his creativity. And there are examples of people in cartooning that have expressed themselves in a way that is creative and connects with people and it's highly artistic and it’s undeniable.

All right, yes, in the same way that you can’t dispute Jeff Koons or whatever. A lot of conceptive wealth and the critique of wealth in Art Comic is like that. It puts artists beyond criticism in a way where they become this invulnerable investment pool for the one percent. To become a famous household name like Charles Schulz, or BoJack Horseman, that to me is actually a wonderful thing because it’s owned by everybody. The ideas are sort of owned by everybody. The myth is owned by everybody and that’s what I love about literature, you know, versus, art.

You can buy War and Peace in any used bookstore for three bucks.

Yeah, and then you’re owning War and Peace, you’re not owning a reproduction of War and Peace in an art catalogue where somebody else owns the actual War and Peace image or something.

Well, if you’re you and me, you’re probably owning a translation of War and Peace.

Yeah, you’re not owning the manuscript but you don’t need to own the manuscript. It’s a work of art made in the age of mechanical reproduction. You are owning the same thing that everybody else owns. I think that’s a beautiful thing. I keep going back to the TV shows, and the subsidization of your artwork. I don’t want to have a job, I don’t want to have my artwork need to be subsidized through a full-time job or capitulation to working in a system that I don’t like. So, my uneasy alliances to work in education, which is a system that I also don’t like but there are some things about it I like...

But you dedicate the book to educators.

A lot of the appearance of the image of a teacher in the book is a sort of vulnerable character, the Password character, who’s based on Doug Ashford, who was a conceptual social practice artist at Cooper Union, when I went to Cooper Union and was this huge figure for me. I came to New York, I was 18–he’s like the smartest person that I’ve ever encountered in a classroom. And so, he’s a huge paternal sort of figure in a way, or I’m just, wow, bedazzled by this person. Everything smart about this school seems to be coming through this person, they’re organizing the seminars for the visiting artists, they just seem to know all this stuff.

Okay, so there’s that, and then I would ask him for help, and he’d be like, “I can’t really help you figure out your life, I can’t tell you what to do in terms of whether you should quit your job at Kim’s Video or not.” So, I would have this weird personal stuff. And then he would say stuff in critiques that were very smart, he’s tossing off ideas all the time, some of them were hurtful to me, you know, being a sensitive art student, and so, the teacher who doesn’t know their power, right? And how strong it is for somebody. Maybe I’m overly sensitive. Later, that experience gets contrasted with becoming a teacher and thinking about these vulnerabilities and also the way that being a teacher can subsidize you and prevent you from making work or participating in the market in the same way that having a full-time job can prevent you from really participating in the reality of the market. If all the artists who you sell work by in the Domino Books shop, if they have to just make a living off of their artwork and they’re only getting money from you, how much money are they gonna get to live on? Like, fifty bucks, twenty-five bucks, five bucks.

If Kafka was just supporting himself from his work, he’s a skillful guy, he could probably have written some good satires, maybe some detective things, and we'd definitely have editions of–whoever that Kafka was–we’d have contemporary translated editions. “Oh, look at this pleasing genre writer who interjected a little of his personality into his otherwise faceless work,” you know, “it’s definitely noteworthy for this period in time, this genre writer,” but it wouldn’t be the deeper statement that we have from him in his modified position.

It wouldn’t be as intense because he would’ve diluted his ideas for marketplace demands or whatever to make it more sellable. But what I’m saying is, why aren’t strong opinions or strong work or weird work or whatever–I’m saying in this utopian idea those ideas are popular. Kafka is popular, Kafka now could make a living off of Kafka. Or maybe not! [Laughs] Maybe not. Maybe art, maybe literature was always subsidized, in a way, publishing ventures may have always been subsidized. I don’t know if there’s an answer to all this but I’m just trying to think–

If you push your work, if you gamble more on your work, I feel like you enter this pact with all of society in which what they want you to do is sacrifice for them–they want you to give them something and I’m trying to think a lot about value–

If you push your work–

 If you push your work and you sacrifice for the people and if you guide them—J.K. Rowling was just, like, “I don’t know if the world needs a fantasy epic right now but here it is,” and the world responds, “Actually we did need this weird fantasy escapist educational epic.” I just think that what universities do and what art programs do is they create basically, an alternate value system that’s not necessarily what people want, it’s what is developed through dialogue. The conversation of what people who don’t participate in the market or have given up on the market or can’t find a place in the market wants. They make stronger work, more intense work–

You mean the educators have given up on the market. So, they are—in some cases—is that who you’re saying has given up on the market?

Yeah, I mean, the students are, like–

They might have some kind of inkling of it but I would doubt that they’re partisan on either side yet.

No, they’re thinking about their work, their influences–they’re on a cloud of all the pure influences that they’ve had in high school and actually their juvenile work is very amazing. 

It’s actual expression?

Well, it’s formed by their own limited experiences of life and a huge amount, usually, of fan stuff. Their influences are very on their sleeves. And so, I think that work is really raw and pure and amazing. And sort of gnarled in a horrible way but usually in a beautiful way. They maybe don’t have a formed opinion on the realities of the market but then they’re getting this teacher telling them based on their own successes, failures, compromises with teaching–I mean, teaching can be a great way out of the capitalist system and I put that into the comic where Password is quoting that revolutionary painting. People go back to school, they’re like, “Well, I just want time to work, like, free of having to have a job, I just want time in a studio.” That’s why people go to grad school again. They just wanna have this pure world of smart people talking about art and there’s nothing the matter with that but actually, it prolongs the potential for when people really want sacrifice, they want you to sacrifice yourself for the system, to give it all you have, to be on the street but then to grab all of your artwork–

Is that what the audience wants?

Yeah, they want you to die and take all of your stuff and valuate it. They don’t want you to keep going.

I think only in a corner of their mind, based on some romantic  documentary about a struggling artist that they saw passively, but most of those same people when they’re just scrolling through Instagram and they see an image that has like a spray-painted puppy or something that they like, I don’t think they’re conscious of also wanting that person to struggle to make that image. I know what you mean, because I personally want art that someone put their all into and it meant the world to them, but I’m not sure if that’s what everyone is looking for in art. The best, most generous idea of what general audiences want, they do want something that moves them or at least holds their attention and then potentially moves them in some way…

The empathic function of artwork which I think is a part of storytelling– Charles Dickens’ literature, it’s all empathic. When you have a voice that’s telling a story about characters–that is all antithetical to what you generally see in art which is non-empathic imagery divorced of narrative. That’s just style or mannerism.

The artists you’re critiquing in Art Comic that do what you describe there---they all went to art school, they started their studio practice and then they produce this art that, one might argue, needs to be explained. It’s implied in Art Comic that there’s a certain amount of economic comfort that the artists who make that kind of work come from, and then the public confronts it with confusion, and after explantation, passive acceptance. Whereas Dickens is noteworthy and genuinely moves people through stories…

[Laughter.] Okay, I think that that is touching on something really interesting to me, which is related to the artist myth and the artist story which is the economic factors of the art. How important are those in the art world, right? For me a working-class hero is something to be, right? I am more impressed by somebody who has had to work hard and so, that’s why I’m so depressed when I find out that all the surrealists were all rich kids or I’m so–I would be depressed if I found out–

They did something decent with their money though.

Yes, that is the counterpoint. The counterpoint is that it doesn’t matter, rich or poor or whatever or wherever you came from, it’s what you do. So, is it just my problem, I’m wondering, that I can’t stop thinking about? Like, the economic story, as part of the artist’s story, or part of the creation of the art—if I found out that so-and-so grew up rich, I’m going to be like, “I don’t care as much, I don’t care.” Because they didn’t do as much. They didn’t have to work as much. So, can I get the story of the artist out of the artwork? You know, I don’t think I can.

But do you think you do that as an artist, as a fellow artist, as a way to protect yourself from work you feel –I want to think of a better phrase than ‘intimidated by.’ I know I do that. ‘Will I ever be at this level? Oh well, they came from this background so I don’t have to grapple with it.’ But I feel that doesn’t do justice to the artwork that you’re genuinely impressed by in the moment. When you do that, and everyone does to some extent, you’re caricaturing what the artist did.

Okay, but then, do you feel like modesty is really helpful?

No!

I feel like that’s a way to fall back on class defense, where I’m like, “Ehh, I guess I could never be Matthew Barney.” So, I’ll do Matthew Barney in comics form. Because I could never make videos like Matthew Barney, or whatever. Which I think is the whole crux of the Matthew Barney story. I saw him and I’m like, “Fuck, this is the best art ever! And it’s so expensive! And it’s so mythological, and surrealist, and extravagant and wonderful. And I’ll never be able to do this. I’ll never be able to make— ”

But that’s a confusing one. Because Matthew Barney’s work cries money. It has money embedded into it.

Yeah, its luxurious. It’s visibly luxurious.

Yes, visibly. Well put.

I mean, he’s not hiding it. And I don’t think he’s necessarily a rich kid. But is it fucked up to even think about that? This stuff never enters the critique. Economic issues never enter critique in art school. You’re not supposed to talk about each other’s—

I’d assume they do now.

No. You don’t go to Columbia grad school and talk about the money the other students make. It’s just not going to enter the critique, or how much money you were able to spend on it.

I imagine now if a minimalist artist come up, it’s probably like, “And these guys were able to do this because they had a little bit of money.”

Donald Judd was canny with real estate. I don’t know if he grew up with money.

A lot of those minimalists were able to sustain their practice because they had these studios in SoHo, when real estate was nothing. That work remains relevant and I feel that the economic stability those artists had through making those real estate decisions is part of that, though unacknowledged.

There’s twenty other people waiting in the wings, who didn’t have the money, who you don’t really hear about. That’s an interesting issue. You had all kinds of people doing all kinds of things, and the Fluxus guy, George Maciunas, was starting this utopian buying program, of buying up buildings. So, the Fluxus guy became like a slumlord to all these different artists. The real-estate-preserving history.

I hope that people are taking more about race, economics, what is valid expression. Trying to get back to making a sensible statement about this—in terms of school, you talk about, in a way, the free of context art the students are making. You don’t talk about realities. And that’s reflected a lot in Art Comic, where you have students of various economic backgrounds all improperly equipped by their teachers to deal with the weird reality of that the capitalist system. The art world is really just a metaphor for capitalism in the book. They come out of art school, and they are just trying to be idealists, and, so the teachers are victims of this system as well, and they’re oppressing the students.

Do you think it’s possible for it to be any other way? Students come in idealistic, then the system, maybe even unconsciously if we’re being generous, imposes a hierarchy that the teachers can’t help but become a part of. This is obviously reaching, but if you look at the early Christian movement as a microcosm for this stuff—maybe that is an example of a beautiful thing, a truth-to-power critique and reform of religious and social practices that needed to change. So something like Catholicism would have to come in and be like, “Whoa, this is a true challenge to the general order. Let’s make this as hierarchical as possible.” It’d be a separate debate how conscious that is. Now, along those lines, we can say that art is the only thing that doesn’t need to be connected to value. It’s useless. It doesn’t have any function, like a bar of soap has. It’s the only thing that should have no connection to money. But over time, it’s completely connected to money in a crazy, super charged way. And that makes sense. It’s too powerful to not be connected to money.

Art can be filled with any meaning. If it’s blank, you can fill it with money.

That’s a great comparison. And, exactly, art becomes a container—an investment container. That’s the idea. In the book, my joke about the Readymade—what the Readymade is is a value container. From becoming the ultimate prank on the art world—I don’t blame Duchamp for that. No. No. He was a radical jerk clown prankster. He didn’t want to change the system. Well, I don’t know. I’m projecting. But the inevitability that you talked about is very interesting. Why did Christianity inevitably become a control system, like a patriarchal—why did it go from being a radical Jesus, “let’s give all our property away,” to “Go to fucking church and bow down.” It’s anti-family…

The logic there being, I'd assume, that would be the first hierarchy you'd need to break, if you really want an anti-control—

You need to break that? What are you, a Communist? But that’s definitely not how it played out. No. So any system becomes—what? Not corrupt, but re-formed into another. So, with Duchamp’s Readymade, I just want to get back to this becoming a container of infinite value, like a Bag of Holding in Dungeons & Dragons. You can invest anything into it. It’s the container for the investment bubble.

Then the Dungeon Master can tell you whatever it is.

Yeah. They can set the prices. That’s the wildness of art. That’s the reflection of the anarchy of the market in— So, before that, there was this also stringent value system, but it was based on discipline, the academy, what was a good picture—It’s interesting. There’s always been some stultifying system. I love the Dadas and anybody who was trying to push against that system, but yeah, we just got a new weird system. So, you’re saying, why is that inevitable?

The way you have it in Art Comic is that there’s a person who turns into a bat, influencing these  teachers to steer genuine creativity away from flowering. Pushing a potential idealistic student to suicide. I wondered why you chose that metaphor.

Because I think a conspiracy is a way of trying to make sense out of the really inevitable way that systems form, beyond the control of anybody who would participate in that system or even want it that way. I’m sure if you talk to Matthew Barney, if you talk to Marina Abramovic, if you talk to Jeffrey Koons, they’re all interesting people who don’t necessarily want this hegemonic investment system to happen. Joe Bradley, in interviews, is like, “Yeah, the money thing is a drag,” and yet he has to have this giant studio—

Does he have to, though?

Well, that’s the thing. I think that’s what artists are supposed to say. Artists are not supposed to be into the money. But it’s like, how can you be an artist?

Systems just form. They form like condensation or lichen. I think there’s a natural—I don’t know about biology, but there’s these natural systems of oppression that form almost like moss or something like that.

The art world is pretty underground, in a nontraditional underground way. I don’t think that many of the people that are contemporary descendants of those critiqued in Art Comic are known to the general public.

No. It’s not household names.

Right. It’s this closed system, and everybody—

It’s underground.

People are reactive within their community. Maybe unconsciously. So and so is doing this, and I’m at this point, so I should be doing that. And that seems like one of your main criticisms.

It is subconscious, like you say.

One of the things you talk about a lot in the book is that everybody is reacting to a closed system.  Everyone’s reacting to examples in that line of succession. They’re not looking to other media. Just reacting to things that have just gone before in that line, not really looking to other things. And that’s a deep mistake, to me. That seems like a criticism that keeps coming up in your book.  “Oh, Rosenquist is doing this,” as if that matters.

That’s the thing that’s so disappointing about art. It becomes this weird linear timeline. I’ve personally no—I’m interested in it, but it was shoved down my throat, in a way. Look at all these art history examples. Even in comics, it’s like, well, these white men succeeded these other white men and that’s the history of comics. Fuck that. The only cartoonists that I like seem to have this wide Ganzfeld, looking at all these different influences. It reflects in their work. The people who are obviously looking at the linear succession of what they think they need to be next in line is boring as shit.

Doesn’t your own life have something to do with artists that are critiqued here? Don’t you have some sort of actual association with those artists that are present in this book? Wouldn’t you say that maybe your close relationship to people in the contemporary art world formed some of the reaction in the book?

Sure, I’m violently critiquing people that I’m very close to. Their whole system is bullshit. I don’t like any of it. I wish Billy Grant would make cartoons, animated cartoons. And I like a lot of these people, I personally like them. And I’m not going to go up to so-and-so and be like, “your stuff sucks, your painting sucks” because it would be very rude. I would like them to make better work, but you don’t have these frank discussions.

This book was inspired by Salvador Dali, to create a double image, a paranoid critical image of the art world. So it’s not my real world, it’s a world that I can critique. It’s a paranoid version of the art world that I can actually talk about. It's really hard to, in person, say “your work is shit” or “this gallery is shit” or “Mary Boone is the most disgusting entrance foyer I’ve ever been in and it makes me feel like I’m in fascist Italy”

And of course Mary Boone Gallery is located right next to Trump Tower…

Sure. So she’s Donald Trump. They are Donald Trump. Larry Gagosian. They are as bad. There is no ethical dimension to the people involved some of these… I mean the gallerists would like to say they are supporting artists, and maybe they are, but this is the problem. Structurally, they are not supporting art. They are just amassing or creating the bubble. Like what you said about that documentary, The Price of Everything, where [gallerist] Gavin Brown is having it both ways: “Whoa this is very bad, and also ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching”  It’s like they can’t help it. Its like this weird thing, this weird misty mist, that you’re in it, and it doesn’t look like anything. But when you’re outside of it, it looks like a structure, but when you’re in it, there are all these people and networks and friends and you can’t see any shit-talking at all, but when you’re outside of it you’re like, “Oh god, this is just capitalism, this is just a reflection of capitalism”

Yeah, but life in general feels like that. When you’re young, you’re like, ‘There are these systems of authority, there are these systems of knowledge and I’m sure if I read the New York Times every day, maybe I’ll would understand the world. Oh and maybe, uh, Kant has something to do with it, right? [Thurber laughs] Gotta get to that eventually.’ But as you get older, you’re like, ‘Oh these authorities are on their own shaky ground, possibly making it up as they go along or misunderstanding their own intellectual basis for existing, or half under standing it.’ So… the art world can appear monolithic in a way, but it’s totally chaotic, split-second impulses.

But when you’re talking about reading the Times and trying to make sense of the world, and trying to make sense of the art world, and being outside of a closed system, or a peer system, or something that you project onto, I think that is basically the answer to why conspiracy theory is a good way of explaining things. Because there is no rational explanation to why Cooper Union decided to go paid tuition, but it seems like it's disastrous. It's disastrous, but there is no real logic or guiding principle at work, it’s not like some ruthless capitalist is going, “Ha ha ha! We will sell out the school!” you know? Its just like, yeah, we hired this person, and they decided this would be in the best interest of the board of trustees. So to create a conspiratorial logic out of something is just like a natural thing people do when they are outside of the system and they are projecting onto it. Someone probably assumes that Austin English and Matthew Thurber and all the New York cartoonists are all hanging out, probably they are like, “Oh, they probably all have sex!” then they’re like, “And that’s how it happens.” [Laughter.]

I don’t want to just be super-focused on comics, I’m trying to talk about a larger issue. This book is really about capitalism. It’s not even just about a different art scene. You know, it’s a metaphor–the art stuff is a metaphor for gentrification, for capitalism, for value, and increase–it’s like you could substitute art students for music students or business majors or anybody entering into a system–not business students, though, because it really is about idealism, coming into the world that seems pre-made and the dark, conspiratorial capitalistic world, and you’re like, “What do I fucking do?” There’re four different characters who have different idealistic kind of personalities.

Let’s look at your character Tiffany, who is in the system as a student and while navigating the gauntlet she’s going to these galleries to see what she’s up against. Your book has some kind of belief in what she does. What about the larger context of so many artists–you know, there’re so many people every year who graduate from university, come to New York, interact with this whole system, and some of them are going to get all swept up in it in a negative way, some of them are going to become neutral and cycle out of it, but some of them are going to have a lot of good in them! They’ve received an amazing education about the history of art, going to a school that kind of puts them in a line to possibly be exploited by the system or interact with the system in a negative way, but a lot of them make extremely valid work or work that’s valid to them if nothing else. They dedicate their life in whatever way to a kind of creativity that’s praise-worthy or something worth devoting your life to. What you say about Tiffany’s interaction is that her idealism is deeply in conflict with the negative forces in the book. What about people that go through that system and end up having a creative life that’s fulfilling to them, regardless of the other consequences of what happens to them. Maybe their work is celebrated, maybe their work isn’t celebrated, but they do make something that is valid creatively. How do those people fit in for you within this structure?

Okay, well–Tiffany is a character, right? The source of her creativity is really a higher power. She’s Christian, kind of like a Blake character. She receives divine visions like Blake. I created a character that I wanted to go through the rigmarole of an art education and a grad school, post–continued art education to try to find validation through a system that––validation is not necessary because she’s a visionary, super-talented, skilled artist, and her skill comes from a sense of a higher power. Her work is not in need of validation from the capitalist academic system or whatever.

She’s nonplussed whenever someone approaches her with some kind of praise or criticism.

Well, she is like, “I’ll play the game.” And she goes back to a character in school that I remember, Lauren Fulcrod, who thought everything was bullshit and knew she was Christian. But it can be anything, it can be anybody in the school system who is religious or who has a different validation system and it’s hard to believe in that system when there are figures of authority telling you, you know, what’s good or not, or your peer group–so she rejects her peer group in some way socially. She’s like, “No, I’m mentoring a symbolist period painting,” she’s very serious. Then, she has this sort of Candide-like adventure where she goes on a boat and somebody’s trying to collect her work and assassinate her. I guess she’s just rejecting–

But is her work reactive? To do icon-type painting, now, there’s an element that is reactive, no?

Right, well, she’s in school. She’s trying to have it both ways, where you’re like, “Well, I should do my best.” And I see students like this all the time, you know. They have an outside validation system that’s powerful, but they’re also trying to get a good grade or whatever, thrive in the system. I guess what happens to her in context of the teacher character is she totally gets kicked out of the dialogue and then loses her voice. Her speech balloons become empty when she’s not participating in the dialogue and Satan appears. She’s having a really intense grad school experience. [Laughs.]

There’s a lot of weight put on Tiffany in relation to everything else. It’s like the movie The Price of Everything that we were talking about. There’s a lot of weight put on Larry Poons in that movie. There is a moment where Larry Poons is looking at these Jeff Koons things in the Prada window, licensed Jeff Koons that Prada is doing.

Yeah, with Mona Lisa on them.

To me, in that moment, Larry Poons almost looks like a Rembrandt type coming back from the dead and looking at Matisse and not getting it. I agree with his distaste for Koons, but...

That’s just a documentary filmmaker creating a narrative out of Larry Poons’ authenticity–

But you’re a cartoonist making Tiffany into a character. Having one approach be… not safe, but it almost becomes safe. ‘Closer to real creativity.’ It almost calls into question whether these negative examples like Koons or Barney–will their approach to creativity be validated later? Would we embrace Kandinsky today if his innovations were happening now or would we see him as a Koons-type fraud?

To validate your own work, to where you don’t need anybody else to say it’s approved, you don’t need permission from an authority figure… that’s really important and the only difference between characters like Tiffany finding sort of a visionary validation and Koons saying, “I’m totally set,” is that one comes from market reinforcement and one comes from a spiritual dialogue with yourself or with the world. You could say, and people have said that Jeff Koons is completely sincere and I believe them. That’s fine. You can be sincere and that’s fine. And you have your own validation system and I can take it or leave it and for me, I just wanted to not make Koons into a super-mega-villain because that would be too easy. But, for me, it’s not the right ticket. For him, he’s talking about erasing narrative out of his work. I like some of his work. I like the porn work in particular, actually. But I don’t think the idea of erasing narrative out of your work is very realistic.

I don’t know if I can really see it clearly as just artwork. I don’t see it as artwork, I see it as part of evidence of the system.

I don’t see Larry Poons as artwork, either. I see it as being a signifier of authenticity in and also somebody that I had to go and do art-handling in his house and his paintings weighed 2000 pounds and he was screaming at his wife and screaming at me, “Just drop it! Drop it on the ground!” and then he’s putting on a cowboy hat and, you know, acting like a sort of a country music clown. That’s his branding, his self-branding, you know. And so, I just see it all as–look, it’s fine. There just needs to be more discussion of actualities and more messy discussion and–

But that’s unfair in your judgement of Larry Poons’ work that you know that about Poons. It’s like, Agnes Martin is criticized in your book…

She is?

Yeah, you say Agnes Martin is–not you, but our protagonist says Martin is “false, corrupt nonsense.”

Oh, ‘throw her in the fireplace’?

Maybe in the context of these contemporary blue-chip artists, Martin has some correspondence, but they’re doing that in their lifetime, while Martin…

Well, she’s just showing at Gagosian with awesome Navajo quilts.

Yeah, but she’s dead, that’s what I mean. Isn’t your personal critique of the market coming into play in your perception of Martin’s work…

Well, yeah, she’s in the market, she’s a signifier of a certain value of the spiritual, quiet spiritual valuing, and I just see it as–I just go into Gagosian and I see it as something for sale across from some Navajo rugs as compared to some folk art by Indians who genocide was committed on–“Well, put this next to Agnes Martin and it’ll look like a great show, a really cool comparison, you know, good comp.” And it’s like, I don’t fucking care, Agnes Martin–she was great. I wouldn’t throw her in the fireplace. I don’t care. It’s a signifier–it becomes something different than what it was. If you can’t say, “Burn down museums,” you’re in a pretty fucking miserable place. Because you’re not free. If you can’t say we don’t need to go to museums anymore, that’s baseline what the Dadaists and the Futurists were saying–

But the fact that The Met is open to everyone, rather than these works being in a collector's home and not on view seems to complicate that attitude in relation to Art Comics' goal of talking about capitalism...

You’re too reverent.

I don’t think I’m that reverent, but I do think one of the nice things about living in New York is you have the Met and you have the New York Public Library and they’re free.

I worked at the Met for like six years. I’m angry at it [laughs.] I want to destroy it–well, that character wants to destroy it–that character’s coming out–

Museums represent a lot of the values of what art was sold, what money paid for, those purchases have to be validated and museums do that–you know, and the Met’s going through all these problems now because they can’t build new wings to house this rich pharmacist's collection of modernist work.

Put it in Central Park. Put it on the water–

But I don’t think it’s negative that people get to see that collection for free. Then the public can judge whether it’s worthy of our love or not. It’s on display.

I know, it’s my favorite museum, too. I mean, I worked there and then I was, like, you know, I don’t like it anymore. Okay, I like the concept of museums. Definitely European museums are a little more down to earth.

I’m not really into destruction of people or property–I love art–the thing is what I love is the potential for art to be actual meaningful folk art, you know what I mean? So, when I’m in the system of the Met, where I was for five years, I’m trapped in this city-like structure, this very hierarchical structure that’s a value system and there are 2000 people employed and I’m one of them, I’m in the system. I sort of hated my boss, but, yeah, I loved the art, I loved learning from the art and all the history and allowing my mind to wander. But, now, it’s actually hard for me to go to museums. They cost $25. They should–if they were free, sure, I’d be all about museums but–

The Met's still free for NYC residents!

Yeah, but they don’t feel democratic. They don’t feel as democratic as Instagram. International global system of surveillance.

Comics are democratic.

It’s art for the people and it serves a function and I love it. I mean, I love the potential of it. I don’t love the content of hardly any of it. I love books and I love textiles and I love labor in art. I love when people are making things – that energy in film, of course, film is where I’m more going because I’m fascinated by animation and–

But is film that democratic? There’s a lot of money involved to make one…

You can make it on your iPhone for hardly anything, but people don’t. The funny thing is is that as things become more possible to do, they become disempowered more–

Yeah, it’s like we’re living in Godard’s dream now, to direct a movie just from a pencil tip or however he said would be ideal years ago. That’s reality now.

Sure, and nobody does it. It’s not distributed, it’s a failure of distribution. Actually, what I love is Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind. The idea that you’re making local films for your neighborhood. Cheapo, local films, which is close to Cuchar.

Why doesn’t Gondry make movies like that though? [Laughs.]

Good question. Why doesn’t he make folk art? Because he has an ego and he’s like, “I’d rather be at this certain level.”

Cuchar is really radical. Jack Smith is really radical. These are the figures that are more interesting to me now. Film clubs, things like that.

When I first came to the city, the Met was one place to learn, but so was Anthology Film Archives, where you could see these underground films from the '50s that felt to me like cartooning. The way they were made seemed so simple, you could figure out how the filmmakers put them together almost how you could figure out how a mini comic artists put together a zine. But the creative ambition was at a high level...

There was a spiritual counterculture in the United States in the ‘40s and ‘50s. That was still surrealism, which was still alive in a way. It didn’t end in 1948.

Well, it still hasn’t ended. Ashbery is a contemporary surrealist. Gorey is a surrealist. Leonora Carrington's work is newly important to people right now. I think people who really love surrealism respond to its potential while the rest of culture responds to the caricature of surrealism – surrealism as ‘weird.’

Yeah, but it’s a philosophy. And that philosophy is obviously reflected in almost every contemporary artist without paying their dues to it. Matthew Barney is not going to say he’s indebted to Salvador Dalí. Although, I completely think that the system creation that he does stems from surrealism. But I, too, have a belief system or religion.

There’s a community of artists that are not affiliated with the influence surrealism had on them, which is as it should be. It should be a movement of individuals, the flaw of the official movement was that it was too much of a community.

Patriarchal, pass on the baton, excommunicating people and stuff like that.

Yeah, and the main criticism of Surrealism should be–it thinks it’s open to anything and everything, but was of course extremely homophobic.

It’s sexist and dogmatic in a religious sense.

[Surrealism founder] Breton did make leaps and bounds in his mind that most people of his monied class didn’t make, but also fell into the worst clichés and harmful thinking of that class. 

I think he’s incredible. I think Leonora Carrington is incredible. I think Dalí is incredible and completely underrated.

For my money, Tanguy is better than Dalí. That’s what I always wish Dalí’s work looked like…

I’m out of here. [laughter]

This is what you end the book with,: “The creative act shall always triumph over the death culture of capital.” If the triumph is inevitable, why worry about the machinations of the  system?

Well–that’s the last line in the book delivered by a baby born by two heterosexual copulation robots created as art to create a succession of art, right? The sex robots came from that Jordan Wolfson sculpture. It’s like a twerking robot,.

Anyway, he made this sculpture in a gallery. It’s just like this grotesque animatronic that’s  twerking with its back to you, against the wall, with a giant rod in its center that’s holding it to the wall. I was thinking about the idea of generating endless value if you created an artwork that would fuck and give birth to another artwork that would be more value. It would be the self-perpetuating cycle of value, right? And so, the baby comes out and it’s kind of like, "Actually,” you know. The baby’s conflict is–

That’s like a paraphrase of Jurassic Park: "Creativity finds a way." [laughs]

Right, the AI value system might actually be into the idea of idealistic art. So, I just wanted to end it on a positive, affirming note that was pro-idealism and it’s being spoken by the ready-made itself. So, why worry about the art world?

Duchamp is on one level and then someone like Warhol complicates...

I love Warhol. What was your question?

I was just saying, why do we need to worry about the ‘system’ if creativity will eventually win?

Okay, yeah, I just think it’s a conflict between realism and capitalism. Philosophy – you either have a philosophy you develop or you’re just a schmuck. Manhattan is dead. Manhattan is a hostile environment to art, you know, when at one point it wasn’t.

When I hear the Patti Smith line of “Don’t move to New York if you’re an artist,” I think...

Why would you? Move to where it’s cheap.

But when an artist lives somewhere that is smaller and cheaper, I think the ambition and ability to connect to a wider community of not just people, but a community of ideas... It's different elsewhere, if there are less people around. If you want to come here and make art, yes, there are lots of negatives, but there are obvious positives that I see people from smaller communities instantly notice…

There’s lots of energy. But it shouldn’t be this hard. No, Manhattan is over. You need to have–

New York is bigger than Manhattan.

It’d be better to live on a farm in Maine.

I wonder how the artist in Maine feels though!

I don’t know. I think we can learn more from new neighbors in any community that’s cheap. The avant-garde is in Maine.

Let's go back to Tiffany. Should Andrew Wyeth be closer to the position of cultural importance than Braque?

You know what’s interesting is Andrew Wyeth at some point had a cultural cache to the extent where they had a dual Warhol/Wyatt show in the '80s. This is in the Warhol diaries. They were both equally famous–

It’s in the diaries, yeah, I remember.

But your question is about skill and I think that really it’s a question about empowerment, skills empowerment. Technical training is empowering and I think owning of the means of production in a Marxist sense is empowering. If you owned a Risograph printer you can make art. You can make your own label. You can put out your own records, press your own records so you can distribute your own stuff, you can have more control over distribution of objects. You can have a farm where you grow your own food. All that stuff is related to more empowering things. So, Braque, I don’t know, he’s just like a second-rate Cubist, I mean, versus–

I see so much of his work in person. I don’t get to see much Wyeth.

Oh, I don’t know, he’s probably in the market. Yeah, Wyeth is more rare, it’s more skilled, it’s more rarefied so it’s gonna be more expensive, so it’s gonna be more one percent. But, the thing is I think what people would respond to is the stories, the emotions that are in it, the gothic-ness is in it. It’s more use value. Wyeth has more use value to humans than–

Now, Hopper, who I love…

The worst.

[English laughs]

Worse than Norman Rockwell.

I never get to see Norman Rockwell either! I’d love to see – I've lived in the city for sixteen years, I should have seen half a dozen of them, at least, given Rockwell’s significance. I’ve never seen one in person. But I do get to see a lot of Hopper.

You can see everything. You can see Gertrude Abercrombie – the problem is, honestly, Austin, what you should do is see what you need to focus on – you don’t need to see all this stuff. You need to see the things like Edward Gorey or something. You keep focusing on the things that are pertinent to you, you know, and if that’s–

But what isn’t pertinent? Why pigeonhole yourself?

Okay, what is your question? Your question is whether I would like to see Braque or Wyeth more in a museum? I don’t fucking care. Make your own canon. Everyone creates their own pantheon.

But you're saying in the book, with Tiffany's character, that the idea of Tiffany's work could or should be dominant. It's hinted that it might be better. Can’t it just be a different note?

Sure. I'm... not multiverse... not inclusive, what's the word I'm looking for? Everything is fine, everything is good, everything is accepted. The word for anti-value system. Anti-hierarchal value system. All-inclusive. There's a word I'm looking for. Jeffrey Deitch becomes the head of the MOCA or whatever and puts a skateboard show in there. I don't care. It's all bullshit anyway. Whatever you want to promote. Put a motorcycle show in the Guggenheim. All the things for people who care about valuation or whatever or a hierarchy of this is better than that. It's kind of a moot point to me. There are already these evaluation structures. What I really like are subcultural values. I really like folk evaluation where it's important to a community. Or, for instance, I like philosophic systems where there's an articulation of things, of what's important and why we do things in a certain way, because in this system we believe that there should be no sex or difference in gender. So we're going to form a church where there's no difference in gender and we all carve wood. We all make carvings out of wood and each carving represents silence in a different way. Some weird belief system that needs to flourish. It can't really flourish if you're like, "We want this or this in the museum." Who fucking cares? Develop your own weird canon.

Cartooning is never going to be accepted the way some other work will be accepted because it threatens the value system. You can't make it available to everybody for five dollars. That system won't work. This is why in the Three Little Pigs, destruction gets absorbed back into the system, right? There's a way conceptual art gets absorbed into the market and commodified. With a certificate it's sellable. Something that was super against the commodifying system. That's like cartooning in a way...

In the conclusion of the book you express something that isn't in the heart of the main narrative. You say all your problems could be solved if you could make a panel the size of a painting. That gets at a tension I keep trying to pin down between you as a cartoonist and your feelings about the art world.

I always make stuff that I don't really have a market for beyond the stuff that I'm doing for comics. If I just commodified this, I could be as stupid a painter as a bunch of contemporary people, if I just took this panel out of context and divorced it of any narrative content.

The idea is that, as a cartoonist, you're always making decisions, right? You know this. Your work is... What is it? It's in this weird, ambiguous space between fine art and narrative comics.

Everyone is making decisions though.

Yes, but if you make a decision at a certain scale and not a narrative and as an object that will be sold and not a part of continuity that is a storytelling continuity, then people take this piece and take this piece and they flip it. I'm making a compositional decision that is like the equivalent of what a painter would make on a canvas, but I'm just not interested in that market.

The bubble of the art world just needs to pop. People need to see all the other beauty that's in the world. Comics, narrative, Charles Dickens, gekiga, Olivier Schrauwen, good manga, animation. There's a whole spectrum of things to learn about.

The art world can be seen as using some of that stuff, like Erró appropriating Brian Bolland, as their toys….

They need more humility and desire. But you can't teach people to have a desire to learn. Why aren't people more curious?

 

FILED UNDER: ,

3 Responses to “The Creative Act Shall Always Triumph Over the Death Culture of Capital”: An Interview with Matthew Thurber

  1. Adam says:

    This is a wonderful interview! Art Comic is a brilliant and important critique of art under Capitalism and I’m happy to see that spelled out so explicitly here. Some thoughts:

    -Thurber is right about museums in New York (and more generally). The history of why they have free days and are at all (ever so slightly) more democratic is because a bunch of leftie artists organized against them in the 60s. Check out “Art Gangs” by Alan W. Moore for this history.

    -I think we have to be careful about creating a narrative about how Capitalism operates in the fine art world and comics as some world apart (even independent comics). There’s increasing transit between the two, especially in the realm of people who slum in comics to get bohemian credentials and then sell themselves up the culture industry ladder. Comics middlemen becoming art world curators, indie publishers bundling cartoonists under “brands” to get art directors jobs, etc. And some comics festivals are run by literal real estate developers too! Would love to read Art Comics Comic.

  2. Austin English says:

    Adam: if people who “slum” in comics do in fact “sell themselves up the cultue industry ladder” I’m not sure if those (and who are they??) folks at the top of the ladder are particularly concerned or aware of anything this hypothetical artist did with comics. Theyre probably just excited that an artist they were maybe vaguely interested in is now doing something…anything!….other than comics. I think comics obsession “what it all means” in regards to the art world is pretty one sided.

  3. Adam says:

    Austin:

    The selling themselves up the ladder is more a phenomenon among the comics middlemen types I reference. All but but only the most sociopathic artists tend to get screwed in the end, even if they climb up a few rungs. My comment is only to the fact that I don’t want comics to be as bad as the art world, but it will definitely end up that way if we ignore people running the same kind of scams in comics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *