Research, Values

Kerry James Marshall on artists becoming agents in their own lives

From Kerry James Marshall lecture at SFAI (via podcast)

This article [in Modern Painters] called “School is Out” which… is a conversation between John Baldessari and the British teacher, Michael Craig Martin…. The principle notion [Baldessari] was operating on was … one cannot teach art. That art is somehow, this sort of strange and alien phenomenon that happens to people… He said, it’s like all the planets around you have to line up in the right way, with the right students, and the right time, and the right faculty and the right city. So everything’s got to be just right, you got to have the right kinda people and all that stuff. And that’s precisely the kind of ideas and attitudes that everything I do is fundamentally opposed to. The sort of rightness of a kind of person who is privileged enough to … be invited into this circle of people who are artists….

This [painting called The Lost Boys] was the pivotal painting for me…. This was the painting I had always imagined myself being able to make…. Everything I was doing was leading me to that place where I could make that painting…. And once I made these paintings everything about the way I operated as an artist changed…. from that moment I understood… what I had to do in order to make the kinds of images that I need to make. And I can say I never … stumbled again after that…. I was sure of myself; of what I could do and needed to be done. That was a profoundly empowering moment for me….

[As a youth] I used to hang out [at LACMA]… and [getting my work] in there with one of those artists was a goal that I set for myself. And that painting…, the first big painting that I made, it was the first major museum purchase that was ever made of my work and it was purchased by LACMA. And then to be in there amongst all those people I had admired, I had arrived, I had succeeded in everything I had set out to achieve,… from that moment I felt free to do anything I wanted to do.

Now, I can sort of go for the next thing. And for me,… it’s a question is whether one finds a very secure place in the historical narrative of art so that whenever that story is told, it cannot be told without the presence of either me or somebody like me there….

On some levels, I have already…. There are books in which my work is represented…. But I’m not in everybody’s book…. I want people to stumble on me, like I stumbled on everybody else… Jackson Pollack or Jasper Johns or Willem de Koonig or Mark Rothko or Ad Reinhardt—those people, there are no books being written on the history of art in which those people are not being represented. And as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t achieve that level of recognition and representation in the history, then you still don’t really exist. Because your presence there is conditional… on a sympathetic writer, critic or historian who is willing to place you there. But that kind of placement can be contested. And I’m looking for an un-contestable position in the historical narrative…. This is how I think. I’m purpose-driven. I have a mission. And I’m all about knowing what I need to know, and having the requisite skills that I need to have in order to manufacture this position that I think I need to occupy…. And, well, people laugh at that kind of conceit. But the truth be told: I don’t know any artists of consequence that didn’t have that kind of conceit. And if it’s acceptable for other artists who are already there to think and speak like that, how come it’s not acceptable for somebody else to think and speak like that? And if we’re not thinking and speaking like that, what’s wrong with us? I mean, really? If you take this seriously…. These institutional structures that we kneel and bow and defer to are not inviolate institutional structures…. They’re not entitled to exist without challenge…. So you have to put yourself in a position where you are capable of knocking them off the position they occupy, because we are not bound to defer to anything that exists. Everything is available for critique—and also displacement….

Your development as an artist is a fluid occupation. Wherever you are at any given moment doesn’t mean anything about where you can be or might go. But when you take control, when you take charge of your development as an artist, you make those kind of decisions because you’re trying to get to a very particular kind of place, and so you should be driving your development in a particular direction, and you should know what the destination is. It’s the only way you can know whether you’ve succeeded at the challenges you set for yourself or not, because if you are not sure what you are doing,… you are at the mercy of forces outside of yourself.

And as far as I’m concerned the stakes of this sort of enterprise are way too high to relinquish that kind of control to people…. who you can always bet don’t have your best interest at heart. It’s the only way you can avoid that situation [where Baldessari can say that art requires the right people, the right situation]. This rightness of people thing, I mean… To be honest, that’s the white racist, white supremacist basis on which the United States was organized. And we cannot have that kind of foolishness anymore.

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