Leonard Baskin Interview (1996)

Discussing the State of Contemporary Art



Don Gray: I wonder if one of the main reasons for the degradation of contemporary art is an underlying nihilism, that life is meaningless and purposeless, so why bother to search for profound meanings in art?


Leonard Baskin: Are you saying all society is like that?


Gray: Yes, but I'm talking more about art.


Baskin: Interesting. I don't feel quite like that, no. I think it's far more complex than that. I think there is an element of nihilism about, but I don't think most artists feel their work is meaningless. I don't call their work nihilistic. I call it generally just decorative or meaningless. I think it has other roots, has to do, in part, with a general anxiety in contemporary life...nuclear bombs, inequality of possibility and chance, inequality of goods allotted to us, a kind of general racist, unjust attitude that is pervasive. Works of art produced in the contemporary world are a further expression of that. But I don't think there is an active, ongoing nihilist self-consciousness in the artist.


Gray: I sense a kind of elbow to the ribs, cocktail chatter, giggle, "look what we're pulling off in the face of bourgeois society."


Baskin: I think it's too total for that. I think most of the artists are really committed to the idea of what they are doing. I think they have just been misled. The art schools...you get young kids doing the most vile and meaningless crap. I think they believe every bit of it.


Gray: Has it gotten worse?


Baskin: No, it's getting better. Only every other kid is doing it now. (laughter)


Gray: Was there a specific year of decline? It seems following World War II things started, with a few exceptions, to get worse.


Baskin: Yes, I think it's a postwar kind of general anxiety.


Gray: How about the change that took place at the turn of the 20th Century? What are your personal feelings, say, about Picasso or Mondrian?


Baskin: Do you know Mondrian's early chrysanthemum drawings?


Gray: Yes, I do. Exquisite.


Baskin: Anyone who can make anything as beautiful as that, has the right to do anything as sad as (a late geometric painting) "Broadway Boogie-Woogie." (laughter) It's just that the artists who do the crap now don't have the capacity to make such brilliant drawings. That, I think, is one of the fundamental differences. There is, however, a change going on in the world. There's far more interest in drawing now than there has been in a long, long time. Schools are beginning to teach drawing again in a serious and meaningful way.


Gray: My wife, Jessie Benton Evans, and I are both artists. When we were in New York – we left in the mid-80's – there was a revival of drawing in the classical manner. I hope this particular direction does not result in replaying the old pedantic cycle of drawing from casts, from the antique, rather than organic, vital drawing based on life.


Baskin: There's a tremendous tendency not to make a statement, not to be committed in that ultimate sense. Photo-realism is the same thing as minimal abstraction. Both are unwilling to say anything about the nature of reality, about their own involvement with reality, the evolvement of forms, their expressive...their deepest involvement with human reality. There are also vast vested interests supporting this whole thing. Who supports the avant-garde in this country? It's the banks, it's industry, it's the museums, it's the critics, it's the galleries...how are you going to fight that?


Gray: What would be the answer to your own question?


Baskin: The only way to fight it, is for the ultimate quality of truth and honesty and decency to fight its way out, which it will ultimately. But it's going to be a titanic struggle...'


Gray: ...that cracks the crust from underneath...


Baskin: That's right. It ain't going to be easy.


Gray: Do you think there is an active art conspiracy?


Baskin: I don't think so, no.


Gray: A getting together of mutual financial interests?


Baskin: No, I don't think it's that. I think there are all sorts of elements going on. Most of it, I think, is happenstance, accident. I once maybe would have thought there was a deliberate plot. I don't think so now.


Gray: I remember Raphael Soyer saying he and other realist artists had put out a publication called "The Realist" in the 1950's, short-lived...


Baskin: Yes.


Gray: He said that major backers of abstraction came down on them saying they would be dealt with if they continued publication.


Baskin: I remember the business with "The Realist." There have always been artists like me who said, "No, it's all bull shit, it's all crap, it's not what art's about." But the vested interests are so vast. What do they, in fact, have to worry about Raphael Soyer, Philip Evergood and a few other artists? Nothing. They are in a position of absolute power.


Gray: Do you think the art world, in general, censors art and artists that don't fit their preconceived aesthetics?


Baskin: I feel there's censorship in that there's a certain modality, there's a certain fashion, a certain tendency to only show certain kinds of art, which in the end becomes censorial. I don't know that it's deliberate censorship. It becomes censorship, but...I live a quite reasonable life. Look how you like my work. I got through to you. There have been at least four books published about my work. How could that happen if there is censorship?


Gray: (pause) Well, others have 30 books.


Baskin: That's the difference, sure. Jasper Johns gets three million dollars for a work of his art, where I get a pittance by comparison. But that pittance is enough for me to live pretty well.


Gray: I think maybe people are...I'm going to say, naïve, but basically decent. But the motives of some leaders are in question.


Baskin: I think the leaders inevitably express the people they are leading. Don't you believe that?


Gray: No.


Baskin: It's sort of a truism, isn't it? However, I think there is a kind of dichotomy. I think if you touch ordinary people, they're simply ordinary people, the way they've always been. They work hard, they don't have really as much as they should. There's a certain level in society called "media" now, and other related things which give an expression of disorder and breakdown, etc., etc., which we call nihilist, if you like.


Gray: Have you read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 1978 commencement address at Harvard?


Baskin: No. I don't like him.


Gray: Can you stand a quote from him?


Baskin: Sure.


Gray: It's entitled "A World Split Apart." Just two short paragraphs. "There are telltale symptoms by which history gives warning to a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, a decline of the arts or a lack of great statesmen."


Baskin: You think we're suffering from both, I take it.


Gray: Yes.


Baskin: Go on. Next.


Gray: "A decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites (of the West), causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There remain many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life."


Baskin: I think the first paragraph is far more interesting than the second. It's far truer from my point of view. I don't think the second is quite demonstrable. At least I don't think so.


Gray: How about these quotes of Carl Jung, the psychologist, from 1928? "I believe I am not exaggerating when I say that modern man has suffered an almost fatal shock, psychologically speaking, and as a result has fallen into profound uncertainty." And, "A great horde of worthless people do, in fact, give themselves a deceptive air of modernity by skipping the various stages of development and the tasks of life they represent... I know that the idea of proficiency is especially repugnant to the pseudo-moderns, for it reminds them unpleasantly of their trickery."


Baskin: If you think that...It's really hard to go on living, isn't it...go on fighting it?


Gray: Well, you've fought it all your life.


Baskin: You're talking to me from where, New Mexico?


Gray: Arizona.


Baskin: Arizona. You see, there is some possible hope of winning and success and whatnot. You're concerned about my work somehow. Maybe the effort to struggle against what might be a general corruption is worthwhile.


Gray: Absolutely. I feel the resurrection of the art world is in the hands of individual artists.


Baskin: Yes.


Gray: That it can flourish again. But, as you say, it's going to be a real struggle.


Baskin: Do you know an artist called Rico Lebrun?


Gray: Rico Lebrun. Sure.


Baskin: Well, I think he's the greatest artist of our time.


Gray: He's very powerful.


Baskin: And almost no one is interested in him.


Gray: I think of our age, beginning with the Pop artists, as the height of artifice and superficiality...


Baskin: ...Yes, I agree with that...


Gray: ...and dehumanization.


Baskin: But, do you think human relationships are like that?


Gray: There are problems. Think what society is going through in terms of divorce rates or family difficulties; so many people using drugs to ease the stress of living; the breakdown of honesty in business, government and the professions. Surgeons cutting on people just for profit.


Baskin: I don't think there's anything new in that. It's just more general and more known. Do you think people should stay together unhappy?


Gray: No. Not at all.


Baskin: So, in a way, there's a kind of freeing quality, in drugs, in divorce. There are aspects in all of that. Not in surgeons, I must admit. But I think doctors have always been either honest or dishonest.


Gray: Like lawyers.


Baskin: Lawyers are the worst.


Gray: I was struck by the intensity of your work when I was in college. Shortly after college, I remember talking to a young would-be intellectual who reflected the art educational system you mentioned earlier. He was trying to tell me that Mickey Mouse was at the same artistic level as a Rembrandt self-portrait. I could not believe people could think that way. It's stayed with me though the years, reinforced by later experience, as the example par excellence that surprising numbers of people, even in the art world, don't know what art is, can't tell the difference between superficiality and profundity.


Baskin: Yes. Did you see the New Yorker article on Roy Lichtenstein?


Gray: No. Did they say something of the same thing.


Baskin: Oh, no. They celebrate him. It's Mickey Mouse. It's worse than Mickey Mouse.


Gray: I taught in college for some time, and I know you have. Did you teach to survive, to make a living, or could you have lived off your work if you wanted to?


Baskin: It's a difficult question. I always felt that I had anxiety of survival in terms of livelihood even when I was making plenty of money. I always felt I needed to teach to survive. I think ultimately I taught because of that anxiety, but far more important was the desire to be with the young people.


Gray: There's something stimulating, seeing those fresh...


Baskin: And to carry on with my point of view and my message. Of course, I did lots of what would be called graphic design now, what used to be called commercial art. I did a hundred book covers.


Gray: I didn't realize that. I think of your own (Gehenna) press.


Baskin: I lost money for 40 years on that. But I did a hundred book covers at least, and record jackets, and things like that. I had income from that as well. I could have lived a hard life as an artist, but teaching had all those other factors. And it's so relatively easy.


Gray: Teachers, at least studio teachers, do have it...


Baskin: The trouble is, almost all of them stop working.


Gray: That's the drawback.


Baskin: Almost inevitably. Almost everyone stops being an artist. Most artists don't become artists. But that's another discussion. What it takes to be an artist.


Gray: It takes a lot of persistence and a lot of courage. You have to believe in what you do. You have to need to do it.


Baskin: You have to want it overwhelmingly. You have to be an egomaniac. You have to have a little bit of talent. You have to have a massive amount of luck.


Gray: Absolutely. It's too easy to lie down and watch TV.


Baskin: Absolutely. Or teach. I just finished doing a large Holocaust piece, a seated figure over seven feet tall. It's gigantic. It's going to Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Gray: That reminds me of the Holocaust Museum. Would you have anything there?


Baskin: I don't think so. I've not been specifically Holocaust (in my work). It took me fifty years to deal with the Holocaust at all. And I did it in a literary way. I invented slogans in Yiddish, new slogans like "Who Shall We Complain To; Our God's Asleep." Or, "At least Death Loves the Jews," things like that. (wry, soft chuckle)


Gray: That's powerful...God ignoring us, having set us in a hellish situation, then says, "bye-bye, you're on your own."


Baskin: That's right. (chuckles)


Gray: It's shocking. I really don't know how anybody comes to terms with it.


Baskin: Rico Lebrun said it's THE subject of the 20th Century (the Holocaust). Not to deal with it is a total evasion for any artist.


Gray: I always think of Mel Brooks trying to deal with it through comedy...how he uses Nazis in his movies, like "Springtime for Hitler" (a song in "The Producers")...


Baskin: (softly sings) "Springtime for Hitler and Germany..." (low laughter)


Gray: It's just another way to try to come to grips with the ungrippable.


Baskin: I think so. It is ungrippable.


Copyright by Don Gray


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