Interview by Margaret Sundell and Thomas Beller
Splash, Summer, 1988
Peter Halley is among a group of young artists whose work has played a major role in shifting the attention of the art world away from neo-expressionism to a more cerebral, conceptual art form that refers to subtexts of commodification and political structures. He is also one of a growing number of artists who write, augmenting the views expressed in their artwork with those expressed in their written work.
Sundell/Beller: Jean Baudrillard states that instead of accepting its own death, contemporary painting stages its death over and over. Do you think there’s a truth to that? And do you think your work is about that or not doing that?
Peter Halley: In terms of this idea of death and the restaging of death, it seems like a very Barthean idea of the work of art consistently being about its own collapse. However, in the case of Baudrillard, I think there’s a very strong subtest that’s interesting to examine. I see one of the issues of art in the “modern” era as being a power struggle between various classes. Besides a putative working class, the other two classes postulated are the bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie. Baudrillard is essentially saying that the death of a high culture or elite culture is the death of a bourgeois form of culture. His own predisposition, the cultural manifestations that interest him, tend to be those of the petite bourgeoisie, what we might call mass culture. What I think he was talking about was the death of bourgeois culture at the hands of the petite bourgeois culture. I do think an ascendancy of mass culture has occurred in the late twentieth century. It’s a technically produced, numerically determined, and capital-infused culture. I see, in the fascination on the part of post-War art — Rauschenberg and Johns through pop art and
Warhol — a need to bring into contemporary art the subject matter of popular culture.
S/B: Do you share that fascination?
PH: Yes and no. I’ve certainly spent a good deal of time thinking about it. But my own sub-field of interest is not so much mass culture and its effect on a mass audience, but rather managerial and intellectual culture. Insofar as I am interested in geometry and urban organization, I’m concerned with the techniques that this managerial and intellectual culture utilizes to try to control and determine the direction of the culture.
S/B: Art and visual symbols have always been a way for a class to both consolidate and exhibit itself.
PH: Exactly. For me, one of the clearest ways to define modernism, from the nineteenth century to the present, is as the self-definition and consolidation of the bourgeoisie. Ortego y Gasset, in The Dehumanization of Art in the early 1920s, explicitly says just that — that modernist art is highly coded so that it’s only accessible to those who can decipher those codes as a kind of gateway to a certain class identity.
S/B: Do you think your art is undermining that consolidation, or perhaps exposing the infrastructure that allows it? In one way your art participates in, and thus perpetuates, a kind of cultural elite, with its multiple references to past art styles. But in another way it seems very straightforward.
PH: The diagrammatic sense of representation in my work is very simpleminded. The images are extremely direct or obvious. This is an interesting issue and one that I haven’t addressed.
S/B: So you feel that there is a tension between those two characteristics in your work?
PH: Very much.
S/B: Is your art intended to be accessible, or do you want to comment on the workings of an elite while remaining within that elite?
PH: I have never thought I was participating in the consolidation of the bourgeoisie because I always thought that consolidation was more or less fictive. I felt I was a member of a certain class, not the bourgeoisie in the traditional sense, but rather as a member of this intellectual/managerial class which has become more and more a salaried class without any real ability to accumulate wealth, but which has access to certain kinds of knowledge and control. I’ve thought about trying to present its language in a more or less critical way, rather than in a way which endorses that language. Basic to that effort is the desire to take geometry out of the realm of the ideal and place it within the realm of the directive, within the realm of power. In other words, geometry is not a priori. It’s not perfect, it’s not platonic, it’s not something that gives the users of geometry the God-given right to organize things that way. It’s merely used because it’s so effective. That’s an initial distinction I try to make in the work.
S/B: So how do you feel about the process by which these users of geometry consolidate their power over the petite bourgeoisie? How do you think your artwork relates to it?
PH: Well, what I’ve done and what I thought was interesting was to address that class with its own system of thought as a self-critical exercise. And that scented to me to be the solution to how to function in this situation. I can’t leave that class because I’m much too self-indoctrinated. On the other hand, l can’t exactly accept the truths of that class as being timeless ones. To me, the most honest way of going about dealing with that was to engage in an examination of what is going on there. I was speaking to some students recently and one of them said, “well, what about the police breaking into black people’s houses and beating them up?” That’s an important issue, and a reality. However, it’s pretty easy to decide how you feel about that. I don’t think any of us would be for it.
I think the most profound political thing you can do is to address your own assumptions, rather than say I’m going to help these poor people who can’t help themselves.
S/B: Instead of charity begins at home, criticism begins at home.
PH: Politics begin at home. A problem I have with the idea of appropriation — and I don’t have anyone specific in mind because I like these people’s work — is that it critiques mass media in a way that exposes mass media’s fictive and misguiding message. But the modernist audience already knows that, so they’re just sort of congratulating themselves on their own lack of belief in the mass media. At the same time they’re congratulating themselves on the communicative power of the work of art in which that statement is made. So it seemed more interesting to me to address these managerial/intellectual mechanisms of meaning rather than mass cultural ones.
S/B: I see your work very clearly addressing managerial systems, but I’m not sure how it relates to more intellectual endeavors such as the history of philosophy for example.
PH: Well. I don’t think my work addresses the history of philosophy, except in so far as the history of philosophy intersects with the history of how geometry is viewed — which is a considerable part of Western philosophy. What I’m saying is simply that geometric forms are not ideal, they’re not a priori, they’re not a link to nature, they’re not all these things that in various ways philosophy and science have said they are, but rather they are mechanisms of social control. I am positing that as their primary identity. And this to me is very important because — this is really right out of Foucault — it seems like an awfully curious coincidence that the same kinds of configurations that effect the most efficient social control have been seen by Western philosophy and aesthetics as forms infused with transcendental meaning.
S/B: Is that, in turn, how they get to be controlling devices?
PH: No. They get to be controlling devices because they work, and because they work, they’re given transcendental values.
S/B: So you really think it works that way, that because it’s effective it’s layered over with a second meaning?
PH: If you think of a simple-minded example, like say a sword in the Middle Ages is good at killing people. So, all of a sudden, swords start to appear on coats-of-arms, and other works of art. A sword’s a great thing.
S/B: But that seems slightly different from claiming that a circle is a perfect form. A sword becomes a symbol on a shield, but it relates in a much more direct way to the power of use value of the actual object. The circle doesn’t have the same kind of use value.
PH: Sure it does. Platonic geometry is related to ancient Greek navigation, surveying, engineering, and things like that. Things that enabled people to do things that they couldn’t do before.
S/B: That’s true.
PH: You know, what I’m saying isn’t necessarily true, but I think it is a refreshing way to go about looking at it. A few years ago I tried to figure out why twentieth-century art was so geometric and my conclusion was that there was so much geometry in twentieth-century life. And that a good deal of this twentieth-century geometric art was aimed at saying that the geometry in twentieth-century life was acceptable. By making it into a symbolic or aesthetic experience, this art made it acceptable as an actual experience. So if we say that arrangements of geometric shapes and lines are beautiful, and that they’re also pervasive in the city, then somehow the city becomes beautiful.
S/B: But your use of geometry is towards a different end?
PH: Well, since geometry did become so pervasive then I decided to take that fact as a given and take it in the other direction.
S/B: Which fact?
PH: Geometry’s omnipresence in the social landscape. The other idea I had about this is that abstract art from the beginning of the twentieth century until about mid-century was almost saying — let’s create a perfect image of what a totalized system of communication, capital, and social control would look like. But I think to some extent that goal has been reached. And to me, that’s the reason for the disappearance of abstract art, because abstract art describes a total condition of capital and technique, but since that reality has now been achieved, we don’t need to symbolically represent it.
S/B: So now we need to represent the figure so we don’t feel dehumanizad?
PH: Well, some people want to do that. But to me, what happens then is that geometric forms no longer function abstractly, but they begin to function diagrammatically. Geometry is the reality, and so geometry within a picture becomes a diagrammatic representation of what’s out there.
S/H: In an essay you wrote for your exhibition at the Daniel Templeton Gallery you seemed to be saying that the landscape of our society also functioned diagrammatically. You used the computer chip as an example, that the diagrammatic was a mode of representation that had become present in the actual social landscape, not just in the art.
PH: Yes, very much. Go on...
S/B: It seems that what you were saying was trying to create a space or wedge, in which a geometric expression could become more meaningful outside of the worn-out function affirming the goodness of geometry as a whole. If the geometric is no longer necessary to affirm the social structure then it can be used in art in its new diagrammatic form and still express something, but in your essay, you seem to be saying that a diagrammatic made of representation in art is just a mirror of what already exists.
PH: Yes, except there’s another point beyond that. What you said about geometry representing a good, that’s what I define as abstraction. But what I’m increasingly fascinated by are things like airport signs and video games and other kind of graphics like that. What you see there is that if you want to represent people, you make them out of geometric bits. That seems very interesting, that a geometric organization has become so pervasive that you use it to represent something that isn’t geometric. Something that is in fact a specific reality. You represent it in terms of a model, and that is what the diagrammatic is about.
S/B: So one could say that it is present even in a television screen which is composed of thousands of tiny squares.
PH: That’s true too, but what I mean is more of a Baudrillardian concept. He says that there used to be specific reality, specific people, specific places, and animals and houses that were unique. In our present order of social organization, the model comes first, and everything is based on the model on the simplest level. You don’t handcraft a bowl anymore, you stamp it out, and that’s extended to building houses, McDonald’s, to all sorts of things.
S/B: That process is operative in your work on several levels. Beyond diagramming, or illustrating that situation of mass-produced objects, the work perpetuates it a little bit. One of the more depressed reactions I have to your work, especially your prisoner paintings, is that they seem to be saying, this is all the alienation you get. I don’t even get to have alienation on a dramatic, grand scale. I only get a cold, small, stamped-out alienation.
PH: Kind of a diagram of alienation. I agree with you. It’s kind of a stamped-out alienation.
S/B: So how do you feel about that Baudrillardian idea of everything being based on a model? As an artist, do you see yourself as just commenting and illustrating on a situation that exists, or do you think you have an inherently polemical position on it?
PH: I guess the former. I’m quite obsessed with the experiments that took place in art in the early seventies such as earthworks, conceptual art, and performance which tried to make consciousness less dependant on capital and less segmented. For me, this experiment is a vital artistic occurrence that has to be reckoned with — but the experiment collapsed. So we’re in a situation where, instead of alienation and capital disappearing, they’ve become intensified, and my first goal is to describe that, especially since our culture has become very adept at hiding it. Even in purely visual terms, we have stamped-out houses, but they have a colonial front on them as if they weren’t stamped-out, as if they really were unique. I think the first step has to be bringing these factors into the foreground, a realization of them. People like Baudrillard or Warhol do seem delighted with them, but I take the point of view that these sort of occurrences cause different emotional reactions. Some days you think it is pretty great and some days you think it is pretty awful. It’s important for an artist to stay emotionally open rather than let their emotional responses become codified.
S/B: Would you care to expand on the relationship between your writings and the actual art object?
PH: My entire intellectual development has been about my response to the paintings I’ve made. The paintings are based on very automatist, subconscious sources. I imagine an image and then make a painting out of it. Then I start to think about what I’ve done. Most of what I’ve discussed here has been based on thinking about my paintings.
S/B: So you’re saying that the paintings come first?
PH: Oh definitely, and people never believe me. But that’s also exactly what I get from other works of art. Warhol is probably the person who has affected me the most — and you can look at Warhol and have different thoughts about his work for years and years. It’s a very rich intellectual experience. But if you’re looking at Warhol, I don’t think anybody would say that the theory came before the painting.
S/B: There’s a big distinction between an artwork-producing theory and the theory producing the art. There are some people whose work operates in the other direction, and who freely admit to it.
PH: I don’t believe in that. I’m an anti-rationalist in a sense, and I believe that the strongest tool for deciphering culture is creative endeavor, whether it be poetry, music, or making art. That, to me, seems a much more powerful mode of inquiry than academic, rational analysis. It’s really from those acts of intuition that we glean more provocative observations about the social than we get from works of sociology or psychology.
S/B: But on the other hand, it’s very upsetting, and I think even dangerous, to see people who want there to be no analysis and think only in terms of intuition and creative response.
PH: Yes, that’s terrible, for the artists not to be able to get anything from their own intuition totally disempowers them. That’s one reason I wanted to write and curate shows. It’s a way of empowering myself to understand what’s been going on with my work and the work of other people. Otherwise the artist is just a kind of dumb actor.