Doug Ashford - Conversations with Artists

What do you say to the thought that everyone is in some way an artist, even a mechanic who does an awesome job repairing or rebuilding engines? 

"There was an artist who was a big influence on me early on, Joseph Beuys, who said, “every one is an artist."  It troubles me now as I have to wonder who would want to necessarily have that role organized around them?  We separate the conditions between art and life, and make expectations for each in ways that maybe do damage to both.  Either could remake the other if we allowed the separation between the two to dissolve.  So I would argue against the mechanic being an artist because I think that the mechanic on her own may just want to be a mechanic and be able to retain transformative experiences that exist only in the place of her labor.   Who we are to say that the value of the poet is greater?  This may be a place where we recognize ourselves as managed by culture.  Life is certainly changed by art, changed by music, it's changed by the depictions and the context of self-representation that we allow to happen.  But at the same time we are normalized by the world, we are normalized by language, by family.  Art is the interruption of the context of that normalization.  So I don't really know what it would be like if everyone was an artist.  I don't really know what art is for.  I just know that the way it works, now, in my own experience and in the experience of my students with whom I share my doubts, is that it changes the world.”

If you're aware of the implications of your art, isn't that changing your art?

"That's a hard question because the conditions of art as we know it, for those who produce it in this so-called “professional” context, have to do so with an extremely managed context of public life.   There are many artists that work to withdraw from a public life.  Perhaps even car mechanics.  There may be a way to fix an engine in a way that if perceived by another person, could transform them and persuade them to re-render themselves in relation to the world.  I’m sure that has happened.  But for me, as someone who's been involved in the institutional organization and display of art for many years, I realize that the art world and art are two very different things.  It's kind of an idealization but one based in fact – all of our labor has been stolen.  It is certainly true as Marcel DuChamp told us: ''it’s the spectators who make the pictures.”  But to define the value of things as only determined by the built worlds of social life and linguistic definitions available to us now is to give too much value to the false present we are forced to live in now.  Perhaps all we have is a unique energy between the social definitions of artistic value and the personal or magical realities of making things, an energy that has to be defended and at the same time, obstructed.  Because the public life of artists - I'm a perfect example - undergoes so many different levels of management that we can not always be sure where the work is:  it's making, it's reproduction, it's management and administration, or display and distribution.”

Speaking that way, it sounds as if you're saying that art is a life form unto itself.

"I think that's true, but I'm reluctant to defend just that side of it.  I would like to be able to defend that art is produced in a way in which it has no relationship to society or history.  But I also know that museums have to be directly challenged to try to represent culture and values in more diverse ways; to be less hierarchical and less elitist.  In addition to the studio practice I also have a long involvement in organizing institutions through collaborative work with other artists and workers and thinkers.”


What are your thoughts about creating art for art's sake, as opposed to the motives of getting it seen and sold?

"I encourage younger artists that I'm around these days to realize that in the end the reason we make the work we make is because we can't help it.  That we are impelled in some way.  The institutional context of the work - at least at this point in my career, is extremely important to me, because it is an expression of what negatively impels us to make things that are different.  I'm involved in it as a commodity rather than just a social experience.  The work that I did before was to design exhibitions that were timely, ephemeral, and spoke to the possibilities of concern for human life being found in the open space of democratic traditions that museums represent.  It was important for us that there was no static thing that could be kept and collected.”

You mentioned that you started painting because of your mom.

"My mother believed that beautiful things helped people understand the nature of social justice: that there was a relationship between aesthetic invention and the realization of fairness and equity.  She didn't necessarily articulate as a rational set of effects, it was more of a belief, a feeling.  But if you think about it - it is this correspondence that I think we notice.  People who have an investment in doing social work - either as caretakers, activists and educators, (she was a psychiatric social worker) have a link to those involved in civil rights and the struggles or political representational autonomy.  With artists, they often need to be attentive to ideas of balance, form and the weight of things in life and in imagination.  Aesthetic revolution - radical conditions of emotional experiences, have always been understood to be formed in relation to changes in the social life of people.  My mother was a civil rights worker.  And she was a Sunday painter.  And I think that had a lot to do with my own development."

Going back to the original concept of artist/not an artist - artistry can't just be limited to painters.

"It’s not medium-specific.  It’s a mistake to make distinction between art and craft, as it is to spate the commercial from the non-commercial because the possibilities for interrupting the normalizing contexts of power exist everywhere.  We see this as time passes. There were commercially-oriented producers all through the 19th century that we now think of as people who were also changing the subjective and philosophical context of life.  Even though they may have been convinced themselves that they weren’t involved in such critical work.  They were just trying to make the bottle of beer get noticed or the dress seem to be my own — you know?  So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I would argue against purification of aesthetics and want to reserve the place where those people who were involved in all kinds of cultural practices would be able to withdraw from the kind of hyper-attention that artistic discourse demands from them.  That’s is a possible response to Joseph Beuys.  Why would you think that saying everyone is an artist is a good thing for them?   Let’s make sure that being an artist is actually a good thing before we impose it as a pure value on others.  Why do we measure people by their occupation?  You know.  Why can’t our work ever belong to us as truly ours?  Why can’t our work be just work?”

Until recently most of your work has been teaching.  What are you doing now?

"My work as a member of Group Material producing exhibitions and public projects started in '83 – right after my last year in college.  Also that year I became a public school teacher.  I continued to teach both children and in college sporadically through the end of the group in ’96 and by then I was really invested as an educator at Cooper Union.  In many ways my work with institutional settings of the art world as a young artist allowed me to see the importance of an artistic training that foregrounded autonomy and I sought such independence in my own life as well.  I made a house and a garden.  But all along I made these diagrams that reflected my questions about the relationships between aesthetics and politics and the people from those days who grew with me - some of them my students – would ask, “what are those little things you’re making?” I had always thought of the exhibition space and the classroom as the best examples of a place of potential emancipation.  These places were built as open containers for discourse, proposition and new forms. Discourse would come the often ungainly, unexpected juxtaposition of different kinds of things.  Juxtaposition would in turn create relationships."  

Discourse plays a large role in what you do.

"I always think there's a conversation that this work is making.  I would hope.  That would be the point.  That someone’s sitting down with another and saying “did you see that?”  You’re there looking at something and someone else is looking at it as well, either at the same time or in the past and future - and you know you’re having a experience that is connecting."


How do you deal with judgement - or do you deal with judgement of others? 

"That's a tough one because particularly in terms of the institutional context the values imparted on our work have many sources and reasons – some of which are inherently corrupt. The horizon of judgment is also always changing due to our influence.  Great work often defies any already existing expectation that make conditions of judgment.  This is one of those places where aesthetics and politics meet.  I know this from teaching: a student will sometimes produce something and none of us will know what to do with it.  The work is often extremely exciting and yet one is confused because it seems to have no place or reason.  Confusion is a strong part of an aesthetic that is a little bit undervalued today by institutions.   One could not know something and still find a use for it.  Photography is often telling us something about this paradox; the least important thing about a document could be what the image appears to depict.  Brecht said this I think, that the photograph of the factory on a hill tells us nothing about what the factory really is – what it is doing to us. What’s the relationship between a fact and a feeling?  Similarly with abstract form:  here is a red rectangle and I’m having this experience with it that I can recognize; I can measure and share.  And we would experience this perception as a fact because we could all be there in front of it and we would all have an experience we could describe.  This description that is outside of recognition, outside of categories of knowing that impose confusion and anxiety – this I think is very important in terms of how art might make new politics out of the feelings we produce in visual experience. And it is important to see these feelings being formed in and out of time - repeated after and rehearsed before the event of interpretation. We hear the harmonies at the end of the second act La Boheme and we start crying then because we recognize their description of Mimi’s death.  Advertising works very much in the same way and that may be why it can be so beautiful.”

If youth is wasted on the young, what would you tell yourself if you could go back and talk to yourself as a 12 year old?

"Just stay with those whom you can.  Just sit next to them.  You don’t have to have all the things happen that will make you feel better.  You can just be with those people whom you need and who need you.  Many of the expectations around human connection that were designed for us by the very commodity systems are essentially false, truly false.   Some of these lies are obvious: you don’t need to buy the BMW to have the relationship with your son.  But the conditions around mediation are completely tied to identity that any remaking of the self means a total examination of the fiction of defined characteristics of the human.  I don’t have to be THIS man or THAT woman.  I don't have to be WOMAN at all.  I can be Doug/Woman/Man/Dead/Monster – and more.  We are lucky to be alive at this point in history to have the intellectual and political tools of queerness to see that possibility.  I have learned this from many heroic students who have insisted on radical ambivalence toward coherent ideas of the self.  It’s often very confusing, but they are working hard to mold subjectivity into a more flexible condition.  Next we can redefine the nightmare of the family and then perhaps even the state."

Talk to us about tomatoes.  When you mentioned tomatoes you lit up.

"Maybe it’s nostalgic. I remember when you couldn’t get a good one unless you grew one yourself.  When I was a kid you could live your whole life and you’d never see a homegrown tomato until you went to visit someone.  Everybody gets good tomatoes now if they can pay the price.  I distinctly remember my first, pulled off the vine, hot from the heat of the afternoon.  It’s everything together.  It’s hot, the tomatoes are hot, I am hot. I can smell the leaves.  Maybe there is a little salt.  I don't know.  Expectation and anticipation is devastating."


Doug Ashford is a teacher, artist and writer. He is Associate Professor at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art where he has taught three-dimensional design, sculpture, public art and theory seminars since 1989. The collaboratively taught Interdisciplinary Seminar and lecture series he began there is now in its fifteenth year. Ashford’s principle visual practice from 1982 to 1996 was the artists’ collaborative Group Material that produced over 40 exhibitions and public projects internationally. Group Material developed the exhibition form into an artistic medium using display design and curatorial juxtaposition as a critical location where audiences were invited to imagine democratic forms. The group’s work has been recently collected in the book Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material, (Four Corners Press, 2010)  – edited by Ashford’s long time collaborator, Julie Ault.  Since 1996, Ashford has continued to make paintings, write, and produce museum and public projects. Hiswork in public practices are encapsulated in the book Who Cares, (Creative Time, 2006), a publication built from a series of conversations between Ashford and an assembly of other cultural practitioners on public expression, beauty, and ethics in 2006.  The recent publication, Writings and Interviews by Doug Ashford, (Mousse Publishing and Grazer Kunstverein) was published in 2013. 

See Doug's work here.