Jarrett Earnest Interview

Coleman: You ask almost everyone in your latest book, What it Means to Write about Art, about an early aesthetic experience, Do you have one of your own?

Earnest: Sure. One would be Peewee’s Playhouse Christmas special, when a giant box gets delivered to the playhouse and out of it comes Grace Jones wearing this Issey Miyake dress with a plastic Nefertiti headpiece and a form fitted bustier singing Little Drummer Boy in her low voice and slowly rotating her shoulders. I grew up in rural southern Florida, and I when I saw that I thought whatever is going on there, that’s my destiny. I’d say Pee Wee was a big influence.

Coleman: What about an early critical experience? When did you feel that your opinions needed an outlet?

Earnest: I was always super bratty and opinionated. I went to the San Francisco Art Institute as an artist, and I continued to be that way. I had a teacher there who was a poet and he told me to write some of these opinions down, I didn’t feel like a writer, but he was very encouraging. Before that I had found Susan Sontag in high school, and that was an important model, people writing about art but with ideas, opinions about it.

Coleman: Were people put off by your opinionated nature?

Earnest: It’s not polite, it doesn’t get you invited to parties. One of the things I had to flip in my mind about that was that I didn’t have strong opinions because I hated things, but because I loved things. If you focus on everything that you don’t like, there’ll always be way more stuff that you think is horrible and stupid. You could spend all your time thinking about why you hate those things, or you could, instead, hone in on what you love and circle around that. Increasingly, I think that if I hate something, I’m as interested in that as anything. That’s a response. I’ve been trying to defer judgments in that way, and think, well, what don’t I understand about it? There could be something important there that I should think about. One of the most destructive aspects of our contemporary discourse is that we’re so caught up in the hamster wheel of affirmation. It’s as though everything that anyone says or does means that they one hundred percent like it. “Liking” is the language of the day. I think you can do or say things and not fully like it, or have conflicted and complex feelings about it and you put it into the world as a way of understanding it. If somebody does that as an artist, it’s your job as a critic to respond in a way that is complicated and critical.

Coleman: For me, your interviews don’t function to mythologize or canonize the writers, was that a goal that you had mind while in creating What it Means to Write About Art?

Earnest: That was an intention or an ideal. But you never know how your work is going to be received. Like when an artist puts something out into the world, it stays connected to them but it can function in ways beyond their imagination. I may have had intentions around aspects of that book, but I don’t really know how it functions in reality except for what people tell me. If people, whether they’re artists, writers, refugees, or politicians, are made to function as abstractions— as something other than fully human— it becomes very easy to dismiss them, make rules about them, or fight them. My sensitivity towards that partly comes from watching the way that people interact on social media. There are those who scorch the earth about someone that they’ve never met, but if they were to be face to face they would not be going in that hard. It’s much more difficult to have that confrontation and navigate that in person. I think that happens rarely now, especially in the art world. I really believe in having those conversations with people directly. I have deep problems with some of the authors’ work in my book What it Means to Write About Art, but that doesn’t mean what they did is unimportant historically. I want to understand who they are and why they did it.

Coleman: In an interview with Brainard Carey at Yale University Radio, you say that some of the writers who you interviewed don’t love art. You didn’t ask that question directly, so how did you come to that conclusion?

Earnest: When you get people talking, they betray all kinds of things in oblique or indirect ways. One of the ways is just noticing what they don’t talk about. For instance, someone who tells you about social or economic structures that exist in museums or institutions is talking around art. I really only want to talk about the thing that I love, which is art. I ended up doing a lot of research on criticism and the history of art history to try to understand the relationship that it has to producing art, or framing art, making art meaningful or not meaningful. But always, I’m in it for the art. Not to say that everyone has to love art, they can love all types of different things. In my experience of reading someone’s work and then talking to them, I saw that they’re interested in engaging with a structure or history that is different from a pure love of the art object. And, of course, the art object is a very fraught idea. It’s easy to use art to illustrate an idea, it’s much harder to reverse that operation.

Coleman: What is your relationship with academia?

Earnest: I was involved with the Bruce High Quality Foundation University. What we were trying to do there was to create an alternative for people going to art school or graduate school and to still get the things that they wanted. When you ask people why they want to go to grad school, usually it’s that they want time to make their art and they want a community. You don’t need to go to graduate school for those things. Having done that project for a number of years, I began to think deeply about young people going to grad school, specifically MFA programs and going into debt for something that could and should be free. In terms of art history, I think that it is so intellectually flawed and desperate at the moment, the very foundation of it needs to be stripped down and reworked. Art Since 1900, the dominant textbook in America on twentieth century art, is functionally a white supremacist text. In fact, the framework that it sets up is an extremely narrow one, it only engages with a very small number of ways of thinking about and making art. Now, there are all kinds of arguments for that, like well, you can only deal with so many things and histories at a time with any depth. But the world that we’re living in now is struggling to find any meaning or purpose in art. The discipline of art history, which, by the way, was invented in the nineteenth century, takes as a given that art is important and thus we study the history of it. It’s an open question, what even is art? why do we even fucking care about it? Unless you’re willing to get really honest and very rigorous, nothing is going to happen. I have no faith in change coming from the discipline of art history. I have no faith in there being any jobs for people getting PhDs in art history right now or MFAs in art. Which means the university as we know it is essentially a doomed and immoral institution.

Coleman: Were you satisfied with BHQFU? Did you do what you set out to do in working with them?

Earnest: I think of everything that I do as an experiment where I’m trying to figure something out. If I could figure it out on my own, I wouldn’t have to do the experiment. I was involved with BHQFU for about three or four years before it ended, and I learned so much about education. What was amazing about it was the people who were involved. I went to see a lecture by the president of BHQFU, Seth Cameron, at SVA, and, being the brat that I always am, I asked a very snotty question. But I also thought that he was really smart, and he thought that I was smart, so we talked later over coffee. It was challenging and fun and I thought, I love you, this is great. He asked me to teach a class at BHQFU. Every semester, everyone involved would get together and talk about what worked and what didn’t work, and ask how can we change it next time? We weren’t beholden to any structure, so we could radically change the kinds of classes, the way it worked, the rotation of the day; all of it was up for grabs. It only existed for a few years, but it could reinvent itself twice a year based on feedback, so that it was actually able to develop ideas around pedagogy and schools as a structure very quickly. I was completely satisfied with Bruce, I miss it a lot, it’s the only teaching situation that I’m interested in at the moment. It was free! Nobody was there for any other reason other than that they wanted to be there. That alone is so different from most college classes, where you’re suddenly put in the position to have to entertain someone who may be there against their will. It’s a dynamic. In universities now: the students are consumers, the teachers are service providers, and that is not a learning situation. I love reading books, looking at artwork, and getting together with a group of people and talking about it. You don’t need to be at a university to do that. In fact, the university is a place that has become increasingly hostile to that kind of activity.

Coleman: What came of out your exhibit The Young and Evil at David Zwirner? You’ve spoken about this idea of “alternate history” before, do any of your future projects involve a similar idea?

Earnest: It’s not just that I want a different history, I want a different conception in which whatever we mean by history can exist. With Young and Evil, what I found in going through personal archives i.e. looking through things in people’s attics and basements that are not in university collections or museums, was evidence of lives that were lived seriously with great integrity, playfulness, and artistic ambition that do not appear in any account of the dominant narratives of modern art. That means that a string of people in power made the decision that this work did not cross the threshold of importance. This happened because of a number of things like convenience, prejudice, homophobia, etc. I was interested in the ephemera, and what you have to confront when you’re looking at history is that the majority of the things that you might be interested in, in the platonic sense, just don’t exist anymore. What does exist is more or less arbitrary. Someone saved it.  I became very interested in that precarity, in the fragility of history, the fact that it is an actual material record. We’ve probably lost a whole generation of archives to early digitization that is not stable as an archive. We’ll see. I was trying to tell as story through objects; there was no wall text in the show, just things.

From there, I’ve been working on two projects that are a continuation of that ethos. I wrote a catalogue essay that will accompany a show at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in early 2020 about a fashion designer named Willi Smith, called Willi Smith: Street Couture. He was a black gay man who died of AIDS in the ’80s, who designed clothes that were very high concept but were sold affordably in department stores all over the country. Because he wasn’t making haute couture, his work rarely entered institutional archives, even though he was one of the most famous black designers in America. He was extremely popular, and people loved his clothes, and they wore his clothes, but then threw them away. Clothes are not made or treated with the same reverence that a painting is treated with, that it should last for multiple generations. He also collaborated with conceptual artists like Jean-Claude and Christo, who I’ve written on a few times. I became sort of obsessed with questions of ephemerality as it emerged within conceptual art in the 1960s as well as the ephemerality of clothing, along with the transience of human life, and how all of this was specifically compounded by the AIDS crisis when thinking about Willi Smith. Upon doing this research I came to realize that this is not information that has been written down anywhere, there is no “archive” in a library, no books written on him; as if there is no history. There was a kind of reality to writing that piece, that felt like actual work.

The other essay that I’m finishing right now is about an African American sculptor Tim Whiten, who served in Vietnam and lived the rest of his life in Canada since the late ’60s. He’s almost completely unknown in the US, never had a show in New York, but his context in Canada was through a magazine called artscanada. They would bring together indigenous contemporary art in conversation with conceptual art from New York and regional Canadian art, very thematic, very interesting. Anyway, Whiten went through a period of using human skulls in the tradition of memento mori; basically, he was making reliquaries, which is a pretty heavy thing to do. I ended up writing a piece on his work for an exhibition that will be at the University of Colorado in the fall of 2020, which looks at his engagement of skulls and how it comes out of his own research on christian art, the art of the African diaspora and the role of bones in African American Culture and folk art within the specific context of multiculturalism in Canada in the 1970’s. Almost everything that I’ve just articulated exists outside the bounds of  “normal” history or criticism as we know it in New York. It was important to me to look at his work in relation to this magazine in Canada because of the role that I believe publications have in creating a context for art, for bringing art into the world and how its going to be received and understood. For instance Whiten’s work was written about in an issue of artscanada from the mid 1970s on the history of shamanic and ritual art, next to an anthropologist writing about Canadian petroglyphs along with a current, living, medicine person singing about and talking about the religious meaning of their objects is a framework that goes back thousands of years, and extends to the present. I’m interested in creating an understanding for cultural objects in the present that encompasses all of these histories. In a way, What it Means to Write About Art, was an attempt to map that terrain around a very small but prominent group of people looking at a rather small group of things. Now, having mapped that, I want to start deconstructing it, with an eye to rebuilding something much grander, more complicated and subtle, closer to life.