The following is a transcript of Chris Korda's presentation at Berlin Program for Artists on June 5, 2023. The headings correspond to the slides that were shown.
Four of you heard various pieces of what I'm about to present, and I apologize for any repetitions, but since it was only bits and pieces, hopefully we'll be okay. This is a short presentation, I won't take too much time with it, and I'm going to show work afterwards, so don't think that this is all there is. I know it looks a little stark. It's Bauhaus. Gimme a break, it’s a very Bauhaus aesthetic here. But it's stark for a reason. I feel that this presentation really gets to fundamentals, questions that should be asked, but often aren't asked. Starting with the big one, and I asked some of you this question today: why do I make art? Well, I hope that by the end of this presentation, you'll at least have my answers to that question. And then, of course, the homework assignment is to think about your own answers to this and other questions.
So there’s really a subtitle. I should say, why do I make art, and why you should or possibly shouldn't make art. The implication is that there are both good and bad reasons to make art, so we'll focus on both.
Anyway, the punchline at the beginning. So this is not merely rhetoric, to be clear. Certainly not in my case. And some of you may know this reference, Joe Coleman, he's in Wikipedia today as a painter. You might look him up later. Joe Coleman said something similar. Basically he said art saved his life: if it weren't for art, he'd be dead. This was the post-punk years mind you, things were pretty crazy back then. A lot of people were doing dangerous stuff. Joe Coleman was certainly one of them, though it's not talked about much in his Wikipedia page, if you dig a little bit.
So he was mostly known back in the day for strapping dynamite to himself. I'm not suggesting that you do anything like that. And if you do that, you want to wear a Kevlar vest and you want to read about it carefully, because apparently, it matters how you place the charges. So if you place them in a precise formation, so that they create a pressure wave, you can actually survive it. I wouldn't count on it doing your hearing any good, but Joe Coleman did that and many similar things. This was around the same time that GG Allen was pooping on the stage, and Iggy Pop was bleeding all over his audience. So there was a lot of super extreme art. And to some extent John Waters was spoofing all of this.
It started much earlier than you think. It started way back in the sixties and seventies with the Austrian guys who would get naked and throw themselves on the floor until they broke all their bones. There's a long history of super extreme, transgressive, confrontational art. I am just a small piece of that much larger history, but I'm only raising it because these extreme characters show us something important. They show us that some of the most transgressive and powerful and long-lasting and well-known art is made by people who probably couldn't have done anything else. It was probably a good thing they found art. I'm misquoting, but basically, Joe Coleman said something like, if it hadn't been this, I probably would've been a mass murderer. He wasn't the first to say that, there were others. And they were all of them very interesting, and I, for one, am very glad that they didn't become mass murderers and instead became artists.
So another key sign that you want to watch out for is [that] many people who need to be artists are driven to make art at a very early age. Furious, obsessive scribbling as a child. Sometimes it's suppressed. It's a shame when it is, because it's usually a sign. It's similar with music. The obsessive urge to make noise, and especially to make rhythmic noise, is often a sign of a budding musical genius. Had I been encouraged in this, I probably would've been more successful as a musician than I was. I showed astonishing proclivity for rhythmic noise. Unfortunately, my parents didn't recognize it for what it was. They suppressed it. And mostly told me to stop twitching and to be quiet. And this is a great tragedy. It's a personal tragedy, it doesn't really matter, but it's a tragedy to me, because I'm sure that had I been encouraged, my life plan could have worked out very differently, but it didn't work out so badly.
And meanwhile, as a child, I did fill many boxes with drawings. Sadly, my mother threw most of them away. But I do have the art from my turbulent teenage years. And we can take a look at that later. Just remind me so I don't forget. But anyway, this is a thing to look for. You may all look into your past, and query yourself about this.
So I had early influences. I grew up in a particularly turbulent time. I was born in 1962. My mother used to joke around at parties and say that she thought that the reason I became an environmental artist, let's say, or an artist who does environmentally themed things, she thought that was because she was reading a book called Silent Spring, which was written around the time I was born, by Rachel Carson.
She was the first person to draw attention to the use of DDT, which at the time was very common. And it led to terrible destruction of wildlife and killed most of the birds in America for a while there. And so [my mother] felt that because she was reading that when she was pregnant with me, that it somehow was passed through her to me. I don't place any particular credence in that view, but it's amusing and interesting, and it suggests, anyway, the idea that we are profoundly influenced by our childhood and by our childhood experiences. So in my case, this would have to include God's Own Junkyard. You can look that up later. It's a wonderful book. It's a book of photographs, which were taken primarily to highlight the destruction of the American landscape, primarily by billboards and advertising, but also by litter.
You might not believe this, but in 1964, there were essentially no laws against littering. And I don't know what it was like in Europe, but in America the highways were completely lined, on both sides, with trash. And it was quite shocking. And it led to a lot of consternation, and people really were not sure how to deal with it. It was a new problem, because the car was essentially a new problem. Highways were a new problem. And so eventually it led to a very interesting advertising campaign, which is famous. You can look it up. It led to a campaign where they had a Native American guy crying, looking at a scene of polluted highways, littered highways. And that turned out to be very effective. It actually went a long way towards shaming people to not just toss their litter out of their cars, though huge fines also played a role of course.
Then there's the book of extinct animals. This had a profound influence on me, though much later. You might not believe this, but at one time the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, it's now extinct, but it was one third of all the birds in America. Just try to imagine that. And about God's Own Junkyard, the author, Peter Blake, said about his book, “It's not written in anger. It's written in fury. It is a deliberate attack on all those who have befouled large portions of this country for private gain and are engaged in befouling the rest.” So you can imagine that has implications today. We're still befouling, [chuckles], we're just befouling different aspects, mostly the atmosphere lately. And then you could quote him again. He says, “Man can ruin anything, and does.” This was a big influence on me. “Mr. Blake's book is a primer on the uglification… We have settled for the poor, the mean and the ugly in our inescapable physical environment.” This was in the New York Times. So that had an enormous influence on me. That's an early influence. I later said, in defense of one of my more notorious works, I Like to Watch, that it was a study in ugliness. And so there, I'm clearly referring to Blake.
The other big influence I wanted to mention, and this will come up later, is a chance encounter with a book on outsider art. I already spoke about James Hampton with several of you today. I think he's very important. You want to read his Wikipedia page. I will tell the story of James Hampton again, if there's enthusiasm for it and if I'm allowed. I think it's a super important story.
So I'm actually just going to do it. I'm not even going to ask for permission. Here it goes. So, James Hampton, raise your hand if you know who James Hampton is. The four of you who already know, don't count. Okay, so basically no one's heard of James Hampton. So James Hampton was an African American. He was an adult in the 1940s. And he was sent to fight in the war, in World War II. And he survived it. Not everyone did, but he came back. And as you may know, the United States was very generous at that time, in the post-war period, especially with veterans. And so some of them got free houses and free education. But since James Hampton was an African American, he probably got the shorter end of the stick, but at least he got a job.
They gave him a job as a janitor. There's a long tradition, by the way, of important artists who have to work for a living. My favorite example is the great American author who wrote the book The Sound and the Fury. William Faulkner. William Faulkner spent his entire life working in a factory. He's one of America's most important authors. He worked in a factory: come home, work on his novel, go to bed, get up, go back to the factory. He didn't have time for much else. This is more common than you might think. So if you have to work for a living to support your art, don't feel bad. There's a tradition here. I certainly had to do it. But anyway, back to James Hampton. He got his job as a janitor, and he was able to save enough money to rent a garage.
And in this garage, he began to build a throne. That's probably the best way to describe it. That's how he described it. It was religious, it had religious significance, but it's not what you think. He would sit on the throne. So he was building a throne to his higher self, or something like that. That's a very modern interpretation. And the throne got bigger and more complicated, and it was all made out of trash, because he was poor. So he would go to businesses, and he particularly liked florists, because florists would give him foil, metal foil, silver foil, gold foil. He would use that. He also was keen on light bulbs, which were in plentiful supply, dead ones, and furniture, and things like that. Things you could get from the garbage and the street.
And so he used them all to build this extraordinary construction. And he tried to get people interested in it. But this was the 1950s, and people were pretty square back then. Modern art was still a new idea. And so he tried to get his church interested in it, but they thought he was much too strange. And he tried to get the local newspaper interested in it, but they took a look and decided it was not okay for them. He tried to get a girlfriend or get married, but that didn't work out. I guess the idea was that his partner and he would sit on the thrones together and it would be a group thing. And so none of that worked out either. And so then he died. I know you think this is a super sad story, but it actually has a happy ending.
So what happened was a few weeks later, whoever owned the garage came looking to see what had happened, because they weren't getting their rent check, and they had a key to the place, and they went inside. And there, lo and behold, was James Hampton's entire life’s work. Quite overwhelming. It filled the garage and then some. The garage was basically overflowing with this extraordinary baroque construction that he had built. And so [the landlord] could have just tossed it all in the garbage, but luckily he had the presence of mind not to do that. And he called the city, the city sent some guys over to have a look, and they weren't sure what to do, so they called the state. The state sent some guys, and they weren't sure what to do either, and they called the Federal government. Pretty soon, the Smithsonian, as in the National Picture Gallery, the main museum of the United States, sent a team.
And apparently what happened was they took one look through the door of this garage and they said, don't touch anything. We're taking everything. And they took it all back to Washington, DC, and to this day you can go see James Hampton's creation. It's called the Throne of the Third Heaven. You can find it in Wikipedia. There's many, many pictures of it online. And there's a whole team of people who work on it at the Smithsonian National Picture Gallery. Their job is to keep it going, because of course it was all made out of trash and held together with tape and glue. And so, like many outsider works it's quite a piece of work to keep it going and keep it together and keep it from falling apart. But they take that job seriously. You can get a degree in that, art restoration and so on.
So there's a whole team devoted to that. And so it's in beautiful condition, and it's about the size of a bus. It's enormous, and it has its own little area in the National Picture Gallery. So what this means, of course, and the reason I'm telling you this long story, is that this tells you something really deep. By any reasonable measure, James Hampton succeeded. He won the art lottery. He became one of those artists who will never be forgotten, and who will have an impact on society and civilization and culture for as long as those things persist. And yet he was a janitor. He died in obscurity and poverty, far more obscure and far more impoverished than Vincent Van Gogh, whom people often cite as an example of this trope. And not only that, but he didn't think of himself as an artist. He was just doing what the voices in his head told him to do.
Now, mind you, I'm not discriminating against him on that basis. Probably half of the people in the world today do what the voices in their head tell them to do. At least half of the people in the world are communicating with God or some other supernatural entity on a regular basis, and imagine that this entity takes a keen interest in their personal lives. We don't put them all in lunatic asylums. That would be against how society is constructed. You could argue that they are insane, and Richard Dawkins and other people have argued that, but you won't make any friends arguing that. But my point is that James Hampton was, by today's standards, pretty far out there. I mean, he wrote his own language, he spoke his own language. His language is inscribed on all the objects.
And to this day, we still haven’t decoded it. Many language experts have tried. So by today's standards, we can say that he might have even been crazy. And yet, there you have it, hundreds and hundreds and countless hundreds of other artists were forgotten, but James Hampton was remembered. So I feel that this is an object lesson in the thing that I'm trying to explain here, in a very roundabout way.
Now, I'll get more specific. So clearly James Hampton cared about his work. He in fact, obsessively cared about it. And I'm going to argue that caring is the secret to what we're trying to do here. I, not too long ago, released an album called Passion for Numbers. And the label asked me to write a text about it. I'm not going to read the whole thing, but I am going to read a rather long excerpt of it, because I feel that it's important and it helps to illuminate our discussion here today.
So this is an excerpt of the Passion for Numbers text. The album by the way, it's not important, but the album is an album of generative piano music, meaning it's music that I didn't actually compose, but I wrote a machine that composed it. So here we go.
There’s a hierarchy of skills, not just in engineering but in life. The more general a skill is, the further up the hierarchy it is. Near the top are skills that apply to any problem, and I call these meta-skills. Reading and writing are meta-skills, because they help us acquire and use other skills. A more specific example of a meta-skill is the strategy known as “divide and conquer.” If we divide a problem in half, and find the symptom in only one of the halves, we’ve simplified the problem, and by repeating this process we progress towards the solution.
At the top of the skill hierarchy sits the ultimate meta-skill, the one ring to rule them all. I jokingly call it “giving a shit,” but more properly, it’s caring. Caring is the most important skill, and by far the hardest one to learn, because it can only be taught by example. Without caring, all other skills are useless, because a careless person can’t be bothered to learn them. Conversely, with care, all other skills can eventually be mastered. Thus caring is the secret formula that makes everything possible.
By caring, you unavoidably risk suffering if what you care for is harmed, whereas not caring makes you invulnerable, but at a terrible cost: you become incapable of skilled work, in art or anything else. Just as caring is the superpower that unlocks mastery, not caring is the opposite superpower, the dark side of the force. Any inquiry or exchange of ideas can be terminated by incuriosity, which is a type of not caring. Metaphorically, carelessness is the road to Hell.
To cultivate caring, we need to know its root, and the root of caring is love, in the specific sense of nurturing, protecting and giving selflessly without expecting anything in return. The love that produces caring is the same kind of love that emanates from good parents. I love my projects as if they were my children, meaning I’m willing to sacrifice myself so that they’ll thrive.
So, I bet you didn't hear that before. That's a different point of view. We'll continue in this direction.
So I argued today in the studio visits that the most important thing, the step before you can actually have a body of work and be an artist, is to have a vision. Because it's the vision that needs to drive the work. Essentially, the purpose of the work is to realize the vision. And so without the vision, there is no work. But it can take tremendous courage to find the vision, because the vision is the root of the whole thing. And so in this sense, we can say that art isn't obliged to be decorative, or useful, or even comprehensible, but you may judge your art on how effectively it realizes your vision. I'll come back to this when I talk about my work I Like to Watch.
There's another point I want to quickly make about this, which is bear witness to your time. So here's the idea. You're not obliged to do this. It's optional, but you get extra credit for it. George Grosz is my favorite example of this. Given that he lived through the First World War, would his work be as important if he had painted flowers instead of deformed officers and soldiers? In other words, had he, instead of depicting the horrible mutilation that was visited on his generation, and the psychological impacts of that, had he merely painted flowers, would his work be as well-remembered? I submit that probably not, that probably some part of George Grosz's importance is that he bore witness to his time. So yes, it's optional, but if you want your work to be remembered, and if you want your work to be socially and culturally relevant, then it becomes important. But even if you decide not to bear witness to your time, and that's a perfectly acceptable decision, of course. I mean, Mark Rothko is one of my favorite artists. Did he bear witness to his time? Probably not. There's nothing political particularly about his work. Even if you don't bear witness to your time, you probably still want to do this:
So what does this mean? Well, I actually adapted this from Nichiren Buddhism. Not that I'm a practicing Buddhist or anything like that, but this is an idea that crosses beyond spirituality or religion. This is a deep human idea. It's sort of transcendental. The idea is to try and leave the world a better place. To be constructive. The ideology that undergirds this is that destroying things is easy, it's making them that’s hard. So that’s what I mean by creating value. It’s about making things, about giving birth. To go back to the previous slide, your work, your objects, whether they’re real or virtual, they are going to be your children. You’re going to spoil them. You’re going to lavish love on them, you’re going to nurture them, and hopefully through them you will have created value. You will have made the world a more interesting, more stimulating place.
And connected to this is the idea that I mentioned in the studio visits, there’s an old idea in technology and in science, that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Have you heard this expression before? This is the idea that starting with the Gutenberg moment when books became widely available, there was an enormous acceleration in culture, all kinds. Some of it was horrible. But the point is that there was an acceleration, and suddenly it became possible to do something meaningful with your life without having to repeat the whole history of everything. So the problem that the pre-Renaissance guys faced is that in many cases, they had to repeat the whole history of civilization by themselves because there was no adequate communication. It was nearly impossible to send letters. Books were extremely rare. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, everyone was left in their isolated pockets. There was a real collapse of civilization. And in that milieu, it was extremely difficult to get anything done, because you had nothing to stand on. But that’s not your situation. Today in the 21st century, you literally stand on the shoulders of giants. You don’t have to repeat anything, because not only has so much already been done, but it’s all there at your fingertips. It’s right there on the internet for free. And so there’s this idea of letting that sink in, of that giving you some pause. It’s worth your while to educate yourself about the history of what’s come before. The history of your craft, the history of the actual world itself, the societies that have existed, not just the good stuff, but the horrible stuff too.
All of this will inform your work. I know it sounds crazy, and you shouldn’t say this in Germany perhaps, but the Holocaust informed my work. What a tremendous source of inspiration. It’s a horrible, horrible thing. It’s arguably the most horrible thing that humanity’s ever done, certainly in the top ten. But to ignore it, seems to me a mistake. And that could be said for a long list of other tremendous things that have happened in human history. Why would it be an advantage to not know what happened during the French Revolution? I would argue the reverse, that you should know what happened in the French Revolution, and not in just some kind of dry way. Like, it happened on this date and so and so. But to actually read the history and read about the characters who were alive then and what motivated them, because it was a tremendous time. It was a tremendous moment in the evolution of the ideas that we are all benefiting from today. So that’s what I mean.
Anyway, to put it more simply, it’s like this, the surf is up. You know, we live in an incredible moment. You are living in the singularity. I said this in my own work. We live the singularity. This is it, it’s happening now. Everything is going exponential at once. You’re alive at an extraordinary time. Think how different it would be if you’d been born during the 13th century. Think of the difference. For most people, life was nasty, brutish, and short, just like Thomas Hobbes said. Really. Nasty, brutish, short. Like that scene in the beginning of the Monty Python movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Do you remember the scene? King Arthur goes riding by and there’s two people grubbing about in the mud and one says to the other, must be a king. And the other one says, how do you know? And the first one says, because he hasn’t got shit all over him.
That’s how it was. And never mind the fact that until very recently, women had no rights, couldn’t own property, were treated worse than the animals, even the horses got a better deal. So in other words, you’re living in a very special moment, when there’s an enormous amount that’s gone wrong, but there’s also an enormous amount that’s gone right. And so this is what I mean when I say surf is up. Take it, do something with it. I did. I’m mostly known for culture jamming, even though that’s only a small part of my total work, that’s what I’m best known for. Culture jamming is fun.
We’ll get back to culture jamming. I’m not actually going to show you I Like to Watch because that’s just not proper. If you’re curious about it, you can watch it on your own time. It’s certainly available. I will say, however, what I said about I Like to Watch, and this is the work that has caused me the most problems and caused the most violence and so on. But I said about it, at the time that I made it, and I’m quoting, “the video precisely expresses what I felt while watching the media coverage of the 9-11 attacks. I doubt that I’m the only person in the world who derived sexual gratification from watching two of America’s tallest buildings being destroyed, but apparently I’m one of the very few who will publicly admit it.”
Karlheinz Stockhausen, considered by many to be the father of modern electronic music, called the attacks “the greatest work of art ever”—and it cost him a lot of gigs, by the way—and while I agree with him, he regrettably omits the sexual dimension. The endless replays of the plane penetrating the tower were unmistakably pornographic, complete with flames and debris spurting out in slow motion. Even the Washington Post—very conservative—referred to the footage as a money shot and called it our new porn. Yes, that’s true. The towers were blatantly phallic and their collapses resembled post-ejaculatory loss of erection. Oh my. And yeah, for me it was a forced transsexual surgery. The whole thing was taking place in some kind of Jungian psychosexual dimension. I admit that I’m in the minority with that, but the point is that that’s culture jamming. Just even to say something like that in the public sphere is an example of culture jamming.
So if you want to have a big impact, I recommend something like that, and God knows there’s plenty of plenty of opportunity these days. Surf is up.
Now on a different subject. This is more about getting off the island, what I call the island of conformity and normalcy. I’ve spent a lot of my life making my own tools. It turns out that there’s a Renaissance tradition to this. It turned out that many of the greatest innovators of the Renaissance actually specified that their tools should be destroyed when they died, so that nobody could repeat their secrets and their work. So this suggests that there’s something special about the tools. This was a time when almost all tools were handmade and custom made. So the idea is that by making your own tools, it’s not just that you imbue them with your spirit or something, but that by making your own tools, very likely you’ll obtain results that no one else can obtain, because they don’t have those tools. They have different tools, and so they’ll get something else, but not that.
We live in an age of tremendous standardization. We live in mass market capitalism, and the hallmark of mass market capitalism is standardization of consumption. So that’s how it works. Capitalism thrives on standardizing people’s needs, because if everybody wants the same thing, then it’s much easier to make money selling them all the same thing, which is how automation works, right? If everybody wants something different, it’s a big pain in the ass. But if everybody wants the same thing, then we can manufacture a lot of that, and everybody gets that, and everybody’s happy. That’s the dream anyway. This, by the way, was a very explicit dream in the 1950s. We can get to that later. So the horrible side of that, of course, is that if everybody wants the same thing, then things get boring fast.
And increasingly people don’t even know that they all want the same thing. And so that’s how we arrive at a situation, for example, where we have thousands of records every year that all sound indistinguishable from each other. I’m not going to talk about that much today because that’s a talk for music producers. But that’s a real problem in my life. It’s a big problem where suddenly, all music sounds the same. Well, why is that? It’s not just that everybody is imitating everybody else, though that’s a factor. Ableton and Roland are also a huge factor, in that they are huge corporations, they have shareholders. Their purpose, the purpose of any corporation, is to generate profits for shareholders. And the best way to generate profits for shareholders is to standardize consumption. Meaning to persuade everybody that they all want to do the thing that Roland and Ableton are making it easy to do. And so if everybody in the world agrees that that’s what we should do, then it won’t be a shock if all the music sounds really similar, right?
That too can happen in the art world. So be on your guard for that. That’s a reason, that’s a motivation for making your own tools. Making your own tools will allow you to find your own place, so that you’re not standing in someone’s shadow. The biggest mistake I ever made in my whole life was to stand in someone else’s shadow. I did it for about thirty years and it was a terrible mistake. Never do this. I wanted to be the next so-and-so. It doesn’t matter who, I can tell you who, but it wouldn’t mean anything. It’s John Abercrombie, a guitar player from the 1970s. I wanted to be the next [him]. It’s a mistake.
You don’t want to be the next anyone. You will always be compared to them. You will always be in their shadow. And so by making your own tools, you escape that. You get out of that trap.
Now we’re almost done. Sorry for haranguing you like this. This is surprising. Craft matters. We live in an age where people increasingly have the idea that this isn’t true. I’m here to tell you it is true. That actually, maybe it’s impolite to say so, but shoddy work. Do you know this word, shoddy? Shoddy, where you’re cutting corners. In America we call it half-assing, meaning like half an ass, half-assing it. So shoddy work, it’s unsatisfying both for you and your audience, but it’s more important that it’s unsatisfying for you. So show respect for the long and glorious history of art that you’re contributing to.
Even untrained people appreciate craft. This is just true. They can see it. They know the difference. So don’t half-ass it. Sweat the details. If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Don’t insult your audience. You know, people do it. It was a big thing in the punk years, but I have to tell you, it becomes tiresome quickly. And you might also ponder the fact that the Greek word for art, does anyone know it? Raise your hand if you know the Greek word for art. Right. Techne. And so what is techne also the root of? [technique] Right. And technology. In ancient Greek society, there wasn’t a distinction between science and art. That should tell you something. Art was a science, or maybe science was an art. Or maybe both. Maybe they were both true. Well, I want to see it be like that again. And there’s a history to that too. I’m an inventor artist. I spent probably more time inventing tools to make art than I did making art. That’s okay. That’s an interesting relationship. The idea being that invention is a big part of it. Again, having the vision and then worrying about how to realize it.
Whoops, we missed one. Sorry about that. Find your own dream. This is what I was saying before, you know about not standing in someone’s shadow. So we don’t need to say too much more about this, it’s clear. Don’t try to do what someone else has already excelled at, because you’ll always be in their shadow. I have to do this, for you who remember this boomer music. “Welcome my son, welcome to the machine. What did you dream? It’s alright, we told you what to dream.” You recognize that, right? That’s Pink Floyd. So that’s not a joke. What Roger Waters is talking about there, that’s not funny. That’s very, very serious. That’s as serious as death. Society is in the business of telling us what to dream. And as artists, as individuals, it’s your job to dream something else. It’s not an easy thing, it’s a challenge. It’s a lifelong challenge.
Anyway the good news is, the payoff is the thing. It’s crazy. It sounds Zen, but that’s how you know you’re doing it right. James Hampton clearly wasn’t doing it for the money, because he didn’t get any money. In fact, he had to pay money, he had to pay the rent on his garage every month out of his janitor’s salary. So it wasn’t about that. It wasn’t about being famous because he wasn’t famous, in fact, he died unknown. So what was it about? Was it about being in the history books? No, that didn’t even seem possible. You know, even his local church didn’t want to know about it. So why did he do it then? Why did he go to so much trouble to build The Throne of the Third of Heaven? Because achievement is its own reward, because he realized his vision. What could be more impactful? What could be more actualizing at the end of the day than to know that you dreamed it and it came. And it won’t come by itself. You have to do the work. And that’s the next slide.
Do the work. It’s going to be hard to dream something that’s never existed before, and then to make it real, no one said that’s going to be easy. Of course, it’s not going to be easy. You have to do the work. There are no shortcuts. Why? Because process is everything. So you guys probably know who David Lynch is, right? I’m going to tell my David Lynch story. One of my two David Lynch stories. I read about David Lynch and how he gets his ideas. He drinks lots of coffee sitting around in a diner, and he scribbles stuff on napkins. This is his process. He scribbles on napkins. I mean, that’s not how I work, but it works for him. He also said memorably that he eats the same thing every day. Why? Because he wants to simplify his life, so that he doesn’t have any decisions to make except about his art. So that his art is in the front seat, the driving seat of his life. Everything else is just kind of a sideshow. It’s probably not great for his personal relationships. But you guys by now probably all know that being an artist is a tremendously obsessive, narcissistic, selfish thing to do with your life. And I’m encouraging it. I’m encouraging that. We need artists. We need people who do this instead of being normals, otherwise it’s going to be Planet of Normals and there will be luxury condos everywhere and the whole world will be completely sterile.
That’s what the rich people have in mind, even though they chase you everywhere you go. It’s so paradoxical, right? So rich people are like, oh yeah, it’s getting really boring here. There’s nothing but luxury condos. We better go somewhere else. Oh look, there’s some artists over there. Let’s go see what they’re up to. Next thing you know, they drive up the real estate prices. There’s clothing boutiques, and then they go out of business and there’s only little [upscale] restaurants, and then even they can’t afford it. Next thing you know, you get reverse ghetto. You know what reverse ghetto is? Reverse ghetto is what happened in the West Village in New York City. That’s where no one can afford the apartments except investors. And so it’s all investment property. No one even lives there. Most of the apartments are completely unoccupied. They’re just investment property.
They’re just sitting there accruing value and accruing value. People are parking their money, guys from very wealthy families are parking their money there. And so what happens is, it gets super sketchy on the street. The businesses are all long gone. There’s no one around, there’s no customers. And so you’re kind of walking around at night, you think, this is scary, I could get mugged. Yeah, except that you’re standing around some of the most valuable real estate in the entire world. That’s reverse ghetto. And that’s what happens when you let rich people colonize cities. And it’s crazy. So you have to fight against that. And one way you can fight against that is by going somewhere else, [laughs] and creating something else. I’ve been hounded by rich people my whole life and it’s terrifying. But you just pick up and you move, you stay light. You pack a suitcase, you try to stay light and you move.
Anyway on that subject, curate your life. Try and get it down to the basics. David Lynch did, and you can do it too. Clear the deck, as we say in English, clear the deck like a storm is coming. Everything attached to the floor, so it doesn’t get washed overboard. Eliminate distractions. Curate your life. Why? So you can focus on art as much as possible. I’ve been giving you unsolicited advice for a while. Now I’m going to give you some really crazy advice. Don’t procreate. Those of you who know who I am, you’re not going to be shocked that I’m saying that. I made it my life’s work, right? But I have a specific reason in this case. I mean, I always advise people not to procreate, but I have a specific reason here. Procreating is stupid for everyone, but it’s especially stupid for artists, because art requires enormous time investment, and it’s a very self-involved and obsessive thing. You’re going to need all that nurturing energy for your children, i.e. your work, your objects, the things you’re making, the vision that you’re realizing. You’re going to need every ounce of your nurturing energy for that. You haven’t got any to spare. And so leave the procreating to someone else, someone else who isn’t an artist.
I’m going to tell one more David Lynch story because I love it. My mother was one of my early supporters. I didn’t have many supporters, I have to tell you. In the 1980s, she sent me an interview with David Lynch. She said, this is for you. And I read it. It was in the New York Times supplement. And David Lynch is a hard interview subject. He’s really out there. You don’t know what he’s going to say, and sometimes he just doesn’t say anything. So the journalist was trying to draw him out a little bit, and asked him, so what have you been doing? And he says, I bought a house on Mulholland Drive. Surprise. And so the journalist says, well, tell me about the house. And David Lynch says, it’s empty. And the journalist says, why’s that? And he says, I don’t want to worry about… things. You see? Just try to picture David Lynch and Isabella Rossini sitting on the floor of this enormous mansion on Mulholland Drive. This is why their marriage didn’t last, right? She’s like, okay, David. Now what the fuck? What are we doing now? Are we going to order a pizza or what? Where’s the bed? No chairs, huh? We could have some chairs, it wouldn’t break your heart, you know? So anyway, it’s not easy to love an artist, I have to tell you, but some of you probably know that.
Anyway, you can see where this is going, outsource everything except making your art. Probably nobody ever told you this before, but avoid spending your time marketing or promoting yourself. Why? Because anyone could do that. That’s a routine, that’s a generic job. That’s a job for a specialist. That’s time you could have spent making your art, which only you can do. No one else can do that.
Contrary to the impression you might get from the media, I know this is going to break some hearts here, art has nothing to do with fame or money. I can almost hear the hearts breaking. If you aspire to be famous, become an influencer, start a YouTube channel. If you aspire to be rich, become a lawyer, a dentist. Art is one of the least likely paths to fame and fortune. And by the way, if you’re doing it to have a place in the history books, that’s not a good reason either, because that usually doesn’t work out. I guarantee you that 99% of all the art that’s made today will be forgotten. So that’s not a reason to make art either. I feel like I’m disappointing you, but don’t worry, it’s going to have a happy ending.
So ignore other people’s opinions about your art. I mean, you’ve heard this before, right? You’ve heard people say this, but actually living it is harder.
It’s hard to do this. It’s a practice, like Buddhism or something. You have to practice ignoring other people’s opinions about your art. Why? Because they’ll distract you from the thing that matters, which is your vision and your ability to realize it in a pure way, so that you don’t question it, you don’t second guess yourself. So that you meet the challenge that you’ve posed yourself. The only opinion about your art that truly matters is yours. Don’t let others tell you what you can or can’t think. I have to tell you, I think the unthinkable all the time. All the time. And it shows in my work. You start asking questions like, how can I please other people? You’re already on the wrong path. That, my friends, is a question for courtesans, not artists. Instead, you should be asking, what is my vision? And assuming you found it, how can I realize it in a way that satisfies me? You are the customer. Now you’ve heard crazy stuff, right?
Okay, now we get to the hardest part of all. I’m so sorry to have to say this, but you know, this is just true. If it turns out that you don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been said better, that’s okay. Art is a hard road. You heard it here first. Not everyone is cut out for it. There are so many other wonderful things you can do with your life, or maybe you’re just not ready yet. Give it time. There’s a wonderful book I’m going to turn you on to, written by Robert Pirsig. You guys all should write this down. You know, maybe you just need to travel laterally for a while.
Laterally means sideways. Sometimes you can’t cross the mountain, but you could take the long way around it. So you guys all should go home and order a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It hasn’t held up well. It’s from the sixties and seventies. It’s very old. But there’s wonderful, wonderful advice for artists in it, about how to break writer’s block, which exists for all artists, about how to think about art, about art’s relationship to technology, and about what the meaning of quality is. In other words, when we say something is good, what do we even mean? That’s a really deep question in philosophy, and he tackles that question head on. What do we actually mean when we say this is good and this is bad? And how do we know? How do we know the difference? So all of that is covered in Zen and the Art, it influenced me enormously. I really recommend it. I’m not kidding.
And we finally made it to the end. Thank you for bearing with me on all this. Anyway, to return to the original theme, the right reason to make art is because you need to. Not for money, not for fame, not to be in the history books, but because there’s just no choice. Any other reasons are strictly superfluous. Don’t hold back, go for the jugular. If you can survive without making art, maybe art isn’t for you. The best art is literally a matter of life and death. And I’ll end this part of the presentation by quoting from a funny TV show called Sense8. I love this quote. “Love is not something we wind up, something we set or control. Love is like art, a force that comes into your life without any rules, expectations, or limitations. Love, like art, must always be free.”