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Herb Sundays 60: Dean Kissick
The New York art writer in a romantic mood + more art critic talk from me.
Dean Kissick is a writer and the New York editor of Spike Art Magazine, where he publishes his monthly column The Downward Spiral about “art and culture in years of mass hysteria.” He also writes for other publications including the New York Times, Civilization, and the LOEWE Fanzine, and has recently published short fiction in Heavy Traffic magazine. He also organizes exhibits and pops up on cool Substacks like Blackbird Spyplane and Perfectly Imperfect to drop gems like:
“So, through no coordinated effort, from June 1 to 5, 2021 — those are the official dates — a variety of people around the world, I’d say extremely online zoomers, started posting and speaking and communicating in this kind of hyper-accelerated, extremely online fashion. They formed a new kind of posting, a new use of language, and it wasn’t organized, it just happened. It was maybe a symptom of, or a cause of, a bigger shift in global consciousness, where maybe we entered a new phase of humanity.”
Kissick is 39, Japanese-American, grew up in England, went to university in London, and now lives in Manhattan and is writing a book (not a collection, mind you) about how art, self-expression, and identity have changed since 2015. In true essayist fashion he riffed on his herb mix here:
I don’t know where to discover music anymore and haven’t for years. I love Spotify but can’t listen to its suggested songs or playlists because I’m ideologically opposed to the algorithmic production of reality. There’s no longer a good way to share music. I used to listen to every YouTube link my friends would share on Facebook. The best songs play in cars and they’re always driving away from you and out of your life, you’ll never hear them again. There’s a guy who walks around Downtown New York in a tracksuit and bandana playing dance music from a big speaker on a hand truck and he’s very good. I always want to follow him but only encounter him briefly once every few months, and when I do I think, “No, I’m too busy right now.”
Most of this is music I’ve heard in cafés (Abraço, Betty, Joe & The Juice) or in television shows (The Trip to Italy) or movies (Youth) or while preparing to interview artists (A. G. Cook, Drain Gang). This spring I listened to a lot of Drain Gang while preparing to interview them for Sex Magazine, I listened to only them for a couple weeks; too much really. At one point I had three Bladee songs on this playlist but now there are only two. I have a great memory of listening to the middle passage of “5 Star Crest,” the “beauty and suffering” passage while coming down off acid with my girlfriend and watching the sun set over an artificial lake in a women’s college in Western Massachusetts at the end of summer. In the end, I did a poor job of the interview, however Drain Gang did inspire me and did make me love Joe & The Juice, which I’ve never liked before, ever since I first went to the Regent Street branch in the early 2010s, but have now realized is good and healthy and Scandinavian and plays lots of great music, lots of great house. Particularly the one on Prince Street.
The rest of the songs on this list probably come from other people’s playlists or mixes or from my youth. I listened to the Beatles’ discography in order a few years back and it was fantastic. This year my mum came to visit New York and I took her to Strawberry Fields in Central Park, by Yoko Ono’s house, and we sat there listening to the buskers playing mediocre covers of “Imagine” covers and it was a magical experience. I also had a wonderful experience of hearing “Simple Song #3” while climbing the hillside up to the Priory of the Knights of Malta in Rome last summer, right as the skyline rose up all around me.
Spotify playback settings:
Crossfade: 5 seconds
Gapless playback: Yes
(first time anyone has offered Spotify settings for a Herb, take note)
Kissick’s work follows a tradition of art critics who are able to speak to how art works into the wider vernacular of culture, in the effort of distilling a moment. The art history classes I took (all whirring of slide projectors, and trying to cram dates in my head) were bolstered by these individuals. The recent passing of critics like Peter Schjeldahl and my fave Dave Hickey makes it feel like an era is passing.
Certain names and pieces hang like dust particles in the vaunted light of the slide machine especially Clement Greenburg’s Avant-Garde and Kitsch (1939) and Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction (1935). These essays serve(d) as the equivalent of religious tablature and as backbones of decades of art, they are works of art onto themselves. Quotes from these function the way references like Moore’s Law do for Silicon Valley investors, you have to work back from them when stating your case.
Critics like Kissick are still important to make sense of the world, maybe even moreso now, where art culture feels on the verge of another renewal. Whether or not you lump AI or NFTs into your definition of capital-A Art, the image-based world all needs to be discussed as it relates to, or influences each other, or as Kissick acutely observes, intentionally attempts not to.
In my own moment of confusion, Kissick reminded my why the aesthetics of AI art haven’t spoke to me (yet) and helped me understand the feeling:
Images drawn by code make the world seem lighter and less binding still. Reality is concealed below signs that point nowhere: there’s no such thing as a Tubby Cat, not in life or in fiction. Rembrandt never painted raccoons. He never saw a raccoon in his life! These images are not simulacra because they don’t represent or imitate anything. The new modes of figuration don’t refer to anything at all. They are pictures from somewhere else. They are garbled whispers of code in the fall. Containing no meaning, more empty than a black square.
Across the aisle in music, we’re seeing some reprisal against critics, who fans shame for not lionizing everything they want. Only certain artists win their favor but it can be a huge boon. “A critic,” Tom Wolfe wrote, “can also be an artist’s best publicist.” Music criticism has especially been under fire with the emergence of fan armies/stan culture looking to punish critics of their beloved, via their internet prowess and vigilance. Artists themselves hit back like Lana Del Rey did in 2019 on Ann Powers’ piece. This felt sort of shocking, and maybe a bit close to nationalistic impulses in other forums of life.
There are bad critics and we need to lionlize Good Critics to make sense of our world. Kissick is great a making sense of popular culture using this lens. In his column of Nathan Fielder and The Rehearsal, he’s able to zoom out to understand it through the lens of performance art and in the gaze of our devices.
As art and pop have grown closer to life, becoming more literal, more grounded in reality, the popular narratives for making sense of life have grown far more outlandish…
You are already adrift in a fantasy world of images and imaginary friends and lovers and parasocial relationships (meaning an audience’s psychological relationship with characters performing in mass media). You already live in a pretend world that has been constructed around you, without you even realizing. There is a loneliness crisis in the developed world and a desire crisis as well. They are the crises of the times. You may be dreaming of the life you wished you had, of life being another way than how it is; maybe you don’t even dream of that any longer.
Other art talk.
After the genius ART THOUGHTZ series sought to both explain and satirize the art world, there have been new types of social media critics and wayfinders of all sorts to help make sense of the moment.
Brad Troemel (who I was put onto by friend, A&R, and artist/instigator Eric Deines) is an artist who presents “reports” ~hour long youtube friendly presentations, all done with a big grin (comfy Koonsian) and incises NFTs, Celebrity Artists, and Funko Pops with refreshing enthusiasm whilst wearing what look like airport-purchased Yankee ball caps. His flow is impressive and compelling.
On the “canon-reshaping” end of the spectrum Katy Hessel’s The Great Women Artists, which has grown from a hit Instagram to a full book on the topic, documenting the history of art outside of men, which (sadly) needed doing at an epic scale. Her newsletter and sites function both art history field work and and gallery guides.
On the pop tip, I still like Roberta Smith and I’ll admit I like Jerry Saltz sometimes more than is considered acceptable now as often cringe and as a bit of a scold to young people. But respect where respect is due. His 2014 riff on Jeff Koons’ masterwork (hold your boos please, show some damn decency for once), Rabbit (also a favorite of Herb 48, Mark Leckey ) is one of my fave guitar riffs in memory. describing Koons as sort of an Oppenheimenian art whisperer:
“The manifest presence of this oscillating object…took Koons into the very heart of hollowness — and made him. A highly polished stainless cast of an inflatable bunny with crinkly phallic ears holds a carrot, giving off the mien of a golden calf, an idol of the id, an icon for something not yet made, a kaleidoscopic looking-glass that creates cracks in meaning. We’re psychically aware how Koons has captured his breath inside this and made it last forever… The cacophony of clarity that is Rabbit’s reflective, undulating surface turns the world into parabolas of distortion. Rabbit is simultaneously a camera seeing you as you see yourself in its twisted topography. It’s like an anamorphic mirror placed in the center of space that organizes the world around itself. It’s a family tree of one, a shadow of doubt.”
If future is what you crave, Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst’s Interdependence podcast and individual projects are the most cool-headed but permissive looks at where digital art is going, including AI and Blockchain developments, but with a humanist and art historical perspective.
I think these individuals (feel free to send me others) are hugely important. They are more clearly able to be able to speak to the culture from which these works spring and also hold the kite string to the lofty values of the past. They can “let people enjoy things” but give you all the information so you can do so at your own peril. Their perspective is important because they know how to reach youth where they are without pandering. As we’ve seen in politics, there are <Adam Curtis voice> dark forces beyond our control, and a distortion of meaning has deepened. Art is indeed for everyone, making the sacred secular and the secular sacred, which is why it is worth criticizing and challenging as if our lives depend on it.
Moment of Zen: Dean also appeared in the video for the song “Dean Kissick” which I think was a good idea. Dean says “I didn't actually know this song was happening until it was written and recorded.”
From The Field