Richard Florsheim talks with Studs Terkel
BROADCAST: May. 4, 1965 | DURATION: 00:00:01
Richard Florsheim discusses the relationship between artists and museums, the role of art institutions, and the commodification of contemporary art.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Clearly there are many explosions occurring in the world today, and certainly in the field of the arts, as well as in man-to-man relationships. And recently an interview with several members of the jury of the current Art Institute show, and the question arose on the part of many listeners, including a number of our local artists, artists who have heard the program, the newness for newness' sake was defended by one of the jurors who was a member [flicks lighter] of the panel that chose the winners of this current exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. Perhaps a word about the Art Institute itself perhaps during this conversation with Richard Florsheim. You may recall Richard Florsheim, whose works are exhibited at the [Oelschlagar?] gallery here, was a guest on our program several years ago. And he was through him, too, his friend was a guest on our program, Alex Elliott, a very excellent art critic. Well, Dick, as you were listening to the program, there are many thoughts. You wrote this letter that was very provocative, and the basis for this particular conversation we're having now. I know that you speak for a great many artists, as well as people who just like art, I mean, who are interested, you know, who are disturbed, too, by a good deal of what's been happening in that world.
Richard Florsheim Well, there are many things that were said on the program which I don't agree with, that I find don't fit mine or many other artists' philosophies, and I just had a feeling that perhaps the other side of the coin should be given expression by objecting to some of the things said. It is not in a personal objection of the people who said them, or the institution, necessarily, that they represent. But ideas have to be debated publicly, and if they have- if they're viable, if they're alive, if they're worth talking about at all, there is more than one point of view, and I have a pretty different point of view from the things said the other day.
Studs Terkel Where do we begin? Your letter, perhaps you can start with your letter that when one of the themes arose, a question of newness for newness' sake, and "Much was made," I'm quoting from Rich Florsheim's letter to me here, "Much was made of sophistication of seeing. There's a whole other side of believing what one sees and does." And then you mentioned the Eskimo carving a harpoon does it not out of sophistication, but to make the harpoon more effective to kill seal. "There are artists who are this way."
Richard Florsheim Yes, well, some of the implications of what was said, as I understood it, was when some of the people interviewed were asked, for example, how one came to have an understanding and an acceptance of some of the things in contemporary art that people find difficult and obscure. "Much was made of sophistication of seeing and experience of seeing." I believe quite differently, that making a work of art is an act of faith, and the experience of a work of art is also an act of faith, and there is a kind of a passion and conviction. The artist doesn't make a work of art because he wants to be cute, or new, or different, or or to titillate the people who are, should we say, oriented art historically. But it is the same kind of an act as when he puts his arm around a child and hugs it, or when he puts his arm on the shoulder of a friend, or when he is perhaps listening to music and deeply moved, or when he sees something beautiful in the landscape that he feels deeply about and he wants to find another human being and say, "Look, look what I see. Isn't it wonderful?" And there is this sense of excitement and this deep belief in the thing done. And there is also a kind of a mysticism about the object which is produced. This is what I meant when I talked of the Eskimo, that he wasn't trying to make a beautiful object, or something which had a place in art history, but he succeeded in making a beautiful object out of his sensitivity, his skill as a as a craftsman, but also out of his deep belief that what he was doing had a deep significance as far as life itself was concerned.
Studs Terkel The need, the very need that it was connected with his need, not to express himself but to live, as well.
Richard Florsheim To live, as well, and the deep inner need to make of this object something which, in a curious sense, is an extension of life, and a useful thing in life. Art without, and we run into all kinds of word difficulties, semantic difficulties. We talk- I talk about use. I don't mean that a piece of sculpture has to be useful in the sense that a carpet sweeper is useful, or a painting, but it has to be useful in terms of human experience, and it has to be useful in terms of the deep awareness of human experience of the person doing it and seeing it.
Studs Terkel You use the phrase, Dick, Dick Florsheim, 'art as an extension of the artist himself.' Couldn't help but think, you know, the phrase so often used about Jack Teagarden's trombone, it was an extension of him, or Armstrong's trumpet, or Miles Davis. That what he was doing was this man expressing his own being through this particular unique gift that he had. And we wonder about a good deal of what is happening. I know you're not condemning contemporary art as such and their developments, of course not, but the manner of which some of it is being used.
Richard Florsheim Well, it is used in so many senses as a part of, oh, you might say, of the Madison Avenue selling technique. You have to- there are so many implications in all of this that really it almost requires a half a dozen books to say it. So when I hesitated simply because I'm trying to find the right thing to say, because there's so much that could be said. But we have to go back, let's say, a hundred years to the 19th century. In the 19th century, as we know historically, things that were new, the Impressionists, people who did something that was new to the society around them, were rejected automatically.
Studs Terkel By the establishment.
Richard Florsheim By the establishment. Today the establishment is doing exactly the same thing in reverse. The establishment today says it is new ipso facto, therefore it requires attention. And it is exactly the same pendulum, just hanging in the other direction. And it is a very unhealthy thing. And the other side of this, or-
Studs Terkel Also the fact that as new it is good merchandise, may use that phrase, too.
Studs Terkel Saleable.
Richard Florsheim You took the thought right off the end of my tongue on that because today art is big business, and like automobiles that have to change their bumpers and their dashboards frequently in order to sell people on the need for a new model, there has been much emphasis on newness for its own sake. I think it can be truthfully said that in the, what I consider, rather spurious art historic- art history terms which are used today, that we have had in America more art movements in 20 years than western man had in the entire recorded history before then. Well, now I don't believe that this has really happened. In a sense what's happening in the art field, and this is an analogy that just popped into my head: I was watching kids dancing some of the new dances the other day, and they were doing the, what do they- the Slop, and the Watusi, and the Frug, and the various other dances that they do. And I suddenly became aware of the fact that these were all one dance, they were just different movements of the same idea. Well, there has been much made of pop, op, et cetera et cetera, in recent times. And actually if you can back away from it a little bit in terms of perspective and try to see it, which is hard and perhaps even impossible to do, back off of a hundred years into all of this away from it, we'll see that things that have been highly advertised by the establishment and by Madison Avenue, for various and sundry reasons, perhaps are not really movements at all, but just flurries in different directions that have been expanded by, should we say, press agentry. And let me say something parenthetically, Studs, because, you know, you're- an artist is in a little bit in the position saying things like this, that the fanatic puts you in a position of 'if you're not for him you're a'gin him.' Now I am a contemporary artist. I am not sore at the establishment personally because I've been very successful, and I've been very lucky, and I've had a lot of recognition. So I'm not complaining about what's gone wrong with me. I've been very lucky and I have nothing to complain about, but I have a sense of responsibility as a working artist to try and understand where I am, and feel free, even though it has been good to me, to be critical of it.
Studs Terkel I think we should touch upon this matter of the, well, throughout the responsibility of the artist. There's a great deal of discussion, you know, the arts- it doesn't matter if it is understood or not, people are afraid. I think we come to this matter of the elite, the Mandarins, the tastemakers who set the patterns for the establishment, and a many good people are disturbed, they're afraid to speak out because they might be considered somewhat outside,
Richard Florsheim That's perfectly true, and there is there are all kinds of aspects to this matter that you bring up of being afraid to be outside of those in the know. An analogy that I've used many times, and I think is very apt, is based on Molière's "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." And Molière, as you know, writes of this man who has suddenly acquired wealth, and he wants to have all of the niceties that go with wealth, and he wants to be a cultivated man, so he hires different people to teach him. And one of the people is a teacher of literature, and he starts off with basics and he says all of the spoken- all words are divided into prose and poetry. And the bourgeois gentilhomme asks naively, "What am I speaking?" And he is told that he's speaking prose, and he's wildly excited and rushes off to tell his wife that he's been speaking prose all his life. Well, this is a little bit of what is happening. Now I'm talking, in this sense, about the people who are the avid appreciators of what the establishment presents them with. They are so enthusiastic, and so naively enthusiastic about "I have discovered art" that they are simply what the kids call 'ape' over it, and without much background or standard. This is not unhealthy, because out of this will grow something. At least it's a beginning interest. But it is rather ridiculous in some of the aspects that it assumes.
Studs Terkel Particularly, but also there are certain dangers to it. I wonder, you know, John Canaday I know with whom you agree on many aspects of what's happening-
Richard Florsheim I also disagree with him on many aspects, too, but- Nonetheless
Studs Terkel Nonetheless he wrote a piece in the recent issue of The New York Times, a Sunday piece, on Mexico, and he was saying Mexico has a- the Mexican museums are very well attended by the- except for the recently built Museum of Modern Art. He says, "This may sound pretty terrible to us," he says, "as though they don't quite dig modern art." But this isn't the point he's making. He says, "The new Mexican museums, with the exception of this Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, are dedicated to the education of a wide public at a level we may think we have passed. But they give you an uncomfortable feeling that, in devoting so much of our energy to art that is fashionable and effete, we may be turning our educational institutions into finishing schools for the bourgeois gentleman and his lady," you see. "It it may be too bad that the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico was ignored, but it may be more disturbing that the Museum of Modern Art in New York is mobbed." Now he, of course he's not condemning New York or modern art. He's saying for the wrong reasons it is mobbed.
Richard Florsheim Well, I can go to my own experience in in that. In 1950 or '51, I've forgotten now, I had an exhibition at the museum in Mexico City at Bellas Artes, the old museum, and it was an exhibition of prints. And it was one of the most moving experiences of my life, because I used to stand there in the back of the gallery and watch the simple Mexican Indian come into the gallery and spend hours looking at my prints. The average attention span in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, or in many of our contemporary galleries, has been clocked at seven seconds, three seconds of which are usually spent in reading the label. And I notice with some interest that these simple people couldn't read the label, so they didn't look at them, but they did look at the visual imagery. And one of my most happy memories, one of the groups of prints was a series I did during the war, which was a kind of sour commentary on the folly of war, and there was a print which was a green table covered with skulls, and the title of it was "The Peace Has Come." And a Mexican-Indian family, mother and father and kids in their open sandals, stood in front of it for a long time, and finally the wife turned to the husband and said, "Que precioso." 'How nice.' And I was so moved I almost wept.
Studs Terkel Since you mentioned Mexico, we know, you know, the attendance of the galleries where the work of the men, you know, the great muralists are, and even though at the moment we may look down upon them and say, "Oh, well, yeah, they understand that, it's so graphic, it's so vivid," you know. But that which is happening they don't quite dig. It isn't that at all. They say we- isn't that saying, refusing to say, "I dig what I do not really dig," and aren't we afraid to say this so many? This is the, well, it seems- the flight- the plans that seemed to have been established by the Mandarins, who say, "Well, it's new, therefore there must be something
Richard Florsheim Well, this goes back to a whole group of other things. Everything that you that you bring up, Studs, suggests a whole several hours of conversation. But this goes back to something that I believe in so deeply, that in the forming of this sort of guilt complex on the part of our bourgeois gentilhomme by the establishment and the people who form the establishment. The implication of that is something which I believe very sincerely, and that is that the artist in our society, in our particular America today, has in a curious sense abdigated- abdicated the responsibility for his own profession, and he allows the museum, for example, to be the tastemaker or the self-styled critic. The real tastemaker in the arts and the real professional, the only true professional in the arts, is the working artist, and we have abundant proof of that all over our society and all over the nineteenth century, and I'll give you a few examples: the important collections, such as many- as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Grecos and so on, were formed with the advice of Mary Cassatt and Arthur B. Davies. Collectors, at least that particular group of collectors, had friends among the artists and followed the artists' point of view. Today there are so many people in the arts, in museums, in galleries, and in positions of authority and criticism, and the artists unfortunately will not stand up, in many cases, to these people because they are afraid to, just as the bourgeois gentilhomme is afraid of the establishment, will not stand up and assert, "I am the man" as the doctor who can make the diagnosis, and the person who is an amateur physician would never dare make a diagnosis. And yet the artist will abdicate to the non-professional in the making of a diagnosis.
Studs Terkel The non-professional who would say they're representative of the establishment, or whoever he might be, the wheeler and the dealer. He he then sets the pa- on the artist to sell, offers this piece of merchandise. Did I say that- rather than the artist being the prophet, the artist being always the vanguard figure.
Richard Florsheim I remember a French painter, commenting on that, that I had met just a few weeks ago, who had been in New York, and he had been in the studio of one of the popular pop artists, I don't want to name him because I don't want to- but he found a whole stack of silkscreened images in a corner and a workman producing more of them. And this French artist was astonished and he said, "What is this for?" And the artist said, "This is for four thousand dollars apiece." And I thought it was a very significant answer, because the role of the artist, if it's concerned with the marketplace and the establishment, is is a false role. The artist's role is concerned with human values and with- in the course of finding out for himself what he finds to be true, of telling other people what is true. There's something here, if I can find it, that Degas said, which is so very apropos of this in terms of what we're talking about. Yes, here it is: "The artist does not draw what he sees, but what he must make others see. Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things." Well, this sense in every thing that I've ever been able to find of any artist that I can respect or know anything about, of the responsibility of the artist. He's not talking to himself, he doesn't know exactly whom he's talking to. He's not like a copywriter who is trying to sell something or is aiming at a specific audience. But the very act of making a picture or a piece of sculpture implies somebody, he doesn't know exactly who, to whom he is saying this thing. Otherwise there is no need in the world to do it.
Studs Terkel Even though his- not- must be his unconscious, or what do you w- his subconscious at work, too, as well as his conscious crafted work.
Studs Terkel As you say, what did Degas say? To transfer this particular idea to someone else.
Richard Florsheim That's right.
Studs Terkel But this here seems to be the- one of the problems of this day right now. The obscure, almost almost deliberate obscurantism, in a way. Again, I know that we're not speaking in favor of postcard art at all, we're not we're not talking the language of Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower, either. You're saying what there must be some relationship to man.
Richard Florsheim There must be some relationship to man, and just as with a child, if a child is given absolute liberty and no bounds within which to operate, he becomes a very neurotic and very aggressive little joker, and he's liable to smash up the furniture and set fire to the house, that it is a basic human instinct to want to work within a certain framework. And in this pendulum swinging in the other direction from the 19th century, the framework has evaporated and anything goes. Now I'm talking again, Studs, in terms of the framework within which the arts as a whole operate. There is a mainstream of American art which doesn't fit this pattern at all, and it's a very healthy mainstream. And there are many distinguished people working in it. We are a very viable society in terms of the plastic arts, and there is a growing audience for this type of thing that has nothing to do with all of the fashionable and chic things that we're discussing.
Studs Terkel You know, as you're talking about fashionable and chic things, it was Nervi, you know, the Italian designer who said he was horrified by the idea of innovation for innovation's sake. He, too, spoke of whatever the artistry of the man is as the extension of the man himself. So if a great deal of what we've heard the other day, or what you hear just generally, it doesn't matter, newness for newness like having nothing to do with the artist, nothing to do with him.
Richard Florsheim You cannot, no artist can reinvent art or make something really new. There's something here that I also think of that Ingres said, and Ingres probably to some members of the of the very chic in the establishment might be very much of anathema, but he still has made a statement which has lasted, and he said something about newness, which I'd like to quote. He says, "Let me hear no more of that absurd maxim: 'We need the new, we need to follow our century. Everything changes, everything has changed.' Sophistry," he says, "all of that. Does nature change? Do the light and air change? Have the passions of the human heart changed since Homer? They say 'we must follow our century.' But I say suppose my century is wrong? Because my neighbours do evil, am I therefore obliged to do it also? Because virtue as also beauty can be misunderstood by you, have I in turn got to misunderstand it? Shall I be compelled to imitate you, therefore?"
Studs Terkel As you quote Ingres, I can't help but think of what must follow, and listening that the artist has to, like Thoreau, listen to the different drummer, of course, but the establishment then, today those who are fashionable are so fully accepted, there's no challenge. The artist, then, has no challenge involved.
Richard Florsheim But the bad part of it is that they're as quickly dropped as they are accepted. And now I turn to the other side of, and perhaps in defense of the very kind of point of view that I've been attacking, that I have seen so many excitingly promising artists be caught up by the establishment, be given a run and then dropped. And there is a very unhealthy aspect in this. Everything that we do in this area is so keyed up and jazzed up and accelerated that we haven't realized, perhaps enough, that art is something that develops slowly, like good wine, like good cooking, it can't be done quickly. And a man has to be given the time and the tranquility to evolve a point of view, and to develop it, and not be expected. A popular cliché, just by way of comment of criticism today, and you can see it in any art magazine or art review that you care to pick up, is a review of a man's show, saying, "There really isn't much to report, there isn't much change since the last one," as though within the year or two between shows he were to be suddenly reborn with a new style and a new approach. But you can take the work of any established reputation through the entire history of western or eastern art as far as that goes and find a slow development and evolution of a point of view. A man has only one vision in life, and it takes a lifetime to evolve that vision, and he isn't going to have a new one every year just to satisfy the demands of newness of of our kind of merchandising arrangement in the arts.
Studs Terkel I like that parallel you made earlier to this matter of obsolescence. In the auto industry it's called 'planned obsolescence,' you know? The art- you speak of the artist who was fated one day and dropped the next, as though he were indeed a merchandiser.
Richard Florsheim Yes, the art-
Studs Terkel Automobile.
Richard Florsheim The artist, as a matter of fact, in a sense plans his own obsolescence in many cases by having a very cavalier attitude towards his materials. You know, it's carried so far, Studs, that there is actually a guy in Italy that a friend of mine told me about in Paris last summer, who puts up, I hope I can say this on the air, pots of his own feces and sells them to to snobs, and they buy these things. They're in the Salon in Paris last year there was a live cat in a in a birdcage, which was seriously exhibited as a as a sculpture exhibit, and was described in the catalogue of size and materials and so forth. But fortunately there is still some sanity in our society. The SPCA raised so much fuss about it they had to take it out.
Studs Terkel Well, as you mention these two extreme cases, of course think what a gag a comic could make, the extension of man.
Richard Florsheim Yes.
Studs Terkel [unintelligible] Suffer for the work, you know, again that celebrated today temporarily for one day and then forgotten the next. That is in the home of someone there, displayed, and then suddenly that's dropped, too. This matter of 'who is the artist?' If given the Eskimo and that harpoon that he made, which is a work of art, it's also work that is a part of his life.
Richard Florsheim Yes, well, I have to kind of separate the threads of this now for myself so that I make- try to make myself clear. It may sound as though what I'm saying is that, you know, it's all fluff and nonsense, and the- we're in a period of ridiculous activity in all directions. But we have to realize that we're a very large and a very vital and a very vigorous society, and there are many things going on. What I'm really protesting about and worried about is the acceptance of much that is foolish, and the passing by of much that is sound. There is a great deal being done in this country, and everywhere in the Western world, which is very solid and very much the outgrowth of the past and a prelude to the future. But it is the taking up of styles and fashions, and of making them something chic and desirable, and it is also something else which is a theory that I've evolved, and this may be a good time to bring it up and let people poke holes in it. A friend of mine who was not at all involved in the arts but interested was at the home of somebody who has a large collection of pop art. And I happened to see him the next day and he was very upset by this and very wonderous why a man would spend so many hundreds of thousands of dollars for such strange and peculiar objects. And he asked me, and I didn't have an answer, but in the course of talking we developed a theory which I think is worth worth mentioning: that before the industrial revolution, the only people who were concerned with art were an elite, they were the aristocracy of the church, a handful of people. The average person just came and looked in a public building or in a church and so on, and they had no relationship other than as participants in a viewing sense, empathizing with what was done but they had no direct role. And in our society we have developed a theory which can be argued both ways, but that's not what concerns me at the moment, that art is for everybody, that anybody can own it, almost anybody can do it, everybody is in on the act. But the people who are in a privileged position in our society economically are are kind of left out in the cold by this, because art no longer gives them a separateness from the general body of educated people, which it gave them before, so they become very involved in esoteric aspects of the arts, because then this then gives them a feeling of superiority and apartness and separateness, and that is very gratifying. And I've had many evidences of this, of hearing somebody at a show a few years ago talking about two paintings which they had bought which were very far out and very, in my opinion, full of nothing. They paid a very high price for them, and they were standing there when their friends came up and said, "Well, we don't get it, but there must be something good or you wouldn't have paid that much good money for it." And they were getting great gratification. It was worth 30 times what they paid for it.
Studs Terkel Something that someone else does not have. We know there was a new apartment building being- apartment hotel built in town on Chicago's near north side. The most expensive apartments are the first ones rented. Not that they're the best, you see, but they are the most expensive. The man says, "Well, yes, I have the most expensive apartment in town. That work of art or non-art, whatever it is, cost me 4,000 bucks." Uniqueness, that's an interesting development. The fact that indeed art itself in a very healthy way and a healthy development, can reach people who have lesser incomes, and they can own the work of someone who is alive today, which is quite marvelous, but perhaps this does take away the exclusiveness that they have in that of the-
Richard Florsheim But the other side of that of course is just what you mentioned, that there is this very healthy interest. For example, there's been an enormous growth of interest in prints in this country. Prints are sold literally like tickets to the World Series today. There are hundreds of thousands of people in America buying prints, and they buy them for anywhere from ten to a hundred dollars. And there is no status buying to speak of in this kind of thing. The only reason for buying a print for 25 or 30 dollars is because you like it, you can't impress anybody with it. And there are so many people doing this that it bears out my feeling that there is a healthy central core.
Studs Terkel Something interesting that's paradoxical right now is swinging quite clearly, this healthy interest that the man, whoever he may be, whatever his background might be, has this yen for beauty, for truth and beauty, somewhere buried. Of course it's smacked around him one way or another by what he reads and sees, but nonetheless that something is there, and that is expressing itself in the sales of these prints. At the same time, from up above it would seem, the Mandarins, the elite, they say, "Oh no, this is all out- the 'in' thing. The 'in' thing. I use the word 'thing' itself deliberately here for lack of another word, but 'thing' which is also a piece of merchandise.
Richard Florsheim An illustration of that out of my own experience, if I may use it, was a woman who came to me at the opening of an exhibition about a year ago or a little more, and she objected violently. She said that she had bought a large painting of mine and she paid a substantial price for it, and she was very upset because she saw ads coming out offering my prints from a gallery in New York for ten dollars. And she thought this was very demeaning that my prints could be offered at such a low price. And my reply to her was to ask her if she liked Daumier. And she said, "Of course I like Daumier." And I said, "Well, do you realize that a large part of Daumier's production came out in the daily newspaper for a nickel?" That price and quality are not equated in the arts. You cannot price a work of art. There's- the money side of it has no interest or relationship to its inner quality whatsoever. And in a society such as ours it has been equated with money, and it's been made almost like a stock or a bond. There's a publication in Paris that puts out weekly market quotations on artists, just as though we were shares of General Motors or Pan American Airways. They give the last sale and the previous sale and they say that X Y Z artist is up 3,000 dollars or down 300, and this is a good one to buy, and that's a good one to sell and so on. This has nothing to do with art at all.
Studs Terkel Question here again of the investment, of the market place value that seems to have taken over. I mean, this is obviously part of what's happening today, too, isn't it?
Richard Florsheim It certainly is. There's another thing, too, that's a little bit off of this particular subject, but it's something that occurred to me to talk about, and that is the business of juring that came up in this program, and the idea that the jury can decide, quickly and easily, what is good and what is bad. Now, I have many, many friends in the art community, one whom I have great love and affection and respect for, who is a painter by the name of Boris Margo. And Boris has been on many juries, as any painter who has been around for awhile has been, and he won't serve on juries anymore because he has a feeling that he simply cannot do his fellow artist justice. Now I don't, I've served on hundreds of juries and I do it with fear that my ulcer will return when I do it, because I have such a feeling of responsibility. I don't know for sure whether what I've done is right. I have a great feeling of guilt when I reject a fellow artist. If you judge a show where there are 4,000 things and you only have room to hang 150, you have to reject 95 percent or more of what's submitted. But if you're honest about it you say that maybe among the 95 percent rejected were things 20 times as good as what we took, because I think it is wrong for anybody who juries an exhibition to think that what he has done is right. All he's done is the best he could under the circumstances. If he really examines his own conscience, and the physical necessities of space make people do things which, for example, a man has put a week into a painting, or a month, or a year. And you see it in that context, you may see it for seven seconds, and you may see it after you've seen, for example, a whole group of perfectly marvelous paintings, or paintings that you thought were perfectly marvelous, and it looks inferior. So you reject it in seven seconds or ten seconds. You judge a man, a year of a man's life in ten seconds, you can't do it. That same painting which you see for the same seven or ten seconds might come at the end of a whole series of paintings which you consider very poor, and then you would take it because by contrast it would look good. So if you're honest- also the sequence with which you see things influences your judgment. But my remarks really are basically intended to get across the idea that being a juror is a difficult thing that should be approached humbly, and with great reverence and respect, and with the full knowledge that one is doing only the best one can and it may be pretty damn rotten, no matter how many years you've spent looking at pictures.
Studs Terkel There's always this matter, though, of years you've spent looking at pictures, the matter of the artist himself and a certain craftsmanship, and their certain- perhaps it's a matter of standards. William Snaith, in this book I quote from now and then, "The Irresponsible Arts," is very hot about this, as you are. And recently over this station a BBC broadcast was played involving a hoax in music, you see.
Richard Florsheim I
Studs Terkel Hans Keller. Well, he mentions the hoax in this book, Snaith does, but I'm thinking about it in connection with visual arts now, this matter, remember Hans Keller was saying to two critics when they heard this hoax, it was just ridiculous, he just he and this girl just banged a couple of drums and then they whistled into a echo chamber, and it was a work by "Piotr Zak." They invented this name. The two critics said it is not a good piece of work. And his point is they missed the point. The point he was trying to make is there was no work at all. Now isn't this something that applies to the visual arts?
Richard Florsheim It certainly does, and it applies to also a kind of a nihilism which is expressed in the unwillingness to establish frameworks or standards. And I go back to what I said before about the abdication of the artist for the responsibility for his for his profession. The artist has an obligation to speak up and to make himself heard and to regain the control of his profession. I'm going to talk quite directly, and perhaps to some even offensively, about the business of curatorial responsibility in an institution. I remember very well when I was a kid, and I made a friend in Paris, who was at that time an attache at one of the museums. She was training to become a curator. She spent five years without salary while she took her masters and doctor's degree before she was taken on by the museum as a very obscure assistant, and it took her 25 years to work up to her present position, which is one of the senior curators at the Louvre. Now she is a scholar and a thorough professional. Too often in our society, the people who are selected for curatorial jobs are selected simply because they are pleasant, or they are thought to have good taste, or because it might just sort of be nice to have them around. And in this connection recently in arguing this with somebody who didn't agree with me. They said, "Well, somebody who is sensitive and aware can learn on the job." Well, if they learn on the job they ought to learn in the position that this friend of mine in Paris did, as obscure assistant, and not in a position of top responsibility. Because to be a curator, as to be a professor, means scholarship and knowledge and an awareness of the realities of the profession, and not just something that's pleasant to do.
Studs Terkel As you're talking about that, that's one other aspect of what's happening today. Now, I'm thinking now, Dick, I know it's a rather explosive comment you made there. At the same time we have to face certain realities of our day. What is happening, and to blind ourselves to them is- isn't quite facing up to it. Thinking of galleries, Chicago has great many galleries, and they're owned by various dealers. In your case, your work is the [Oeschlager?] Gallery, that's Joe Faulkner [unintelligible] Main Street Gallery. There's Joe Faulkner Main Street gallery. [unintelligible] There's Harlem, there's Frumkin Gallery. [unintelligible] a great many of the galleries. And there the man is responsible, the man who owns it, and he has certain artists whose work he exhibits. Now the question I'm about to ask you is who owns the Chicago Art Institute? Who is the owner of it?
Richard Florsheim Well, I would say in the case, to be specific about that, but I want to go on from that, the public, of course. And as a matter of fact the public owns all art. Even if a dealer owns a painting, or even if I own a painting that I did, it is still, if it is if it is viable, if it's a part of life, it is owned by everybody. This is what the artist intended it to be. And nobody can own Aristotle, and nobody can own Rembrandt. And by the same token nobody can own really own a museum. It's a public trust. According to the law, I suppose, technically speaking the pictures which I have in my studio, which I did, I own, and if somebody took them out of my studio they'd be stealing them. The same with the gallery or with the museum. But in the sense that the art is intended, which has nothing to do with the law of ownership or property, it- the spiritual values and the human values, which presumably are built into a true work of art, are owned by everybody. They can only be owned by everybody. So in a in a sense, in that sense it is it is owned by all.
Studs Terkel The fact is these are private galleries, they're privately owned, you know, and of course the public and the world. I don't know about the Chicago Art Institute. Obviously there is a controversy going on today, and obviously there are two sides. As we know the old cliche: there are two sides to every question. But I'm curious to know, I speak not only of the Art Institue, I speak of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I speak of all the institutions in which we are proud, and justly, but I'm curious to know about these various boards, do they own it, or does the city, or does the public own it? And I'm thinking now about attitudes of various boards, as though there is no communication at all, there are no lines of communication above. That is there's no discussion about this. They are stewards of the city, is my impression.
Richard Florsheim It is my impression also, but I know also what you're driving at and I quite agree, that the attitude taken is that it is a private and social trust. But it seems to me that the only reason for having an orchestra, or an art institution of any kind, or a university, is for the public service, and that the people who are the trustees and the people who are the officers of an organization of this kind have an obligation to serve the public as best they can. That doesn't mean to cater to the lowest denominator public taste, but certainly to take a position of public responsibility, and not to be offended when the public criticizes, or it takes an interest or comments or doesn't agree, but to listen and to try and adapt and to somehow have a colloquy, a rapport with the public, so that even if they are going to do something which the public disagrees with, if they at least give the reasons for doing it and just don't simply say the public be damned.
Studs Terkel Well, since it's an institution [unintelligible] it is a public institution, and there are teachers involved, and there is a membership, there are students involved, and it seems to me that this just, since neither you nor I are related to this particular controversy directly, the Art Institute, there seems to be, this not- I'm not speaking now this particular institution alone, I'm speaking of those who I would call 'arbiters of our city's culture.'
Richard Florsheim Well, you know, Studs, I remember vaguely, and it's a long time since I read it, but I think I remember it well enough to to quote it, Upton Sinclair, in one of his books on Chicago, he spoke of Chicago of that period and to the people who had leadership, speaking of their city as going to be the great cultural center of America, of being a city that would surpass Paris in its physical beauty, in the quality and the viability of its institutions, and they had a vision of a society that would be a wonderful place for people to live and to grow and develop. Somehow or other this has become changed in my time, and I think one of the reasons that I've stayed away from Chicago as much as I have in recent years is that I feel this way, that the attitude of many of the people in responsible positions is that this is somehow a social function and that it is not out of a s-
Studs Terkel A private one, too.
Richard Florsheim And a private one that is nobody else's business, it's kind of a private club, and that the excitement of holding a public trust and of building something for the future. For example, I remember the stories about the [early Ryerson?] who bought that marvelous "St George and the Dragon," that Spanish painting, who smuggled it out of Spain under the chassis of his car, and nobody thought it was a particularly great painting, or the buying of of the great El Greco and so on, for at a time when Greco wasn't known or popular or understood, that these men had a passionate interest in the arts, and a sense of building something for the future and for their community, and they had a vision of their community. And I think something of this vision is is lacking today, that it has become a kind of a private thing that is kept within a small group, and that the interest and passionate involvement of the people who care in the community is rejected. It's even feared and this is a terribly unhealthy thing, and I'm going to be persona non grata in this town when all of this comes out over the air. [laughs]
Studs Terkel No, go ahead, I think-
Richard Florsheim But I believe these things very deeply and strongly, and I feel that somebody has to say them.
Studs Terkel There's a feeling I suspect from various letters I receive and comments I hear that there's a deep undercurrent of feeling, a great many people who are silent who agree. They've been silent and they've been watching, and they agree now that which we laughingly call Chicago's cultural scene, I don't mean to be kidding too much about this, either, because, you see, once there was a great tradition, the beginning of it, back in "Little Foxes," an oblique reference for Lillian Hellman, when Regina wants to come north, she's coming to Chicago, because back in the time of that play, 1912 or so, there was something ca- as an idea called The Chicago Woman, who society, but highly cultured, interested in the arts, but more interested in man. And it's this that seems to be missing, but a great many people would feel, I know this, but who haven't spoken out,
Richard Florsheim And I think that it's that one mustn't be afraid, that the implications for many artists is, 'Now, if I sit here in front of a microphone and I criticize the establishment, the establishment are gonna lower the boom on me.' Well, I think that we mustn't be afraid in those terms. I think that if the artist can't speak honestly about what he feels, even if he's wrong, I may be 100 percent wrong but I feel passionately about what I believe, and this is how I see it and I feel that I have an obligation to say it, and not not to pretend that all is right when I feel it's a great deal is very wrong.
Studs Terkel Even though we seem to have wandered, it's all related, really, this theme of Dick Florsheim's talk here, conversation, is the artist and the establishment, or the artist and his responsibility. For the moment what we've been talking about this particular institution where it's a controversy going on, that it's a public institution. And there's an old phrase, phrase used these days called public squalor and private affluence when it comes to institutions. And this might be a case of public trust as against private arrogance, really, it would appear to me.
Richard Florsheim I think it's really time that we opened up some of these festering resentments in the community about our institutions, and that we felt free to criticize. I can remember some years ago, in 1958 I believe it was, or '57, I had a one man show at the Art Institute and there was some kind of a controversy going on at the time, and a newspaper reporter called me and I made some kind of a comment to what he asked me. He asked me about what the role of the museum was in that community, and I said that I thought that the museum was suffering because it was trying to fulfill the function of a whole variety of institutions under one roof, and that it was not possible for one institution to be a Guggenheim and a Museum of Modern Art and a Whitney and a Metropolitan and the Art Students' League and the Actor's Studio all in one place, that they had to perhaps choose, make certain choices and move in certain directions which- where they could concentrate more of their energies in some directions, and perhaps we need other institutions. And I was tremendously shocked when I was attacked by some of the people at the museum at the time for being disloyal to the institution at the time that it was exhibiting my work. Well, I just couldn't see this because I felt that any public institution, as our government is subject to criticism at all times, and that in a free society and in a democracy there is an obligation to criticize that which you don't agree with. By the same token the fellow on the other side of the fence can battle your ideas, and they come out in the marketplace and they're thrashed out, but to hide them and to pretend that all is sweetness and light when it isn't is a great mistake.
Studs Terkel Also there's the fact that they seem to have been- seen a group in our city who are called 'the arbiters of culture' who are beyond challenge, beyond question, it would seem. And yet the very fact is they're no more than stewards of that which belongs to the city.
Richard Florsheim Exactly. And this is why we're really not wandering from our theme, because we're talking about the responsibility of the artist, and I'm speaking as a working artist, and my sense of responsibility for the institutions of my city. I love this town. After all, my family have lived here since Chicago was a village of 35,000 people. And many of the things of which I speak in the past I know firsthand from hearing my grandparents talk about what the city was like in the early days when they came here, and their recollections of things like the Chicago Fire and the the attitudes of people towards the community, what they were trying to build, what their dreams were, what they believed in and what they thought about. So I feel very passionately and deeply about this, and my instinct is not to lash out and to hurt, or destroy, or be destructively critical, but simply to say what I honestly think in the hope and belief that in a civilized community that these suggestions and criticism will be taken not as personal, but as discussions of ideas.
Studs Terkel Perhaps since this is all related to the theme of the artist again, and the discussion that began this, the- his communication with somebody else. He extends himself. This work is an extension of him, therefore somebody one way or another digs it. Doesn't mean he has to immediately. We are talking about that.
Richard Florsheim No.
Studs Terkel The artist says he doesn't, the hell with- that as, you know, the one, you know the one we're talking about, the kind of artist who says, "It is a work he puts out, and he sells and that's it."
Richard Florsheim The making of a work of art, everything involved with the work of art on the part of a dedicated artist is an act of love and an act of faith, and an act of of deeply believing act in the validity of doing it and the worthwhileness of doing it. And he does not expect to be Rembrandt, but on the other hand he doesn't expect to be fluffed off, one or the other, but he expects to be taken with a certain amount of weight and seriousness. And I say this again and again to the artists themselves who might be listening, and that is to assert the responsibility for your own profession. Do not turn it over to others, don't toadie, but be be your own man, and be courageous in in standing for what you believe in, and for insisting that you yourself are the true professional in the field. Medicine in our society would be in a sorry condition if the doctor was afraid to make a diagnosis for fear that a trustee of the hospital in which he was making the diagnosis might disagree with his diagnosis.
Studs Terkel We return again, don't we, to the marketplace, the marketplace dominating the the art itself, or the man himself. The art establishment is one of the sequence in this book by William Snaith, and he's paraphrasing what you have been talking about for the past 45 minutes or so, Dick, is he's talking about the the feat artist, the artist no longer fights a lonely battle, he's talking about the one who was accepted. "He is not isolated from the groups which dictate acceptance or rejection. His individual problem is rather to make a place for us but for his particular brand of newness," you know, and he, this thing we talked about earlier, "and he is accepted by the mandarins of powerful elite, the self-appointed tastemakers, intellectually superior to the balance of the community endowed with leadership instinct set them at the head of the oligarchy of taste. In it too can be found, those whose drives for separateness derive from their estrangement from the normalcy of society."
Richard Florsheim Yes, the that article that we were talking about before by, what is the name, Crooch, in the Saturday Review has something which is is very parallel to that, and I think if we can make another quote at this point I think is very apropos, when he says, "It is from society that the artist emerges, by society that he is inspired, about society that he must care if there is to be a purpose to his effort. Likewise it is from the artist that society gains its loftier images of itself." And that's something I'd like to talk about a little later, about the image of ourselves. "Gains its loftier image of itself, gains a new sense of a God-given individuality that exists within the whole. It is a balance fairly struck, although never easily maintained. Society must always guard against its suspicions of the differentness, must be willing to grant the exceptional behavior of the artist as the price of receiving from him a comment of value and validity, and the artist must accept the risk that his vision may be flawed, obscure, incomprehensible. The price of aspiring to truth. And here is the real crux of the whole thing: The only thing neither society nor the artist can risk is alienation from one another." And this is really the crux of the matter as far as I'm concerned. But the business, can I go back to this business of the image of ourselves? It seems to me that one of the really important functions of all of the arts is that we thereby gain an image of ourselves, that the only thing that makes life bearable, understandable, and possible, liveable, is that we have an image of ourselves, that if the image of ourselves is in the terms that we have gone over here, that of art as an object of commerce only, or an object of social status, then we've lost the whole show, because it is the inner image, the the understanding of what life means and what we mean to each other, and what the very business of birth and death and procreation and all the few really important things in life mean. If we don't have that, we have nothing. And this is what the arts are concerned with, that it be a question of putting together a bunch of cute little pieces of paper, or accumulating Kewpie dolls in plastic containers, or assembling articles of underwear in a black box, or all these other things. Well, fine. Let people do these. I believe in in absolute freedom of the artist. But what I find very distressing is the nihilism implied in the acceptance of things which are merely meant to be explorations into fantasy or perhaps jokes as something of all-encompassing seriousness.
Studs Terkel But isn't there something else to the fact that this is accepted and readily with great alacrity by the establishment, in the case of the artist who was always the challenger of the establishment. And this particular work constitutes no challenge.
Richard Florsheim I think what we could say basically, and I'll tell you a little story that goes with this, is that always be suspicious of the establishment, whether it be 19th or 20th century. I remember meeting Vincent Van Gogh, the nephew of the painter, some years ago, and he's telling me that his mother, after his father had died, taking Van Gogh's paintings to the director of the Louvre Museum. Now what more eminent member of the establishment could there be at that time than the director of the Louvre? And his comment on them was, "If they are cluttering up your house, you might as well burn them or get rid of them. They're worthless." The establishment has always been faulty. We're all faulty. And as I think it was [Amato Franz?] who said that "absolutes and ideas lead to fanaticisms in action." And while I've been being very positive about what I'm saying, while I'm saying it and looking at you across this microphone, Studs, I'm realizing the fallibility of what I'm saying, and although I say it with emphasis as though it were to sound as though it were absolutely right, and it isn't, I recognize the fallibility of what I, at this point, believe to be true and that I do not speak in absolutes. I think, you know, there is an inscription on Hunter College in New York that my wife pointed out to me that fits me. And it says that, it's a quote from Emerson, I'm gonna to quote it very badly, but the sense of it I know: that I reserve the right to change my mind from hour to hour, but I believe that I'm always on the side of truth. And this is what I really feel about it.
Studs Terkel Also the fact, there's a marvelous comment [unintelligible] William Bradford Huie, who recently wrote a book, several books, a southern writer of "Three Lives For Mississippi," about three civil rights workers who were killed. But Huie also wrote a book exposing Claude Eatherly, the Hiroshima pilot. But some people used Huie's book, he recognized this, as a way of assuaging their guilt about Hiroshima. And John Wain, this is John Wain the British writer, W-A-I-N, was doing a narrative poem about Eatherly, Claude Eatherly the hero. And someone said, "But Huie proved that the facts are all wrong, you see. This guy's not a hero." And John Wain, the writer, was saying, "I'm not interested in facts, I'm interested in the truth. The truth is there was Hiroshima. The fact that Eatherly may have been an imposter has nothing to do with the case, I'm talking about a man had a certain conscience," you see. That's the truth, so we say, then the facts may be wrong, but certain truths you're seeking about the establishment, about status quo, and the artist who's always the challenger. The reason I bring this up, Dick, is because in the same book, and you've mentioned it, too, in the Snaith book the idea that new the new artists then, the guys who were challenged, were downed by the establishment. The great irony is today that this to accept these because they know it's newness for newness' sake, and not for man's sake.
Richard Florsheim Today, in a curious sense, the man who is not a part of the so-called and self-styled avant-garde is the avant-garde, because he is the one who holds to certain values, and in certain evolution of his art, and holds to it fiercely and refuses to give in. I've had- I had a shocking thing happen to me one time a few years ago in New York about when they were planning a renewal of the Armory Show 50 years later. And I happened to be having dinner at a friend's house with a group of young artists, and I said, "I would love to see that show and see how all this looks fifty years after it created so much commotion." And he looked at me like I was an old fuddy duddy, this was a kid in his late 20s maybe, early 30s, and he said to me, "What do you wanna fuss around with that old stuff for?" And I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, there's no validity to anything that was done more than 10 years ago." He completely denied any continuity with the past or any interest in the past.
Studs Terkel It's as though a kid says jazz began with Charlie Parker, well, Charlie Parker's a great figure, but Parker himself would have said, "Oh no, there were all these others before me." That's to say-
Richard Florsheim I'm sure that Charlie Parker would also say that jazz probably began with the first guy that cut a piece of grass and blew through it and made a noise, that there is this continuity of human experience that you cannot deny, and mustn't deny.
Studs Terkel [Perhaps?] several other aspects. Dick Florsheim is our guest, and this came about because of a discussion the previous week about the nature of contemporary art, the trends it's taken, newness for newness' sake specifically, and the artist's responsibility to communicate with someone else other than himself. The the materials, isn't this significant? A lot of the materials used are very impermanent in nature? Isn't that true?
Richard Florsheim Well, certainly this has a lot to do with what we're talking about in the sense of the artist's responsibility. There are many things made today, many paintings and many objects, which begin to fall apart almost as quickly as they are made. There was an article not too long ago by the Kecks, who were famous restorers in this country, and trained many of the restorers of pictures there at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, about a painting by, I won't mention the painter's name but he is a well-known contemporary of mine, same age I am, and the museum had bought the picture, and because it was in such terrible shape they took it to the Kecks for repair, and the Kecks wrote this article about him and said that it was impossible to repair it because he had painted with glue over oil. Well, if a first year art student doesn't know that this is impossible to do and expect anything to stay together, he has no business being in art school in the first place. And yet the- this is a man of international reputation whose attitude when he was challenged about this was, "Well, to hell with it. This is the way I wanted to do it, and if they don't like it that's their tough luck." And the museum had paid 15,000 dollars for it. Well, I can I maintain that this is an attitude of errant irresponsibility, that if he knew if you were to buy any kind of an object in our society, an automobile, and the engine were to drop out the first five miles, and you were to take it back to the manufacturer and say, you know, my engine dropped out, if he wouldn't feel responsible you take him into court, and I'm sure that the court would rule against him. And yet the artist considers this completely normal. Not the artist, but some artists do. A friend of mine took a painting back to the dean of the abstract expressionists because the painting was coming apart, and he refused to do anything about it. He said, "Well, this is the way it is, this is the way it is. You bought it, it's your baby. I take no responsibility."
Studs Terkel "That's your baby." That's interesting, that's almost like a man selling a commercial product would be saying, too. "You bought it, you bought that car. That car is no good. But here's the bill of sale, you bought it."
Richard Florsheim That's exactly right. And of course I feel that this is a very errant attitude on the part of the artist that, if when you stand in front of your easel and you're working, you are, I think, a part of the entire history of man's consciousness, and if what you are doing you cannot- and it's so easy to do in what is in terms of what is known today in terms of materials, make something which will be lasting, it doesn't seem to me you have much respect for the thing that you're making. That just out of ego that you would want to produce something which would be around after you were, that you would have that much respect for yourself, what you were doing, but also the other side of it, if you're going to offer it for sale that you take a responsibility for it after the other person has bought it. Otherwise it seems to me that you have no responsibility for your point of view, even philosophically, let alone just in terms of pure materials. And the this is so self-evident that I wonder that people can even doubt it to me. Here I am speaking in absolutes again,
Studs Terkel This comes again to our theme, we come round about to it again for the last, oh I'd guess about we've been talking about 45 minutes. Richard Florsheim our guest, Chicago artist who travels, will soon be in Paris, but Chicago is your base, your anchor, is it not?
Richard Florsheim Well, my roots are here and I fight against them. As a matter of fact this last winter I spent two months in New York looking for a place to live, and I found lots of places, but I just simply couldn't bring myself to take them because I couldn't tear up that last taproot, which always comes back here to this town which devils me and haunts me, and which I hate, and which I love. I have all kinds of mixed feelings about it. And the mere fact that there is this kind of a reality, that I hear a broadcast and I write you a letter, and you call me up and I come down and I have a chance to speak about it. This is a part of of the root that holds me here, in a sense, that I feel that with- even with all of the things that I have been yelling about, that I still have a voice that can be heard. It's not it's not a it's not a voice that's lost. And this is a root, and the root of caring what happens, I'm not an outsider looking in, I'm an insider looking out. And as the insider trapped in this situation, I think Nelson Algren feels the same way. I know I've talked to him about it and he has these mixed feelings about the community. But it's the source of our vitality and the source of our, perhaps, of our productivity. The mere fact that it's like a nasty little grain of something foreign in our system that irritates us to produce something which we hope is a pearl.
Studs Terkel As you speak of this city, where your roots are planted, city at this moment I I suspect [unintelligible] at which the establishment, and this is political as well as "cultural," quote unquote, is one that does not take kindly to any form of criticism. This inability to accept criticism, and I'm thinking now personally of this film of Dennis Mitchell, a Chicago filmmaker that was never seen here, never seen because the fact that it not paint- did not paint a Chamber of Commerce picture of our town. This, of course, must continuously be challenged, it would seem to me, just as this particular
Richard Florsheim Of course, because the only way that we can grow, and the only way that we can fulfill some of the promise that people have felt from time to time, and still feel from time to time for the community and its institutions, is if we can really speak up, because if it's all pollyanna, if it's like the small town newspaper or the place where we go in the summertime that comes out once a week in a town of 3,200 people that reads like the bulletin of the Chamber of Commerce, that everything is just peachy dandy. But underneath there are all kinds of things happening and nobody speaks of them. But the the potential of growth of any kind of society, or any kind of a civilization, is based on the fact that criticism can be made and will be listened to. Otherwise we have nothing.
Studs Terkel Our guest was Richard Florsheim, Chicago artist. The theme: the artist in the establishment, particularly as concerns our city. Now there was a variation in the voice range, you will notice, sounded like six voices rather than two. That was due to the fact that my little portable tape recorder was, at that moment, somewhat sick. Perhaps an epilogue might be in order. I remember in one of the college courses a reference was made to a man named Bear, who owned some mines in Pennsylvania, and would not discuss the nature of the situation with some of the miners whose grievances were quite profound, he said because some people have divine rights. They have the divine right to give orders and others to take the orders. And he was named from then on "Divine Right Bear." Well, it seems that in our town now and then there are some advocates of divine rights, and it seems the time has come, every once in a while, to remind them that there are public rights, as well. Otherwise, as Dick Florsheim said, "We have nothing." [pause] [unintelligible] be invoked, and I think we no longer believe in divine right, so let's not believe it in our city, either. Thank you very much. [pause] [music plays] [voices speaking in German]