Maurizio Cattelan’s retrospective at the Guggenheim is inseparable from his sudden art world retirement. The fifty-one-year-old artist’s entire body of work hangs spectacularly and abjectly from the ceiling of the rotunda, its haphazard arrangement suggesting the artist has already moved on. As he told the New York Times, “Retirement is going to be a kind of extra project that will complete the retrospective.”
Some have taken the retirement announcement as little more than a prank—Cattelan, after all, is known as contemporary art’s trickster (there comes a point in nearly every Cattelan profile when the artist is described as winking conspiratorially at the reporter). The Guggenheim’s dramatic “hanging,” however, brings out the undercurrent of morbidity beneath the mischief. A barefoot John F. Kennedy lies in state, joining the famously controversial waxwork of Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteorite, as well as the squirrel who has shot himself at a miniature kitchen table. Maurizio Cattelan: All asks us to entertain the possibility that the artist might be deadly serious after all.
As the retrospective draws to a close with massive attendance figures and extended hours, Guggenheim chief curator Nancy Spector has invited the philosopher Simon Critchley to co-organize The Last Word, a symposium that takes the end of the exhibition and Cattelan’s art career as a starting point for discussing “the end” from nearly every vantage point imaginable. Critchley has explored how philosophers confront death in his best-selling The Book of Dead Philosophers, and his involvement in art includes membership in a parodic avant-garde organization called the International Necronautical Society. Critchley and Spector have convened artists, philosophers, comedians, filmmakers, actors, and musicians for a wide-ranging, irreverent, and at times morbid discussion, as befits Cattelan’s sensibility. Participants include the philosopher Arthur Danto, artist Tracey Emin, filmmaker Harmony Korine, designer label Proenza Schouler, writer David Lipsky, musician Courtney Love, artist Adam McEwen, Cabinet magazine editor Sina Najafi, attorney Virginia Rutledge, and sports columnist George Vecsey.
The Last Word begins on Saturday, January 21 at 6:00 p.m. and continues until 1:00 a.m (admission is pay-what-you-wish). Watch the live stream beginning at 6:00 p.m. EST at ustream.tv/guggenheim. Critchley took a moment to speak with me about the symposium, the subversive side of choosing when to end one’s career or one’s life, and why contemporary art museums have become more relevant than universities.
Artlog: You’ve previously written about philosophers confronting the end. How do you apply that to Cattelan, an artist?
Simon Critchley: You can see the whole Cattelan show at the Guggenheim as a hanging—it is literally hanging. It’s as if he’s constructed a vast gallows for his entire work. Then there’s the issue of what it means to stop, what it means to say, “that’s it,” in relation to suicide, but also in relation to retirement. We live in a culture where the people who get to retire are software developers or massively wealthy hedge fund managers, and the rest of us just have to keep on working. And if you’re not working, then there’s something wrong with you. Another issue it raises is what it means to stop doing one thing, like being an artist, a dancer, or whatever it might be, and decide to choose another path. We’re endlessly committed to a short-to-medium-term future, a treadmill of activities and commitments that we fill our lives with, and I think a lot of us just never ask what it would mean to stop.
We’ve got a guy coming who’s going to talk about retirement and pension funds. That was the end for many people, the guarantee that work would end and they’d get a pension, and that’s gone up into the air completely in the last few years with the draining of pension funds for the profit of corporations. We have a psychoanalyst who’s speaking about the end of analysis, because therapy goes on for longer and longer periods of time. In sports, what does it mean to stop being a player? A couple of theologians will look at apocalypse and predictions of the end of the world, the whole tradition of eschatology, of how we ponder last things.
I hope people come and give themselves up to it. It’s going to be seven hours covering a vast range of topics. We’re trying to do something a little irreverent, a little bit performative, but that also raises serious issues.
Artlog: Is there something subversive about choosing to stop?
Critchley: I think there is. The philosopher Stanley Cavell once said to me that to philosophize is to know how to bring things to an end, how to stop. To his mind, some philosophers were suspect because they didn’t know when to stop.
Philosophy begins with Socrates, who had a choice. He could leave Athens and become ostracized or he could take his own life, and he chose to take his own life. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates insists on choosing the time to take his life, of knowing there’s a point it’s going to come to the end. That’s very subversive in our culture.
It seems to me that maybe the most important aspect of a human life is to be able to decide if and when it should come to an end. And maybe the most important issue in relationship to one’s work is to decide if and when it should come to an end. And those things are not really in our power, either through law or the compulsion to keep on working. So Cattelan’s decision is brave, and it raises all sorts of questions.
Artlog: Your own career as a philosopher came after you tried music, poetry, activism. Does that have a bearing on the subject for you?
Critchley: The two things I really wanted to be were a rock star and a poet. I decided when I was twenty, reluctantly, that I wasn’t going to be a rock star. I just didn’t think it was going to work out. Then when I was twenty-five I decided to stop writing poetry. I realized that whatever I had to say wasn’t so important, wasn’t so good. There’s a decision to stop there. Philosophy has always been something I do because I couldn’t do other things. For me, it’s not so much the queen of the sciences—it’s a secondary activity. I think it’s important to have a little bit of humility in that regard.
And activism, that’s something I keep getting drawn back to. One of the things we want to address in the symposium is Occupy Wall Street, and we’ve got two people coming in from Not an Alternative in Williamsburg to talk about the end or future of that movement. The thing about leftist politics is that it’s a history of endings. The history of the left is a history of failure. We punctuate it with dates like 1848, 1871, 1917, whatever it might be, and then the lights go out. I think what happened last fall was absolutely amazing. Has that come to an end or has it changed into something else?
Artlog: The range of approaches that you’re taking to the topic seems uniquely possible in the context of art, as opposed to, for example, academia.
Critchley: Absolutely. I can say something polemical if you like: contemporary art has become the place where cultural meaning is debated. It’s not in universities. It’s not in novels. It’s not in literary crticism. All of those things have become fantastically irrelevant, and so contemporary art has become this placeholder where we negotiate the meaning of culture.
For me, the big event that marked this in the United Kingdom was the opening of the Tate Modern in 2001. It wasn’t so much the museum itself but what that began to mean. You had people lining up around the block to see a massive Louise Bourgeois spider, and then they had their views on whether it was rubbish or whether they were moved by it. It just seems to me that, for complicated reasons, contemporary art has become the place where all that stuff can be held together, and universities just aren’t those places anymore, nor are newspapers. The institutions of art have become the locations where we think about the meaning of culture, and also the meaning of culture in relationship to the avant-garde, trying to push the boundaries of what should be accepted, or of what’s acceptable.
It’s weird how that’s happened, because twenty-five years ago nobody really gave a damn about contemporary art, and now we have this completely different culture around it. I heard from Nancy [Spector] that the Cattelan exhibition has been the biggest December ever at the Guggenheim, in terms of numbers through the door. What are people looking at? What is the compulsion to go and see it? What are they finding?
I think, in a way, you could only really do this in an art institution. I’ve been involved in a weird, semi-fictitious avant-garde group called the International Necronautical Society with my friend Tom McCarthy, who’s a novelist, and all of our stuff was in the art world, not because either of us were artists or were really close to the art world, but those people picked up what we were doing and were interested in it. And I think those things have happened all over the place. So I find the art world has become the most authoritative place for intellectual exchange that’s not academic. And academia has retreated into a kind of professionalization, an inward-looking series of debates that have no real relevance for most ordinary people.
Artlog: Is Cattelan doing some of the work that we might, historically, associate with a philosopher?
Critchley: If a philosopher is someone who’s going to be a kind of gas line, a kind of pain in the ass, which is what Socrates was in the Athenian state, a troublemaker, then Cattelan is doing that. The task of philosophy is not to provide answers about “sustainable happiness” or whatever you see on the subways in New York. It’s to ask difficult questions, and Cattelan is asking a series of difficult questions.
People have different views on this, but the retrospective is almost an act of rejection: “Look at all this shit I’ve done—look at it all! I’ll put it all together, hang it from a gallows, and you can make of it what you will.” It’s a deeply anti-artistic gesture in a strange way. I think it raises in the spectator all sorts of questions about life and death, about the meaning of what we’re doing and whether we should carry on, and to that extent, I think it’s a philosophical task.
More upcoming events at the Guggenheim:
Conversations with Contemporary Artists with Yael Bartana
Tuesday, January 24 at 6:30 p.m.
Yael Bartana is an Israeli-Dutch artist and filmmaker based in Amsterdam and Tel Aviv. Includes film screening, curator Q&A, and reception.
Admission: $10, $7 members, Free students
Conversations with Contemporary Artists with Natascha Sadr Haghighian
Tuesday, January 31 at 6:30 pm
Through a series of conversations with the audience, Natascha Sadr Haghighian combines elements of performance, lecture, and interactive scavenger hunt.
Admission: $10, $7 members, Free students