Great Critics and Their Ideas: The Archangel Gabriel

interview by Matthew Collings

By Matthew Collings

CyrusEmanuelEugenicus, fourteenth-century fresco of the Archangel Gabriel from the Tsalenjikha Cathedral, Georgia Jeffrey Deitch. Photo: World Economic Forum. Licensed under Creative Commons

ARTREVIEW    Hi. I’m sure many readers will associate you with the well-known Christian narrative: you’re an angel of the Lord, you come down to earth to give Mary the news that she’s going to be the Mother of God.

 a product of Judaism: in one book of the Old Testament I explain the prophet Daniel’s visions and in another I’m sent to destroy Jerusalem.
In my New Testament continuation I foretell the births of Jesus and John the Baptist. Muslims are taught that it was I who brought the words of the Koran to God’s last prophet. Interestingly, there’s a lot of ambiguity about my status. Sometimes I’m just an angel and sometimes even just ‘the man, Gabriel’. Being an archangel, one of the upper echelons of
the angelic order, the chosen few, is neither
a biblical nor a Koranic conception. It comes instead from religious texts compiled between the periods when the Old and New Testaments were produced (hence their scholarly category, ‘intertestamental’) and unrecognised by the Church. In the Book of Enoch, for example, Jewish wisdom collected between 300 BC and 100 AD, I’m sent down to the earthly realm
to ‘proceed against bastards and reprobates’.

AR    What do you make of Jeffrey Deitch’s departure from LA MOCA last summer?

TAG    Well, it’s another archangel, Michael,
who weighs good and evil on the heavenly scales.

AR    Sure, but you must have an opinion. Do you think Deitch will be saved at the Last Judgment?

TAG    It depends on your perspective. 
He is knowledgeable about art and the market. If you’ve got an institution in trouble, and
its purpose is to get people interested in art,
or disseminate information about art to initiates and professionals alike – basic knowledge as well as involved and complex stuff – and the trouble it’s in is financial, then making him
the boss surely makes sense, and it’s bad luck
it didn’t work out. Maybe Benjamin Buchloh should have been the boss. Who can say?

AR    What do you think would happen if he was?

TAG    Let me answer that by proposing hat knowledge of the market could imply many different things, and the same goes for knowledge of art. And it’s another matter again as far as their relationship is concerned. What should it be? That is, is there an ‘ought’ issue here? Or is the relationship written in stone already and it’s therefore the task of anyone in a position of responsibility to make sure nothing upsets the connection or causes it to short-circuit? That is, Buchloh, who is a fiery writer and very probing in his critical enquiries about the social place of art, and art’s capacity to alter the social structure, might have
a vision of art and the market that transcends present conditions. He might see these as a hegemonic construct and not an inevitable outcome of human nature. And he might want to set a revolutionary example with his leadership of LA MOCA that appears bizarre and appalling and unworkable because
it accords with humane social relations and attacks spectacular capitalism.

AR    The row about Deitch was to do with a general perception of him being an operator because he only had shows of graffiti and fashion, and he was obsessed
with getting Hollywood celebrities into the artworld all the time. He just had the wrong values.

Hollywood celebrities
are people too. They can get in on art if they want. Why should we object? Their involvement causes yet more money to be brought into the art market, and to date
at least, money is still the language of power. Celebrities create glamour around art, and this makes people who don’t know much about art feel OK about the lack, as
if such knowledge isn’t really necessary if you want to get something meaningful from an encounter with art

TAG    Wasn’t he hired precisely because of his values, which are widely known? That is, he has a history of which he is not at all ashamed, which includes being an art adviser and being involved with corporate collecting. He helped form an
art collection for Citibank, for example. A lot
of people might say there’s always been a market dimension to art, and it can’t exist without it. The same people probably think there’s always been market competition of the kind we have now. They don’t seek to destroy it. Instead they pragmatically set about making it serve their individual ends, so they can, no doubt, be in
a better position to help society eventually by opening a private museum or donating funds for a wing in the Guggenheim. And for those same people art is at once a respite from the obsessive concern with profitmaking that dominates life, and deeply part of it. And there’s nothing unreal about the contradiction, they would say; indeed, it would be naive to insist that there is. In practical reality, they maintain, you simply accept there’s a time and a place
for everything. You feel soulful because of art’s effect. Or you feel entertained. Or you have acquired superior knowledge, or whatever
it is you believe art does. And these happen
in some contexts while in others you get big bucks from it. And the manoeuvres involved in the latter process, that is, art’s monetisation, might seem obscene compared to all the poverty in the world, but this is unavoidable. Academia is the place for worrying about it. Or even art. But you don’t bring in prophets or academics
or artists or whatever to run big museums.
If you want them to run OK.

AR    But he left because it wasn’t going OK; at least that’s the general perception.

TAG    Well, it wasn’t going OK before he arrived, either. Maybe he ran it as well as it was possible to run it.

AR    What about all the graffiti?

TAG    It’s a legitimate style. And Hollywood celebrities are people too. They can get in
on art if they want. Why should we object? Their involvement causes yet more money to be brought into the art market, and to date at least, money is still the language of power. Celebrities create glamour around art, and this makes people who don’t know much about art feel OK about the lack, as if such knowledge isn’t really necessary if you want to get something meaningful from an encounter with art.

AR    You’re awfully tolerant. Do you really think these things?

TAG    I’m a messenger, I don’t create meanings myself, I announce them.

AR    Well, what’s a new meaning you can announce to the artworld to help it?

TAG    The message of making: it is coming back.

AR    What do you mean by ‘making’?

TAG    I mean a physical, unalienated relationship between the art object and the person who’s making it. The artworld lost sight of this, and as a consequence a hunger developed for it, and now the hunger will be answered, and making will return. I’m not sure it would be correct to say God caused it, though; it’s more to do with material reality. If there is such a thing at all as ‘human nature’, then it is that human beings are labourers. They use their bodies and their minds to transform nature in order to exist. And so the higher form of making that has gone by the name of art always has a basic momentum issuing from below. And if the higher form is obstructed
for whatever reason, it will always only be temporary. The obstruction recently has been the massive presence of illusions of making.
 By this I mean making automatically or mechanically, with all its subsequent attendant morbid manifestations, which are really only so many pathological compensations for the loss of making, such as making weirdly or exotically, making with extraordinary chemical processes, for example, or making with an infinitely expandable range of unlikely materials. Something substantial will inevitably replace this semblance of making. Simulated and hysterical pseudo-making will continue no doubt, but alongside the returned, substantial kind.

AR    At ArtReview we’re very concerned to please a consuming mindset, and that necessitates avoiding like the plague reading anyone like Walter Benjamin. But I suppose it’s now so ingrained into trendiness that we simply take it for granted that
the concept of the unique, handmade art object’s relationship to authority, signalled by the object’s aura, must always be challenged.

TAG    Sure, but all that’s just sorted itself out anyway, hasn’t it? It’s
a long time since Benjamin wrote his great works. Art objects are either feeble or impressive now, as opposed to mystifying versus aware of historical materialism. The aura – and the object’s connection to cult and ritual – won’t be coming back just because someone suddenly gets serious again about colour relationships, composition and visual dynamics generally. Bourgeois values are much more likely to be challenged right now by a blast of that kind of thing than by yet more insipid art-gallery-pleasing exercises in interrogating society’s production of images.

AR    Do you have any examples of this return to making you advocate? Do you mean Thomas Houseago? He showed at Gagosian last summer, he sells for millions, we’d always be happy to review him.

TAG    I regret to say I think the highly successful market for those objects is based not on informed appreciation of visual ideas, but precisely the opposite; that is, a profound forgetting on the part of the audience of what visual ideas in art are or have ever been. They’re buying vague and generalised signs for importance. He is very bright to have thought up the right thing for the new situation,
 one must give him that.

AR    So God didn’t tell you any of this, you just analysed the situation yourself and produced this interpretation?

TAG    Damn right.

AR    Are you a fallen angel?

TAG    Haha–no, that would be Satan. No,
 my interest is really in formal meaning, which has come to be known derogatorily and quite misleadingly as formalism. That’s a hostile word for the concern that artists for millennia have had with the creation of meaning through the manipulation of forms. You know,
 a tribesman or -woman whittling a fantastically intricate form on a piece of bone, or Matisse painting a painting, 
or Fra Angelico painting one
of me announcing the birth
of Jesus: we don’t have to look for sinister Foucauldian ruling-class interests in the institutions that shore up art like that. We can just say: yeah, that painting or bone carving has visual, rich, impactful and multilayered sheer content, and it’s about time art-culture stopped being afraid of that. Moaning about whether museum directors have the right values or not is just missing the point. Who cares? Get up off your knees, artist warriors! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

AR    Ha ha, right on!

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue.