We republish this interview of our friend and colleague John Link, who died on May 1st 2021.
John Link, retired Professor of Art, Western Michigan University, painter, and contributor to the New Art Examiner, Interview with Lily Lihting Li Kostrzewa – From Philosophy to Art to Writing:
When I was in philosophy, my fellow grad students agreed that we were in philosophy because we couldn’t do anything else. But the same can be said of art. My problem with philosophy was that it requires you to stay still to read, and that bothered me a lot. I also found art to be the antithesis of philosophy. I was told I should study all the great aestheticians because I made a lot of paintings. I told the department head that those people were talking about something other than making art. I did not exactly know what, but art has a kinaesthetic element, both mental and physical, that philosophy does not. Nor is art all that contemplative. You must work your way through a murky soup of possibilities, and all that stuff. Then I flunked the draft physical and did not have to stay in philosophy, so I started taking art classes. Philosophy, understood as wonderment, is a good place to begin, certainly. English was my worst subject in high school and grade school, math and science my best. When I went to college I was supposed to be an engineer. But I took up English because I thought college was a place where you worked on your weaknesses. Actually have a double BA in Philosophy and English. So that’s how I got going, reading great writers in both disciplines.
Derek Guthrie came to Southern Illinois University during the early years of the Examiner, just to see what was going on in academia. One of the Examiner’s “things” is the examination of the transmission of culture and universities are one of the places where that takes place. I was teaching there and met him on the screened-in porch of Jim Sullivan, who was his contact at SIU. I just liked the guy. He was tuned into things at a more honest level than most of the people I had met – especially in the writing world. And we got along ever since.
Initially I liked writing diatribes. They would just scream bloody murder at whatever I was against. But I’ve decided not to write that way anymore. They never go anywhere. They are about dead ends and everybody knows there are a lot of dead ends. So, what’s the use? The last thing I wrote is more what I like, the article about Darby Bannard, which was positive. It pointed at someone who has something to offer. I also like writing “general takes”, though they border on diatribes at times. There is one I wrote, “Hardness of Art”, which was written for Arts Magazine and was positive in a negative way. It was about how art is hard on artists, that it isn’t the glorious life some people think. So I write within a narrow field.
Greenberg Should be Read before you Condemn:
One of the greatest problems with Greenberg is that everybody thinks he told artists what to paint, that he was the king of New York, this that and the other. But if you read his writings you will see a whole different person. He was one of the last critics who took a chance on unknown artists. He went to studios as well as galleries, and seemed to prefer the former. The critics working now tend to look only at whatever galleries and museums are showing. They stick with the known. Everyone associates Greenberg with Pollock. Pollock was a virtual unknown when Greenberg began touting his work in Partisan Review and The Nation. The thing that’s missing from current writing is that no one is out there looking, except at stuff that’s provided to them by someone else. That doesn’t mean there are no good artists being provided, but it is more exciting when you’re writing about someone who is not that well-known.
Advice to Art Writers:
Go to the studios. Go to the studios that are outside the trends.
Do I see trends? Academia is infected with trends. It is an outcome of the thirst for prestige that drives universities. There is a peer review system for math and science in which faculty work is objectively verified by peers, both before it is published and after. Art is about subjective opinion. I maintain that it is about real stuff, but you don’t get to art by measuring or in any other way except by directly experiencing it. And everybody’s experience is a little different. So how do you work that into a university system that insists its faculty be measured? The administrators who make the final decisions know little or nothing about art. Quite correctly, they want someone else to do the measuring for them. If you’re off the beaten path
you are not going to get much “peer review”. If you go back to the 60s when art started getting big in universities there were wild and crazy people in the arts that gave it life. But as it has evolved, to satisfy the needs of promotion, tenure, raises, not getting fired, prestige, and all that, the natural tendency for many faculty has been to get hooked up with a trend. Not everybody does that but the people who do are more likely to get shows and other forms of acceptance That is probably not the best way to do art if you want it to be good, but if you want academic success it IS the best way. Universities don’t really care if the art is good, as long as someone outside their walls says it is good.
Advice to Students:
It is a confusing system for students. Some of the stuff that goes on is pretty strange. There is a guy at the University of Chicago by the name of Pope.L who dressed up in a skirt made from dollar bills and attached himself to a bank door with a long piece of sausage – stuff like that goes on everywhere. If that’s what your professor is saying you should be doing and then you go into a museum and look at Titian or Rembrandt, I too would be confused. It isn’t crazy creative – it is actually predictable, thousands do that sort of thing.
On the positive side, be honest, that’s what counts. Don’t listen to your profs (smile). Actually, listening to your profs is part of it but not every professor is going to make sense. You are probably going to find one or two. Soak up everything you can from those people. Then see where you go, see what happens.
Advice to Readers:
You really can’t believe everything you read, including my stuff. Think for yourself. That is one of the great things about the Examiner, it supports many points of view. Most of the art mags have their own take and if you’re not part of that take, you don’t write for them. They remain well homogenized. I used to take art mags and found that I didn’t read them. I kept them in the stack to read later, until I realised that I wasn’t reading them, ever. So I quit taking them. They don’t take chances with viewpoints that differ from their own. Artforum, New Criterion – I guess people do read them but I’m not sure I know who, or why.
To the readers of the Examiner I‘d say don’t think the life of an artist is easy. It’s really hard, the odds are against you. But that doesn’t mean you don’t make the bet anyway. There it is.
Volume 34 no.2 November/December 2019 pp 19-20