Lawrence Weiner


There’s a scene in the 1991 cult classic Slacker in which a young man’s plans to burglarize a house are foiled by the arrival of the house’s owner, an aging anarchist who literally disarms him with nothing more than his coolly existential elocution: “Don’t worry, I won’t call the police — I hate them even more than you do.” Eventually the burglar stuffs his gun in his pants and the two take a walk along a grassy knoll, discussing JFK and the Spanish Civil War.

When I visited Lawrence Weiner in his West Village home studio, I didn’t intend to rob him. But I was planning on shooting him the next morning with a large format camera, and I had come armed with a 1983 issue of Real Life magazine featuring an interview with him.

In it he remarked that most artists could not properly conceive of their work in the context of society because they saw their work as an act of production, when in fact it functioned within a service industry — that the real content of an artwork in society was not its manifestation but its very reason for existing.

Twenty-five years later, I interpreted this to be an appealing subversion of the agency of the artist. A fatalistic notion that simply by deciding to make art, the artist enters into a nonnegotiable relation with the mode of production.

As it turned out, I had completely misunderstood his statement, and for reasons I could not have anticipated. Neither could I have anticipated just how incredibly generous, warm, and charming I would find Mr. Weiner, how disarming this would be, and how much I would learn from our misunderstanding.

Babak Radboy: I want to understand this statement about art as a service industry.

Lawrence Weiner: I really believe this shit, you know, that’s part of the problem. I’m not a Frank Capra person, but I like Frank Capra movies. I really believe that the reason that art functions in our society — and it has a real function — is that you are having a conversation. You are building objects that allow people to find out where they’re standing in relation to the world. And the work itself has to develop. When you have a specific form for something, that form, then, becomes exotic. But if there is no specific form, it can take any form. It can be a hole in the wall, it can be language, it can be aural or visual. That allows that work to continue to exist within society — without forcing society to give it reverence. That’s our job. Not to make commodities to be sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Art has to be sold in some way so that artists don’t have to maintain a relationship with the people they are criticizing. Art is all about criticism. It’s all about anger. If you are happy with the way the world is, why would you need art? But if you make art that doesn’t have a specific form, it doesn’t have to adapt. It curves itself around the changing patterns of the world, without changing its own meaning. It accepts the fact that the meaning is there. I found that so simple, and it became such a radical thing. It’s like saying that a work of art, if you can get the meaning across, doesn’t necessarily have to have a form. It could be in any form that you see it in. That’s not a radical thought. And that’s not even a radical interview.

BR: Maybe not, but it had an effect on me. I guess I find myself in a position — I mean completely in my own head and regarding my own work as an artist — of being pensive at a door of participation, trying to decide if art works at all within culture. And regarding my own work, I’ve always thought in terms of a product. That if I was to have agency in the process of production, the content of a work would be the product, and the message of the work would be the way the product interacted with the world. Imagining art production as a service industry kind of pulled the carpet out from under me…

LW: Sorry about that.

BR: No, No!

LW: No, but in fact the product, the object that you’re talking about — which we all make, in some way — matter, or form, if it can enter into a discourse with society, even if to be rejected — serves its purpose. When you have an idea that your work is useful in society — and I do — when you make a thing, an object, a specific object, that enters the world, that becomes part of the discourse of the world, it’s very different than when you make something, you put it in a gallery structure, you get it accredited, it’s there, and then you say, “This is what it means.” Obviously, it didn’t mean it, because people aren’t stupid. They really aren’t. All this signage in museums is a waste of time. People figure it out for themselves.

The artist is asking a question. And some questions hit the point. And I mean, sometimes you lose. You know that, don’t you? When you make a product, you never lose. You’re always unappreciated, ahead of your times — they have lots of words for it. You make a product that is just ultimately rejected, but you’ve designed the product in such a manner that they can’t reject it without telling someone about it. I got an award once, and I thanked the people for having hated what I did so much that there wasn’t a person in the world who didn’t know about it. It was very much like the African native who had never seen a motion picture, but damn well knew that Greta Garbo wanted to be alone.

BR: Ha!

LW: And you know something? Everybody laughed. Because in fact that’s not personal. Why should they have accepted me coming along saying that we have to change things in the art world? It’s not about that. The artist doesn’t know better, the artist is asking a question.

Let’s try to make something that really and truly fucks up the world, that doesn’t come in with authority. And as it begins to acquire authority, let’s hope we all develop to a point where what we did is what we’ve learned from, and what we do is what we’re questioning now. In the aftermath of what you’ve done — that’s a service industry. Paying attention. Most art doesn’t pay attention to the culture it comes from, it just uses it.

BR: I wonder if I’ve misunderstood. I find that when I read post-Marxist discourse from the ’80s, I know that I’m looking at it in a perversely disconnected way.

LW: I know — it doesn’t relate!

BR: I mean, I didn’t go to school, and my reading is really random anyway. I don’t know if other people have the feeling that they have a foundation, but I definitely just jump in at all these different points.

LW: They have a foundation — based on the biases of who their teacher was. I left school at a certain age, just walked away from it.

BR: Did you drop out?

LW: It wasn’t called that in those days.

BR: What was it called?

LW: I had to be a beatnik, and I had to go to California. So I went to California. It wasn’t called anything. Anyway, I went to a city university, they couldn’t have cared less if I disappeared or didn’t disappear.

BR: I went to Art Center… for five days.

LW: My God.

BR: It was terrible.

LW: I gave a talk there once. I was disappointed in the education system.

BR: I was, too.

LW: The discourse was not about reorienting the way that you see the world. It was about understanding the world in a way that was left over, in my eyes, from structuralist discourse, where deconstructing something is interesting. I mean, I love detective movies, simple ones — you deconstruct, you figure something out. But it’s always a static truth. And art is supposed to be taking into account that it’s not a static truth. What it is, is a static fact. There is a difference between a static fact and a static truth. A static truth has already proven that it has a use. A static fact is in use, but it hasn’t yet proven that it has a continual use at the moment. That’s what I meant about your service to the society. It’s to not take yourself as if you were the sundial. The sundial only exists with the sun. Otherwise, it’s just a sculpture.

BR: I think that’s actually the point where I’ve misunderstood — maybe in a constructive way — the whole thing, because in the generation I come from, the word “service” never has a positive connotation.

LW: Oh God, what does a doctor do? What does the post office do? What does the police, in the best sense, do? Protect and serve. So I repatriated a word. You know, one of the things people really adore about working in Spain is that it’s a restaurant culture. When you go into a restaurant, you get served extremely professionally. They don’t fawn over you, but you do get incredibly good service, without servility. You’re being served that way because that is part of the job description of serving. There’s a dignity involved in it — it’s a job. Well, making art is a job, and there should be a dignity involved in it. There has to be a way for an artist to be a functioning member of society. And you know the horrible thing is that some people are better at it than others. That’s not a meritocracy, that’s not anything, it’s just that some people make a better omelet. And so they get asked to make omelets a little more. It’s not a big deal, is it?

BR: I guess not.

LW: Everybody is capable of making an omelet. But some people’s omelets are really okay, they got the right flick of the wrist. I’m doing this show in Castellón, all about gesture. I was fascinated by Conchita — the woman who died recently, in her eighties — who was one of the first women matadors. She was a star in Spain, she was a star in Portugal. Her thing was, she was a little clumsy at the beginning, until she discovered that if she could just get it right, the animal died instantly — its brain no longer functioned. That’s a flick of the wrist, and it’s done like this. [Makes a downward arc with his hand] The European community really hates bullfighting. I don’t know why, but they do. I’m not a great fan, but I can appreciate it and understand it. The Taliban hates the exact gesture the other way — flying kites. And to kill a bull and to fly a kite is just a flick of the wrist.

BR: That’s great.

LW: The only thing that fucking matters is the thing that ends up on the table. That’s it. There’s something that I learned about class: the person who is serving you is watching the same things you are. Now why shouldn’t they come to the same conclusions, often? It’s that simple. Instead of spending all their time telling you what they are not doing, which is what people with a bourgeois background do when they’re serving somebody in a restaurant — they’re an actor, they’re a this, they did their PhD. They tell you about themselves. They never learn anything, because whatever they know about themselves they knew already. That’s the difference, you know. I’m serious.

BR: Between?

LW: What I consider squishball and reality.

BR: Nice.

LW: Yeah. I mean, you’re in a situation where you can watch a bullfight. Why do what’s often called in New York “Stuttgarting”? Somebody comes by to visit, and you have to be someplace, and it’s nice, they’re a nice person, you’re interested. You get on the subway, and for you that ride from 14th street to 52nd street or 42nd street — it allows you to stop being, to stop doing what you were doing, and be in the subway with a lot of people. It’s called subwaying. You fade in and you pay attention to where you are. It’s like a gift — you get ten minutes to figure out who you are in the middle of a busy day. And somebody’s next to you telling you that the subway here is different than in Stuttgart, the people are dressed different than in Stuttgart, they’re not doing like in Stuttgart, they’re not doing that. It’s called Stuttgarting. It’s happened to you fifty times before with people, no doubt.

What they never understand is that the whole point is to get on the subway and subway. Maybe there’s something that’s happening, it’s the sound, they’re telling you how different it is from what they knew. Well, that’s something that their brain should have been trained to process. Well, water used to be wet, now it’s dry. That’s all I’m saying. And that’s art — art is not about telling people what you used to know. It’s telling people what is happening right this moment. That’s what makes an artist an artist. Somebody willing to say the emperor has no clothes. You didn’t say anything bad about the emperor, you just said the truth. You know the Alhambra?

BR: Yeah.

LW: There used to be a restriction against depicting human beings. In the Muslim world, the same as for Judaism. At the Alhambra they used to say, the caliph, the wonderful, magnificent caliph, with the big red nose and the big, too big, belly and the weakness for pomegranates and girls with big tits. They used to say that. And when he died and there was a new caliph, they painted it out and put in another one. So people could get an idea if they saw the caliph, what the caliph was supposed to be like. Okay, it’s a narrative portrait, but it’s still a portrait, the same as a picture. I find that fabulous — it’s pretty damn good, isn’t it? That’s the end of what I have to say about the whole East-West difference.

BR: I get that.

LW: They had it together. And of course they killed all the Moors. Because they were becoming Sufi.

BR: It wasn’t just in the ’80s.

LW: No, it wasn’t. It was at the time of Alhambra. That was the time of Cordova and the whole Andalusian experiment. But when you talk to me about West and East and Bidoun, and the whole sense of what the thing is — I’m a real fan, as you know, of the magazine — but I don’t think it’s going to help. Do you know why?

BR: You tell me.

LW: Because one of the things that an artist has to decide — and it sounds extremely pretentious, and I’m sorry, I’m very tired — one of the things that an artist has to do is to take the risk of losing the love of their parents. Now use that sense of “their parents” in terms of the culture that they’re comfortable in, the same as Darwin, the same as mathematicians. That’s the risk you’re going to have to be willing to take to make art. You have to be willing to give up the comfort of déjà vu.

BR: Who are our parents, though?

LW: Whatever culture you are comfortable with, whatever you identify with, wherever you think that your success would mean something. Or, your biological parents.

BR: Those are very different things.

LW: Not necessarily. They’re just a representation of another culture. Being contemporary is simply the ability to leave behind the comfort of déjà vu. You might find yourself in territories that you can’t relate to. How can you feel that you’ve accomplished something in a territory, in a configuration, that you can’t relate to?

BR: How do you mean that in relation to Bidoun?

LW: Bidoun is trying to make a reconciliation between legitimate intellectual discourse and the production of the art world as we see it. And also to keep your feet on both sides. The real problem is when you have a foot here and a foot there [makes a motion to kick BR in the crotch] it’s very dangerous. [Laughter] And that’s the danger that artists take.

That’s what makes it a worthwhile profession. That’s what makes it that you can say, “Hey — I need an hour to think.” I remember during the Second World War, the French discovered that intellectual activities required more food energy than digging a road. The thinker and the ditchdigger both need to eat. But a person who goes up on a high wire — they’re not really higher than anybody, but when they come off of the high wire that’s what they do. They require a different lifestyle than the person who goes to an office every day. They need a different thing in order to feel well enough to get back on the wire and go out again. And artists get out on the wire, performers get out on the wire, musicians go out on the wire. Anybody that does the service to society by trying to deal with what happens besides making shoes and milk is on a high wire. This used to be called “bohemian life.” It just requires something a little different, not much. The mistake Europe made was implying that art was not part of the society — they gave artists, when they couldn’t make enough money, more money than the person who made shoes. No! They should have given them the same money. And let them go as long as they wanted. There was a commercial structure out there. If you chose not to deal with it, you knew that you had enough money for bread and milk and a doctor for your kids, or a doctor for yourself. That’s fine — that’s a choice.

BR: But what they did is based on this problematic image of the artist. Sometimes I feel there are these romantic humanist understandings of the artist in society, and no matter how many essays are published to the contrary, the value of art — I mean the commercial value of art — is still based on redeeming the rest of production.

LW: No, no, no, the commercial value of art is based upon somebody sticking up above somebody else. [Holds up his middle finger] The problem is, go in a field, there’s always something else sticking up somewhere. [Raises a second middle finger] You understand, see that’s not a point. I found a story in the second book of the rules that are linked with the Talmud — the same story is in the book that goes with the Qur’an — where there’s this son who comes home after a long journey, and his father asks, “Well, son, what have you accomplished, what do you bring me, I’m dying, you disappeared. My other sons, they built a little wealth here.” And the son goes [Lawrence whistles a strange melody] and the father says, “Oh! That’s wonderful!” And dies, because he had been brought something worth something.

BR: But how do we know it’s worth something?

LW: Well, you ought to know. If you go to a dentist, you expect them to know how to fix your teeth. You make mistakes, yes. Everybody does. But the point is artists ought to fucking well know what they’re doing. Or you shouldn’t be doing it, just because you want to be part of the circus. It’s all pretty calm, pretty simple stuff. I don’t know why it has to be couched in all this special terminology. Because it’s not special. Art is special. A good omelet is special. Somebody who can teach kids is special. They’re all special. This is supposed to be a world that has so many resources that everybody can be special. Ain’t nothing wrong with it.

Some people are more special than others in their jobs, but not as people. They don’t get an extra vote — they get an extra joint. No, I mean that. Somebody who gets up and sings for you all night, they get a couple of extra hours of sleep in the morning. Big deal. A person who makes shoes all day doesn’t need a foot-rub, they need a hand-rub.

BR: That logic is bulletproof. But it is a form of compensation — a massage. The issue I have is that I sometimes feel the art world is siphoning people out of reality who could be acting and serving reality.

LW: You don’t think art is acting and serving reality?

BR: Sometimes I feel the museum and exhibition infrastructure creates a Platonic space in which something can —

LW: Yeah, but there are other structures in the world. And the museum structures are the least problematic. They’re the least reactionary. They’ll adapt to anything. People wanted to make big sculpture — they built big museums. Then all of a sudden they started making small sculpture, and they have to figure it out.

BR: But are they really so separate?

LW: It depends on whether you want them to talk to your parents and tell them how wonderful you are, or whether you just want to show your fucking stuff. Aha. You’ll always fit into one of the shows that they’re doing, if you’re really doing something. But they may not praise you. Okay, we had to put so-and-so in the show. Because they belong there.

It helps in life if you’re intelligent, but essentially, you just have to be honest about questioning the things that bother you materially. Without using all the other clothes around it. That’s why when you’re talking about the clothing for a shoot —

BR: Well, we wanted to do something different.

LW: We have to figure out how you can get what you want without having to do Vogue.

BR: Yeah, I don’t —

LW: You know what I mean. I just did things, like I said, with so-and-so’s clothing. Hooray, so they fit me. The YSL jacket didn’t quite fit, but it looked great in the photo. It was too small. My arms are longer than they thought. I have arms like an ape.

BR: It wasn’t about clothes per se, there’s just something about editorial portraiture, of men, of a certain age, of men who do things. It can all be so predetermined.

LW: I do think that I’m quite capable of looking at a camera and breaking down this whole male patriarchy thing — and it doesn’t matter that I have a cock, and that I happen to have a beard, it doesn’t seem to matter. Or it’s not supposed to have to matter — it becomes obvious that I’m not playing the Ralph Lauren game. It becomes obvious that this is not what this is about. I’m photographed a lot, okay?

BR: Well, I’m just going to obsessively go back to service.

LW: Ask me direct questions, and I’ll give you direct answers.

BR: Let me think about it.

LW: I only worked as a server once in my life.

BR: Where did you work?

LW: On a tugboat. I was on a tugboat, and I’d gotten on the crew, but I wasn’t strong enough to do what I had to do. I was too young, and there’s a difference between young muscles and the older muscles. And they didn’t know what the hell to do with me — we were at sea — so the guy who was working — serving — was strong enough. This was obviously not a highlevel job — I had to pull chains and things, and they switched off and they put me in the galley, and I had to serve everybody on this bouncing ship for a long time. And every time I spilled something, they hit me. And I did it, and at the end I made more money than if I had just worked on the ship, because each one of the sailors, when they got paid, put money on the side for me. I’d done my job, I was there at four o’clock in the morning, I was there at six o’clock at night, I was there in the middle of the night. I was where I was supposed to be. But I wasn’t even doing it that well. Anyway, I was seasick half the time.

BR: Where was this?

LW: That was off the northern coast of Canada. It was rough water. It was the kind of water where, if you fell in, you died. Not right away, but by the time anybody got it together to get you out, you were dead.

BR: I know about this water, I grew up in the Northwest.

LW: Oh — I used to hitchhike to Portland, catch the boat, go Portland–Seattle, Seattle–Vancouver, Nome, back again. And then I’d hitchhike back to New York. I was going to school, so I really had no time for any exploration except for what I saw when I was hitchhiking. It was a different time. It all sounds so romantic now. It was a time when you could even get truck drivers to drive you across… You didn’t have to be a very tough person, you just had to persevere and know that you wanted to get to the other side.

BR: This is in the ’50s?

LW: Late ’50s. Life was a different story, as it should be. It’s gotten better now, and it’s gotten worse. In the same way, you can’t just put your thumb up and go west — there’s a good chance that you’ll end up, male or female, you’ll end up pregnant.

BR: That’s the confusing thing with my generation.

LW: Yeah, you got screwed.

BR: I always had this impression of an American — an American, to me, was such a different thing from what’s advertised, especially since the ’80s and stuff. My dad had this girlfriend who was in her sixties who was a Communist. She had been in the Communist Party since she was in her twenties, and he was like forty at the time.

LW: Yeah, the Wobblies were out there.

BR: Yeah. But she was always part of my impression of an “American,” this sixty-year-old Communist woman.

LW: I hope she was pretty.

BR: She was.

LW: Isn’t that nice, lucky for your dad. Because somebody at least believed that human beings could change. That human beings were essentially good. I don’t know if I still do. My socialism is much more humanist than it is believing that human beings are essentially good. They don’t seem to prove it to me very often. So what else do you want to ask about service?

BR: Yeah, I’ll keep asking. The way I read it is, you’re saying that the content of the work is its reason for existing. Now the way I took that line was that the fact that an artwork has a reason to exist, that it’s in the mind of the person making the artwork, that’s the commodity at play.

LW: Oh, okay, but then you get into another conversation. You get into this problem that I don’t quite understand, that Japanese culture seems to understand, where they call somebody a living treasure. A treasure within their society. Now why shouldn’t every artist be considered a living treasure, because they’re willing to engage with their society? And I don’t mean the MFAs. The people who have the booklet already that tells you what they’re going to make for the next ten years so you can rest on it — they really and truly don’t count. They come and they go, talking of Michelangelo. But they don’t exist. Open art magazines from twenty years ago. All the people who thought they knew what they were going to do for the next ten years — I don’t know what they’re doing, but there’s no public record of it anymore! It disappears. What? Do you need rolling papers?

BR: You’re a genius.

LW: I have these, they’re rice paper and they have no gum. I don’t roll my own for any class identification, I like the taste. Other tobacco gives me a headache. I have had emphysema since a child. I got it working on the docks and unloading boats as a kid, like thirteen or something.

BR: You worked on the docks when you were a kid?

LW: I was a big kid. No, that’s another whole, that’s a funny, strange thing. You know how you’re sometimes out in the middle of nowhere, and some guy, this hulking guy, is standing there, and you realize that the both of you got put to work too young? I grew up in a place where I needed the money. I had a nice childhood, no problem. Economically, it was a little bit dicey.

BR: Yeah, same here. I started working when I was young.

LW: As a child my parents were not happy about me. They expected me to be working for them. My father had a little grocery, candy store or something, in the South Bronx. My mother’s first comment to me when I said, “Listen, I’m sixteen, okay, I’m going to be an artist” — I had already graduated from high school, I was fast developing in those days — and she looked at me, and she said, “Oh, Lawrence, you’ll break your heart.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” And she said, “Art — that’s for rich people,” and she didn’t seem to understand either. Pity.

I had a public talk once with Jorge Pardo in Basel. It was a very interesting talk, because I like Jorge, he gets me, we’re friends. Jorge is of a totally different generation than me, but he grew up in a Cuban-American family, and dicey economics. You know, you always have food, but they didn’t understand art.

Jorge and I had this talk, and you know what came out of it? The people there were very upset that we determined that our backgrounds in no way, manner, or form informed the work we were doing. Just by chance had come from that lower-lower-lower middle class, upper-working class, where there was enough to eat. You didn’t live in a car, you didn’t live in a tent, but it didn’t inform anything. All it was, was that it fucked up my body. That’s it. Because they put you to work too young.

BR: So you don’t think that some of the ethics as far as materials is concerned, that you were talking about earlier, come from the way you were brought up?

LW: No, it shouldn’t. Jorge Pardo would have existed whether I did or not, and I would have existed whether John Chamberlain existed or not. And yet John was a great supporter for me, and I was a great supporter for Jorge. Fine. Nothing. It doesn’t matter.

BR: Your reputation seems to have caught up with you in the last few years.

LW: The last ten years, it’s been overwhelming. No loss, but it’s been overwhelming. I think of it as a service, I try to be as decent about it as possible.

BR: Talking about service again?

LW: Yeah, why not? It’s what you came for.

BR: I came for it, and I want to ask more about it, because it relates to me personally.

LW: Yeah, but I don’t know what you think service is.

BR: I know, and that’s why, I mean…

LW: What about service just being able to question what is questionable? And doing it — having the guts and the physical acumen to do it. It’s being able to walk over when you’re watching a whole bunch of kids from one ethnic group beating up a kid from another ethnic group. And they could kill you. And you can walk over and somehow or other save the kid from getting kicked in the head. That’s service, that’s what art does.

BR: Well, that’s the thing, that’s the issue…

LW: Art saves some kid from getting kicked in the head.

BR: But then the issue…

LW: But it doesn’t save them from getting kicked in the arm or the leg, because there’s nothing you can do about that. You’re not strong enough.