Katelynn Dunn (KD): The piece, Modern Art in Your Life, 2019, was a work commissioned by MoMA, so how did you navigate the institution while also developing a critique of the art historical canon within their collection?
Sara Cwynar (SC): It was the title of a show in the fifties in this period of more optimistic or public good oriented shows at MoMA. They also had shows like The Family of Man, 1955. They had more of an ethos about the greatness of humanity in progress from the perspective of Western culture, in which there was a lot of othering of other cultures. The whole spirit was to show how great America was, and MoMA was an extension of America. I was trying to play off this early institutional history of MoMA as something that had a very clear political bend to it while very much thinking it was being objective. I didn’t have too much difficulty navigating the institution. They seemed ok with me being a little bit critical of them and pointing to all the biases in their institutional history. They’re trying to parse that themselves in the current climate where finally people realize that the history of modern art is just one specific history that could have been another way, and that it might not necessarily mean all that much.
You realize, and this is something I realized working at The New York Times, that these behemoth institutions of our culture that we think are handing down things that must have been thought through and decided on by people who knew, or the whole notion of expertise, is kind of falling apart in our time for better or for worse. All of our older institutions no longer have authority. Working at the NYT, I realized this too. People are figuring out things as best they can and making a lot of mistakes. MoMA is obviously exactly the same. That was cool to work through, although I don’t think I had as much access to the failures as someone who is actually in an institution.
KD: Did you have any particular inspirations?
SC: I was also thinking about John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, 1972, which is one of my favorite projects ever. I refer a lot to these really early first encounters with these sorts of visual culture theories that a lot of people get in art school, and I found them on my own. I did graphic design school, which is not art school. I obviously didn’t make Ways of Seeing, but I wanted to make this [commissioned work] as ambitious as I could. It seemed more exciting than making something for a gallery or even making something for a physical space within a museum.
KD: On your website, it says that your book, The Kitsch Encyclopedia, looks at the way that an idealized image world has been constructed on top of the real world and has in many ways subsumed it. Do you view the act of making this book, and the usage of the kitsch aesthetic in your works, as a confirmation of the “idealized image”?
SC: I think the use of those types of images is trying to walk a double line or something. It is sort of a confirmation of those types of images. I am thinking about kitsch in a specific sense of it, as the sort of images and objects that we, and social movements, and religions, and all sorts of things, attach ourselves to for seeing the world as more aesthetically pleasing, more palatable, and easier to navigate on an existential level than it actually is. I realize that images in this sense are sort of cynical in that they are perhaps blocking the more difficult parts of reality from our view.
KD: How did you come up with, or determine, the “idealized image” in your artworks?
SC: That book [The Kitsch Encyclopedia, 2014] and a lot of my early encounters with theory came with what Kundera was describing as kitsch, which is this sort of image world that you quoted that has subsumed the real world or has in some way become more real to us. I think this is increasingly truer now, especially as we can’t even enter the real world that much. I was looking a lot at other theorists, like the simulations by Jean Beaudrillard and mythology by Roland Barthes, and really kind of seminal almost undergrad early theory text that also pull apart the way that images work and the way that they present the world as more cleaned up and paired down and simplified than it actually is. I started building an idea of the idealized image through those early theories, and then it’s just been something that’s grown and changed in my work. It has kind of morphed to absorb a lot of what Instagram has to offer and a lot of the ways that we experience images now as opposed to the more closed off ways that Roland Barthes saw advertising work. By closed off I mean that there wasn’t as much material to sift through. So, it’s kind of a changing definition.
KD: What pieces of the aesthetic would be ironic or a critique of the idealized image in this sense, and would you consider any part of this aesthetic to be “true”?
SC: That’s one of the core questions I’m always trying to sort through. There is so much truth in those images. The quote from Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved together, with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” That is a quote I say every time I do a talk pretty much, because I feel like it sums up this sort of truth, and then the reversal of the truth, in having a sentimental aesthetic experience. You are sort of first there in some aspect of it that has to be moving. Then you get caught up in seeing all the images that you have already seen and seeing with a collective eye or a shared idea of how you are supposed to see.
Now I’m thinking a lot about how we’re supposed to be able to parse whether anything is true or real in our crazy internet world of news, and that question is very generative in my work and very impossible to answer. I can’t tell if I’m acting in a real way or if I’m reacting in a way that all the images and news and things I read, and people’s opinions I absorb, are telling me to react. It becomes very difficult to figure it out.
KD: Considering your research that deals directly with the notion of restrictive beauty standards as well as the critical eye towards images and image making, how do you define limitation in your creative process?
SC: I think my personal neurosis I find limiting includes that my work might be too aesthetically pleasing for some people to take seriously, and that it might be too gendered. Then, there are the classic limitations of trying to figure out how to be and what to say. Everyone is being more careful, maybe too careful, with everything that they say and do publicly right now. I think most of that is a force for good, and I also try to be extremely careful and sensitive in my work anyway. Everyone is being so conservative. Like the Guston show being canceled. We are in a moment of a lot of limitations that amount to censorship that are maybe coming from not a bad place. It’s just too stressful to be doing anything in the public eye right now.
KD: Are there practical methods that you employ to break through these, or are there visual elements that you encode?
SC: On a purely practical level, I always ask a lot of people’s opinions about everything that I put into the world. That usually helps me to know that I’ve done everything that I could. I usually trust myself if I feel like something is good or at least worth putting out there. And I also make sure to ask a bunch of people so I’m not only speaking from my own experience. That’s kind of the best thing you can do. I also try to make a lot of stuff, so I keep practicing the feeling of exposing myself.
Image caption: Sara Cwynar, Tracy (Pantyhose), 2017, dye sublimation print, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Foxy Production, New York.
Image alt text:A woman sits behind a collage made of old photographs, pantyhose, perfume bottles, and other feminine items. Her legs, showing from behind the collage, are shiny and her feet are fitted with red boots. Her right arm, both hands, one with a ring on it, and half of her face including one eye, are visible.