Artist Nayland Blake on Capitalism and Creativity

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June Thomas: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. When?

Speaker 2: One of the things about the commercial art world is that it will take as much of your power as you’re willing to give it. If you want to give it all of your power over what you do in the studio and what you’re capable of thinking about, then fine. It will take all of that. It doesn’t mean that you will automatically be rewarded.

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June Thomas: Welcome back to working. I’m your host, June Thomas.

Isaac Butler: And I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.

June Thomas: Isaac, I’m so happy to see you again. I feel like it’s.

Isaac Butler: Been a long time.

June Thomas: Yeah, we’ve had because of summer vacations and trips, we’ve had a we’ve gotten off schedule. So it’s, it’s been a bit strange.

Isaac Butler: Also, there was the time, the care and sabotage of the brake line of your car.

June Thomas: Yeah.

Isaac Butler: Could fill in for you for a couple of weeks.

June Thomas: Yeah. Good luck finding a car in my life, but. Sure, sure. Before we get any further, I have to know whose voice we heard at the top of the show. Who was that?

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Isaac Butler: That was the artist, teacher and thinker Nayland Blake, whose work actually is currently on display as part of the Whitney Biennial.

June Thomas: Wow. And what kind of work does Nayland make?

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Isaac Butler: Well, Nerlens had a long career in a variety of different media. I read an interview with them where they referred to themselves as a sculptor in the past, and there’s certainly a lot of that in the in the oeuvre. But they’ve also done performance work, lots of drawing, lots of kind of stuff that defies categorization, etc.. As you’ll hear in the interview, actually, one of the three works they have at the Whitney takes the form of a consulting practice, of all things.

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June Thomas: I am very excited to hear this interview, but first I believe that you have an extra segment just for Slate plus members. What will they hear?

Isaac Butler: Well, believe it or not, June Nayland and I are going to talk about video games and about what artists can learn from the ways that video games are rethinking the art audience relationship. Well, you’ll also hear about the leather bar they built on their animal crossing island.

June Thomas: Way to get me into animal crossing. Okay, this is incredibly intriguing. I’m not a gamer myself, but I always enjoy hearing smart people talk about video games. So that is something I would not want to miss personally. Fortunately, it’s super easy to join Slate Plus, and it’s an incredible value. As a member, you’ll get no ads on any of our podcasts. You can read anything, read until you are seated on the Slate site without ever hitting a paywall. And you’ll hear member exclusive episodes and segments from shows like Culture Gabfest and The Waves. To learn more about becoming a Slate Plus member, go to Slate.com, Slash Working Plus.

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June Thomas: All right. Let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Nayland Blake.

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Isaac Butler: Nayland Blake. Thank you so much for joining us to talk about your process here on working.

Speaker 2: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Isaac Butler: There’s probably no better place for us to start than with your current project that is up at the Whitney Biennial. It is called Got Art Problem. And I was wondering if you could just tell our listeners about it.

Speaker 2: Sure. For the run of the exhibition a couple of days a week, I am meeting one on one with folks who have art problems, who have problems with their creativity. And I do a little sort of interview process with them and talk to them about what they do and hopefully come up with some strategies that might be helpful for them.

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Isaac Butler: How do you find the artists who you’re helping?

Speaker 2: Well, this has really been a collaboration with the Whitney’s Education Department. And so when I initially proposed this project to the to the museum, I suggested that I wanted to focus on three different kinds of folks. One of which was Whitney staff. The next was people who are involved in their youth programs and then seniors. And so the Whitney’s done a bunch of outreach and issued invitations to people. And then every week I’m meeting these people for the first time. So it’s sort of the it’s an opportunity to get to know them and spend some time, you know, just sitting and talking about the process.

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Isaac Butler: You exchange drawings with them as well, right? Like.

Speaker 2: Well, yeah. Part of what we have had for the application process is that we have a questionnaire that the person fills out, and I ask them to make a drawing of their problem. Mm hmm. And then at the end of the interview, we install their drawing on the walls of the Whitney office that we’ve been meeting in. And I have drawings that they can select to have for themselves.

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Isaac Butler: Oh, that’s fascinating. And, you know, I actually took a photo of those drawings because I was at the at the biennial yesterday, and they’re they’re really wonderful. I mean, it sort of turns the space into a work of art of itself. There’s there’s one that’s a clock. That’s the hands of a clock moving. And each one there’s there’s one that’s sort of two 3D tables and it says no room at the table. And anyway, they’re really they’re really fascinating.

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Isaac Butler: How did you come up with this project? Where did where did it start for you?

Speaker 2: I’ve worked for my entire career sort of in three areas in the arts. I’m a working artist. I also have supported myself by working at nonprofit artists, run organizations as a administrator and as a curator. And then I’ve also worked as a teacher.

Speaker 2: And so in the midst of the pandemic, when I was sort of contemplating what my participation in the Biennial might be, I was feeling, frankly, quite disheartened with the art world in general and the museum world and how things were going in New York and in our country. And so I asked myself the question, well, what is my the piece of this that I actually do enjoy? What’s the piece of this that is important to me? And it is that moment of looking at what someone does. Being able to, in a way, kind of diagnose what they do, you know, or what’s going on with them, where they’re at in the process, and then hopefully suggesting a strategy that might make sense for them to make the next thing to keep going forward.

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Isaac Butler: Can I just ask a little bit about that disheartened feeling? I mean, I think you and I probably share what is heartening about this country, but I’m curious very specifically about the art world than the museum world and maybe frustrations, I don’t know with your own practice or whatever about about about what the source of that disheartening feeling was. And, you know, when you have that moment during the pandemic to pause kind of what you were re-evaluating and what was proving problematic for you.

Speaker 2: In the largest sense. I think that what is valuable about art? Is that it is the place where we can encounter multiplicity and ambiguity in a nonlethal way. Mm hmm. And what we’ve seen in this country in the past decade is this drive to polarization and certainty. People are so threatened by the prospect of not knowing the answer that they would rather have somebody who has a horrible answer than to have somebody who wants to think about things or try to find a way to think about things.

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Speaker 2: And so art is really a valuable place philosophically, but the sort of structures that are in place to support art have become increasingly difficult to navigate and increasingly class bound. It’s been harder and harder for people to, you know, go to museums and feel like they have any sort of home there. You know, it’s sort of like their job is to go there and look at what’s on the walls and then be kind of shuffled off to a gift shop or shuffled off to a café. And this is really reflected in the in the physical design of a lot of museums.

Speaker 2: But it’s also there in the way that museums were responding to the very real social pressures that were going on. You know, the Whitney itself had some real missteps in the midst of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, right where they boarded up the facade of the museum and then put together a show that was well-intentioned, perhaps in its attempt to capture the political activism of Black Lives Matters artists.

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Speaker 2: But the way in which they acquired the work was really morally questionable and exploitative. So these places that could be locations for a kind of tender encounter of intimacy have become increasingly alienated. And so that’s in some ways my problem with it.

Speaker 2: I’m I grew up I’m a native New Yorker. I grew up seeing the New York art world of the sixties and seventies, which was a much shaggy year and unprofessional place, you know, because in part there was never the idea that you could make a living doing it. Right. And it was like, oh, my God, I could live my life without having to worry about, like, you know, making a living.

Isaac Butler: Right. I mean, clearly, you see an effect that that has on the work itself and the way that work is presented in a certain maybe almost sterility, because you use the term intimacy before almost kind of sterility or an austerity in that relationship between spectator and and art. Do you feel that it has affected the process of art making itself like do you feel, well, maybe in your own work, even because you’ve spoken very eloquently about the deleterious effects of capitalism on art making in this country? I’ve been very inspired actually going through your old interviews by some of the things you’ve said about it. And I’m just wondering if, you know, you’re a human in this world where you’re you’re a human being in capitalism. Do you feel like in your own work and in your own process, you have to kind of actively resist that. Do you feel there’s like a it’s tendrils coming in and affecting your work?

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Speaker 2: Well, I think you have to continually ask yourself the question, what can I do with what I have now? Like where is my leverage in this situation? Right. You know, I do think and particularly when I speak to younger artists and I speak to students well, for example, I could I could take an example from one of the art problems. I met with someone. They were just recently out of art school and they were, you know, very, very kind of tenuous about making anything. And they were showing me all their previous work. It was this very funny, kind of quirky, shaggy, anecdotal, interesting stuff. And they explained that they had a friend who was also an artist who was a little bit further along in their career.

Speaker 2: And their friend was like, Well, look, you should take down your website. You should not show this stuff. It should be really consistent. And, you know, in doing that, I’ll be able to get you some representation. There’s somebody who’s interested in looking at artists like this. And and so they were being presented with this common sense that was streamline what you do, make it recognizable.

Isaac Butler: Be a brand.

Speaker 2: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. This is the way that you have a career. And I felt so badly for them because they the way they were expressing it was so pained and constricted. It was like, well, I guess I’m going to have to do this. And, you know, one of the things about the commercial art world is that it will take as much of your power as you’re willing to give it. Mm hmm. If you want to give it all of your power over what you do in the studio and what you’re capable of thinking about, then fine. It will take all of that. It doesn’t mean that you will automatically be rewarded. So what happens if you give it all that power and then you don’t get anything in return?

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Speaker 2: Right. And, you know, we we got to the end of the session. And I was like, well, you know, because this worked for your friend, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. And in fact, you can now go back and tell your friend that you have work hanging on the walls of the Whitney before they do. Yeah, right. Right. Yeah. So that’s one of those moments of like, okay, I don’t have the power to upend this market, but I do have the power to have an interaction with this person that is about what is genuinely at stake for being an artist and making art.

Isaac Butler: Yeah. You know, when you said that, it made me think of, you know, Guston Philip Guston’s late work. Yeah. How despised it was. Yeah. Because he had broken with abstraction and was moving into these very cartoony figures. And, you know, there was like only one critic who liked it. I mean, yeah, he was despised in some ways because of what he had done.

Speaker 2: I mean, Guston is an excellent case in point and has been like a real example for me in terms of my career, because I think part of what Guston did in that moment is that he went back to drawing imagery from the funny pages, from the cartoons that he looked at, you know, as a kid. If you look at drawings of the crazy cat comic strip, you know, they move directly into the way that Guston constructs space. But I think Guston is also an amazing case in point at the moment because of all of the controversy about the recent Guston retrospective that’s currently up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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Isaac Butler: Right. Those paintings are just for our listeners who don’t know have become newly controversial for a different reason, which is that they contain imagery of the Klan. And, you know, Guston was an artist who won one of his first masterpieces was destroyed by the Klan. So, I mean, he is not celebrating or trying to make the Klan safe in any way. Those paintings are meant to be disturbing, but it’s created a huge controversy and actually caused the show to be postponed for several years. Yeah.

Speaker 2: It’s now open and it’s extremely bracketed, but I think the thing that was frustrating about the initial delay is that we’ve lost the ability to understand self-loathing. You know, Guston was a Jew who, as you say, had work destroyed by the Klan, but was also in that moment of making those paintings right. Which were like he turned back to representation from abstraction, you know, in the midst of the civil rights era.

Speaker 2: And one of the things that he’s saying is, I am not separate from this. Right. I am implicated in racism. Right. My whiteness, even though I am a Jew and even though I understand rationally that I. Do you not have a part in this? There is still a kind of self-loathing for the bits of it that remain right that we can’t escape.

Isaac Butler: And in fact, he’s drawn as a Klansman in a self-portrait. He calls a self-portrait where he is one of those Klan.

Speaker 2: Yeah. Yeah. Where he’s in this in the studio with the hood. And for me, as a as a, you know, a biracial person who passes for white. I’m finally attuned to the ways in which my passing allows me to move through the world in a way that more visibly black people cannot. And a certain amount of my work is about that as well. And in order to get to that feeling, that complicated feeling, we have to be able to spend time with the work. And we have to have situations where we can have a discussion, where things move back and forth and where there is disagreement. And it’s hard to figure out like where are the public places where that can happen at the moment?

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June Thomas: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Nayland Blake.

June Thomas: Listeners, we want to hear from you whether you want us to solve your art problems. Tell us about a guest you’d like to hear on the show or share your own creative triumphs. Drop us a line at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at three of 4933w0rk. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you listen to podcasts.

June Thomas: Now let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Nayland Blake.

Isaac Butler: You know, one context that it feels like is is supplanting everything right now is, you know, the Internet that, you know, it’s like I mean, I know that people have been worried about this with technological innovation all the time. You know, there’s the famous in the context of node context, which is about television or, you know, whatever. But early on in your career in San Francisco, your work was hyper local. You know, you you had a very specific community you were making your work for. You often knew those people who are in your audiences or who are coming to your work, particularly during the AIDS crisis. There’s a shared community of the embattled queer community of San Francisco. That’s a very different context from, you know, this is all in capital letters, the New York art world. You know, how the Internet is processing this stuff. And I’m wondering how that affects the way that you view your art and your art making process.

Speaker 2: Well, I think that hasn’t shifted, actually, for me in terms of how I conceive of it. And some of this has to maybe go to working method, but it’s very hard for me to conceive of a piece without a destination in mind, like a physical destination. So one of the ways I get into trouble or get blocked in the studio is if there’s too much stuff hanging on the walls. Hmm. I literally need to clear a space before I can imagine a new thing to kind of go in there.

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Isaac Butler: And so you’re imagining, like, a specific venue, like, this is a thing that I will perform in this specific gallery. Or is it just. Yeah, okay. Got it.

Speaker 2: And those things may go on to have a life after that initial location, but that’s not part of the calculus of conceiving of the work. And I believe that really strongly that you can’t anticipate audience in a broad term. And I’m also very materialist. So for me it is about the texture, the size, the shape of something, it is about the physicality of it.

Speaker 2: And I think one of the difficulties with a lot of digital work, for example, and digital culture is that it is essentially boundaryless. It’s like it’s going to appear on any number of screens, but you don’t really know right where those screens are located. Some of them are tiny there. We carry them around with us. And that, I think, makes it really difficult to kind of conceive of what’s an effective action for that space.

Isaac Butler: Right. Right. You know, that’s funny, because we talk all the time on this show about constraints of where creativity comes from.

Speaker 2: Exactly.

Isaac Butler: And it sounds like one of the ways you confront what to me is the tyranny of the blank page. But for you, as I think the tyranny of the blank wall or whatever is, you create almost an imaginary restraint of like, okay, but it’s for this space or whatever and that helps you inquiry your way into the work.

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Isaac Butler: And does that come before you even know? And forgive me, these are clumsy terms for this, but like what the issue is that you’re going to confront or what thematically you want the piece to do. Like space is absolutely the first concern.

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Speaker 2: It is that thing of like, okay, what do I want to see here? And then executing this thing and then looking at the thing that I’ve executed and going like, okay, why did I want to see that there? So I always think like all work can be read and should be read through a political lens, but through the lens of what is it doing, not what you intended it to do. I’m enough of like a crypto Freudian to believe that actually the most interesting stuff about work is the stuff that it does that I did not intend for it to do.

Speaker 2: And so, like, I’ve come to realize that the three things that I’ve done for the Biennial have all been around intimacy and an attempt to kind of queer and make a kind of little queer nest inside of this institution. For me to kind of, like, feel okay in my skin occupying that that space. Mm hmm. But that wasn’t the that wasn’t the initial impetus for any of the pieces.

Isaac Butler: Right. You didn’t start going. How do I queer the Whitney Biennial?

Speaker 2: Exactly.

Isaac Butler: And then figure out a bunch of different strands.

Speaker 2: And I don’t think we I don’t think we ever do. And one of the things that I love about, like, being able to look over a long stretch of work is to be able to see the ways that certain things recur in the work and certain things move in and out of the work. And the work I make is varied. Is, is looks like a lot of different things, and that’s quite conscious. Mm hmm. But I think the thing that it shares throughout is that it is all human sized.

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Speaker 2: I’m really not interested in what I would call sculpture scale. The idea of, like, you make something bigger just because art is supposed to be a little bit bigger. That always seems like the weakest rationale for me, and I’m always really interested in art that actually you sort of has the scale of objects in the world, which are actually quite small when you measure them. Right. But I think what that does is it allows the people who see my things to project themselves into. It to sort of mentally try it on in a way.

Isaac Butler: And you’re also often inviting their direct participation. I mean, there’s the there’s theater to where you built basically the gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel. And the The Spectator is invited to take a jump of it, if I know. Or maybe it’s just the delicious smell of gingerbread.

Speaker 2: It’s a great size for kids to actually be able to walk into. It’s like seven by seven by ten feet. Yeah. The first iteration of it, I had this idea to see all the gingerbread panels with polyethylene so that they wouldn’t crumble. And that was a bad idea because after it was up in the gallery for a few days, we saw like bits were broken off of it and clearly people had been sort of like testing it, tried to eat it, so they felt invited whether or not they were actually got it right.

Isaac Butler: Well, you know, that’s the trick. When you let the audience have that much room, sometimes they do things you don’t intend. But, you know, another one is the the work of art that’s built out of your record collection, Ruins of a Sensibility, which is not. A presentation of artistic totems for their own sake, like, here’s all the cool ass records I’ve accumulated, but it actually comes with a DJ table. Yes. So that the spectator in the museum can pick up a record, select a track and play it or whatever. I’m just curious about your relationship with audience, you know, and how you try to invite them them in and how that becomes part of your process.

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Speaker 2: The thing about Ruins of a Sensibility is that it? On one hand is that, you know, notes an era where we used to make a kind of monument of our record collection. Right. But it also is a way for somebody to move out of being a passive viewer of something, to actually providing the soundtrack for the other people who were there in the show. So people can sign up for deejay stints. And then, you know, a really interesting thing happens when somebody then becomes the custodian of someone else’s experience in the museum. Right. It sort of breaks up that passive and alienated relationship.

Speaker 2: The other component of that piece is a an abstract painting that is a painting that I made with my father when I was four years old. Mm hmm. In the basement of our building where he was the super. And it’s one of my earliest memories is the making of that painting. But it’s also a painting that has hung over my parent’s couch since that day. And so it’s thinking about how you feel at home in a public situation.

Speaker 2: And I think that’s something else that’s coming up again with the art problems, is that a number of people will say to me, like, well, I can’t draw. And I will remind them that they did once. And that they stopped. Right. Every child draws. And then at a certain point, someone gives them the idea that there are good and bad drivers. And the bad drivers shouldn’t draw anymore.

Isaac Butler: Yeah. You know, this actually is a is a great segway to this document that you sent right before the interview that I did, I had the chance to read. So which is called the. No, no, no, no. As soon as I got it, I was like, this is gold. You have to talk about this called 100 assignments toward a curriculum. It’s an unpublished kind of, you know, prologue in which you explain the purpose of it. And then 100 exercises. Mm hmm. They’re prompts, and they range from just a just to give our readers a sense, imagining a society based on a magazine. So you just pick up a magazine that you’ve never read, and then you read it and you say, Imagine, this is the only thing I knew about a society. What’s that society like? Or sculpting a self-portrait where every part of your body that you feel is vulnerable is rendered at twice its normal size. And I’m interested. How did you develop these these exercises?

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Speaker 2: Well, some of them are literal assignments that I’ve given to students. So the magazine assignment is one that I’ve given to graduate students for many years. Some of them are assignments that I have given myself to get myself over being stuck in work. And some of them I came up with because I was like, okay, well, 100 is around number, so I’m going to I have to get myself right past my limit. And I think that’s an important part of assignments, is that how did they push you past your normal stopping place?

Isaac Butler: Right. Yes. You write very movingly. I was very moved as a teacher by this thing. You said, many people attempt to use assignments to force people to come to a conclusion to predetermine the outcome. Good assignments awakened us to the breadth of possibilities available to us, rather than to narrow things down to one possibility. They are the scaffolding we build to touch the unexpected and wild within ourselves. They are how we stretch. There is no wrong answer. There is only the next thing to do.

Isaac Butler: Do you feel like you had to come to a place as an artist where you embraced that like early on in your career? Were you more categorical or, you know, everything has to be purposeful or.

Speaker 2: I think like most folks early on, I wanted to have the right answer. I wanted art making to be like Lego. Right. Like you do this, you do this, you do this, you do this, and then you end up with this.

Isaac Butler: Yeah, of course.

Speaker 2: If you think you can predetermine the outcome, then you’re not really doing the work. Mm hmm. And I think that is one of the reasons why art is so threatening to markets, because markets like predictability. And it’s and it’s one of the reasons why it’s so threatening to political movements, because political movements want, you know, predictability in a way they want they want a particular policy to have a particular outcome.

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Speaker 2: And so it early on, I was definitely in that camp and I went to graduate school at California Institute of the Arts in the early eighties. And it was a time of kind of heady theory where, you know, the goal for the smart students there was to make the work. That would be the illustration for the article in October, you know. Right. It wasn’t it wasn’t necessarily to be published, you know, or to or to come up with your own theory about something. It was like to make something that a theoretician would find valuable as a way of explicating some other philosophical idea. And I ended up coming up against the fact that so much of what I was interested in in the world just sort of fell outside of those concerns, and particularly sexuality.

Speaker 2: Mm hmm. And my own theoretical formulation is. That’s all philosophy and all theory issues from bodies. And so people’s bodies have to be taken into account in some way. They are impure and that’s where their value lies, because they they move us away from tidy certainties.

Isaac Butler: You mentioned earlier on in this interview the temptation of the Tidey certainty, which certainly as a non-fiction writer, I feel all the time, you know, because we’re supposed to deal in facts are what we think are facts, you know. And I think for. All of us who are creating in this moment the temptation to the tidy certainty is very powerful. You’ve spent your life trying to resist that temptation. I’m just wondering, do you have any, you know, advice for us in this moment of how we embrace the ineffable, embrace the question that can’t be answered, embrace the ambiguous or what we feel conflicted about, you know, how do we discover our negative capability when we feel it drifting away from us?

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Speaker 2: I think that it is one it’s to acknowledge that we have the capacity for it. Mm hmm. But I think also, we’re all tremendously scared. And often our judgments are, you know, behaviors that we arrived at to protect ourselves when we were young and frightened.

Speaker 2: And so, you know, a thing that happens to me in the studio a lot is that I will have an idea for something that is going to something for me to do, and it’ll pop into my head. And then I’ll be like, Oh, no, no, that’s too corny, or, Oh, that’s too representational, or that’s too whatever. And. When I really examined those tubes that were too, it’s not necessarily in my voice. It’s something that I learned from someone else. As a way of protecting myself from exposing myself too much in my wildness, in my impurity.

Speaker 2: And so at that moment, what I’ve tried to learn to do is to thank that defense mechanism for showing up. And, you know, I thought like, it’s like, thank you for coming. I understand that you’re trying to protect me. I’m okay. Right now, and, you know, you don’t need to be here. And that sounds like some woo woo self-help stuff. But I really believe that that is that is the case when we are making art, we are manifesting our individual presence in the world. And that’s an audacious thing to do. And many of us have been shamed out of doing that.

Speaker 2: Right. And so when we find ourselves in a situation where we have a base level of anxiety about all of the things that are going wrong in the world, it gets even harder to not react out of fear and not you know, it’s like this is the problem with Twitter right now.

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Speaker 2: Right. Is that I have to continually remind myself that. People don’t need to know what I think about this. I don’t really have something to say about that. I’m horrified. But so much of our statements on Twitter are about broadcasting to folks that you’re horrified so that no one thinks that you’re not horrified.

Isaac Butler: Right.

Speaker 2: Which is a very tidy way of not dealing with the horror. Totally.

Isaac Butler: Nayland Blake. Thank you so much for joining us this week and talking about your process and sharing just so much wisdom about creativity. I really appreciate it.

Speaker 2: Thank you.

June Thomas: I think that was an amazing interview.

Isaac Butler: Thank you.

June Thomas: I had to pause literally at several points to write down verbatim some of the things they said. Amazing. I’ve long thought that to succeed in the art world, whatever that means. But in this specific case, I mean making enough money to be able to stay in the art world, you have to be able to talk really compellingly about your work to have a philosophy of creation and Nayland gave me a lot of really interesting, fresh ways of thinking in pretty much every answer. So thank you for that. You also clearly know this world very well. Can you talk a bit about your own relationship to the art world? Have you written much about art?

Isaac Butler: Well, first of all, John, I just want to say thank you for all of those kind words. I actually texted Cameron the second the interview was over. It was like that was all killer, no filler. So I’m just very excited. I’m grateful for to Nayland for reaching out to us and, you know, doing the show. I don’t think I’ve ever written about visual art, actually. I find it very intimidating. And this is, I think, the first visual artist who’s been a guest of mine on working, which I hope to correct in the future. But my grandparents were actually art collectors, so I grew up around a lot of art and they were friends with a lot of the artists in the scene that Nayland was talking about in the fifties and sixties and seventies in New York. They had a basically a department store, and they would trade appliances to artists in New York, not only in New York, but to artists for artwork, because, you know, people were living in these apartments that had no amenities, they were falling apart and all this stuff. And if you wanted a TV or whatever, you know, you would trade it to them. And then they became art collectors on top of that. And many of those artists are people you’ve never heard of.

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Isaac Butler: Right. And they they loved that art as much as the art from the people you have heard of it. You know, like Andy Warhol was one of those. He was just one of those people. Roy Lichtenstein was one of those people, and they became socially friends with them as well. So I grew up in a world that was like really surrounded by American art. And it’s certainly one of the reasons, I think why I’ve tried to make my life in not visual art, because I have no skills in that department whatsoever. But then I’ve tried to make my life in art is definitely because of the sense of permission I felt from growing up in that environment.

June Thomas: Wow. That’s an amazing story.

Isaac Butler: Well, I can actually tell you, at one time, my dad went with my grandfather to meet Warhol and to see him and talk to him about, you know, what work he has coming up in the Marilyn’s or coming off of the press like they’ve literally silk screening the Marilyn Monroe ones. And in the corner is a television that my grandfather had given Warhol and it’s on the fritz. So the vertical, you know, tube or whatever, it’s weird lines and, you know, my, my grandfather says, Oh, and Andy, we’ll have to just get you a new TV. And he goes, No, no, no. I like it better this way.

June Thomas: And that, listeners, is where Max Headroom came from.

Isaac Butler: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

June Thomas: I loved how, I guess down to earth. Nayland is about art and their point about play being essential to creativity really resonated. I’m curious though, to get your view on another aspect of that. As Nayland said, pretty much every kid draws and as they’re learning to speak and later write, many kids play with language in a way that’s probably closer to poetry than any other form of writing. And yet, art and poetry are maybe, maybe dance, but they’re probably the two art forms that people are most afraid to talk about or write about or respond to in public for fear of looking foolish or inadequately educated or something.

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June Thomas: First, do you agree with that? Do you have any theories about the root of that anxiety and more? I guess to the point I’m working. Any tips for overcoming it?

Isaac Butler: Yeah. Well, you know, I think there’s a lot of different reasons for that. I do think that the poetry world and the visual art world need to take a long look at the mirror and and look at the ways in which they have enabled that anxiety with gatekeeping, with, you know, trying to use theory to avoid being criticized and things like that. I mean, every art form has that problem to some extent. But I do think that both of those worlds need to kind of think about what they can do themselves around that.

June Thomas: Yeah.

Isaac Butler: I also think some of the anxiety comes to the fact that we do do those things as kids, you know? And so, you know, First Corinthians tells us we’re supposed to put aside childish things, right? There is a way in which if you’re not going to be really good at it and a professional at it and make money from it, isn’t it indolent and lazy and against our Protestant work ethic as Americans to spend time with it? You know, I mean, I think that’s also part of it. I will say that whatever kind of artmaking you’re doing or that you want to do, it’s really important to create an environment for yourself that enables risk and embraces failure and views that as totally okay.

Isaac Butler: So like one of the things that Nayland does is Nayland does a drawing every day, you know, and or, you know, writers do morning pages or whatever, right? That’s an example. Like one of one environment you could create is that you could make work that you don’t intend for anyone to see for a while just to like, try it out, you know? Or it could be about creating a community that you can, you know, a reading group or, you know, whatever, where you can do your poetry and like, no one’s going to care about whether it’s good or not. You’re just testing shit out. You know, comics do that with their, you know, when they’re working on material, they go to a supportive club and do drop in and do 5 minutes or whatever. So some of it’s creating an environment that enables that kind of risk and failure. And to know that, you know, most art is bad, you’re going to fall on your face a lot and it’s okay. You know, that’s part of getting to the getting to the good stuff.

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Isaac Butler: I also think, you know, one thing Nayland talks about in that interview that I was very moved by is is the dialogue that they have with the voice of anxiety in their head, with the voice of fear. And I think that’s really great. I mean, I am also not a particularly woo woo person and I’m an atheist and all sorts of other stuff. But you know, when I get that voice in my head, I actually tried it ever since that interview of being like, Hey, you know, I understand you’re trying to protect me from failure and humiliation or whatever, but I’m just sitting at my desk right now. I don’t need you to do that. It’s okay. And I actually think that’s really healthy, that that voice is just a part of you. It is not the totality of you. You know.

June Thomas: Doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation, right? Yeah. Yeah. Because I hear that voice all the time. And why not respond to it? Why is that? Any stranger than hearing it, right?

Isaac Butler: Yeah. Yeah, totally. Absolutely.

June Thomas: There was something very striking in Nayland discussion of the capitalist forces underpinning the art world. You know, they resist and advise other artists to resist that concept of niching down in order to find representation and therefore, hopefully customers for your work because they want them to make art without considering that kind of external concept. At the same time, Nayland has to have a quite specific idea of the physical space a work will initially inhabit before they can make that piece, which in a sense is a question of audience. And I’m not suggesting that those things are contradictory, by the way. It just feels like a concrete example of the kind of embracing of ambiguity that’s clearly very important to them.

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June Thomas: But I’m curious, Isaac, when you’re creating whether that’s in theater or in the work you do now as a cultural critic and historian, how do you balance your wonderfully weird personal vision? And of course, I mean that as a compliment, needless to say. And the desire to find and satisfy an audience, which I think often kind of rubs off. Those weird edges, right?

Isaac Butler: Yeah. I mean, how much time do we have? You know, what do you charge by the hour, June, so we can figure this out? Look, I mean, when it comes to most things these days, I’m going to be totally honest. I’m part of a family of three. You know, I have a financial commitments to that family. And, you know, I am thinking about how am I going to get paid to do this? I’m 43 now. I’m not going to suddenly get a full time office job, you know, and I’m not so famous that I can just easily set up a project if I’m interested in it and get money, you know? So I do need to think about that stuff.

Isaac Butler: So, for example, if I’m working on a book, you know that I’m going to sell on a proposal and that changes to some extent because I want to be paid to write it. That changes what I’m going to go out and do. I’m not going to suddenly write a novel on spec and then shop it around, right? Maybe I should, you know, I mean, that is a choice that I’ve made. That’s a more conservative choice. At the same time, I don’t feel like I’ve niched down I mean, you know, I don’t think, you know, there’s through lines between the major projects I’ve done, right? Because they’re all made in part by me, but they’re very different from each other.

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Isaac Butler: The World Only Spins Forward is an oral history that tells the story of a of an era in America through the lens of, you know, the birth and rise of the play Angels in America and how to co-author The Method is only written by me, and it’s a prose cultural history. You know, there’s not a word of original writing in the world only spins forward. The method is only original meaning. All I’m saying is I have a lot of different ideas. I have a lot of impulses that pull me in a lot of different directions. And what I am often trying to think is like, okay, this is the idea I have now. How do I get paid enough that it’s not irresponsible for me to pursue it? Which is a different thing from like, I am the pop Shakespeare guy. That is my brand now and now that’s the only thing I’m going to do, which certainly I could have tried to pursue after the stuff I did about Shakespeare for Slate. And I sort of deliberately did not want to do that. So, you know, I do think it’s about trying to find that that mix, you know.

June Thomas: Although I kind of wish that every time something happened in the world, I could look forward to Isaac’s, like, Shakespearean connection. So, like, right. What does Shakespeare have to tell us about Rishi Sunak versus Lynne Truss for the leader of the Conservative Party in Britain?

Isaac Butler: I mean, the answer is to look at Coriolanus and I’m sure you’ll find the answer there because Coriolanus has a lot to say about political leadership. But yeah, well, I’m very flattered. I’m very flattered that you think that I mean, I do think that that body of work has a lot to tell us about your life for a lot to ask us about our lives today. And I always love talking about it, but I actually have had for a while I was demure from writing about it and purposely not pitching pieces about it because I didn’t want to be that guy. I don’t think my next book is going to be about acting, you know, because I’ve I’ve done that with the method, and now I want to go learn about something else.

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June Thomas: Yeah, well, the last question you asked Nayland about how they resist in that great phrase, the tidy temptation of certainty and embrace the ineffable felt to me like just an extremely isat question, kind of. Yeah, I mean, totally. It’s in the sense that I have a feeling this is something you think about a lot. Nayland gave a fantastic answer, but I’m curious if I were to ask you the same question. What would you say? Isaac Butler Do you have any tips for how our listeners can become more comfortable with the ineffable?

Isaac Butler: You know, there was one point where I was talking about embracing the uncertainty or the ineffable and contradictions and ambiguity so often that I brought up. At one point I was talking about over lunch with my editor and he’s like, I’m sensing a theme. I think it’s something I struggle with a lot because I’m a very rational left brain person. But I think great art comes from a place of uncertainty and negative capability and ambiguity, you know, and I also think we’re in a moment. I wrote about this recently for Slate. I think we are in a moment where because of the feeling of emergency and crisis that we feel right now as artists, I think we are leaning too much into certainty. I think the reaction has been a run to certainty and to tell people that we have the right ideas and what those right ideas are. And I think that’s reflected in our movies and our TV, in our books and in some of the art that I saw at the Biennial, even, you know. And I just think there’s a pendulum that swings and it’s going to go back.

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Isaac Butler: Do you know what I mean? I’m not saying kids these days don’t know how to make things or anything. I’m good. So part of it is I think you can cultivate a space within yourself for encounters with the ineffable, and you do that through art. You know, if you’re reading something or seeing something and being like, I don’t know what I think about that or I don’t know what the message of this is or whatever. Hold on to that. Spend more time with it, dissect it, you know, watch it again. Or I mean, for me, some I mean, Shakespeare is an obvious example of this, you know, where he’s raising a lot of questions by the end of the play, you’re not really sure what he thinks about any of it. Iris Murdoch That’s one of the reasons why I love.

Isaac Butler: Iris Murdoch I think one of the reasons why. James Baldwin has had this career come back is that he’s asking a lot of questions that he’s not totally sure how to answer or that his opinions change over the course of his career. You know, the first half of his career, in the second half of his career is very different points of view, for example, about about race in America. I mean, I think it’s one of the reasons why we go to Montana essays or whatever.

June Thomas: We.

Isaac Butler: Do as we do. Right. But I’m just saying, there’s a lot of art out there that is living in that space of ambiguity. And even if it makes you uncomfortable, spend some time with it. And so you see what’s what provokes. I also think that it’s important not to bullshit and not to have fake arguments, so don’t pretend to be uncertain about something you’re certain about. We’re all certain about all sorts of things, except that you’re certain about that thing and then and then move from that space of comfort into the more uncomfortable.

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Isaac Butler: What don’t I know about? I mean, a perfect example for me is, of course, Angels in America, where, you know, Tony Kushner. Is not uncertain about whether the American right is bad. He’s very certain about that. And that’s very clear in that play, what that play is asking all sorts of other questions that he is clearly wrestling with in the process of writing the play. What do we owe other people versus what do we owe ourselves? What does caretaking actually mean? And how are men who are not socialized to care take going to learn how to care, take? You know, what is the place of religion in these very dark times, etc., etc.. What is the future of American liberalism? You know? These are questions that he doesn’t know the answer to and that he’s using that play to explore.

Isaac Butler: So I think the more you’re trying to find that, the better. I also think, you know, you might be certain about something and also certain about the opposite of it at the same time. You know, we all have dialectics within us. And finding those, I think is is really useful. And I think, again, it’s going to raise a voice in your head that’s maybe uncomfortable in a little afraid. And then you just have to have a dialogue with that voice that allows you to move into it. You know, that’s my feeling about it anyway. Yeah.

June Thomas: Listeners, we hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. If you have. Remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. That way, you will never, ever miss an episode. And just a reminder that by joining Slate Plus, you’ll get a free podcast. Extra segments on shows like Slow Burn and Big Mood, Little Mood, and you’ll never hit a paywall on the Slate site. To learn more, go to Slate.com, Slash working plus.

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Isaac Butler: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you to Nayland Blake for being such a wonderful guest this week. Thank you to our producer, Cameron Druse, the true artist of audio editing and host wrangling, and to Kevin Bendis for all of his help with the research for this week’s episode. We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with casting director Angelique Midthunder. Until then, get back to work.

Isaac Butler: Hey welcome back Slate plus subscribers and thank you so much for everything you do to support what we do right here. I’m working I’ve got a little extra time with Nayland Blake and we are going to talk about video games of all things, because I happened to see in an interview just this offhand thing that the interviewer didn’t follow up on about your interest in video games and video game design and how you see it as an innovative space for the artist participant relationship, among other things. And so I just wanted to give you a chance to talk about that. You know, what video games are you playing? How do you draw inspiration from them? You know, things of that nature.

Speaker 2: Sure. I’m I have to admit that I am kind of basic in some ways. So in the midst of COVID, I was deep down the animal crossing rabbit hole.

Isaac Butler: It’s just so soothing.

Speaker 2: I invented a second account on my on my island simply so that I could not only build, like, a leather bar in one of my houses, but also like a bathhouse in the amazing. And I kind of loved the way that people were playing it, kind of against the grain. So I’m always really interested in when people kind of come up like people who are speed runners, but people who are coming up with these kind of interesting ways of inhabiting game spaces in a not normal way.

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Speaker 2: So these days, I’m still in the midst of Elden Ring. Yeah, the thing that I love about it is that you can kind of just wander around and not have to do everything you can, like take a break and go off. And I literally just had that experience of, like, getting to a part of the artist plateau and suddenly, like, you get the map marker and you’re like, Oh my God, this thing is like twice as big as I thought.

Isaac Butler: Yeah, that keeps happening. You know, when you first go down the well and you discover that there’s this underground area as big, almost as big as the other map. But yeah, absolutely.

Speaker 2: To me, it really is about the way that game designers are designing kind of interactive experiences. Yeah. And that, that is a way of thinking about audience and in a way that is often much more sophisticated than the art world, say, conceives of an audience.

Isaac Butler: How would you describe that sophistication?

Speaker 2: Well. I like a game that, as I say, can be played against the grain. Mm hmm. That that where there’s a space in it for a behavior to emerge and that doesn’t get kind of doesn’t get kind of locked down. You know, I played I it a while back. I played like Dream Daddy, which is this visual novel about dating various dads. And I do play a certain number of dating sims. Hmm. And I think that often in the art world, the notion of interactivity is reduced to the idea of, like, oh, we’ll give you a button that you can push.

Isaac Butler: Right.

Speaker 2: You know, like, like, okay, the audience can now push this button or they can post something on the wall. But that that’s unnecessarily. It it’s not like at the level of, like the big reveal in BioShock. Right. Right. For example, as problematic as that game is in a lot of other ways. So, you know. It just feels like kind of reduced in that sense.

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Isaac Butler: The thing this raises for me is that one of the things that games can do when they nail that sophisticated relationship, right, is really actually make you think on an emotional level, on an ethical level, whatever, about the choices you are making within that world. To give an example like Disco Elysium, which was a big pandemic play for me, you know, you can play that game as a horrible racist. You can get your partner killed in that game. You can do really terrible things in that game if you want to. And the game treats those things thoughtfully. It’s not doing that in a shitty way. I just want to make that clear for people who haven’t played it.

Isaac Butler: But like, I couldn’t make those choices. Like I found that I was. And it’s not because I’m not trying to say I’m the most moral human being in the world, but I have trouble making ethical decisions other than the ones that I would make within the structure of a video game. Whereas other people, I think, use them as a kind of catharsis of those uglier parts of themselves. They can take that part out. And I wonder what it would mean for visual art or art in a museum to like really do that to us more. And what kind of work would really do that for us?

Speaker 2: Well, I think we would have to be put in a situation where we could actually feel those complexities. I mean, one of the great things about RPGs in general is that you understand where the boundary is so that you can spend the time to tease out those possibilities. Right? Whereas in most art situations, you rarely have the time to actually be able to register what it is that you’re looking at, much less to to explore its internal structure or scope out like the moral choices that it embodies.

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Speaker 2: Hmm. Right. Yeah. So. So part of what games do is that they provide sufficient time to be able to experience those questions. And that’s why I’m always irritated when people are like, Oh, well, let’s just play. Like, This is something that I’m sure comes up a lot, but people use the term just playing. All the time when they’re talking about being in the art world. And I’m like, Well, play is actually how humans learn. Right? Like, that’s the mechanism that we have for learning.

Speaker 2: And usually, like when you look at kids and they’re playing that, they’re playing about the most important stuff on Earth. They’re like playing with pretending to be dead. They’re, you know, hide and seek is about like, do I continue to exist if someone doesn’t see me? Right. Yeah, totally. If I’m if I’m lost, will anyone ever look for me? So that’s. That’s like, an intense thing that’s not just playing.

Isaac Butler: Yeah.

Speaker 2: Yeah. So I think that’s like taking seriously the the circumstances under which you can experience a moral ambiguity is something that would need to be designed into the art experience for more people to be able to access it. In that sense. And everybody’s given the message that contemporary art isn’t for them and that they’re just supposed to appreciate it. Right. And that’s part of the class marker that I was talking about earlier. Right. So if something makes you feel morally ambiguous and you’re told that you’re just supposed to shut up and appreciate it, you might get angry. Like, there’s not a lot for you to do in that situation that is, in.

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Isaac Butler: Fact, happened to me.

Speaker 2: Yeah. Right. Yeah. And then that becomes like, oh, my six year old could do this. Well. Well, yes, that’s the point. And you were six year old, six year olds, and you could do that. So why don’t you? Right.

Isaac Butler: Totally. Well, Nayland, thank you so much for joining us for a little extra time and geeking out about video games with that subject I could talk about for hours and Slate Plus subscribers. Thank you so much for everything you do to support us here at Slate. We’ll be back next week with another episode of Working.