Interview with David Levi Strauss

I first met David Levi Strauss in the spring of 2013, after taking a red-eye flight from San Francisco to meet him at his home in the Hudson Valley. He was interviewing me for admission to the MFA Art Criticism and Writing program at the School of Visual Arts. We sat in his studio–library, a two-story renovated barn filled to the brim with art, artifacts, and thousands of books. After starting the program, I wasn’t surprised to hear him say that you can’t write without reading everything. Reading, he said, is a way to be a part of the ongoing discourse and the current questions being asked. It is also one of the few ways to take control of the information we consume, through academic study or otherwise. Strauss’ education was anything but orthodox—traveling around the country to study with people he found interesting, and even spending time on a floating university—and as an educator, he takes risks. He challenges students to challenge the world. While some people may perceive critics as pessimistic, Strauss demonstrates that generating change through writing requires fervent optimism and the belief that we can improve the status quo. In July 2015, I drove back to Strauss’ house, this time to interview him about his thoughts on the current state of criticism and writing.

John Berger and David Levi Strauss, 2009. Photo: Yves Berger.

John Berger and David Levi Strauss, 2009. Photo: Yves Berger.

Amelia Rina: Can you talk about your relationship with teaching writing and your own education as a writer?

David Levi Strauss: The Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York is really modeled after the Poetics program at the New College of California, San Francisco, in the 1980s. It was built around the teachings of the poet Robert Duncan and the other poets that gathered around him, including Diane di Prima, David Meltzer, Michael Palmer, and Duncan McNaughton. It was pointedly not a creative-writing program, but a program in poetics, the study of how things are made. The poets who taught there intended to give us an intellectual base that we could build on for the rest of our lives and to give us sources we could continue to draw on as we built our own network of sources. I think that’s probably even more important today. We now live in the Golden Age of Search, where a vast amount of material is accessible, so the need to develop ways to make distinctions among these disparate sources is crucial.[1]

AR: Something that seems integral to the SVA department’s mission is that it isn’t in the business of “discourse production.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? And if it’s not in the business of discourse production, what is it in the business of?

DLS: I don’t know when the term discourse production was first used, but I think it was imported from cognitive neuroscience. To me, it always sounded like a needless bureaucratization of writing and thinking. Our approach is very different from this. We look at writing as a way of thinking—and a way to live, actually—and, at the same time, as a craft.

AR: Well, what I was thinking of is a distinction that Vilém Flusser makes in his text Post-History. He writes about the difference between discourse and dialogue. Flusser writes that discourse is like a pyramid scheme where information is disseminated from one point, but the information only goes in one direction. Dialogue, on the other hand, is more like a roundtable discussion with an exchange that allows for new information to be produced and added to the broader conversation.

DLS: Right, that sounds like writing to me. I mean, writing has always been a way of thinking for me. I never know what I think about something until I write it. And part of that process is the invention of the reader. The writing imagines the reader into existence. So it’s not that you have ideas and then you put them in writing to transmit them to a passive consumer (to “produce discourse”). That’s not the way it works. The process of writing is a way of knowing and making the world—especially writing about art.

The distinction between art writing and other kinds of writing is that we always have an object. I started out as a poet, and I also write fiction. But with critical writing, you have an object that you keep going back to, and it keeps the dialogue grounded. Having an object to return to is a real advantage.

Judgment was always the least interesting part of criticism for me. It’s necessary, and I do it, but it’s not what keeps me in it. What keeps me in it is actually engaging with works of art and trying to produce writing that can dance with them and not do violence to them. And that’s very difficult to do.

Every time I sit down to write something, I really have to make myself up again, so I change as a person with every piece that I write. When you’re writing, you’re making yourself up; you’re making a new person. And that can be painful.

AR: So what motivates you to continue subjecting yourself to such a painful process?

DLS: Writing is painful, but having written is ecstatic, and the ecstasy induces amnesia, so you’re willing to do it all over again. Like falling in love.

AR: Was the dedication to rewriting something that came from your own intuition? Or did you pick it up from your peers?

DLS: No, not from my peers—from my superiors, living and dead. I read dead people.

AR: Were you working with other people for edits?

DLS: Almost never. It was an interactive process affected by my reading of writers who I respected. Writing is a built thing: It has architecture; it has a shape. I was imitating the writers who I looked up to. John Berger was a tremendous one, but there were many others. I imitated Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valéry, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Clarice Lispector, Simone Weil, Heiner Müller, Samuel Beckett…

AR: In a letter you wrote to Irving Sandler and published in the Brooklyn Rail, you wrote, “Criticism is not in crisis. Criticism is crisis.” Do you think our current crisis is critical enough? Have we lost the degree of criticality? Or has it been coddled or forced into submission by the market and media pressure?

DLS: No, I don’t think it’s critical enough. As you know, my writing has always been polemical. If you’re not going to question the status quo, what’s the point of writing criticism? There has always been a part of the art world that wants to diminish or eliminate the role of criticism, and unfortunately that part is currently running the show. But as I said in the letter in the Rail, I think art needs criticism. It needs something outside of itself to have a dialogue with. When that’s not there, we’re in trouble: We’re in a situation where things just get repeated every ten or twenty years, and the only measure of value is price. There’s no ongoing conversation about what we need, who we are, and what’s really changing. In that way, I think criticism is more needed now than ever before.


[1] Strauss coined the phrase “Golden Age of Search” in the introduction to his book Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow: Essays on the Present and Future of Photography (New York: Aperture, 2014), 9.