Ken Jacobs Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Film and the Creation of Mind: Conversation with Ken Jacobs, film artist; 10/14/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 5 of 5

Lessons Learned

Tell us a little about the frustrations of being an artist who has such a radical take on a medium and popular perceptions.

Well I think that's my obligation as an artist, is to do something ... why be redundant? You know, do something fresh and interesting. Do something that hasn't been done. I'm very lucky in that I'm lucky in my family, I'm lucky in my health, and I'm lucky also that at some point it was discovered that even though I don't have degrees, I can think and I can talk and I can teach. And so I get paid for teaching, teaching what I'm interested in. And I'm in a tiny percent of the people who have been saved from the grind, which grinds you away.

Looking back at your life, what lessons might students learn from this journey that you've taken, which you've just described for us? No real formal education on the one hand, but finding one's own creativity and having the courage to stand alone through one's art?

I don't want to be an advertisement for no formal education. You know, education is dangerous. It can put you in binds and fix you in certain ways and screw you up. And I guess you have to learn how to wrest an education from the patterns of education. My life is interesting. It's been great to be able to pursue these things. I'm angry most of the time. My sensibilities are offended, which sounds like a joke, but if one is concerned about black sensibilities, Jewish sensibilities, female sensibilities, my aesthetic sensibilities, my mental sensibilities are offended much of the time, and it's no joke. I belong to a minority that's embarrassed to declare its thin-skinnedness.

But you're angry about ...

For example, what passes for art, the art racket. What's happened in New York right now, our mayor is having a fracas with the Brooklyn Museum, Mayor Giuliani.

And this [fight] revolves around an art exhibit which, for political reasons, he finds useful to criticize.

Well that's ...

An editorial.

Well, no doubt. I'm sure that's true.

But you wouldn't expect the state to further the work of artists, would you?

Sure it does. There's all kinds of artists, including artists who embellish. Wasn't Ronald Reagan as president, he was a work of art. You know, artists worked at him all the time, as well as his own ability to dissemble. I lost track of something you said.

We were talking about the frustrations of the life of an artist.

Oh no, it was this thing about the Brooklyn Museum. So this is an art that essentially was called sensational. And that's what it was designed to do, get attention. The work is instrumental to getting attention, which also means getting money, okay, getting talked about. So one aims, not at the work, not at the character of the material, [but] "How are we going to get attention?" Well you do that by confronting social taboos. You offend people in an interesting way. You get in their way, you get in their face. And I think this is a crappy art. However, in the museum's attacking and criticizing the mayor, he brought out a really good weapon, and the weapon he brought out is what really interests me. He pointed out that this was, what's his name, this British thug ...

The artist?

No, the so-called collector, Saatchi.


The so-called collector who apparently sells as much as he collects, therefore really a dealer in art, right? Not a collector, but a dealer. So he's helped bankroll this movement of wise guys who are going to do things, for the most part, to be offensive and attract attention. And the mayor, as you say, he can use it. But in embarrassing the museum and actually showing them what he could do if he really wanted to come down on them, he talks about the collusion between the curators at the museum and Saatchi and Christie's auction house. Christie's is also involved in putting on this exhibition. What they're doing is building up the value, the mystique of this stuff, which they're then going to sell. So he lifted the lid on something he's known about, but as a defender of moneyed interests he's not really going to do anything. But he's saying, look what I can do. I can actually expose and keep going in this direction, keep investigating this collusion between a city museum and the art market. And this is not the only place this happens. There's many instances of it and it's probably been happening for decades. And maybe it's been happening for a century or more.

But doing your art in a world with institutions like the ones you've just described and individuals, what gives you the sense to keep on going, to keep the commitment to what you're doing?

Well, there've been wonderful things that I have done as art. It's great stuff. It's a life of the mind. And I care about, you know I was a teenager at a time when there really weren't that many rewards and you had this extraordinary development with all these European intellectuals and artists that came over, run out by the Nazis, to New York. You had this incredible development of American art, for the most part called abstract expressionism, action painting, whatever. And art came of age in America. And it was done with precious little rewards to corrupt it. One of the things I like about film, my area of film, there's almost no rewards.

You're talking about film as an art form.

Yes, there's almost no money in it. If you break even you're one of the winners. Almost everybody that does it has to make a living elseways, no matter what kind of fame they have. Because they don't have a unique object that can be bid up at Christie's and have some Japanese businessman buy. I read an amazing thing, amazing thing. It was so enlightening. It was just a couple of days ago, in an issue of National Geographic. It was a really sharp article on Monaco. It's a tax haven. People rent an apartment, or buy an apartmen, for what must cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year which they hardly ever visit. But it gives them a supposed residency in a place where they don't have to pay taxes, no inheritance taxes. Fantastic. And then these rich, rich, rich, rich people amuse themselves. It's the Masque of the Red Death twenty-four hours a day. There's a description of this woman who's drooping with jewels, okay. She's a widow. And she says to this guy who's writing the article, "My husband collected Impressionists, but my tastes are simple: I collect jewels." So this is the Impressionists. Some kind of cultural accomplishment; but somehow they're the equivalent ... they just mean money and status. That's absurd. Despite that, I see great Impressionist art and I see great art existing. I think things changed with Andrew Warhol. It was understood by him in a very realistic way, this is a business. And that's what I think a lot of students are learning now. It's a business, what kind of gimmick can you find to go in this thing and make a killing?

What advice would you give a student if they wanted to prepare for a career as an artist? Any secret that you have that you might want to share with them?

Yes. Move towards what's vital for you. Forget categories, a career, a life, move in a path where you feel you're moving towards more life, more being. Smell it out. Make errors. Pick yourself up and go at it again.

And don't necessarily count on natural talent?

I think great art has been made by people with very limited talent. And very glib stuff sometimes is made by people who are just running over with talent. Personality, who you are, is what's really important. There's a great statement by Picasso that genius is 10% talent and 90% personality. So just come into your personhood. And if it means working with these various art mediums, go for it. If that's the way for you.

As a person who works with film and who teaches film, is there one important thing, one important message you would like to leave students about the medium of film? Very unfair question, but it's my last one.

Film is, and you're really studying existence, film is mysterious as much as anything else is. Break away from being an expert in your life. Forget about being an expert. Forage. Struggle to go with it. And don't have a premature idea of who you are. You are in a state of becoming. You don't know what your actual potentials are. Don't buy a personality off the rack. Don't be allured by the latest fashion in interesting celebrities. Take your time, don't define yourself too early.

Ken, with that thought thank you very much for joining us today.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

Jacobs making video of his wife, Flo Jacobs; and of himself, with Harry Kreisler and Flo.

Photos by Jane Scherr

© Copyright 1999, Regents of the University of California

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