Pied-à-terre: Bedroom, 2001–02. Mixed media, dimensions variable.

Defining Cultural Value: A Conversation with Toland Grinnell

Voltaire wrote that “the superfluous is a very necessary thing.” The most luxurious items are necessities—a shoe, a shirt, a handbag—transformed into the seemingly superfluous, making them essential elements of elite consumer vocabulary. Toland Grinnell uses this vocabulary in sculptures that simultaneously mirror and subvert consumer desire. His sculptures are thoroughbreds. They fit perfectly into stylish homes yet are hardly trivial decorations. Grinnell creates cocktails of leather, gold, horses, labels, fetishes, and the hedonism of libertine aristocratic yearnings. Accessibility and exclusivity intersect in his sculpture to cover hot desires with a cold gloss, providing commentary on affluent excess while satisfying its timeless lusts.

Ana Finel Honigman: What do you consider the most relevant, honest relationship between artists and collectors?

Toland Grinnell: “Collector” is an attractive euphemism for consumer. Art today comes and goes. There is no master dialogue or narrative that defines “important” meaning. The stuff that’s going to stay from my generation will need to address consumers for who they are—someone who’s possibly interested. Art is a marketplace with two groups: shoppers and window shoppers. Most people are window shoppers. I’m a window shopper. Yet, the people who buy art appear to have less power than the people who shop but don’t buy. Still, it’s a princely environment regardless of outward appearances. The super-privileged are the fuel that makes the entire machine function—not the proletariat. I aim to reference good, high-quality, use-friendly design.

I try to create stuff that mirrors 21st-century desires. To me, art functions like everything else. The boundaries are different but not the rules. Maybe that’s the single biggest difference between me and most other artists.

AFH: The blatant relationship between academia and art is accepted, but the inevitable merger between art and commerce is usually perceived as ugly and corrupt. You appear to slice through this territory with no qualms. What do you perceive as academia’s relationship to art versus the art market?

High-Rise 240, 2002. Mixed media, 79 x 25 x 25 in.

TG: Certain museums and dealers have made peace with the bottom-line realities of how our marketplace works. But often, art-world figures with their hands on the levers of power were indoctrinated in the ’60s art system—when art’s function was to evoke social change. Some of these are people who just recently bought cell phones and don’t yet know how to use the speed dial. They are still trying to impose rules and expectations on art from a system I didn’t participate in at all and which no longer really exists. They expect me and the younger generation to which I belong to be part of this continuum. To me, it’s irrational and lazy at its core.

AFH: Is this continuum set in the auction houses? Where do academia, criticism, and museums fit into the art continuum?

TG: There is no real divide among art, academia, and the market. There are no separations between peoples’ functions. It’s one whole. If, as a critic, you don’t like a certain artist’s paintings, you don’t review the work; but if suddenly that work starts commanding major prices, you start reviewing it anyway, because inevitably that artist will become part of the perpetual art landscape. It is unavoidable. This doesn’t mean that people are unethical—it just means that the product and all of the activities surrounding it are integrated. Eventually the discussion has to catch up to the day-to-day environment. Willingly or not. Art enjoys its crumbling designation as a “thing” outside the constrictions and tendencies of the “real world,” but the last 10 years of art history have proven that this thing is shaping up to act more and more like the older version of itself. In the older version, artists acted as cultural illustrators and independent contractors, executing commissions from wealthy patrons. Like a machine re-tooling itself in the night to go from OS X back to OS 5.1, we are quickly revisiting the time of the Medici as artmakers.

AFH: What about Earthworks and performance art, which have a limited relationship to the art market but influence art practice and critical response?

TG: I am not particularly interested in art that changes the way art functions. I don’t care about Earthworks. That was 1967, and I wasn’t born yet. I don’t think a bunch of hippies renting bulldozers in Texas is relevant to me today. Their spirit may be inspirational. Those art practices were mythologized, but there is really nothing left of them other than poor-quality photos. I am principally interested in art and artists that change the way the market and its peripheral entities function. I am interested in artists who are going to change the way people (and I mean all people) look and feel about art. Earthworks are ultimately a specialty or boutique art form.

Machine for Living, 2001. Mixed media, view of trunk in closed position.

AFH: So for you there is no honest divide between art as concept and art as commodity?

TG: These things aren’t like church and state—that is so fucking old-sounding. Art is a commodity just like science is a commodity. Art is a functioning thing. It is a necessary part of our cultural landscape. Art is a form of entertainment. There is a retarded misconception about where value lies today from within the art community. The function of art is to find value and I don’t just mean money—I mean cultural value. The value of art can be discussed in many ways, but its function is to define “cultural value.” And by defining this cultural value, it describes what is important to us conceptually and emotionally. Art that can’t seriously define its value is left to either the specialists or the waste-bin.

AFH: Do you feel that today’s art-world fashions are apt representatives of our era? Will they translate historically?

TG: In 10 years I doubt anyone will give a fuck about some show at the Whitney. These shows simply do not participate substantially in the real world. The show might generate momentary rhetoric, and in a postmodern world all one really gets is moment to moment, but I don’t think a lot of longevity is built into the current curatorial system. There’s a battle going on between finding operating revenue and “curatorial responsibility.” No one from my generation is going to really win with this on the horizon. There needs to be resolution and evolution on everyone’s part.

Machine for Living, 2001. Mixed media, view of trunk in open position.

AFH: What about artists such as Jeff Koons, Mark Kostabi, Tom Sachs, or the YBAs who play, feed, and breed off of art’s relationship to consumer desire? What is their role in terms of re-establishing the artist’s place in consumer culture?

TG: Hirst, Sachs, Kostabi, Schnabel, and Koons do a brilliant job of delivering information that’s external to the product they manufacture. They’re able to transmit this extra information in a way that affects people’s perception of their work. Inherently, this upsets the cognoscenti of the art world, but amazingly it increases their bottom line.

AFH: There might be momentary media interest in Mark Kostabi as a personality, but do you think there will be historical interest in Kostabi as an artist?

TG: No, but there is a desire to know more about the background of Kostabi. Every long-running sit-com eventually makes an episode in which one character miraculously becomes an “art star.” The idea of the artist as a huckster/genius is perpetually fascinating to people. Koons and others have used this as a tool to help create meaning.

AFH: “Meaning” as a success manual?

TG: You might be right, but I think that art’s narrative structure has largely disintegrated. Stories about people’s motivations are always interesting. Stories add to and support our enjoyment of all types of cultural products. I don’t think that the art product today is inherently interesting. It is not packaged with a greater vision of how the artist is functioning in relation to everything else or where the artist will be in 20 years. There is no point investing in a product that will not be here in short order. Little of the work created by artists between 25 to 35 promises to be interesting in 10 years. Puff Daddy, Donna Karan, and Philippe Starck will continually morph, redefine, and diversify themselves in a way that will be interesting over time to lots of people. Art? No.

Dog Pen Set for George Lindemann, 2003. Fabric, hardware, vinyl, and wood, 37 x 49 x 30 in., and 24 x 30 x 21 in.

AFH: Is academic discourse useless or just not as relevant as claimed?

TG: What frustrates me about the art dialogue and art schools—really trade schools—is that there isn’t a real discussion about art history or art in terms that direct students to how they can enter the art dialogue. Artists and “art lovers” are trained to be dropped off at the last station that art created on the line to infinity. All these kids in art school are looking to create new work, but they are being dropped off where art left off.

AFH: Would you say that Postmodernist theory functions in the art world because it allows for a seemingly endless array of historical and contemporary combinations and comparisons without real innovation?

TG: It works because of an antiquated set of systems still in place. Curating a museum show—demanding that somebody create a group of potential meanings and turn them into a cohesive exhibition that is unusually “relevant”—is difficult and in the case of younger art it often translates into “temporary.” The machine of art has set up a moment-to-moment dialogue. It’s a system of meaning allowing only for “new and improved” versions of itself. That’s why Postmodernism works, and why Modernism doesn’t work. Modernism was a system that suggested a beginning (of something) followed by a splintering or dissecting of the thing into increasingly smaller fragments until you couldn’t find the “thing” anymore—it was a method of specialization and ultimately miniaturization. Postmodernism is like a color copy machine with a zoom feature.

Dog Bed (Small, Brown and Orange), 2003. Fabric, hardware, leather, vinyl, and wood, 12 x 25 x 20 in.

AFH: Luxury in your work is overt, even outside its art-world value. Whereas other artists might reference consumer desire, your work succeeds at stimulating it.

TG: Accessibility is one of the things that make my sculpture different for people. The craftsmanship is overt, as is the amount of money it appears to be worth. When you over-ornamentalize something with hardware it could potentially detract from the meaning, but it heightens the sense of security. I learned that nailing down the leather is better than sewing it because you become conscious of the points of closure. By the time I’ve added 31,000 gold nails, the psychological impact is infinitely more severe than if it were sewn closed.

AFH: You created a series of opulent model homes for hamsters. These are animals that amass, categorize, and horde their “possessions.” How do you link their instinctual relationship to their stuff with our consumer fetishism?

TG: The animals—they’re rats really: purebred rats—appear messy but are honestly compulsive separators and organizers. Observing this habit in pet stores and at my niece’s house inspired me to think about animal instinct. I am always obsessed with things manmade. Mostly, I prefer a cityscape to the country, but through observation I realized that these animals act just like us. You don’t want a Mercedes with a Mercedes sound system—you want a Mercedes with Mackintosh system. You don’t want to sit down in a restaurant near the bathroom or the kitchen—you want to sit down where you only think about eating. These separations are animal. The hamster trunks, even many of the “human works,” deal with the idea of confronting the animal/flaw buried within.

AFH: Is art that replicates our imperfection or fallibility inherently more desirable than art, perhaps like Minimalism, that mocks it?

TG: Politically that is how I look at it: whatever is overtly ornamental or dealt with in an ornamental way helps to separate us from the animals. In that way, my work is closer to eroticism than sex for procreation. When I craft something in the studio, I make it out of the best possible materials to the highest level of quality. I want to make things that people’s grandkids aren’t going to throw away. Passing things from generation to generation is a totally lost ideal today.

AFH: What do you consider the role and impact of conceptualism or art intended to serve as a didactic illustration of theory?

TG: The real threat to art today isn’t contemporary pseudo-conceptual art practice but the general sophistication and access to cool shit on the part of consumers of culture. There is a lot of cool stuff out there, and art just isn’t that cool when you make a side-by-side comparison. Part of the reason why art from the ’70s can do so well at auction is that it was made before the “culture factory” started co-opting or lifting conceptually and aesthetically from visual art. This stuff is sort of pre-pillage, therefore solid. Later, art starts to be encroached upon by other stuff. It is not clear whether art will be the winner at the end of the next decade or so.

AFH: But art has a different function than just cool shit.

TG: Maybe it does. Abstraction was a metaphoric understanding of how psychology was incorporated into the culture’s waking environment. Visual art during the first half of the 20th century assisted in the general public’s understanding of abstraction as real and acceptable. Whether or not viewers thought their kid could paint just like Picasso, the simple fact that smarter, better-educated people thought Picasso was a genius inspired culture’s recognition of the system of abstraction and we are all better for it. Today, art is not changing the world, science and technology are. There is no inherent reason why art should be present other than for some of the traditional values it carries.

AFH: What about art’s role in attracting critical and subjective attention to socio-cultural realities?

TG: That is not necessarily the sole nature of art, that’s just part of ’60s art dialogue that has roots back to the great freedom fights in the 18th and 19th centuries. Social cause is one reason to make art, but it’s not the only reason.

AFH: All right, forget socio-cultural realities, what about art’s role in attracting attention to concepts without a direct commercial function or purpose?

TG: The manifestation of an idea is infinitely more entertaining and impacting than the representation of an idea. Most people today have more of a relationship to sculpture through shopping than through art education. People understand stuff by going to stores, they don’t understand stuff by going to Socrates Sculpture Park and contemplating an art book. They understand stuff through consuming. That’s real.

AFH: What are the consequences of art just having its dialogue with art?

TG: There is obviously a place for this kind of work. It’s important in an academic way. Miles Davis practiced scales every day, right? But commercial concerns have been trying to gobble up art, from fashion companies to Philip Morris—they all want to strategically ally themselves with art. Unless art is more sophisticated, it will merely become the temporary financial subsidiary of massive corporations. In order to survive, art needs to make stuff that really competes. Consumer products are about people and their desires, art considers itself above people—which is its mistake.

AFH: What do you consider the most relevant impetus for continuing to create art?

TG: The only reason to be an artist today is to do what you feel like doing. There is no movement, no continuum to ride in on and float perpetually. Artists are victim to shifts in the marketplace. Traditionally one way to combat these shifts was to stake as big a claim as possible to a style or materials. Today, I’m not even sure if that’s good enough. A lot of young artists try and diversify, but hedging your bet only works if it all ties together, functions, and pays the rent. If it isn’t cohesive, like a company’s governing principle, it doesn’t work. Since most artists are not that interesting, there is no inherent interest to all their diverse art-making. We are living in the era that Barbara Kruger and the ’80s artists tried to foresee. Today’s artists are actually living inside the postmodern world, not looking at it from a short distance. The lesson that one saw coming 10 years ago is the lesson that art is going to have to learn to compete with the rest of the world.

AFH: Is art only supposed to inspire desire? The socially conscious art of the past 30 years was intended to inspire other emotions—anger, consolation, outrage, or guilt. Are those emotions equally valid responses to successful work?

TG: What makes art profoundly important is the secret narrative inside each work’s prescribed agenda. There is the surface meaning and then the sub-surface meaning. This is how we examine Old Master painting and sculpture today. The result lets art assert a real sense of beauty as philosophy, because its meaning is layered and not integrated in a form-follows-function way. This system allowed two audiences to view the artwork in their own ways—surface and sub-surface. Some art of the last 75 years works like this, but most of it lost interest in the layperson or the non-specialist, focusing instead on an insider-only track. I try to make things that solicit questions from the viewer, but I don’t want them to start with “What is it?” or “What does this mean?” I want them to start with, “I know what this means…oh wait, I might be wrong.”

Ana Finel Honigman is a writer currently based in Great Britain.