issue 5: Dean Kissick
Discussed: Cutural despair, mass death, museums, drugs, summer, Tik Tok, Angelicism, political art, critics, etc.
The cliche about everyone being a critic may be more true than ever. Modern individuals broadcast whims and opinions with little hesitation, with or without an audience to receive them. In places like Twitter, an ecosystem of reciprocal “likes” makes it difficult to distinguish between audience, friend, acquaintance, enemy, or federal agent. Those who do have a substantive audience can monetize their opinions, so long as they churn them out quickly enough. High-profile Twitter posters stoke petty controversy to keep the attention economy chugging along. Podcast hosts sell surrogate friendship on platforms like Patreon; their chatter keeps us company during long commutes to and from our respective pods.
Writer Dean Kissick has one foot in the spheres described above, but his “takes” are more thoughtful than we typically expect from this milieu, his writing more artful. Dean believes stubbornly in beauty. This alone sets him apart from most cynical art and culture pundits. One gets the feeling that he is chipping away at something true.
Sometimes Dean’s belief in beauty takes the form of absolutes. We are staring at a large concrete sculpture in the LES garden where he often sits and writes. “I like the skull,” he says, “the skull is good.” He’s right; it’s a good skull. We maneuver around the thing, and I take some pictures as he embraces it in various poses. Some women with shopping bags look on, confused but mostly indifferent.
I don’t believe Dean considers himself part of an underground or avant garde, per se, unlike a lot of people interviewed here. His formative experiences with art and aesthetics took place in museums, with classic works. But his romanticism is a breath of fresh air, particularly when trying to make sense of the murky present.
In his ongoing Spike Magazine column, art is a loose frame for Dean’s broader observations about his surroundings, technology, culture, & beauty. This is honest writing, disguised as criticism. Or maybe this is criticism at it’s purest, and he’s one of the few doing it right.
We spoke during the Summer, in a garden in Lower Manhattan where Dean often writes.
I know you’ve conducted interviews. Do you have much experience being on the receiving end of them?
This is the second interview I’ve done. I worked for a long time really interviewing people, doing that sort of thing, and I was always the sort of person who’d rather be interviewed or be written about than writing about or interviewing. So yeah, it feels nice to be on the other side.
Journalists and critics, by definition, tend to fade into the background.
There are some mosquitoes hovering around you.
Oh yeah, they love me.
I’ve got some mosquito spray if you want. It’s a bit toxic. It’s only really this side of the garden that seems to be full of mosquitoes. We could go to a more breezy area if you prefer.
I’m alright, unless they’re getting you really bad.
You did a good job of capturing the feel of the early pandemic in your column, and the chaos of last summer. Now we’re in the midst of another summer. How have your predictions held up? What are you noticing?
I’ve been writing my column for five years. The last year and a half has been very good for me, certainly. It was good for my writing, building an audience, and it was particularly good for me to stay in New York and write about it. It was a really interesting time to be here. A lot of the world was really interested in what was going on in New York for various reasons. Part of it being, the world is quite obsessed with America — more than they should be, perhaps, because they’ve got a lot of their own problems. But they really like to focus on America, particularly Trump’s America. New York has always been a city that people were interested in, and it really was the global epicenter of the pandemic following on from Wuhan, and I think Iran and Northern Italy. And I think it still has the most deaths per capita of anywhere in the world. It certainly did until not long ago.
So yeah, the world’s attention was focused here, and I stayed and I wrote about it. I wrote about it right at the beginning when we kind of knew what was coming but no one cared, in a column about the Rem Koolhaas show at The Guggenheim called The Countryside. Everyone knew the pandemic was coming, but I just thought it would be fine. You always hear about this stuff, like SARS, and it isn’t a big deal, it doesn’t matter. And then I wrote a column when things were really kicking off, from mid-March to mid-April, when it was a crazy time to be in Manhattan. That column was a diary, and a lot of people read it. It went down well. I ended up getting commissioned by The New York Times, things like that. And I think it mostly came from people seeing this particular column and it resonating with a lot of people.
I try not to give caveats in things I say and things I write, but of course you have to give the caveat that thousands of people were dying in the city at this time. But it was this incredible time to be here. I’ll remember that month, certainly, for the rest of my life. It was the wildest thing I’ve ever lived through. It was the most interesting month of my life.
I’ve always felt growing up that nothing was going on. My parents had lived through these tumultuous times, the 60s, 70s. I felt that I lived in this time when nothing seemed to be going on. Life just seemed to be the same every day. And then we got in this position in the late 2010s, maybe mid 2010s, when suddenly everyone started despairing, but I can’t even remember when that shift happened, or how it happened. It went from nothingness to pure despair. Now there’s so much going on. I know we had 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, but it didn’t change my material circumstances, and it also didn’t change the mood of how I found life and culture and conversation—not in a dramatic way—until something happened at the end of the ’10s. The whole mood of being alive, and culture and everything, just changed very dramatically.
But still, it had always been something that was happening in the phone, or in another part of America, or this global decentralized thing. For those few weeks of spring in New York last year, it really felt like I was at the epicenter of what was going on in the world right then. In theory it was the worst place to be in the world. I’d have my parents, or relatives I never speak to, writing me and saying, “It must be like Hell in New York right now! I’m watching videos of trucks full of bodies and they’re building the graveyards and the islands and... “
I’m glad we survived that, but there is a part of me that misses it. Not everyone dying, but just that feeling of being... I felt so alive. It was crazy. That possibility of death made me feel so alive.
I would go for these runs around the East River late at night, and I’d see the whole city filling with blossoming trees and magnolias. Everything looked so vivid and beautiful. A huge city, but empty. And then the combination of fear of death with the city full of flowers, flowering trees, sparrows everywhere nesting and chirping. And later in the summer, so many glow worms everywhere. It was incredible. I joined Citi Bike, and I’d go up to Central Park, walk to Times Square when it was empty, apart from some quite terrifying people lurking. But all the screens were on. It was completely empty, but it was blaring on every side with ads or positive SURVIVE COVID messages. It was a wild thing. My friend Richard, who does Civilization paper, he wrote to me. He said it was kind of amazing, because he’d never seen the city like this and he knows he’ll never see the city like this again. You could cycle down Fifth Ave, or walk around these big avenues, and you’d have it all to yourself.
Besides longing for that a little bit, what has the return to normalcy looked like for you? A month or two ago I was preparing myself for a really insane summer. I was almost scared of the energy that had been building up. People seemed ready to explode, and I wasn’t sure what it would look like on a larger scale.
Yeah, yeah. But it never happened.
I went out a lot last year. A lot of it was outdoors, but I went to parties indoors as well. It feels to me that New York has been open since last June. So last year was more of an explosion, understandably. People would be so excited to sit outside drinking in a park, or to go back to someone’s house. And I felt like people were really horny, making out a lot, touching a lot. But it was less of a sexual thing. People just wanted to be held or kissed. It was a bit sweeter, more innocent. It felt like friends wanted to make out with one another, just to feel it again, to feel contact and closeness.
So I think the mood last year, whether you were socializing responsibly or irresponsibly, was a lot more fun, a lot more enjoyable. I organized some events at a couple of parks and street corners that I like. I also did an exhibition at a park I like in the West Village. And yeah, it was great. There was much more of a sense of community. A lot of people disappeared, but there was a certain group of people who would always be up for doing something, and there were certain locales where you could just go. You could go to that pier in Chinatown, or people went to Tompkins a lot. There was a new location-based nightlife, or community, which was great. And you could really drink on the streets, do drugs on the streets. I guess you can still do that. But it was a novelty, to me in America at the time, to be able to drink outside.
Some legislation must’ve changed for a while, right? To accommodate the to-go drink things that bars were doing. I thought that might stay forever.
Oh yeah, that’s true. Did it not stay? I noticed they stopped doing to-go drinks, which is a shame.
Yeah. It seems like all the outdoor dining structures are still around for a while. But no more to-go drinks. I’m not sure if they’re handing out tickets or not though.
I never really bought to-go drinks, but now I think it would be nice to be able to get a to-go martini from anywhere on the corner.
Maybe this year there was too much pressure, too many people expecting some big release, or expecting some explosion of Bacchanalian sexuality, or hedonism or nightlife, or that kind of thing. But it didn’t happen. I think it was partly because of the sorts of people. A large number of people I know were out and about last year, and those people like to party, I guess. They like to stay out. And now there’s an idea of everyone doing that, people who aren’t necessarily nighttime people, or irresponsible people. There’s a different constituency.
There was a transgressive feeling that came with even going over to someone’s house at that time. It felt forbidden and exciting in a way.
For me, everything completely switched on the first day of the George Floyd protests in Manhattan. Switched on a dime, in a way that also gave a day of release, or a day of change. Whereas this year there was no moment of, On this day you’re free, or, On this day everything changes. Nothing like that happened.
We just had a “Freedom Day” in Britain. I think it was yesterday.
Freedom Day. Britain has been pretty locked down until yesterday. [Laughs] It’s kind of crazy. Yeah, it was Freedom Day yesterday, but I don’t think it was a great day of joy. I think it just became very politicized, as all things do now.
You mentioned the feeling of despair, cultural despair, within the last ten years. And the past four or five years in particular have been fairly tumultuous. I’d think that climate would be producing impactful art, powerful works of art, but it doesn’t seem like that’s happening.
No, I haven’t seen examples of it. I’ve seen good art, but I don’t think the art world, institutionally, did a good job of responding to the Trump years, or to the pandemic, or to the racial protest movements that flared up again last year. And the fact that art in an institutional sense did not respond well to any of these things suggests that it’s not really capable of responding to much.
What do you mean?
Well, at least in terms of the big museums and public institutions, curators and directors, and I guess you could include the big galleries as well, there just seems to be panic. That seems to be the reaction to anything going wrong: just panic. And very limp responses. Just to fall back into meaningless resistance. Feeding a message to an audience that already agrees with it. And trying to do this very weak form of resistance, but not even being good at that