Eye 94: How Did We Get Here? is narrated by a kind of para-physical entity named Void, who points out a lot of our unrecognized societal failings. Void tells us we’re still in galactic kindergarten here on Earth. Can Void tell us what galactic primary and secondary school might look like?
Sterling Bartlett: My counsel has advised me against prognostications of that magnitude without my kindergarten certificate.
E94: Some people might be angered by the choice of narrator in Void—that the author must think his shit don't stink, etc. How did you choose Void, or how did Void choose you?
SB: A fine line exists between cultural criticism and just being an asshole. My hope is that Void errs closer to the former, while retaining some ambiguity. For example, when Void calls out The Strokes, it's really taking more of an issue with the cultural lack of imagination, and subliminal baggage that birthed that kind of band, rather than their specific ability to write pop music, play their instruments, etcetera. The targets herein are more systemic than personal. If there is a call to action, I think it’s more about prodding the reader to ask their own version of “How Did We Get Here?”
E94: There's a blurb in the promotional materials for How Did We Get Here? about taking down Jerry Saltz. A lot of people might say, hey, Jerry Saltz seems pretty harmless, he uses a vocabulary I understand and doesn't treat me like scum, what's the big deal? So, what's the big deal?
SB: Haha! I suppose the book wouldn't be an effective critique without posing ideas that run counter to prevailing wisdom right? To begin, I am strictly allergic to his subjective TED talk style pronouncements on art delivered as gospel. His thumbs up/down binary brand of criticism is beholden to a time before the proliferation of art advisers, unpaid internships, and international art fairs. These institutions have served to further expose art's hypermarketization, thus rendering moot some of his more lofty rhetoric about hard work. Saltz often employs a pet aphorism: "The art world is an all volunteer army. If you don't like it, get out!" Artist Brad Troemel slyly agreed in a 2019 video lecture illustrating that the "soldiers" in Saltz's metaphorical army are literal volunteers, as most of them go unpaid. Museum and gallery interns are unpaid. Artists showing in galleries are unpaid unless their work sells, at which point they receive only fifty percent. Secondary sales are not paid back to the artist. Museum inclusion and panel discussions are also unpaid. There is a yawning chasm between JS's proclamations and material reality for most of the art world. In a recent Twitter post, the arch champion of art mused that "A good critic always puts more into writing about art work than the artist put into making it. The artist only creates. The critic must plumb that creation & also write creatively enough to deliver the full volume of the art while also creating a thing of beauty & clarity itself." Seems dubious to me, but what do I know, I only create.
E94: You mentioned a kind of fellowship at an art gallery in other interviews—you said it was an early education. What did you learn?
SB: Way back when, I took a swing and a miss at attending art school in Phoenix, Arizona. I had recently rented my first apartment, was desperately trying to hold down two jobs to pay for school, and taking a full class load. Looking back, it was a doomed proposition, but I tried. On rare free evenings I would hit a small group of gallery openings on the outskirts of downtown. Bands would play outside on generators, illegal raves were common in the old warehouses, and the interiors of a few of the spaces were converted to white cube galleries. As school became less of a reality for me, I immersed myself more and more into the emerging art scene across town.
E94: How do you mean, less of a reality?
SB: The difficulty of maintaining two jobs and a full load of classes. I was caught in a catch-22 whereby I needed the income to pay for school, but my work schedule ate up all of my time outside of class, so my grades suffered. Eventually I had to drop out.
E94: Excuse us. Carry on.
SB: I found myself specifically attracted to a space called Holga's which was a converted pay by the hour motel from the 60s. The front offices had been gutted, and transformed into a gallery, and the ten motel rooms were converted to cheap studio apartments for the artists in residence. In order to live there, one had to be a working artist, pass a portfolio review, as well as agree to show in, and assume revolving responsibilities for the gallery. When I heard that a member was moving out, I marched my portfolio over there, and ingratiated myself as best I could to the owner. I quit school, quit one of my jobs, and signed a one year lease all on September 11th, 2001. I went from having two near full time jobs, and a full college course load, to only one day job, and an intensive art education during all other waking hours. I was the youngest artist in residence by at least a few years, so I soaked up all I could from my more experienced neighbors. The guy who lived above me was the world record holder for downhill speed on a skateboard. At the opposite end of the space lived a painter who made angular cyber gothic paintings inspired by Detroit techno. There was an ethereal manic pixie artist, a carpenter, as well as a free jazz multi instrumentalist. I took in all I could from each of these folks. I learned basic carpentry, myriad painting techniques, and tons of art history. I also learned the ins and outs of operating a gallery space: curation, sales, advertising, art handling, etc.
E94: Did one year at Holgas put you in as deep a financial hole as art school, if at all?
SB: Not at all. I think I remember the rent being around $500 a month with no other expenses, save for art supplies and beer. An unintentional, yet important lesson Holgas taught me was through it's cultural positioning. It seemed to exist far afield of the stiff gatekeeping institutions that would later turn me away from the art world. An ironic example was the building's 2012 sale to the local university. They envisioned a revolutionary new purpose for Holgas: to house revolving artists in residence including a "storefront gallery/classroom space, a shared kitchen, common area and resource library for artists to dine together and meet with project partners and members of the community." It all sounded pretty familiar to me, except I never had to pay 40K a year in tuition for the privilege.
E94: Being outside the constrictive circles of fine art, was Holgas able to serve the same purposes as higher profile institutions?
SB: Insomuch that art schools acclimate their students to social milieus beneficial to their future career paths, yes. I'd say it served its purpose well.
E94: So how did HDWGH come to be?
SB: In 2019 I took a conscious break from making fine art, which I had been pursuing on and off since Holgas. I had reached a ceiling on the number and type of art exhibits that I was invited to participate in. Most were group shows, a large number of which centered around one type of NGO donation or another. I realized only after taking part in a large number of these fundraising exhibits and double-digit group shows that I had become a sort of middling tool in the furtherance of these brick and mortar spaces over my own artistic pursuits. With the wide scatter shot approach of the large group show, the gallery is sure to recoup more costs through the sale of disparate works, which then offsets its riskier single artist exhibits. In the case of NGO donations, the gallery has the double benefit of laundering its tax write-offs through its perceived virtue. While I don't begrudge any one specific gallery for taking these measures, I simply decided that it was time for me to hop off the treadmill. That is when I began writing what would become "The Art World" chapter. Initially, How Did We Get Here was to be a more straightforward art book/zine, but as it developed it sort of wrenched itself into becoming a comic book on its own. I found myself drawing panel borders and word balloons one day, and just kept going until it was finished.
E94: Had you done a comic before?
SB: How Did We Get Here is actually my first foray into the world of comic books. I'm definitely learning on the job, and painfully aware of some shortcomings, though ultimately very proud of the effort.
E94: How have you been influenced by the art of Raymond Pettibon, if at all?
SB: I've always enjoyed Pettibon's work. As a dutiful twenty-something punker, I even got his Black Flag bar logo branded into my flesh. Sorta cringe at this point, but that's not even a contender for my worst tattoo.
E94: We recently interviewed Kevin Mattson, author of We’re Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America for Eye 94's radio show. There was a lot on zine culture, political awareness in some of the underground scenes, the networks formed for discussing ideas. It would seem to follow that the advancement of computer networks and eventually the world wide web would only enhance those networks. That doesn't seem to have happened. With the nearly uncontested celebration and demand for accessibility to the internet, is it possible, desirable, to form non-computer networks for large-scale idea formation/growth?
SB: I think the elephant in the room here is capture by capital. Small cultural networks are almost always captured and co-opted by larger capital forces before blossoming into large scale influence, and thus change. Everything is sold back to us eventually, the internet just offers the "buy it now" button. To this end, I think the successful authentic cultural networks of the future (be they online, or in meat space) will have some level of intentional obfuscation baked in. Movements will reject any kind of naming conventions, and all in-group communication will be encrypted. I think we're already seeing this happen in certain corners of the social media memesphere. I am certain that within five years I won't even be able to decipher most memes, let alone be granted unfettered access to them.
E94: Oh yeah, Pettibon—he's mentioned in that book a few times, particularly his use of text/image juxtaposition, his forcing the viewer to do some intellectual work, as well as his political (anarchism) and philosophical (Wittgenstein) interests. You mentioned in another interview that you wanted to get away from making art that felt esoteric. Did that factor in your decision to make a comic? What could you do with comics that wasn't happening with your other art?
SB: Fine art does seem to possess an air of mystery and esotericism which I have, by turns, enjoyed and resented. Even the most out there comics are generally just words tied to pictures though—a fairly direct mode of communication. In my previous work, centralized ideas were somewhat abstracted, and glancing. In the comic, they take center stage.
E94: Tools of the trade. Can you list all items used in the making of HDWGH?
E94: FTK is offering custom covers for How Did We Get Here? How many have you done? What kinds of designs?
SB: Yeah, we decided to take the comic-con approach of offering a limited hand drawn special edition. We made fifty of them, and I've drawn the main character Void as everything from Spawn, and Alfred E Newman, to a guest on The Charlie Rose Show, even brokering a peace deal between Pepe and Wojak. They've been super fun to do as each one is really singular, and expands the mythology of the book in its own way.
E94: I saw that you hopped army bases growing up. As an adolescent, did you have any understanding of how the USAF were perceived by different factions of the general public? How has your perspective of US culture been shaped by growing up around the military?
SB: I lived on military installations almost exclusively until the fifth grade. Life on a military base is hyper codified. Living quarters and social interactions are largely influenced by the active duty member's rank. Since my father was a Sergeant, I mostly hung out with the children of other Sergeants. Since we lived in the barracks, as opposed to the better appointed officer's quarters, I didn't interact with the children of officers as much. After my family moved off base, I found that my new friends all came from pretty different socio-economic backgrounds. Some had large, lavish houses, and others lived in less fortunate circumstances. I suppose this meant that I grew up with a sort of caste mentality, and awareness of class that some of my peers may not have. I would not be made aware of the general public's conception of the military until I was around thirteen or so. I remembered hearing about "Gulf War Syndrome'', the nebulous series of ailments plaguing returning vets. This got me thinking that perhaps there could be less than savory forces at play within power structures like the US military that I had simply taken for granted until then.
E94: Was there more freedom in off-base living? Did it have an effect?
SB: I honestly didn't experience much initial shock once we moved off base. As a fifth-grader, I was young enough that my sphere had not yet extended too far beyond the borders of my neighborhood. I just happened to live in a new neighborhood. I do remember school being different however. Even as an elementary student, I remember the civilian faculty trusting us more than my previous school. We walked freely between classes without a chaperone and seemed to require fewer permissions in general. I do sometimes wonder if an early indoctrination to order and certitude helped to instill a certain work ethic in me. I find discipline to be a generative, aspirational trait.
E94: You took a painting hiatus several years ago. You read a lot. You mentioned philosophy. You said your mind might not be any clearer for it, but your work changed without a doubt. How did your work change, or how did your approach to your work change? What philosopher's ideas stuck with you, if any?
SB: I don't know if my reading philosophy and theory has had as much to do with the stylistic fluctuations of my artwork over the years as boredom has to be honest. I'll get inspired by an aesthetic, or an idea, investigate it a little, and then onto the next. That is what excites me so much about the comics medium: After you finish a book, you can just start fresh on a whole new batch of ideas. That said, there are many strains of philosophical/political thought that have stuck with me, and changed my thinking dramatically. Mark Fisher's ideas on what he called The Vampire Castle, and The Slow Cancellation Of The Future, both figure prominently in How Did We Get Here. Angela Nagle's investigation into online troll culture as a pipeline to hyper individuated political factions is definitely worth a look. Adolph Reed's critique of identity politics, and Christopher Lasch's views on western narcissism have both been helpful in parsing our liquid modern condition. Before that, I'd always been interested in Hegel, and still find some of Nietzsche's metaphors to be instructive.
E94: Any flavor for fiction?
SB: I love to read fiction, and generally fall into books of two types: Southern gothic/western stuff, or science fiction. I love Larry McMurtry, Charles Portis, Tom McGuane, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Flannery Oconnor, and Harry Crews. In the Sci-Fi camp I like JG Ballard, William Gibson, and PK Dick. I also really enjoy the work of Carson Mell, and Tom Robbins.
E94: What do you think Void would have to say about universal basic income?
SB: Something along the lines of: "You give everyone a thousand bucks in an otherwise unregulated capitalist marketplace, and the next day even a bag of Cheetos will cost a grand!"
E94: What advice do you have for serious artists attempting to live outside powerful influencers? Well, step back, who are the powerful influencers? Why does one need them? Can you give a small example of how this causes problems?
SB: Why even name the powerful in question? If they truly wield power and influence we already know who they are, right? No need to openly invite the apparitions. I don't know how qualified I would be to offer advice, so how about a warning: An attempt to live outside codified spheres of power within creative circles often means living without patronage. It means building up from the bottom, rather than simply plugging in. However if the conditions are right, it may open avenues of expression less trammelled by convention toward a deterritorialized kind of creativity.
E94: Forget the names, l’m more interested in how power functions in placing value on art. I know almost nothing about the (fine) art world. Is it completely top down? (Few Powerful Influencers→ Opinions→ Mass Audience→ Artist feast or famine) If that is in fact the traditional model, have crowdfunding platforms made a dent, as far as you can tell?
SB: As I lay out in the book, the modern system of art valuation is simply a commodity market. This means that top-down influence is directly tied to buying power. The kind of wealth needed to hire art advisors, travel the circuit of global art fairs, and amass large collections of work will always outstrip small crowdfunding efforts. While I don’t wholly discount the bottom-up, bootstrap approach of the artist ascending the career/social ladder, it is statistically a near impossibility without plugging into an extant patronage network early.
E94: Do you think the free market is the best opportunity for the most artists to make a living?
SB: Simply put, no. The feast/famine dichotomy of life as an artist in late capitalism is a feature, not a bug. In oversimplified terms, the free market needs a large enough pool of “worthless” art to justify the value of scarce diamonds in the rough. This inherently precludes most artists from ever making a living from their work. That being said, so what? I’d much rather continue to make small edition comic books that outline my authentic worldview than market-tailored tools of capital accumulation for wealth-criminals anyway.
E94: On our last show we interviewed a woman named Chelsea Summers, who published a novel called A Certain Hunger about a female food critic/mass murderer/cannibal. Naturally, I went and read Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs, since I never had before. There are a couple of mentions of Dr. Lecter's predilection for Glenn Gould playing Bach. For whatever reason, I got interested in Gould and started digging around. None other than Wikipedia, citing a book called Extraordinary Canadiens, quotes Gould on art: "The justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary injection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity." At last, my question: How have your reasons for making art changed throughout your life?
SB: I've never heard that quote, I like it. I’ve undergone many changes in my relationship to art making over the course of my life. When I was very young, art was simply a learning tool. It assisted me in understanding my world. I made drawings of our family dog, our house, etc. In early adolescence art served as a transmitter of viral ideas. I made recreations of skateboard graphics, album covers, and characters from movies or comic books for others to key into through shared recognition. In college, and later through commercial illustration it became work, a way to sustain myself. For the last two decades I’ve been following a circuitous, mostly unconscious path to merge these early impulses with a blend of visionary speculation, and wry humor.
E94: In How Did We Get Here? you take on such cultural demons as recycling, our fear of boredom, The Strokes...are there many more that didn't make the cut?
SB: TONS! The book was edited down from over twenty entries. In case I do a follow up I guess I shouldn't reveal too much, but for now let's just say that TV scientists have been put on notice...
Mike Sack is an executive director for Eye 94, a non-profit company based in Illinois. Their radio show on books is hosted and broadcasted by Lumpen Radio, WLPN 105.5 FM Chicago. You can access the entire catalogue of radio shows at eye94.org/radio.