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‘The Culture Will Never Go Back’: A Q&A with Artist and 2021 SVA Commencement Speaker Marilyn Minter
May 5, 2021
A color photograph of a woman looking at the camera and smiling, and resting her chin on the back of her left hand.

Artist and School of Visual Arts MFA Fine Arts faculty member Marilyn Minter. Minter will give the keynote address at the SVA 2021 Commencement Exercises on Sunday, May 23.

Credit: Ryan McGinley

Watch the 2021 SVA Commencement Exercises beginning Sunday, May 23, 7:00pm ET, at sva.edu/commencement or facebook.com/SchoolOfVisualArts.

On Sunday, May 23, the School of Visual Arts will celebrate its class of 2021 with its 46th annual—and second virtual—commencement exercises, streaming online beginning at 7:00pm ET on sva.edu/commencement and Facebook Live. SVA President David Rhodes will recognize some 1,000 degree candidates from the College’s 31 undergraduate and graduate programs and Marilyn Minter, renowned visual artist and longtime MFA Fine Arts faculty member, will serve as the event’s keynote speaker.

 

Marilyn Minter’s art, which spans the mediums of photography, videography and painting, has long been celebrated and debated for its vivid, provocative and sensual qualities. Her primary subject is the female body and society’s relationship to it, and her hyper-real approach, with its emphasis on intermingled and heightened textures and emotions, compels viewers to question their ideas about beauty, sexuality and glamour. Her work is included in the permanent collections of such institutions as the Museum of Fine Art, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In 2015, Minter’s retrospective “Pretty/Dirty” opened at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, before traveling to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, the Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana, and finally the Brooklyn Museum in 2016.


Minter recently took the time to answer some questions about her approach to art-making and teaching, her activism and her vision of the post-pandemic world.

A painting of what appears to be a dark triangular shape behind a steam-fogged pane of glass.

Marilyn Minter, Delta, 2018, enamel on metal.

Credit: Marilyn Minter Studio; Salon 94, New York; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

According to your CV, you went to college, and then graduate school, for art. When did you first realize you had an inclination toward making images?

When I was about five years old, I was drawing Brownies (baby Girl Scouts) with my neighborhood girlfriends. I was stunned that my drawings were better than theirs. I saw for the first time that I could draw better than other people.

 

What do you think about your earliest work? Is there anything that you would tell your younger self?

There is an inner voice that you listen to more as you get older. It dictates the creative process. The closer you’re in touch with it, the better your art is going to be.


I listened to other people more than my inner voice when I was younger. If I had to do it over, I would only listen to that inner voice. It’s a lesson I have to learn over and over.

 

Did you have any teacher or teachers whose example you’ve followed in your own teaching?

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a great education. I had no confidence in art school, so I discarded what I was good at because I had teachers who were convinced that there was only one right way to make art. In those days, art movements lasted for years.

 

Now I try to teach the way I wish I was taught. One of the things l learned is to be flexible. There are as many ways to make art as there are people making art. I look for what my students are good at and what comes easy to them. I look for their gifts and then try to encourage and amplify them.

 

I tell my students that if something comes easily, that’s what they should be doing. I see it all the time: A young artist says, “Oh, it comes too easy, it must not be any good.” So it's my job to get them to see that it’s exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. I don’t try to turn them into “little Minters” or follow the prevailing vernacular. That was a big lesson for me. Personally, I had to stop trying to make art that fit into the prevailing movement because it’s constantly changing. The eye craves what it doesn’t see.

A painting of the upper torso and head of a person in profile, who appears to be behind a partially steam-fogged pane of glass.

Marilyn Minter, Chin Up, 2019, enamel on metal.

Credit: Marilyn Minter Studio; Salon 94, New York; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Do you see any of the adaptations or changes brought about by COVID-19, or the energy and momentum behind recent social-justice movements, as effecting any lasting change in the arts? What do you imagine a post-pandemic art world might look like?

The virus revealed another kind of sickness. The stark contrasts between the rich, middle class and poor are no longer hidden. The social-justice movements are making us reckon with how we treat people of color and minorities. We are finally being able to look at the original sin of slavery. The culture will never go back, thank God.

 

How do you think graduating students can best equip themselves to face the beginning of their careers now? There seems to be a sense of optimism that the pandemic’s end is near, but still a great deal of uncertainty.

The good news is that rents might be cheaper. New York City has the potential to be like it was in the ’70s and ’80s but without the crime. My advice is to find or create your community and support each other. The creative community has a real opportunity to make New York a culture hub again.  

 

Over the course of your career, do you feel that “the art world” has become more inclusive, more rarefied, or both?

The art world is exponentially more inclusive than it used to be. There is still a lot of work to do, but I’m hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction.

  

Are there any artists who you feel are overdue for recognition or neglected by art-world institutions?

There are so many, I can’t even name them all. Helen Frankenthaler and Andrea Belag come to mind right away.

A video still of a person behind a steam-fogged pane of glass, on which has been written "Our Cuntry Needs You!"

Marilyn Minter, stills from My Cuntry 'Tis of Thee, 2019, HD digital video.

A video still of a person behind a steam-fogged pane of glass, on which has been written "My Cuntry Tis of Thee."
Credit: Marilyn Minter Studio; Salon 94, New York; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Do you feel American society’s view of the female body and female sexuality has evolved from when you started making art?

Honestly, the issues women face are exactly the same but we have made progress.


On the one hand, we’re still fighting for equal pay for equal work, bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. On the other, there are a lot more opportunities for women in all fields and we have started to see a greater representation of women of color.

 

My generation had very few role models of women with power. It was unheard of for women to own sexual imagery when I started making art. Now women get to develop the female gaze. All ideas around gender have changed dramatically. It’s a brand-new world and people get to own their desire. Gender and sexuality are so much more fluid. It’s liberating for everyone.


Similarly, has the reception to your work changed over time?

My work communicates with more people every year. The prejudices against women, porn and fashion have all evolved. Life is more nuanced, and binaries are less popular. People are questioning their knee-jerk reactions.

 

You’ve worked with organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU to advance the causes you believe in, such as reproductive rights and racial justice. How do you think artists can be most effective as activists?

Barbara Kruger, Kara Walker, Hank Willis Thomas, Arthur Jafa and other great activist-artists make a huge impact with their artwork. It’s powerful and it disrupts. Not every artist can make that kind of work, but everyone can do something. Artists can raise money by donating work, donating time and joining progressive groups. These are all effective methods.

 

As someone who has enjoyed such an enduring and prolific career, do you ever feel at a loss for ideas or inspiration? What drives you to keep creating?

I have always been curious. My artist friends are the same way. I get too much pleasure from making art. You’re going to have to pry the camera and paintbrush out of my hand! I’m never going to stop. I make art about the times we live in, which are endlessly interesting. ❖

A painting of a nude woman viewed from behind and from the waist up. She has a tattoo of a star on her back and appears as if she is behind a steam-fogged pane of glass.

Marilyn Minter, Star Tattoo, 2021, enamel on metal.

Credit: Marilyn Minter Studio; Salon 94, New York; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

The 2021 School of Visual Arts commencement exercises will broadcast online on Sunday, May 23, 7:00pm. To watch, visit the SVA Facebook page or go to sva.edu/commencement.

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