Winston Smith: the Man, the Myth
by Josh Hooten
How the hell am I supposed to do this? Writing an introduction to Winston Smith is a futile task and one I am surely not skilled enough to pull off in a manner befitting the man and his work. Words only go so far, you know what I’m saying?
And even the most skilled writer would have difficulty describing the impact and influence of Winston Smith’s work. You’re familiar with him. The man invented the Dead Kennedys’ logo you drew on your notebooks in high school. He’s responsible for all those eerie and enlightening montages you’ve seen a million times on numerous record covers like the DK’s “In God We Trust,” “Plastic Surgery Disasters” and even Green Day’s “Insomniac.” Working since the early ‘70s in relative obscurity and poverty, Smith is one of the world’s foremost montage artists and history will no doubt show this… once he’s dead. It was truly an honor to speak to him.
How did you get your start with montage?
When I was a wee lad I did cut out stuff but I didn’t really start doing what I’m doing now until… I did a couple of different version of it in the late ‘60s and then when I returned to the United States in the mid ‘70s when I was 25. During those years, I was mainly studying art in the academic sense at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy — drawing and painting, stuff like that. That was my primary form of artistic expression.
When I got back to the U.S., it had changed dramatically in just six or seven years, going from smashing the state radicalism to incipient yuppieism. People who were here all that time saw the changes gradually and they weren’t nearly as stunning. But by being absent for so long, it was like night and day. I started doing social commentary versions of collage based on my crankiness over this situation. In fact, at the time people used to say “you sound like some old coot” because I was saying that back in the old days things were better — but they were better.
In the old days, people were rioting in the streets and when I got back, they were slumped out on television and basically concerned with the “me first” way of thinking which brought about the era of Ronald Reagan and unbridled greed. Maybe I was just jealous because I didn’t make $10 million on the stock market or something. I even told Biafra that after Reagan had served his second term and was unable to be president any longer that we were going to be unemployed soon. I told him we needed to vote to have him serve a third term. (Laughs) But we didn’t know that we had Newt Gingrich headed our direction which is actually better.
I guess probably, the style that I do now I started doing in 1975 or ’76, but it’s changed. I look at things I made in 1976 and ’77 and it’s a great deal different now. There was a lot of art being done for bands in the initial punk scene that were godawful. I thought I could do a little better than some of the posters I saw. I wasn’t involved in the scene in any deep sense and didn’t really know anybody in any bands, so I kind of just made up posters for bands that didn’t exist and clubs that didn’t exist.
I put them all over the city and people would collect them and even show up at the address of the club which was a vacant lot someplace. I actually heard later from Dirk Dirksen, a long time afterwards, that he was always surprised that these bands didn’t show up to get booked by him at the Mabuhay Gardens. The reason is that they didn’t exist! Actually a lot of bands at that time existed only momentarily, came together for a couple of gigs and then vanished into thin air or remorphed into some other blend of band. So they went through a lot of names and it sounds like there were a lot more people than there actually were. It was really a small core of people playing musical chairs, or unmusical chairs.
Did your interest in music or politics happen first, or did one inform the other?
I’d definitely say the politics. It was much more the social movement. At that time, the late ‘70s and very early ‘80s, in San Francisco it was very much an art movement, sometimes much more than music. There were bands that were only marginally musically inclined and it was much more a performance trip. The music was kind of an excuse for all the art they were creating. The Tubes were that way, they were artists who happened to also be good musicians. The music was a way to get across their art ideas. In my case, it was almost like a resurrection of the Dada movement that took place in the early teens, prior to the first World War; it was actually an outgrowth of the political bullshit that was leading up to the first World War. They could very clearly see that that’s where they were headed. It was an aggressive artistic protest which really hadn’t happened before.
Art had always been kind of the lapdog of whoever was in charge because they were the people paying for it. Giant statues and palaces and oil paintings of mythological critters and so forth — who else could afford it? Even Da Vinci was literally broke all his life, he died broke. He basically got funded by whoever was in power to make pretty pictures instead of all these really cool inventions that nobody cared about. He had to do all this other stuff to make a living. It would be like if you were this really incredible musician composing incredible scores, but all you could really earn a living at was making jingles for Cheerios, which actually happens. It must be frustrating for a lot of people.
I would say it was mainly the art and social/political angle that really got me into it. Music was secondary. I’m not very musically inclined, I can’t play anything and I’m not nearly as touched or moved by music as I am by visual images. Art, film, theater — all the visual arts. I like music and punk rock music, when it came along, felt like something I had been waiting for all my life. I felt like this was finally it and I wished something like that was going on in the late ‘60s but it was all peace, love and brown rice and “ban the bomb” and earth shoes. Of course anybody who expressed an attitude like mine it was like, “Man, you really area weirdo.” I was ahead of my time I guess. I actually like punk a lot more when it’s live. I’m not crazy about listening to it recorded. When it’s live you get the energy of the whole scene.
How did your relationship with Biafra come about and what is that relationship like?
(Laughs) It continues to this day and it’s very weird. A mutual friend of ours used to do artwork for a newspaper we made up for Rock Against Racism, a social movement that incorporated music and bands to help get their particular brand of propaganda out. It was mainly from England, but there was a chapter here in San Francisco. That friend of mine who I was working with kept looking at my artwork on the posters for the shows we were putting on and kept saying that I had to meet this friend of his because he said we thought exactly alike. It actually kind of scared me off because I thought he must be as crazy as I am — and sure enough he was! We ended up hitting it off straight away.
He saw a piece that I did a couple of years prior to that and liked it. It was a three dimensional piece, but he had seen a photocopy of it. It was a cross made with dollar bills. To me it seemed like a pretty obvious idea, not particularly shocking but a lot of people took it differently. He even said later in the intro to this book that he had to create a whole album just so he could feature this piece on the cover — that was kind of flattering.
Biafra and I have a kind of partner-in-crime relationship. Kind of a “What can we do now that will really screw things up” relationship. He’s a bit of a prankster. He’s someone who I would think generally has fun doing what he’s doing. I don’t think he would be interested if it were a heavy duty job type thing. It’s something that he does with all his heart and soul and determination. He’s definitely very single minded. When he needs to get something done, his powers of concentration are formidable. We only had to struggle a few times over things that were spanergent points o view regarding how the art of a certain record should look. There were a few times when I would say it had to be done my way because it was my art and he would argue it had to be done his way because it was his music. I’ve had to compromise a couple of times and so has he, but the result has been visually very appropriate. It ended up just right for what it needed to be. We’re working together on a book right now that may come out on AK Press that will basically be Biafra’s spoken word rants in print with my illustrations. It should be out next summer, hopefully, if we get off our butts and finish it.
In the first book of your work, you described your stuff as “graphic wisecracks,” and I wanted to know about the role humor plays in your work. Do you think it makes the work more accessible?
Sometimes if you can make a point so that people can see the irony of something and relate it to their own lives, it becomes more important to them than some kind of very general and obscure, but equally as right on point. Humor seems to help because I have an irreverent sense of humor, irreverent sense of… I usually go to far with the joke. If anything can be done, it can be overdone is my point of view. (Laughs) Humor seems to help just because some of the issues that would inspire certain artwork are so bleak and so hopeless, you’ve gotta laugh so as to not cry.
For example, we were at a rally yesterday against the proposed war in Iraq. Over a million Iraqis have died over the last seven years because of the sanctions and half of them are children — 300 or 400 children die everyday for completely needless reasons, just unclean water and not having antibiotics; they have totally curable diseases. That’s a crying shame. There’s almost no way to illustrate that as it really is that would not be so heavy that it would be hard to look at. It’s also hard to joke about stuff like that, but I think what I do is present a totally extreme, densely packed vision of what the subject is. You can’t be too subtle, especially with the American public. You’ve gotta hit people over the head. To make a point, you’ve almost got to really exaggerate just so they’ll sit up and listen. We live in a surreal time and age in our society. It’s no wonder people have dysfunctional families and relationships, our whole society is dysfunctional.
I think of myself as a vivisectionist cutting up and dissecting these different strata of American life — especially the bullshit image that was presented throughout the biggest economic boom in America, the post-war period during the ‘40s and ‘50s.
It was all “come and buy a new car and a big house and a new radio and television set” and all this colorful plastic crap that was available to Americans then wasn’t available to anyone else in the world because the rest of the world had been flattened. And all of that was exaggerated bullshit to begin with because people didn’t really live that way anymore than when you turn on the television today and you see happy people with nice clothes and big houses and happy kids — I don’t know anybody who lives like that. That’s just keeping up with the Jones’s and the Jones’s are only on television — they’re an invention.
In the book, you mentioned that the reason your work looks insane is because that is how the world is. To some people, your work may look like a ridiculous exaggeration but if they would look at the world around them, they’d see that it’s not. The last issue of Punk Planet we had an interview with Lydia Lunch and she mentioned that some of her work was viewed as shocking but she said it’s only shocking because the world is shocking and she was only reflecting that world.
When I do certain things that are looked at as shocking or repulsive or whatever, I think it’s totally obvious. I think a lot of times it’s pretty subdued and not nearly as shocking as it could be. At the time I made the cross out of dollars I was talking about people making millions of dollars off of religion as well as the worship of money and essentially that money was our god. It wasn’t anything sacrilegious, it just had to do with the fact that the true sacrilege is that we make money our god. I think people would look at the superficial interpretations and think the piece is awful.
We used this one image for a Dead Kennedy’s T-shirt design in England and it was of a woman holding a baby and she’s feeding the baby with a bomb.
I did that essentially because Reagan was busy closing down the school lunch programs for children, and for some of these kids, that was the only real meal they could depend on in the course of a day because they came from home conditions that didn’t provide much beyond that. The savings on all these programs they shut down was sent to the Pentagon so it literally was them taking food out of the mouths of children and giving the money they saved to McDonall-Douglas or Teledyne or other giant corporations that produce F-15’s and cruise missiles and PershingTwo missiles. To me, there was nothing exaggerated or terribly clever about it, it was just kind of stating how it was. But when I went to get a screen done for the T-shirt, the printer said he wouldn’t print it. He said I was advocating making babies eat ammo. (Laughs) I started to explain, but I just said, “fuck it.”
People completely disregard the real meaning and hover on the superficial thing because it’s much easier to dig than analyzing it any further; people get in a big huff over it. In England, they raided record stores over the giant posters of the cross made out; of dollar bills; the cops would come in and shut the places down. There were one or two places in America where that happened, one was in Boston. It was a little spitwad record store that got raided and shut down because of that one thing. It did give us a lot of publicity, we should have sent the cops a check. (Laughs)
The funny thing about that particular piece, to me, is that if the devout religious people would take the time to find out what it really meant, at least part of what it meant, people cashing in on their belief systems, they’d probably be in support of the work.
The original name of that piece was “Idol.” Biafra came up with the appropriate name for the record it appeared on, In God We Trust, Inc. That’s a statement that carries several different meanings but it’s really undeniable. You can’t look around and think that isn’t happening. I guess I wind up like a lot of artists and musicians in this moment; preaching to the converted. We’re not going to change too many minds, although I’ve had a few people write me and tell me that I’ve really opened their eyes about certain things and conditions in the world — I guess that’s good. We can all probably point to certain people in our youth that influence us in a certain way that we can either thank or blame for leading us down that road.
A lot of your work hinges on a clever recontextualizing of an image or images. I’m curious how that comes about.
That’s always puzzled me. I’m not sure how to answer that because I’m not sure how it works. It’s a weird process that I don’t think I’m entirely in control of, and it kind of comes and goes. I can’t really do work on demand like a trained seal or anything, although it would be really profitable for me if I could. It comes at a certain moment, and I have to pour over imagery over and over again — sometimes for years — before something pops out and other times you see something an din an instant you just go “Oh! I’ve got to put an anvil here, gotta put a balloon there,” like it would completely change the meaning of the picture. Like if I put a chocolate cake in that gorilla’s hand. (Laughs)
I’ve shown things to people that I thought were goofy pictures because they were fun to take the dignity of certain personage or scene and spoil it by messing with it and they’ll be like, “Oh wow that’s really heavy,” and they’ll start to explain to me what it really means, things that never occurred to me before, and sometimes they’ll even give me the title of the piece because they’ll see something in it. I think that happens in all art — people see their own life experience in it. That’s why some things will mean something very deeply to certain people and to other people it won’t mean anything. If they looked at it for 100 years, it still wouldn’t mean anything to them. A lot of it is really in the eye of the beholder.
You use a lot of recognizable images and icons that are so deeply ingrained in the collective unconscious like bombs and certain figures and the generic middle-to-upper class white male and family. Some of those things may mean very different things to people, but they definitely mean nothing to very few people. I think your method of creating imagery lends itself to being read differently. Thats’s different than a lot of art which, I think, gets a little too vague and veiled in hidden meaning and metaphors so that it really doesn’t communicate anything at all.
I try to make things accessible for people because if I’m trying to communicate, I can only do that in a language that they will understand. It’s really funny, I’m not very plugged into modern art and I don’t know many other artists but people are always asking me if I know the work of other people and I don’t. I guess I’m pretty absorbed in my own little trip and not really exposed on a social level to other artists. But every now and then I’ll open one of those magazines like Art in America or some other big time gallery magazine and I’ll see photographs of rooms with little piles of sand in them with a string running from one end to the other or a pile of twigs. I don’t know, call me old fashioned, but I can’t scope that a all! It’s so obscure. But some people pee their pants over this stuff and I wonder what I’m doing wrong. Maybe I should do some bullshit installation like that and people will just start offering me money. Sometimes I just scratch my head and wonder why, if they’re really trying to say something, don’t they just come right out and say it?
When I was in art school, I produced a fair amount of work that was influenced by punk records and definitely by your stuff; work that didn’t require a reading list for you to figure out what the meaning was. But there were so many people in art school who were wrapped up in being vague for the sake of being vague that my friends and I, when we would see this kind of work, would just attribute it jokingly to the artist, “working out their inner struggle.”
Yeah and you want to just tell them to keep it to themselves. (Laughs) Sometimes I wonder, and I’m perhaps over simplifying it, but it seems to me like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Not that my ideas are earth shattering or anything your normal person with an average intelligence can’t grasp, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to get it, but that’s kind of where I’m aiming at. Those are the people that need to be touched by art. If I ever wanted to get work in a gallery, which isn’t something I’m prone to work for or put much energy into, but if that’s what your goal is, it seems to me the worst thing you can do when you walk into a gallery is to be an artist — or a living artist. A friend of mine and I were planning on doing a little art scam. We were going to invent an artist who did really obscure stuff, take some slides and send them to a friend of ours in Italy and have him mail them back from rome or someplace to some gallery and see if the guy could get accepted into the gallery as an international star and since his work is so obscure it must have a very heavy meaning, and his prices could be unbelievably high. So we’d create this false resume for him and then he’d get killed in a tragic automobile accident, pushing the prices of his work even higher because he was dead! Being dead is a really good career move, Elvis would tell you that.
It seems to me that the high art world requires a level of vagueness or a lack of content to get successful. It seems important that these artists aren’t saying very much and aren’t communicating very much. I was wondering if, with your work being very thick with meaning, you’re making yourself inaccessible to the high art world. Is it ever tempting to dumb down what you were doing in order to gain a larger audience?
In a half joking way, I’ve though about it in the same way I’ve thought about creating this fake artist and then having him knocked off but it’s never gone any further than that. My problem is that I can’t do less than what I do. If it’s for Green Day or some other giant band, or IBM, god forbid, or for somebody who has a bicycle repair shop in the neighborhood, I do the same work for either one because I can’t not do what I do to its fullest extent. I throw myself into whatever I’m doing, which can be exhausting when you use up all your energy on little things and don’t have anything left for anything else.