An Afternoon With Chuck Close

Despite a severe physical disability, Chuck Close is one of the most celebrated painters living today. The artist suffered a rare spinal artery collapse in 1988 that left him confined to a wheelchair. Last week, Big Think had the opportunity to interview Close, 68, in his downtown Manhattan studio on a range of issues, from contmporary politics to the struggling art market to whether Brad Pitt is really a good guy.

There were several highly original and compelling moments in the interview. For example, Close argues that in some ways society is hostile to the artist. Having recently participated in a debate organized by Intelligence Squared arguing against the proposition that “The art market is less ethical than the stock market,” Close concluded—following the results of the debate in which the audience voted 55% in favor of the notion—that society has a a negative perception not only of the art market but artists themselves. Is this possible?

While Close is active in political causes, he admitted to keeping politics "at arm's length" from his work. Regardless, he explained the extent to which current laws regarding artists and the arts are shockingly harsh, like taxing an artists' heirs on the full market value of a work, but only allowing artists to write-off the materials they use to create it. I began to understand why an artist might feel that society was unsupportive of the profession. Close is optimistic that President Obama, whose perspective on the arts he calls "englightened," might change the system.

Close ended by emphasizing the critical importance of freedom of speech—for himself, for the arts, and for his country—and warned about the dangers of "political correctness." He talked about a time, in the 1960s, when it was possible for artists who were critical of the government to receive government funding. It was a time when intellectual debate flourished and self-reflection was celebrated. And it has me wondering whether we are entering a time like that again.

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