Interview
A brush with

Genghis Khan, Watteau and the Bible: artist Josh Smith on his biggest cultural influences

The New York-based painter tells us about his favourite books, artists and creative experiences

Josh Smith © Josh Smith; Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

If you could live with just one work of art, what would it be?

Maybe a sweet little Raphael or Botticelli. A Leonardo is too fancy, probably—too much responsibility. Maybe a Watteau. I don’t know; definitely not something too big, so that I can carry it out if there is a fire or something. 

Which cultural experience changed the way you see the world?

Living in New York has taught me that culture is mutating. Culture is difficult to diagnose and only occasionally do I feel it is present. A lot needs to be parsed through to realise what might be. Perhaps the definition of culture has been corrupted. As an artist, it is difficult to discern whether something is culture or spectacle. I like the non-profit spaces in New York: Artists Space, the Drawing Center, White Columns, Participant and the Kitchen are all places that feel cultural. It’s not a stretch. Those places are definitely focused on culture. Seeking and searching for culture is a lifelong challenge. Going to museums in New York when they are not too crowded is probably my greatest cultural experience. I need more.

Which book most challenged your thinking?

Thinking back, it was probably the Bible. This book was forced on me for the first 18 years of life. It taught me that things do not make any sense but you have to deal with it anyway. It’s a disparate bunch of garbage written with authority. I wonder who wrote it?

What music or other audio do you listen to as you work?

Mostly biographies. All sorts. Music makes me have to stop too much to change it and it makes me nervous right now. I hope this feeling goes away. In the meantime, it has been biographies and history books I listen to. Recently, I listened to a new Winston Churchill one, Raphael, the Medici Family, Genghis Khan, Rodin, and the history of ancient people, books about Mayans and Aztecs. I like books about American and world history. These types of books can be in the background; I can miss things here and there and it is OK.

What is art for?

Art should be sharp, timely and timeless. It should provoke something within the viewer. If they do not like it, then that’s OK. At the very least it should make people think. Art should also not be too self-involved; it should be shaped to develop outward, towards the world. It should not illustrate a myopic view. It does not need to be uplifting but it should reference life. Art needs to have respect for the viewer and give them what they need—not what they might want. For whatever reasons, it should shift the status quo. Art needs to constantly work to advance things. I hope that my paintings do this.