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Professional raconteur Fran Lebowitz thinks art should be useless

And that you should probably wear shoes.

Fran Lebowitz looks into the camera, one hand on the side of her face.
Fran Lebowitz
Brigitte Lacombe
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Does anyone have it figured out as well as Fran Lebowitz? She spent the 1970s hanging out with Andy Warhol and writing two books that made her the toast of her generation (1978’s Metropolitan Life and 1981’s Social Studies). Then she claimed writer’s block, hung it all up, and declined to publish anymore. Now she’s in the amorphous career of public speaker: acerbic and crankily funny, but not exactly a standup comic; politically engaged and insightful, but not exactly a pundit. You know. She’s Fran Lebowitz.

Ahead of Lebowitz’s speaking event at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre on October 21, I called her up to see if I could get her to give me a piece of her mind. Lebowitz obliged. Together, we discussed whether AI is stealing, what makes art art, and how to build a life you love. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So you are about to do a new show in conversation with Marlon James at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. Do you know what you’ll be talking about?

No, because I don’t ever allow the person interviewing me to tell me what the questions are that he wants to ask me, to cheat. I like to be surprised.

Are you a fan of Marlon James’s work?

Yes, I am. He’s a wonderful writer, don’t you think?

Oh definitely. Although I couldn’t get into the last trilogy that he’s been working on.

Well, you know, there’s certain things he writes about — not things, but ways of writing. I don’t know what the word is, I wouldn’t say it’s really science fiction, but it’s not totally realistic. That’s something I’m just not interested in in general. But he’s still wonderful.

You’ve been doing this work for about 40 years now. What do you like most about it?

Oh, much more [than 40 years]. More, more, more. More.

I love answering questions. I mean, I actually love answering questions. And I love the surprise of it.

The questions with the audience are, to me, the most fun. The interviewer, that can really vary. Some are very good, some are not very good. But the interview is also more serious, because they prepare and everything, which I do not. With the audience, you just never know.

The writers’ strike just ended a couple of weeks ago. What do you think of the deal they got?

I’m not in the Writers Guild, so I don’t know all the particulars, but here’s what I’m sure of: They didn’t get enough. Whatever they got, it was unquestionably better than what they were initially offered, but I’m certain it was not enough.

People also seem to forget that in the last writers’ strike, which was in 2007, far fewer writers were hired after that. The movie business and TV business has always tried to get rid of writers. Every single person on a movie set thinks they could write. Every single executive certainly does.

I’m sure they didn’t get enough, but obviously they got enough that they would settle, because you know, they starve them out.

Do you think there’s potential for the studios to try to replace writers with AI?

They have tried to replace writers with executives, who know less than AI, believe me. So any way they can replace writers, they would be happy to do so.

I don’t have a great understanding of AI, I have to tell you. I mean, I understand it more than I did initially. But as far as I can tell, it’s just stealing. They take a lot of things that writers wrote and then steal them and then mix them up and then put them together in some other way so that it seems like it’s something else.

Employers would like to replace every employee if they could. That’s the biggest expense to any business, no matter how poorly they pay the employees. That is the trajectory of capitalism, you know: How can we get the most money with the most profit? That is usually by having the fewest employees. They never think, “Why don’t we replace the executives?”

What was the last piece of art you encountered that you thought was really good?

It’s kind of hard to say. First of all, I’m certain you’re young, because everyone is. You have a very broad definition of art — I don’t mean you personally; I don’t know you — that very often seems to include pasta. It seems to include food.

I love to eat. I’m not saying I don’t. I’m as gluttonous as the next person. But I have a much more, I suppose, more old-fashioned idea of it.

What was your question? Which piece of work did I really like or did I think was great?

That you thought was really good.

Really good. People say things are great all the time. I reserve the word great for actual greatness.

I don’t know. I just finished Colson Whitehead’s last book.

Oh, I liked that a lot. It felt like he was having fun writing it.

I have no idea whether he was having fun writing it, I don’t know him. But I will tell you that I don’t know how old he is. He’s probably by now 50, at least, right? He’s quite a bit younger than I am. But I remember when he first appeared, I thought — because as I’m sure you’ve observed — we live in a world where every week there’s a new genius, despite the fact that it’s simply not true. But when he first appeared and they kept saying how great he was, I thought, “You know what? He actually is extremely talented!”

You mentioned you had a more old-fashioned definition of art than is currently in style. What is involved in that definition?

I don’t think food is art. I don’t think a baker is an artist. I actually think that great cooks are a boon to mankind. I’m sure you’re not supposed to say mankind anymore. Whatever you’re supposed to say, humanity or whatever.

Here’s my definition: Art should be useless. When it has utility, it can be artistic, it can be artful, but it’s not art.

This would put a baker in the same category, frankly, as an architect, because an architect has clients. In fact, if you have a client and you’re making something that has use, like a building, then it’s not a pure form like writing or music or painting or stuff or something like that. That’s what I mean.

All right, let’s move into a little bit more of a quick-fire thing. You’ve said [in the Martin Scorsese docuseries Pretend It’s a City] that you used to walk around New York barefoot. When did you stop?

I was really young when I did that. Truthfully, when I think about that, I realize it was insane even then. Even if I was, say, 19, like, that would be a crazy thing for a 9-year-old, too. It’s amazing I lived through it because frankly, just imagine what the streets of New York will pull up.

I wouldn’t say it lasted that long. It probably lasted maybe a month or so. Some people didn’t comment on it at the time, but some people did. I don’t know at which point I thought, “This is insane.” But it was a very stupid thing to do. I would not recommend it.

Are there places you like besides New York?

Yeah, there are a lot of places I like besides New York. Doesn’t mean I want to live there. There’s no place I would want to live in besides New York.

Why is New York the only place you want to live?

Because it’s New York.

Fair enough!

Whenever people ask me why New York, I always say, “Well, have you ever been?” To me, it’s the greatest place to live in the world and that is why I live here. I don’t have to live here. There’s not a law saying you must live in the most expensive place on the planet Earth. But it’s a place that I find to be the best place to live.

What is the worst thing you’ve ever seen a tourist do here?

Boy, that is such a rough field. Truthfully, anyone who lives in a place with a lot of tourists complains about the tourists. It’s not just New York. It’s because tourists ruin places. It doesn’t matter what the place is. It doesn’t have to be some exquisite, dreamlike city like Venice to be ruined.

Tourists are the opposite of residents. They don’t care about the city. They don’t care about it at all. This was true even before phones, but now it seems that people go all over the world just to photograph. Which to me is ridiculous. Truthfully, you can just look at a photograph. You don’t have to actually come and annoy the local people.

To me, I suppose the most annoying thing is that they don’t move. I don’t think that’s the worst thing they do. But the fact that they do not move. And they are oblivious to the fact that there are people living here. We have to get places! We have to earn money here so that we can make this place where you can take photographs of yourself standing in front of things.

Do you think people’s behavior has gotten worse since Covid?

Not that I’ve noticed. I mean, how much worse could it have gotten?

What’s gotten worse since Covid, I mean aside from Covid itself, is that I can no longer guess how long it takes to get anywhere. I used to know exactly how long it took to get from one place to the other, walking or by subway or cab, and now you could not possibly guess. You just can’t. The subway used to come every five minutes and now they come every three hours. There could be massive traffic. Yesterday I was in a car and I had to go uptown and it took an hour. It should have taken 15 minutes! You never know. There’s no rush hours anymore.

I know a lot of people think of your life as very glamorous and aspirational. Is there anything that you think a person needs to know to build a life by themselves that they love?

I have no idea.

Here’s the thing. Lots of kids — I’m sure you’re not a kid, but to me, you’re a kid — they come to see me speak or they talk to me in the street. They are so organized.

I never thought about anything in the future when I was young. I barely think about it now. I’m just not that organized. And in general people my age were not that organized when we were young.

These kids are incredibly organized. Which is in some way, I guess, good. But in another way, it’s bad because it definitely engenders anxiety, you know? And then I can see, and people are seeing, that kids are anxious. I think this is one of the reasons they are anxious.

Don’t worry about the future. Instead, savor the fact that you’re young. Because let me assure you, life does not get better and better. Just stop thinking about it. And just have fun.