The Sight of Death

I really enjoyed listening to T.J. Clark speak here about The Sight of Death, ten years after it was published. Of late, it’s a work that’s been particularly central to my thinking. Both it, and this podcast, are well worth your time.

Why not, indeed

Firstly, let me say that what you’re about to read has been a long time coming. Perhaps rushed into existence by James Merrigan’s recent, unclassifiable, text on Caoimhe Kilfeather’s exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, the following quickly-written thoughts also stem from a lot of thinking on the subject, conversations with others, and a fair share of personal agonising. The subject is the role of subjectivity in writing about art.

In many ways, it is a silly premise. The subjective always permeates every encounter with art, there being quite simply no objective way of doing it. Even, say, Donald Judd’s consciously sterile writings on art, nearly getting to a machine-like objectivity, are subjective: the decision to write like this being a wholly subjective one. At least for me, writing about art is subjective, but great art is somehow, kind-of, not: that’s the thrill of it. This does not, however, result in a situation where the writer can say anything, safe in the knowledge that each interpretation is subjective i.e. valid. Each interpretation is not intrinsically right: Kilfeather’s exquisite work is no more about popping pills as it is about day-time TV.

Additionally, though writing about art should be seen as inherently subjective, the decision to insert oneself into any discussion of it is not par for the course. Here the critic or writer make his or her subjectivity quite literal, creating a tripartite structure from reader, to artwork, to writer. This is not a necessity, but merely a matter of style. All too often, this lack of necessity comes off as forced or embarrassing, but nonetheless sometimes adds another layer of understanding to the work. This usually comes down to a question of appropriateness: as in, how does this subjective insight add to, or indeed distract from the art? If I sit down to read a text that defines itself, roughly speaking, as about art, would I feel short changed, even if I learned about the minutiae of the critic’s life? I guess the answer, as with most things, is that it depends on who’s speaking, and what kind of life they lead.

After reading Merrigan’s text, I re-read Jason Guriel’s I Don’t Care about Your Life, a polemical essay that was published online back in April. Guriel is quite angry with critics – it seems male critics in particular – and their preponderance towards the first-person pronoun that is ‘as conspicuous as a Corinthian column’. Confessional, critical writing is duplicitous, he claims, inasmuch as it strikes to endear the reader to the writer, when ‘smart sentences, one after the other, are usually heartbeat enough’. David Foster Wallace, the breakdown of master-narratives, and the role of internet-fuelled self-aggrandisement are the chief protagonists of this shift, he says. For Guriel this results in writing that invariably leads back to the critic; indeed, cannot help doing so.

I can agree with some of Guriel’s argument, but I think a small but significant caveat should be added: namely, that it depends on who’s talking. Some experiences are necessary to retell in order to complicate a still-dominant discourse, which is that of the straight-white-male. It is only through confessional writing that new kinds of subjectivity are even permitted to become. So when Guriel singles out Leslie Jamieson’s The Empathy Exams (2014) as one example of this dubious trend, I think he misses the complicating necessity of Jamieson’s work. It works, in a very particular manner, to undo the logic of the given.

One of the main questions to consider here, I think, and it’s one that recurs throughout Kraus’ seminal I Love Dick (1997), is: who get’s to speak, and why? What’s so important about this book, I think, is the act of reconciliation it achieves, which is to present an ostensibly female “hysteric” that can still think. She engages in pretty strange behaviour, but the subject of I Love Dick – overwhelmingly Kraus – is absolutely not crazy. In a similar way to Maggie Nelson, who offers a tremendous account of the thinking-pregnant woman in The Argonauts (2015), Kraus’ book shows us that an experience of female desire is only insufficient through the lens of patriarchal rationality, described by Hélène Cixous as ‘the effect, the support, and one of the privileged alibis’. Kraus is not filling in some lack, but rather inverting its terms. The book’s excess is not to make up for something, but rather to give full expression to female desire, a desire typically represented by men: the equipment fails, like a black and white camera trying to capture the luminosity of a sunset. At the end of the book, Dick responds to Chris with a zerox copy of his response to Sylvère. In his mind, she is just that – a shitty, watered down copy, only important, actually only existing, through her relation to a man, her husband. Chris’ (mostly) one-sided correspondence with Dick, written as it was to give full expression to a specifically feminine experience of desire, does not even garner a response. He does not understand her or her desire.

Books like the ones I’ve mentioned have helped me appreciate the necessity of retelling first-hand experience in certain writing, whereas before it actually pained me to read it, let alone consider writing in a similar way (which I have done, awkwardly). And, though I have swerved off message, I think it’s ok: I never claimed this to be about art. For me, that’s the key point. The relation between the critic and artwork should be an empathetic, rather than dominant, one. Such a relationship involves research, careful looking, and a kind of reticence towards self-expression unless it directly adds to or complicates the work. In short, it means starting with the art and moving back to yourself – if necessary – and not the other way around. Also, there should be a sense of fidelity, of wanting to do right by the work, of striving, if not to represent it, then to sketch out some shape to its particular sensibility. For me and probably most people who care about art, it’s never enough to just say: “it might be about this – why not?!” 

The Trouble with Being Bored

Here is a new essay that I wrote for the excellent Fallow Media. It skirts haphazardly around boredom, dead-end jobs, and Hanya Yanagihara’s strangely tedious A Little Life. With much thanks to Ian Maleney for his editorial patience, and to Kathy Tynan who allowed me to reproduce one of her paintings alongside it.

I guess one of the things I was thinking about was boredom as a state of being, and if it can have any positive implications. One of the fundamental traits of the contemporary, as far as I can see, is that boredom – or, stasis – persists even as we are busier, more connected than ever, etc. With regard to politics, you could argue that the rise of Trump in the U.S and now, disastrously, with Brexit, that some people are voting just to “see what happens,” to initiate some kind of shift in the status quo – one that has been cruel, exacerbating inequality. At the same time, though, I think it’s important to remember that some people are simply bigots and knew exactly what they were voting for. Anyway, it’s not at all worked out in this essay (enjoy?).

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A few things to report. The first is that some of my writing has come online at Mother’s Tankstation’s shiny new website. These are six essays written for their 2013 annual, and detail the whole year of exhibitions there. It was a strong year. Nina Canell, Aurélien Froment, Fergus Feehily, Shane McCarthy, and Atsushi Kaga all held solo exhibitions there, with a terrific group show, Built with Love, completing the line-up. Writing the annual was a fantastic experience for me, not only because I got the chance to meet these artists, but also that I was able to understand the programme in a more involved, and prolonged, capacity. I know I’m biased now, but for me Mother’s is the most exciting commercial gallery (I hesitate in using this term unreservedly) in Dublin. Having recently celebrated ten years in operation, too, I can only hope that it stays open for a long time. The current exhibition, Cui Jie’s Latter, Former, is clear of an intent that’s as strong, if not stronger, than it was ten years ago (Congrats, Finola and David, and thanks).

In other news, I’m starting an art-writing website. Part TJ Clark’s The Sight of Death, part Vdrome and part that “what image do you have where you work” bit on the back page of Frieze, my aim is very simple: to provide a space for prolonged looking and writing about images. I guess the most pressing question is: do we not have enough of this already? Probably, but this is to be a very minor operation. There will be no archive, and so the most it will make are transitory but meditative impressions. One image, tight focus.

This could be construed as nostalgic, and to some degree it is. But really it – currently nameless – just aims to provide a sympathetically designed online space for considered writing about art. Too often, I think, online art writing is overshadowed by its mode of presentation, the subsequent article that tantalises even as we read this one. The hope, quite simply, is that there will be no distractions here. What there will be is an image, and a text. Software can take care of the rest. Self-control is particularly good.

In other news, the first issue of Third Floor Journal arrived from Montreal today. I have an essay on the recent practice of Metahaven in it, which you can read in full here (pp. 40-48).

The wonderful Chris Kraus talking about art with a man who seems to have no clue what she’s on about. I feel this might be something she encounters a lot.

 

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The following text was originally published in the May/June edition of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet, which also features contributions by Teresa Gillespie, Jonathan Mayhew, Eilis McDonald and Declan Clarke, alongside a report on ‘The Value of Criticism‘ which took place in February at the Glucksman Gallery. Well worth picking up a copy.

In 1976 Jonathan Richman of the American rock band The Modern Lovers sang that “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole”. And although he may well have been an asshole, I guess the implication was that he could back it up somehow. Pretentiousness, by contrast, is at first glance best surmised by empty-talk and vain posturing. Nonetheless, when you Google the words ‘pretentious is…’ the sentence concludes with ‘…a pretentious word’. It’s a revealingly vacuous semantic loop. And though we may well agree that the word implies something ostentatious or affected, all fur coat and no knickers, pretentiousness isn’t quite captured by those words either. And so, as distinct from not-quite synonyms like showy or snobbish, what do we really mean when we call something pretentious?

Critic and Frieze editor Dan Fox’s recent book, Pretentiousness: Why it Matters, works to get to the root of this question. This past February I happened to be in Bristol and took the opportunity to hear him speak on the topic at the Spike Island gallery. Whilst he conceded that the word might never be fully rehabilitated in positive terms, Fox nonetheless de-familiarised the term, widening its remit, and effectively redefining it as something both positive and necessary. In the concluding Q&A, Fox stated that he tries to avoid using the word, and I left similarly hesitant to use it. Initially, the very thought of attending a talk about pretentiousness seemed somewhat fatuous, inasmuch as our attendance there appeared almost as a supreme embodiment of pretentiousness itself. However, over the course of Fox’s impassioned – and, for what it’s worth – totally unpretentious talk, pretentiousness itself seemed to assume a space of genuine urgency. Defined in Fox’s rather more generous terms, it names a central motor of art. Reaching outside of itself, pretentiousness allows art to intrude into the places and conversations from which it is typically excluded.

The central tenet of Fox’s argument is that pretentiousness – and, more particularly, its eschewal – embodies a particularly blinkered conception of authenticity. In lieu of this assessment, he says, to be pretentious is not necessarily to be inauthentic. Instead, pretentiousness often delimits an effervescent space for creativity, risk-taking and disruption, marked by “the courage and curiosity” to extend oneself. By this understanding, when the term is used negatively, in a throwaway, unthinking manner, it works to undercut any kind of striving outside of oneself, intractably rooting the subject “to the circumstances in which they were born”. For Fox, this denial exists alongside a denial of social mobility, and is rooted, first and foremost, in the discourse of class.

Initially, this argument may seem somewhat far-fetched. And yet on further consideration, the charge of pretentiousness carries a definite shade of self-aggrandisement, of ‘getting too big for your boots’. In an Irish context, the word ‘notions’ has become its shorthand; the hipster, itself a similarly empty signifier, is its archetype. Under this logic, the same applies to performance art, pinot noir, barrel-aged stouts, AeroPress coffee, French postmodern theory, beards, thrice-cooked chips: notions. Sometimes, of course, such derision is understandable, and yet, as Fox rightly asserts, what unites our denials of something as ‘pretentious’ is the unsophisticated assumption of its bad intentions. What we forget is that most of what is derided as pretentious is made in absolutely good faith, with a lot of love and a courageous disregard for public opinion. Without the risk-taking inherent to pretentiousness, our culture industry would surely be a tedious and static one.

A key aspect of this debate revolves around the question of authenticity. This, for me, is the most insidious element in calling someone or something pretentious. Here, a particularly wrong-headed and possibly destructive dichotomy is being articulated: namely, that performance or pretension is bad, while authenticity is good. By this understanding, the fact that authenticity in art is also constructed is glossed over. The “salt of the earth” pose, as Fox describes it, is also a pretension.

Thinking about contemporary politics, it’s clear that this dichotomy is often mined to the hilt. Politicians strive to appear authentic, ‘one of the people,’ and this is often carried out through anti-intellectualism, coupled with a kind of easily digestible, soundbite politics. Increasingly, this idea of authenticity feeds into popularism. The problem here is that such ‘authenticity’ is shallow and presupposes a barely weaned and passive public. Furthermore, this so-called authentic politics is often too good to be true. We can sense this, for example, in the unfathomable rise of Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate. Such anti-intellectualism, Fox states, is just another breed of snobbishness. The simplicity of this viewpoint is determined by a similarly reductive, and far more worrisome, process of exclusion. In place of easy solutions, then, complex political issues demand correspondingly complex, and even pretentious, thinking.

Fox argues that being pretentious is rarely harmful. However the aforementioned anti-intellectualism that causes us to view it in negative terms is often harmful. Such a mode of understanding defines problems as heroic fairy-tales, endorsing a black and white view of the world and inhibiting any kind of constructive complication. In never risking pretension, then, we are denied the possibility of living differently, or better. A prioritisation of authenticity over pretension, as Fox put it, means that we are ineluctably bound to the circumstances and class in which we are born; in such a way, society reproduces itself without any upset.

In light of waning governmental support for the arts, this is a particularly worrying prospect. Writing about pop music in the New Statesman recently, Stuart Maconie argued that the art is becoming the domain of the wealthy, “a rich fellow’s diversion, a pleasant recreation for those who can afford it, rather than the cultural imperative it should be”.[i] In such a way, art can be seen to reproduce the yawning inequality that defines the contemporary moment, while simultaneously limiting the broad range of perspectives that art should provide. Within such a context, it seems jarring, even counterproductive, to endorse pretentiousness as a viable point of resistance. And yet to be pretentious means to reach outside of yourself, to yearn and to become someone – or some class – that you’re not. Pretension and art are a matter of social mobility, and of breaking into closed worlds.

Perhaps Fox’s take-home message was this: if everyone were afraid of pretentiousness, it’s likely that no one would be an artist. There would be little vitality or outlandishness, and no surprises. No one would make contemporary art, no one would read theory – or maybe even literature – and certainly no one would listen to obscure drone music. Most likely we would all drink instant coffee and scoff at the idea of salads. In short, the world would be a much shittier place. At the start of his talk, Fox rattled off a long list of activities that might be termed pretentious, which included beekeeping, running and birdwatching. Anything, in short, might feasibly be called pretentious – slipping into this categorisation, somehow, by dint of the zeal or pleasure that sustains them. This doesn’t seem like a helpful way of seeing the world. What is needed, Fox argues, is a greater precision of language. Calling something pretentious doesn’t really mean anything, but instead smacks of a lazy and demeaning view of art, almost bringing it to heel. Of course it is justifiable to not like something, but – at least for this pretentious writer – damning it in such reductive terms just isn’t enough.

 

[i]   Stuart Maconie, ‘The privileged are taking over the arts – without the grit, pop culture is doomed’, The New Statesman, 4 February 2015