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?!”