My relationship with artists and their work continues to be difficult, unruly, and uncertain. So often am I tepid, repulsed, seduced, lost, won-over, and forced to change my mind in reconsideration either for better or worse, that it becomes more and more difficult to stamp anything in art as certified or sealed. This isn’t a bad thing. This gunplay of unexpected transitions is what I like most about art and about culture, and in fact, being frank and honest about how these transitions occur is what interests me most when I write about art. Even the most museum-sanctioned, most lauded, most written about artist can have no effect on me and often things considered minor change my life, so I find that I am often the most satisfied when I can admit that I often misunderstand context or am outright fooled when it comes to art, that perhaps the most important thing about art is less the annals of history and more the turf of experience.
However, I do meet resistance to reaching this simple candor in my work and I often wonder why. I receive no editorial constraints or any specific prohibition from any institution or magazine for which I write. Instead, the problem, I think, is that I never get to the point of receiving a specific prohibition. In my desire to fit in and just produce a solid and studied piece of writing that is appropriate for the context I find myself in, I naturally fall into a mode of writing that scares me, a mode of writing where I am in the business of certifying and promoting, of sealing and declaring, a place where all the struggle I feel when I get to know artists and their work over time—the lukewarm rising to hate to love and sometimes to indifference that can never be on a deadline—fails to register in my writing at all. The art itself—whether a painting or a performance or a document—often has no choice but to be praised in my work and there seems to be little difference between work produced for spaces of criticism and work produced for scholarship or catalogue. Ultimately, both the writing and the art come across as merely tame enterprises.
While the blame is my own, I can’t help but believe that the forms of writing I am most engaged with—the catalogue essay, the magazine review, and strangely, even the supposedly open, free, and unprofessionally edited blog essay—are at least partial enablers. I can’t help but be astonished by how firm and resolved viewpoints on art can be, so firm and resolved that it makes me suspicious about whether or not public relations and simple promotion runs too rampant in contemporary art, whether or not I feel obligated to artists, museums, galleries, and even my writer colleagues, to just get on with it and conduct the business of making art sound like something with a nice narrative into which anything can be inserted with impunity and which can overcome all of my little worries and hedges and warnings which make viewing art anything but a closed circuit. However, when I write in this tone so common in contemporary art, I feel a loss.
It comes as no surprise that I often find the writing on art of non-specialists or perhaps more fairly people that are open to art as a complicated but essential part of their lives to be the most interesting these days. Zadie Smith’s 2011 New York Review of Books article on Christian Marclay’s Clock, for example, was honest and illuminating and completely unlikely to be found in an art magazine. Geoff Dyer’s book on D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage (Picador, 2009), is another example. Though Dyer set out, he admits, to write a scholarly study, what he produced was a human encounter with Lawrence in all of its messiness, its false starts, and wailing and grinding of teeth. What the reader gets can be frustrating, but ultimately, the victory is that we get a fully engaged piece about why Lawrence matters, not for scholars, not as a matter of technique or even history, not even as a certified though sometimes discounted member of the firmament of letters, but as a writer who gets into your life and won’t let go, who drips and bleeds into each of your days, and actually can change your behavior (even when you are the most at odds with the work). Writing like this is the opposite of P.R. There is nothing certain, there is no obligation to anything other than whether or not the work stays with you over time and continues to give and speculation about why that happens.
Simply put, I work to write like that, and I’d love to find more writing like this about contemporary art.
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