BY Jennifer Allen in Features | 12 SEP 07
Featured in
Issue 109

Art in Theory

How a best-selling guide to talking about books you haven’t read can help you discuss the art you haven’t seen

BY Jennifer Allen in Features | 12 SEP 07

I started the ‘grand tour’ with one intention: to cross the finish line. But by the time I got to Art Basel, I had already had enough of art, meetings, parties and walking around in a stupor, not sure if I was talking to people, sculptures, my mobile phone or myself. ‘Art Unlimited’ began to sound like a threat. Just the thought of documenta 12 – where I might have to levitate in a Circle of Enlightenment – made me wobbly. And then Muenster! Instead of taking the train to Kassel, I headed up to Fjærland in Norway for a week to watch glaciers melting. Kassel and Muenster could wait.

Missing those last two stops did not prevent me from talking about the art at both events, long before I managed to make the trips. When I returned from glacier-gazing, I attended an opening in Berlin and traded heated opinions on the entire trajectory, from Venice to Muenster. Of course, I had read previews before the tour, but my wisest move had been picking up the book Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? (How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read).1 Written by Pierre Bayard, a literature critic and professor from the Université de Paris 8, this book-length essay – both an apology and a how-to guide originally intended for literary professionals – became this year’s surprise best-seller in France. What could a literary critic like Bayard teach an art critic such as myself? After all, we art lovers – whether critics, artists or collectors – have an easier time pursuing our passion than bibliophiles. We can see 100 art works, if not more, in a day. Who could read 100 books in as much time? And we don’t have to wait for translations.

But the ‘grand tour’ tested everyone’s limits. In Basel I found myself not only talking about books I hadn’t read but also chatting about art I hadn’t seen. Even fanatics who do exhibitions with check-lists in hand will recognize themselves in Bayard’s four categories of ‘non-reading’. Just replace his books with art works: there are art works you don’t know; art works you have looked over quickly; works that you’ve heard other people talk about; and ones that you’ve forgotten. Bayard also considers four ‘delicate situations’ for discussing unread books – in fashionable circles, in front of a professor, with the author, with a lover (it’s France) – scenarios that cross over into art’s socio-professional circles of the critic, the artist and the lover. Come to think of it, didn’t Sophie Calle’s lover leave her because she hadn’t read any Céline, nor seen documenta 5?

Bayard’s first words of advice: don’t be ashamed, you’re in good company. The author assures us that he and most literati, dead or alive, never did their homework. Take Paul Valéry, who penned a homage to Marcel Proust a year after the latter’s death in 1922: ‘Although I hardly know a single volume of the great work of Marcel Proust […], I am nevertheless keenly aware, from the little I’ve had the leisure to read in In Search of Lost Time, that literature has just experienced an exceptional loss.’2 Oscar Wilde didn’t like to read the books he reviewed. Michel de Montaigne couldn’t remember the ones he wrote himself. Why should art lovers have higher standards, even if most art works are consumed with a cursory glance? For Bayard the refrain ‘Remind me what that pavilion/off-space/art work looked like...’ would appear as an unnecessarily strained attempt to hide individual ignorance and the fragmentation of knowledge. Bayard urges us to give up anxieties, regrets and defences about our cultural lacunae, precisely because reading books – or seeing art works – is not the same as talking about them (nor the same as writing reviews about them, I would add). Books and art works can be pretexts for a complex exchange in which many elements come into play beyond the storyline and the artistic medium: collective and individual memory, relative cultural values, power structures, social circles and reputations – of both the speakers and the works themselves. Physically absent in a conversation, books and art become imaginary, virtual, ghostly, fluctuating, even fictional entities, which Bayard urges us to invent with gusto. Since this imaginary library – or museum – is collective, everyone has the right, if not the obligation, to participate in its upkeep by talking its holdings into existence.

While advocating honesty – and admitting its potential for disaster – Bayard offers three methods to get out of a tight spot with elegance: impose your ideas, invent the work and, if all else fails, talk about yourself. Many unabashedly admit to missing an event, yet the familiar reply ‘I didn’t see it, but I heard it was disappointing [Venice], crazy [Basel], bad [documenta], good [Muenster]’ misses an opportunity for intense exchange. Adding specific names, ‘X hated it, but Y loved it’, is a step in the right direction, but why not offer a personal provocation instead of circulating others’ opinions? ‘As both ghost and corpse of Arnold Bode, documenta 12 is a smashing success.’

If imposing your ideas aims to alter the work’s collective value, inventing the work comes closer to free association in psychoanalysis, where subjective interpretation trumps fact, where a detail can hold a saga. There are always enough details floating around about art works to make associations creatively. If you make a mistake, Bayard tells us, you can always pretend you confused one work with another. Talking about yourself – Wilde’s modus operandi – involves treating the book/art work as a pretext not for a conversation but for an autobiographical note. For Wilde, a fanatical non-reader avant la lettre, the object of criticism was himself, not the work: ‘I never read a book I must review’, said Wilde, ‘it prejudices me so.’3 With evident admiration Bayard advises making a perfunctory reference to the work’s title, status or atmosphere before getting down to the real business of you. Indeed, I tried thinking about Sigmar Polke’s work in the Italian Pavilion with my sense of smell, but my favourite odours were missing: maple syrup, new-car smell and melting glaciers. If our conversations give rise to a musée imaginaire, then everyone must add a self-portrait.

1 Pierre Bayard, Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus?, Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 2007. Published in English by Granta in January 2008. The cover blurb promises ‘La non-lecture: une des clés de la lecture’ (‘Non-reading: one of the keys to reading’).
2 Ibid. p. 32
3 Ibid. p. 153

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.