BY Esmé Hogeveen in Books , Opinion | 26 OCT 23

The Self-Conscious Distance of Natasha Stagg’s ‘Artless’

Spanning stories, fragmentary essays and press releases, the author’s new collection veers between Joan Didion-esque social studies and pseudo-blasé reportage

BY Esmé Hogeveen in Books , Opinion | 26 OCT 23

In the months prior to reading Natasha Stagg’s Artless: Stories 2019–2023 (2023), I found myself using the term ‘artless’ with increasing regularity. New art exhibitions or television shows might strike me as entertaining or cleverly conceived but, very often, they lacked that ephemeral mixture of vision and guile that makes something truly artful. A book recontextualizing women’s revolutionary art was politically meaningful but rote in its selection of case studies. An indie film about sisters experiencing boredom on vacation was – intentionally but uncompellingly – dull. So far, I’ve hesitated to name names, because I think something can be good and artless, just not great. As theories of a contemporary media monoculture proliferate and commercial brands’ creative budgets wildly exceed most artists’ annual incomes, the line – or is it a threshold? – between artlessness and artfulness intrigues me, so I was excited to get Stagg’s Semiotext(e)-stamped perspective.

Portrait of Natasha Stagg. Courtesy: Natasha Stagg; Photograph: Jody Rogac

Understanding the stakes of Artless depends, to some extent, upon considering Stagg’s earlier work. A New York-based critic who grew up in Tucson, Arizona, Stagg is known for media and consumer-culture critique delivered in a kind of post-American Apparel, anti-New Sincerity deadpan. She broke into the theory-adjacent lit world with Surveys – a coming-of-age story about a mall worker who becomes internet famous, which was published by Semiotext(e) in 2016. Her next book, an essay collection called Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019 (Semiotext[e], 2019), trains the author’s disaffected, yet not entirely cynical, lens upon consumer branding’s penetration of art, beauty, social mores, dating, place and memory. In many ways, Artless feels like the attempted resolution of an unofficial trilogy exploring the implications of personal, cultural and corporate branding upon individual and societal psyches.

Natasha Stagg, Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019, 2019, book cover. Courtesy: semiotext(e)

The press release describes Artless as ‘composed of stories, fragmentary essays and even press releases’. Chapters are short – several are only five- or six-pages long – and many were originally published in magazines and periodicals including Artforum, Buffalo Zine, Frieze, Gagosian Quarterly, Spike Art Magazine and SSENSE. (Two chapters, ‘Subculture’ and ‘The World’, were both originally published by this magazine in 2021.) Content ranges from anecdotes about celebrity encounters – including with Vincent Gallo, Catherine Keener and Sarah Jessica Parker – to reportage on cultural topics – such as controversial filmmaker Abel Ferrara, Gen Z’s relative disinterest in sex, pandemic lockdowns and 24/7 shopping – to ambiguously fictive short stories and personal essays drawn from Stagg’s own life. The last category is the strongest, since Stagg is most engaging when communicating via direct first person, zooming into the hypocrisies and conflicting desires that illustrate a particular sociocultural moment or tension, as when describing quitting social media in ‘Social Suicide’ or the pull of neocon subcultures for disenfranchised white men in an underdeveloped #MeToo chapter called ‘The Dollhouse’.

It makes sense that Stagg, who is oftentimes employed as a consultant for international brands, chose the framework of artlessness for grouping some of her recent work. Yet, the question of what artlessness is or entails remains, frustratingly, unanswered. The ambiguity of what makes something – whether an intended work of art or a moment, vignette or feeling drawn from life – artful vs. artless is a compelling query, and one that was taken up by a very different author, Ali Smith, in a collection of essays-cum-fictional love story called Artful (2012). I thought of Smith’s rewardingly circuitous approach while reading Stagg’s book, hoping that, as in Artful, the sum of Artless would be greater than its parts but, sadly, I was left wanting. Stagg’s commentary, which is at times undeniably deft, is too frequently undermined by a self-consciously distanced voice and chapters so succinct that potentially rich topics are prematurely tied up or abandoned before achieving clarity.

Natasha Stagg, Artless: Stories 2019–2023, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Semiotext(e)

The book’s non-sequitur logic is most successful when Stagg brings her media expertise to bear on contemporary topics. Working in branding has given Stagg a healthy scepticism towards public messaging and some of Artless’s richest moments involve her grappling with, as Stagg’s therapist puts it, the ‘moral grey area’ of her profession. ‘My job is to make things seem different than what they are,’ she muses in a chapter about pandemic-era looting in New York. ‘And I want to do my job, because I’m good at it, and I want the money (...) I also want to do good, but I am sceptical of most do-gooder agendas. I want to sound like I care, but I don’t want to sound like I think I’m not complicit.’ The performance of self-aware progressivism is relatable, and the nuances Stagg exposes in this chapter prove that her digressive approach and staccato sentences can sometimes yield writing more akin to Joan Didion’s social studies than pseudo-blasé reportage. Unfortunately, the majority of Stagg’s ideas are not singular or weird enough – topics such as liminality and consumer-driven media are, by now, widely understood – to justify the collection’s non-cohesive structure. This is a pity, since many of Stagg’s topics are timely and she is ideally situated, on the edges of critical theory and marketing milieus, to convey a perspective that is a little more artful.

Natasha Stagg’s Artless: Stories 2019–2023 is available now from Semiotext(e).

Main image: Natasha Stagg, Artless: Stories 2019–2023 (detail), 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Semiotext(e)

Esmé Hogeveen is a writer based between Tkaronto/Toronto and Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal. Her writing has appeared in Another Gaze: Feminist Film Journal, Artforum, Border Crossings, The Brooklyn Rail, Canadian Art and cléo.