BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 19 OCT 13
Featured in
Issue 158

Style & Substance

On teaching criticism and ‘art writing’

BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 19 OCT 13

After Butler’s Wharf: Essays on a Working Building, 2013, published by Critical Writing students at the RCA, London

For the past two years I’ve taught a couple of days a week on an ma in Critical Writing at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. If you teach, the summer is your chance to invent ways of making things harder for yourself and, come the autumn, for others. This summer I thought a lot about a point raised by students at the end of last term: we should spend more time on sentences, on usage, on syntax – in short, on style. What would it mean to teach style today? Or, more to the point, what would it entail or imply for all of us engaged in art criticism or ‘art writing’ to try and think harder about the structure of our thoughts, the texture of our sentences, the timbre and tone of our critical voices? For myself, I’d imagined I thought and talked about little else. So why this demand, and why now? How to understand the desire for style?

It might be a conservative impulse, or at least an anxious and bet-hedging one: voiced in the context of governmental assault on third-level education in the uk – ruinous fees, systematic deprecation of arts and humanities – and a culture that demands of writers, especially young writers, that they work for little or nothing: mere ‘exposure’. Style as skill, a repertoire of ‘trans-ferrable’ vitae-fillers.

But the challenge is also institutional; it arrives at a moment, in London at least, when the stakes and very possibility of an art-critical education are in flux if not exactly crisis. The MFA in Art Writing at Goldsmiths, which has done so much to describe a particular field of engagement and potential, will be subsumed, following the departure of its founding director Maria Fusco, into a more general academic programme. At the same time, the ICA (in partnership with the University of Kent) is launching its MA in the Contemporary: a course that sells a combination of rigour and access. It makes sense, working somewhere between writerly experiment and arts-professional ambition, for a student in Critical Writing to demand a little more specificity, skills-set-wise.

Or perhaps the accusation is a more general one and concerns the terms in which criticism currently describes or celebrates itself. It’s two years now since Fusco and colleagues bruited on frieze's blog their ‘11 Statements Around Art Writing’: a manifesto of sorts for a form that shuttles among criticism, literary experiment and art as such. Across town at the RCA, we may have bristled at the text’s opacity (‘Art writing is in the situation of a fulcrum’) or its familiar academic shibboleths: hybridity, materiality, ‘practice’. But there’s no doubt that the field has flourished, that a constituency exists for ways of writing and thinking that draw from avant-garde fiction and poetry, art history, theory, journalism or essayism, the lineages of artists working with text and performance. And our students have been part of that: producing, among other things, books about the idea of uselessness and the still-unexhausted cultural history of London’s Docklands, convening events dedicated to Chris Kraus and the experimental novelist Christine Brooke-Rose.

Does turning in the classroom or on the public stage to the question of style mean a retreat from the open field of ‘art writing’? Quite the contrary, I think. Because the crux is this: once you have delimited a certain space of experiment – delimited it precisely by its lack of limitations – what then? Where is the real work to be done? Two years on from the Goldsmiths manifesto, it’s notable that many or most debates about art writing are still conversations ‘around’ the subject: conversations around the ‘role’ of the critic or writer, around the supposed freedoms of performance or ad hoc production, around theoretical allegiances, the politics of confession, the antique dramas of the avant-garde. It’s as if we’re afraid to look at the words themselves for fear of what we might find – or not find. (And when we do look closely at the texture of more conventional art criticism, as Alix Rule and David Levine did in their celebrated essay on ‘International Art English’ for Triple Canopy in 2012, things are often misconstrued: flat uniform prose read as obnoxiously complex, or the baggy scapegoat of Theory hauled on stage too early.)

Of course, an attention to style would mean all the arduous things it has always meant: inventing, endlessly, the proper density or looseness of sound and sense, logic and form – or judging the presence or absence of same in the work of others. But it’s something more exhausting and abyssal too. Style is not a question of appliqué eloquence on crude narrative, conceptual or expressive matter; it is emphatically not a skill to be inserted into next term’s schedule or a trick of narcissistic professionals to be scorned in the name of romantic experiment. It is the very soul and struggle of writing (therefore thinking) itself, a hole into which all your ambitions, all your programmes and all your manifestos will fall. Here’s a task for the new academic year and for the organizers of future panel discussions: quit sketching the boundaries of that void, and fall in.

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.