in Features | 07 JUN 06
Featured in
Issue 100

Writing Survey (Part 1)

'What writing has most influenced the way you think about art?' Writers, artists and curators reveal the often surprising literary influences – from Theodor W. Adorno to Lester Bangs, Gertrude Stein and P.G. Wodehouse – that have shaped their thinking.

in Features | 07 JUN 06

Marina Abramović
A Belgrade-born, New York-based artist. She has been a pioneer of performance as a visual art form, using the body as both subject and medium. Exploring her own physical and mental limits, she has withstood pain, exhaustion, and danger in the quest for emotional and spiritual transformation. 

Leonard Susskind, The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, (2005); Richard P. Feynman, Six Not So Easy Pieces: Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time, (1997); Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, (2002); Christopher Thomas Scott, Stem Cell Now, (2005); Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, (2005). All these books deal with science, technology, and spirituality and are inspiring for developing my work.

Daniel Birnbaum
Rector of Frankfurt’s Städelschule and author, most recently, of Chronology (Lukas & Sternberg, 2005).

The writings that have influenced my view on art are books that made me understand that there is such a thing as art in the first place: the novels of Franz Kafka, André Gide, Thomas Mann, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the plays of August Strindberg. Later, I got a sense that there is a kind of literature that happens ‘after literature’, a kind of writing that somehow takes for granted that everything has already been written: I’m thinking of Italo Calvino, Roland Barthes, and Maurice Blanchot. I’m not sure how Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones (Fictions, 1944) has changed my view on art, but I’m sure it has something to do with temporal multiplicity. He is without comparison the single writer I have spent most time with.

Michael Bracewell
With the assistance of Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, Michael Bracewell is writing a book on Roxy Music.

The collected writings of Oscar Wilde first steered me towards the realization that not only was there a dialogue between writing and art, but that it was a conversation in which both activities are equal partners. Wilde authorized a consideration of art that was inextricably linked to a consideration of lifestyle, creating the idea that you could ‘live artistically’ and that art could take many forms. Andy Warhol’s Book of Philosophy (From A to B and Back Again) (1975), has been similarly pivotal. Warhol’s musings on the inter-connectedness of art and modern lifestyle provide a means of considering not just his own work, but the accelerating commodity culture of the post-War period. Richard Hamilton’s Collected Words (1982) are a further vital handbook to understanding the conflation of art, design, technology and mass media that has come to dominate contemporary art and culture. In particular his famous essay for ‘Living Arts 2, Urbane Image’ (1963). A common denominator of my selection is a shared concern with the ways in which art finds its place within the broader experience of the modern world.

Kate Bush
Head of Art Galleries at the Barbican, London.

Great works of photography have endlessly inspired great writers: James Agee and Walker Evans, Nadine Gordimer and David Goldblatt, Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac, Blaise Cendrars and Robert Doisneau, to name a few – which is not surprising given that photography is by nature narrative and novelistic. When I think of qualities shared by some of my enduringly favourite books, I realise that many are documentary novels. I’ve been drawn to literature with what you might call, a photographic quality. Whether I came to a love of photography through a certain kind of writing, or whether I respond to similar qualities in both, I don’t know. Ryszard Kapucinski’s The Emperor, Downfall of an Autocrat (1978); Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965); Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator (1997); these are some of the books that have stayed in my mind over the years. All are great works by writers schooled as journalists, and all draw on reported or first-hand account to weave their stories. All steer a course between the world precisely observed, and the world given new meaning and aesthetic form. Tom Wolfe said of the New Journalism in 1972 – the writing school he shaped in the wake of In Cold Blood - that it ‘delivered this felt sense of the quality of life at a particular time and place’. He could have been speaking of a great photograph.

Paul Chan
An artist who lives in New York.

Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970) To start, it’s funny: ‘It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.’ It is also surprisingly tender: ‘The song of birds is found beautiful by everyone; no feeling person in whom something of the European tradition survives fails to be moved by the sound of a robin after a rain shower.’ I know. No one reads Aesthetic Theory for a good weep. It is Adorno after all, the dark prince of postwar philosophy. After Auschwitz, under the expanding empire of the culture industry, in the midst of May ’68, he sees no escape from domination and respite from suffering. It’s grim: ‘[art] today is scarcely conceivable except as a form of reaction that anticipates the apocalypse.’ Yet he clings to art, and to a kind of thinking through art, as the only possible generator of hope and resistance left for us: ‘Kant covertly considered art to be a servant. Art becomes human in the instant in which it terminates this service. Its humanity is incompatible with any ideology of service to humankind. It is loyal to humanity only through inhumanity toward it.’ Art is, for Adorno, a promise not kept but not forgotten. But for what, exactly? ‘Natural beauty shares the weakness of every promise with that promise’s inextinguishability. However words may glance off nature and betray its language to one that is qualitatively different from its own, still no critique of natural teleology can dismiss those cloudless days of southern lands that seem to be waiting to be noticed. As they draw to a close with the same radiance and peacefulness with which they began, they emanate that everything is not lost, that things may yet turn out.’ Words, yes, but really a siren’s sonata.

Suzanne Cotter
Senior Curator, Modern Art Oxford.

The influence of critical writing on the way I think about art is one of degrees and accumulation. There are the seminal texts and anthologies that, for me, go back to Charles Baudelaire, Denis Diderot and even Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1568). Their writings offered a mix of analysis, opinion, context and anecdote that are the stuff of criticism. The writings of Clement Greenberg and Leo Steinberg gave me essential grounding in thinking about art, whereas the intellectual rigour of Rosalind Krauss’ books and essays has been fundamental. The writings of Walter Benjamin remain a profound influence and point of reference. Roland Barthes is in there too. The work of Benjamin Buchloh is a breathtaking beacon of intellectual thought and critical exposition, while the essays of Dave Hickey have offered an important and influential counterpoint to much critical writing around to today. A brilliant stylist, Hickey’s erudition and his emphasis on subjectivity have given me and, I think, many others, permission to think and talk about art in ways that connect to our lives in the most ordinary but nonetheless profound ways. Among my contemporaries, Daniel Birnbaum is exemplary in his clarity of thinking and in his engagement with artists and ideas. In Britain, Michael Bracewell is one of my favourite writers on art and its place in the broader culture. Robert Storr’s monograph on Philip Guston is still one of the most enlightening expositions of an artist’s life and work I have read. Artist’s writings have also been crucial to the way I think about art, especially by Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Robert Smithson. In more recent times, David Batchelor’s Chromophobia (2000) has been an important source of inspiration. Its expansive reflections, born out of Batchelor’s intimate knowledge of artistic practice, have provided me with invaluable insight into the artistic process and its uncertainties.

Bice Curiger
Curator at Kunsthaus Zürich, editor-in-chief of Parkett and editorial director of TATE ETC.

I won’t mention the obvious theorists and philosophers who provide our ongoing background music. Although reading them is an important influence, it remains lateral. By contrast, there are several books I would cite as examples of reading material that goes right to the core, including Mundunculum by Dieter Roth (1967), The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (1975), Heliogabalus: Or, the Crowned Anarchist by Antonin Artaud (1934), René Daumal’s Mount Analogue (1952) and Thomas Hirschhorn’s written commentaries. Then there are those texts past and present that ruthlessly pursue questions of the relevance and quality of art. Such writing inhabits a world of weighing up and of warm/cold contrasts; two texts that match each other in ambition and perceptive commitment, but are as different as day and night are Barbara Rose’s four-part article on Sigmar Polke in Studio International (1976) versus Benjamin Buchloh’s text about the same artist in the Kunsthalle Tübingen catalogue the same year. Then there are texts on the creative energy of the times which hit home like bright intellectual bullets coming from a dull corner; that was the case with Diedrich Diederichsen when he was writing, in the early 1980s, for a German music magazine, Sounds. I would also add Martin Warnke on Aby Warburg, Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York (1978), Edit de Ak in the early-1980s in Artforum, and every single text I have ever edited for Parkett. Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Brian Dillon
His memoir In the Dark Room has won the Irish Book Awards non-fiction 2006. I was useless at art as a child, but Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms hinted that thinking about art might be an art in itself. At 16, I discovered Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist manifestos in the local library. (‘Work yourself up and sharpen your wings’: good advice.) Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin taught me how to look at photographs; John Cage and Gertrude Stein how to undo my habits of looking and listening. I get obsessed by certain styles of thinking and description, rather than wholesale answers to big questions about the history, nature and function of art. The writer who has recently made me think hardest about matter, space, time and vision (and thus about art) is the essayist Tim Robinson, whose Stones of Aran (1995) and forthcoming Connemara are models of landscape writing, history and something approaching metaphysics. Robinson quit the London art scene in 1972 to write these books. He owes something to John Ruskin, a little to John Berger, and maybe a lot to Robert Smithson. But he’s also unique in writing in English: I hope one day to describe a work of art with half the precision, tact and poetry that he brings to air, rock and water.

Dominic Eichler
An art critic, musician and artist based in Berlin. In 2005 he was awarded the German Kunstverein association’s art critic prize.

Influence involves education, admiration, jealousy and disgust – pretty personal stuff. Admitting influences publicly seems immodest or dishonest. If influences are also things you react against then dull or pretentious art writing (found everywhere) is a big influence because even while killing the thing you love, it reminds me why it’s necessary and worth the effort to at least try and do it better. I did think about trying to avoid the question by answering: ‘song lyrics of the music you happen to listen to when you write about art’ (on bad days Nico on repeat: ‘please don’t remind me of my failures I have not forgotten them’), but decided that would be too sappy, pop and flip. Something closer to a truthful answer would be: every bit of writing ever recommended to me by an artist friend. Thank you (off the top of my head, in no particular order) for Eve K. Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1992), Craig Owens' Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (1992), Douglas Crimp’s essay ‘Getting the Warhol we Deserve’ (1999) and Edmund White’s Jean Genet biography, Genet: A Biography (1993) perhaps because I read it while working at an art fair.

Peter Eleey
Curator & Producer at Creative Time in New York.

David Freedberg’s The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (1989) changed how I think about art by changing how I think about myself with art. The book is a kind of ethnographic survey of how we in the West have historically behaved around images: what they do to us, and how they absorb our desires and anxieties. Touching on everything from weeping icons, superstitions and visions to arousing artwork and its censors, Freedberg suggests that, despite the conceptual engagement with images that art demands, we have a need for some kind of viscerally, more primitive emotional connection with visual culture. Reading Freedberg, I was reminded of this most obvious point: I’m drawn to art in part because it challenges me on a daily basis to make myself available to its effects, to be vulnerable in its presence – a training ground for myself in the world.