in Features | 07 JUN 06
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Issue 100

Writing Survey (Part 2)

'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

Juliana Engberg Artistic Director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. She is also the Senior Curatorial Advisor for the Australian participation at the Venice Biennale 2007. This is such a difficult question. How can one nominate any particular piece of writing when so many have been influential along the incremental path of learning and understanding about art? Maybe not even about art, but about thinking. About interpretation. Against interpretation. Between interpretation. Well there’s Susan Sontag straight up. The list seems endless, but I can nominate a couple of key texts. Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’ (1925) remains a central piece of literature. I return to it frequently and other writers point to it and remind one of it often. Hal Foster for instance. It seems endlessly pertinent to an understanding of so much art and architecture; memory and the art that springs from such hidden phantasms. Roland Barthes on the punctum in Camera Lucida (1982) has also been a wonderful text. In the concept of the punctum I find the libidinous passages of art that represent the active desire of the viewer. Robert Morris’ 'Notes on Sculpture' (1968) remains a favourite, pointing to and opening up an understanding of the pursuit of the gestalt in the minimal cubic gesture, as well as explaining, so usefully, the phenomenological approach that encouraged the tendency towards installation. Linda Nochlin remains a hero for her early work on women as the subject and object in art. Martin Jay’s massive work Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in 20th Century French Thought (1993) is one of my recent favourites: so sweepingly broad as to gather up the Greeks and Goethe and the post-Structuralists all in one dazzling inspired piece of research … maybe I should send a snapshot of the library as this is off the top of my head. Alex Farquharson A writer and curator based in London. I might begin constructing my ‘Library of Babel’ (Jorge Luis Borges) from writings that have influenced my thinking on art with Labyrinths (1976) by Borges, The Order of Things (1966) by Michel Foucault, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, (1996), ‘Playing with Dead Things’ by Mike Kelley (2004), Arcades Project (1927) by Walter Benjamin, 'The Painter of Modern Life' (1863) by Charles Baudelaire, A Rebours (Against Nature, 1884) by J-K Huysmans, The Power of Display (1998) by Mary-Anne Staniszewski, Inside the White Cube (1976) by Brian O’Doherty, Critical Condition (2003) by Julie Ault & Martin Beck, Learning from Las Vegas (1972) by Venturi, Scott Brown & Izenour, The Queen’s Throat (1993) by Wayne Kostenbaum, Julia Kristeva Interviews (1996), [Sic] (1993) by Sean Landers, In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927) by Marcel Proust and Wouldn’t it by Nice: My True Story (1991) by Brian Wilson. Dan Fox Associate editor of frieze. How I think about art is inseparable from the way I write about it. While the ideas of a number of philosophers and theoreticians have stayed with me (predictable stuff: Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and more recently Edward W. Said; some Marxist bric-a-brac; a teenage infatuation with the Situationists; a couple of terminally unfashionable Anglo-Saxons such as Bertrand Russell and Isaiah Berlin), I would never say that I’ve enjoyed the experience of their writing. My preferences are unapologetically literary. I admire writing that is generous to the reader. The gradual enfeebling of language’s heft through artspeak’s careless overuse, and the instrumentalization of critical vocabularies by cultural marketeers is a rot that needs guarding against. All of which is a roundabout way of nominating the writing of the late Stuart Morgan, followed by Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar (1997); Inside the White Cube by Brian O’Doherty (1976); Tom Wolfe’s 1970 double-header Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers; filmmakers Werner Herzog and Derek Jarman in, respectively, Herzog on Herzog (2002) and The Last of England (1987, republished in 1996 as Kicking the Pricks); the novels of B.S. Johnson, Alasdair Gray, Virginia Woolf and Thomas Pynchon; Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock (1970) and my all-time favourite gonzo, Lester Bangs. Jonathan Griffin Editorial assistant of frieze. When, as a student, I first read Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share (1967) it really made sense to me in terms of the system of exchange that art lives in; I have always thought about art fundamentally in terms of generosity. Dave Hickey’s ‘Nothing Like The Son: On Robert Mappelthorpe’s X Portfolio’ (1993) is a typically expansive master-class in how to look at and how to respond to Bataille’s uninvited gift. Both Bill Drummond’s book 45 (2000) and Duncan McLaren’s Personal Delivery (1998) won me over with their guileless enthusiasm towards making and thinking about art, and made me want to have similarly intrepid adventures, as did the pluckiness of George Plimpton’s participatory journalism. Lastly, Benjamin Weissmann’s article ‘Hirsch Perlman Saved from Avalanche’ in frieze issue 74 (April 2003) is the only piece of art writing I can think of that breaks my heart every time I read it. Bruce Hainley Associate Director of Graduate Studies in Criticism & Theory at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena. The collected articles of Boyd McDonald – founder of S.T.H.: The New York Review of Cocksucking (Gore Vidal, circa 1981: ‘one of the best radical papers in the country’), and contributor to Christopher Street, New York Native, Connection, and Philadelphia Gay News – were published as Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to ‘Oldies’ on TV (New York: Gay Presses of New York, 1985). About his invigorating, theoretical tome, a model of critique in its unabashed accuracy, historical clarity and piquant thrill, the author stated that it was ‘not strictly about movies; it frequently uses them as an excuse for political, social, sexual, psychological, biographical, and autobiographical comments’. Art as lube for getting down to it (thinking). His essay on The Big Circus – ‘seen at 3 p.m., April 14, 1984, on Channel 5’ – zones in on David Nelson’s turn as a trapeze artist in white tights. Its third paragraph can stand as proof of the brilliance of McDonald’s rollicking analysis: ‘Even if he had made no other pictures than The Big Circus, David Nelson would still rank as one of Hollywood’s premier suck objects. On or off the trapeze, his body composes a variety of images for which the world ‘historic’ would not be an exaggeration, and when, on rare occasions, he turns his butt to the camera, the white fabric clinging ecstatically to his crack can only draw gasps from men who have an aesthetic sense. At gatherings of serious cineastes, speculation sooner or later turns to David Nelson’s asshole – his ‘vital centre’ in Arthur Schlesinger’s phrase. In the absence of any published data – David married twice, but if either of his wives had any special interest in or knowledge of his asshole, she has not written of it – the only thing film scholars can do is extrapolate from information visible on his face, mainly his eyebrow hairs and pink lips. Most would conclude, I think, that his hole, and the hairs which formed its ornamental frame, were among the finest in the film capital. By contrast, the heavy black brows of Brooke Shields and Matt Dillon threaten the possibility that these two newer players are, literally, bushy-tailed.’ Jörg Heiser Co-editor of frieze. One of the books that had the most influence on my thinking about art is Thierry de Duve’s Kant after Duchamp (1996), which is brimful of ideas not only about the turn from Kant’s aesthetic value judgment of ‘this is beautiful’ to Marcel Duchamp’s bypassing of that judgment with ‘this is art’, but more generally about the relation between artists and their public. Another is Jacqueline Rose’s Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986) – how and why sexual difference is not a side-issue of art, but slithers right across the visual field. Two other very influential books on my thinking have nothing to do with visual art. One is Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures of the Dialectic (1955); a critical assessment of totalitarian tendencies within leftist thought, including that of his friend Jean-Paul Sartre (who had expressed solidarity with Stalinist Soviet Union despite of the existence of Gulags). What struck me when I first read this book in 1993 was not so much Merleau-Ponty’s willingness to risk his close friendship with Sartre (they didn’t talk for years after its publication) but the way he portrayed his political thinking – his definition of the Party as ‘pure action’ for example, effectively applying Existentialism to Stalinism – without any subjunctive. He seems to completely share in Sartre’s viewpoint, before dismantling it with sentences like ‘the assuredness of being in possession of the truth is dizzying. It is itself already violence.’ The other book is Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience (1923), which is the comical antidote to Merleau-Ponty’s grim day-of-reckoning job. It is possibly – long before Woody Allen – the first parody of the way we rationalize away our pathologies by analyzing them (Zeno Cosini, the protagonist, writes his autobiography upon request of his psychoanalyst). This book is also written with the greatest conviction and yet crumbles from within, as Zeno hints that what he’s doing is basically fooling himself. Or is he fooling us? Lesson learned: don’t forget the place from where you look, think, and speak when you look, think and speak. Jennifer Higgie Co-editor of frieze. When I was a child I went on a long sea voyage with my family and ran out of books (none of which I can recall). My father suggested I try his, which mostly comprised volumes of P.G. Wodehouse and the collected writings of Winston Churchill. I chose Wodehouse and from the first line was transformed – that distant sulky teen laughed! Here was a world in which everything, from milk jugs to Aberdeen terriers, was absurd and animated. (‘She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built for her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season.’) Wodehouse was a fine, if oblique, introduction to the world of art; a place in which every object is more than the sum of its parts. Within a few years other beloved tomes took pride of place beside the far-off exploits of eternal fops: the writings of Robert Smithson, whose razor sharp wit wouldn’t have been out of place in the Drones Club; Ovid’s Metamorphosis; John Cage’s meditations on friends, mushrooms and sound; Louise Bourgeois’ bluntness; Norman Bryson’s Looking at the Overlooked (1990); Zbigniew Herbert Still Life with a Bridle (1993) and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958), books which made every room and dusty still-life new again; Jean Rhys’ meditations on urban loneliness; Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar (1997) (the pleasure and permission!); Anton Chekhov’s first lines; Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay ‘Grids’ (I haven’t looked out a window in the same way since) and Susan Sontag’s 1981 collection of essays Styles of Radical Will (in particular ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’); T.S. Eliot’s rhymes; Agnes Martin’s sincerity; everything by Marguerite Duras. The list is endless, but these were the ones that won me over when I was young and impressionable. A life without reading would be meaningless to me. Roger Hiorns An artist and writer living in London. Bulletins and reports from the realities different from the one we inhabit are the more necessary as we find all influence and agenda ‘switched on’. It’s a necessary argument to define your nature in what you don’t read as in what you engage with. This is not so much as a personal policing of ideas, but more your acceptance that the pervasive arguments will disseminate through dominant culture and reach you as indirectly as a translation with added truths. Passively and without having to get too excited, unfaithfulness to any text and its ability to help you ‘drift off’ can find you a place where nothing is fundamentally true and most is permitted. Between the bomb and the fallout they both transform. So; Philip Rieff, My Life among Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority (2006); John Gray, Straw Dogs (2003); Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode 1960); and an interview with Paul Thek by Harald Szeemann from 1973.