in Features | 07 JUN 06
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Issue 100

Writing Survey (Part 4)

'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

Jerry Saltz Senior Art Critic for the Village Voice and the author of Seeing Out Loud: Village Voice Art Columns 1998–2003. He currently teaches at Columbia University, the School of Visual Arts, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As Melville wrote about art, art criticism should have ‘Humility – yet pride and scorn / Instinct and study; love and hate / Audacity and reverence’. Roberta Smith, my wife, taught me everything I know about criticism. Before her I tended to share only the enthusiastic part of my reactions and in drippy ways; she was the turning point. One summer I read two books of Sanford Schwartz’ criticism. I stopped after every sentence and wrote down a question to myself. By the end of the summer I had found a way to reach my own voice. Pauline Kael created an opening that a thousand other writers (including Schwartz) went through. In a very indirect way I was one of those writers. Joan Acocella’s pace is tremendous and her first sentences are weather events in themselves. This is pretentious but from Dante I discovered you could try to make a sweeping statement using little things, say something very personal but couch it in a far larger framework. This sounds even more pretentious, but something about the way that Beethoven symphonies start, build, and end showed me a kind of structure I was interested in. This sounds like bathos but early Led Zeppelin has a hand-made, experimental, layered, but accessible quality to it. The texture and the effort is on the surface; nothing is souped up with too much over-dubbing or equipment. It is raw, direct, and often trippy. Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola both have a richness of visual language and an obvious willingness to fail flamboyantly. Roger Angel’s writing is like a beautiful summer day in late June. Everything is illuminated; everything lingers; everything is sweet, visible, and utterly mysterious. When I was young Arnold Hauser’s vision seemed sweeping and I was swept away (I haven’t read him since). Ditto Robert Smithson and T.J. Clark and Dave Marsh (a rock-n-roll critic). There’s not a lot of D. H. Lawrence’s criticism but what there is is flaming. Matthew Collings’ breezy diary-like style has a lot going for it. I love how Ken Johnston builds one sentence at a time in his reviews and there’s a moral weight to his writing, something that reveals his struggle to get at an object in more than a purely visual way. Tino Sehgal Artist. Watteau’s Painted Conversations: art and talk in 17th and 18th-century France (1992), by Mary Vidal, especially the second and third chapters. Polly Staple Editor at large of frieze, and Director of Frieze Projects. Today: p 148, ‘Romancing the Looky-Loos’, Dave Hickey, Air Guitar (1997). Steven Stern A writer based in New York. I don’t know that there is a particular way I think about art. Basically, I just look at things and I rarely know what I think until I sit down to write. Talking about Marcel Proust, literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once used the term nonce taxonomies. She was referring to his precise categorizations of social rituals – systems of value adopted, elaborated, and abandoned with equal ease. It’s a phrase that captures everything I admire in critical writing: theory generated on the fly, and lightly held. I’ve found that in a lot of places, perhaps most often in film criticism: Manny Farber, of course, for his nutty, jarring syntax and side-of-the-mouth insights – and Otis Ferguson, Farber’s less-celebrated predecessor at the New Republic, for his nuanced pragmatism and virtue-out-of-necessity condensation. For similar reasons, Leo Steinberg’s famous essay on Jasper Johns still feels exciting to me; I re-read it every couple of months, always getting a kick out of its labile willingness to let the work take the lead. Mostly, though, the writing that affects my own tends to be whatever I’m reading at the time: novels, poetry, cookbooks – they all creep in somehow, whether I know it or not. Robert Storr Critic, curator and Dean of the Yale School of Art and Director of the 2007 Venice Biennale. Several years ago a graduate student asked me rather testily to tell him which discourse I subscribed to, the better (I suppose) to position himself in Oedipal relation to it. My choices, so I was lead to understand, were Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and the usual suspects. After explaining that I had read varying amounts of all but wasn’t a recruit to the cause of any, I agreed to provide a short list of texts that had been important to me. It was, I now realize, that of a critic rather than that of ‘critiquer’, though I refuse to acknowledge the intellectual superiority of the latter over the former, only differences in readership, range – being less bound to a discourse critic’s have more both in terms of literary form and subject matter – and respective professional rewards and temptations. The list consisted of Charles Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (1863) – but I encouraged reading and rereading all of his essays on art – the first four chapters of Ezra Pound’s ‘ABC of Reading’ (1934), Gertrude Stein’s ‘Pictures’ from Lectures in America (1935), and Walter Benjamin’s ‘Unpacking My Library’(1931), though here again I suggested reading and rereading Benjamin widely, in part to contextualize ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936) and free it from the narrow, largely ahistorical misreadings typical of the 1980s. There is much more that I would recommend – including James Baldwin, Jorge Luis Borges, and Walt Whitman, whose photos along with those of Stein and Baudelaire watch over my desk – and more recent essays by Roland Barthes and Leo Steinberg. But these are my classics. James Trainor US editor of frieze. The writing that has most influenced how I see art is the writing that has most influenced how I see everything; writing that confirms that art is not something isolated from the world but of the world, subject to the same messy physical and psychological laws. I would put near the top of my list personally revered figures like Joseph Mitchell, who so modestly perfected and shaped the New Yorker style of narrative non-fiction from the 1930s through the 1950s that he is often thought to have invented it. He wrote about things that nobody else would give a second thought to: the life of a Bowery burlesque show ticket taker, the aquatic journeys taken by a drowned suicide’s corpse in New York Harbor. Mitchell’s elegiac clarity is that of a man chronicling what in his mind’s eye has already passed, the stories taking their leave of the world as he types. John McPhee, a writer of the so-called ‘new journalism’ school that picked up where Mitchell left off, makes it jaw-droppingly obvious that there is no such thing as a dull subject, just dull writing. No matter how obscure, technical or dry on the surface – the realities of transporting hazardous chemicals across the interstate highway system on an 18-wheeler tanker rig, the whys and wherefores of the common orange – he always makes you slap your forehead in bafflement that no one had ever cracked that particular nut before, never looked at a thing, a process, a system long and hard enough to appreciate the hidden calculus of its everyday wondrous beauty. With unbeatable eye/hand coornation, he makes plain how people invent themselves through the work they do and the things they make, the way people become their vocations and embody their actions; and why it all matters. Jan Verwoert Contributing editor of frieze. His book, Bas Jan Ader – In Search of the Miraculous has just been published by Afterall Books / MIT press. The trouble with the books that inspire me to write is that I never manage to finish them. They usually get me so excited that I cannot carry on reading and instead pace around trying to figure out the implications of what I have just read. Among my most cherished half-read books are Friedrich Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations (1873-1875) and Sören Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death (1941). Currently, I have difficulties finishing Jacques Derrida’s Politics of Friendship (1994). The other day a friend leant me his copy of Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law (1904) with the last two pages torn out because, he said, the spell that lies on the book can only take a hold on you if you read the entire thing. From my experience I can only say that it tends to work the other way around. Benjamin Weissman The author of two books of short fiction, most recently Headless (Akashic Books, 2004). He teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Donald Barthelme’s fiction was my first large charge. His stories were experimental essays with language as central character. The writings of several friends were also key, Dennis Cooper (who talked me into writing about art in the late 1980s) and Lane Relyea, both original inspired thinkers and beautiful prose writers. No pussyfooting: their writing is aggressive and funny (humour being O so rare in art writing … the lead weight seriousness makes me reach for my scimitar). Listening to theory-heads at school labouring away at five minute long questions that make zero sense is a living hell. I distrust art theory. It’s turned good writers I know into theory’s ass-covering, subservient bitches, with name droppy footnotes. I love French fiction (but hate most applauded French theory with Helene Cixous and J.L. Nancy being the exception along with Roland Barthes’s more personal writing), and Slavoj Zizek, Walter Benjamin and Edward W. Said, and I hate it that the same ghouls and texts are quoted everywhere. I think of the born-again sports fanatic behind the goal posts at American football games holding up signs that read John 3:10. Can’t they recommend other passages? Also influential, Lester Bangs and his progeny; the playfulness of music writing. Those who went for the jugular. Anthony Lane. John Ashbery’s nonfiction, instant articulations, zero smoke screens. Virginia Woolf’s essays, David Foster Wallace (whose divine footnotes push the form of literature), Harold Rosenberg, Wayne Koestenbaum, Charles Baxter, and Rachel Kushner. Tirdad Zolghadr A freelance critic and curator based in Zurich. I‘ve been trying to find the book that most influenced the way I think about art – and culture in general – and the best I can do is to be honest and admit that if I choose only one, it has to be Jacques Derrida’s De la Grammatologie (Of Grammatology, 1967) that I read as a Comp. Lit. student and which did my head in. It’s poorly written, pretentious and unbearably French, but certainly has a way of getting into the most vulnerable recesses of the mind of a politically excited 22 year old. Logocentrism, deconstruction, différance, all that good stuff: I started fervently reading grammatological twists and turns into everything and everyone, from my seminars to my record collection to my girlfriend. It was all quite embarrassing and time-consuming and I can still sense the ideological repercussions up to this day. Since then I’ve never really been seduced by any book in such a way, at least not to that extent; these days I usually read introductions, and sample extracts or, in the best of cases, sample chapters, and although I am easily swayed and influenced by critical prose if elegantly rendered, it rarely leaves a lasting impression.