Friday, 11 April 2008

Art Writing Salon, Whitechapel Gallery 27 March

Image: cover of Issue 1 The Happy Hypocrite

This blog post is being written on 27th March whilst sat in the Whitechapel Gallery Cafe at the Art Writing Salon; an event being hosted by Marquard Smith (Course Director MA Art & Design History Kingston University) and Maria Fusco, editor of the Happy Hypocrite journal and Director of the Art Writing MFA programme at Goldsmiths College. The salon is about art writing, its role with regards to criticism and contemporary art, and is pertinent to the work of Open Dialogues, so I’m blogging it as a live monologue to run alongside the Whitechapel event for all those who are interested in art writing and/or were not able to get here tonight.

Please note this text is not a faithful transcript of the event. Individuals and facts may have been misquoted and/or misrepresented.

19.00 Marquard Smith opens the discussion. Maria talks on the difference between arts criticism and art writing, and introduces the three categories within art writing, which are art writing, critical writing and theoretical writing. These differences are slightly flattened, perhaps making them manageable within the non academic context of this salon, but I’ll elaborate here: essentially the difference between art writing and arts criticism is where the writing itself is considered equally or alongside the art under discussion. Art writing is an art practice that adds to or ‘performs’ its subject in text. Art writing is not writing as an adjunct, an aside, or writing on/about/ its subject matter (be it art or not). Moreover, criticality is what counts in art writing, not criticism per se. And, unlike arts criticism, it is not always the art work, object or subject that is at stake in the writing. Quiet. The audience are slightly dazed. Maria then offers out two tantalising questions’ What is being poked in Art Writing, what is its subject matter? ...

A fictional reading

19.20. Maria launches into fiction, reading various texts aloud. She cites Michel Tournier’s novels The Wind Spirit and Gemini, fiction by J.G Ballard and Robert Smithson and reads extracts from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. The Third Policeman is a cyclical tale in which the main character dies and has (paradoxically) been dead throughout the novel. The Third Policeman is self conscious about its form of address- the novel- it makes innovative use of footnotes and overtly references its reader and its own process. Maria equates The Third Policeman’s cyclical death and rebirth to art writing. The novel embodies the same heightened awareness of form, content, authorial voice and reader that art writing does. For Maria, The Third Policeman is also how art writing might (legitimately) have a different relation to fiction or non truth. Putting it crudely, amid our twenty first century subtext of war, terroristic and environmental doom, fiction signals that it is feasible not worry about the future. Maria’s enthusiasm for fiction is infectious but this deliberate and politically ‘non serious’ devil-may-care approach to the end of the world via fiction remains hanging in the air, begging for development..... Where will all this fiction lead us?

Fiction as fact

19. 50. Maria’s penchant for fiction doesn’t merely contain the recipe to combat society’s contemporary malaise. The significance of the genre is rooted in its potential for re-writing facts. Facts can be refuted in fiction, and if not totally refuted, then allowed to pass more freely. Fiction, then, allows a sideways glance, and forces a wedge into facts, into a place where facts, history, events can be begin to be worked with or read as more flirty, fragile and ephemeral. It follows that facts in Art Writing can shift and behave as deviously as they do in fiction. Perhaps others here also have this sinking feeling, are losing their footing, as am I. We are certainly not on solid ground anymore: writing where fact and fiction mingle without recourse or meaning? This is no doubt exciting, full of potential, liminal and –hopefully- entirely possible, but is it accessible, publishable, moreover readable, outside the university context? Words that make manifest this kind of reader; a reader who has a healthy disregard for fact, someone who isn’t taken in by the text, would be ground breaking. Now that would be critical writing.

...... How far can art and writing, as language- as communication- actually be stretched before they become, uncommunicative, unreadable? Does writing still work as language if it is stretched beyond comprehension or readability? What would broken writing look like?

The happy hypocrite

19.57. The front cover of the first issue of The Happy Hypocrite is up on screen, it is entitled ‘Linguistic Hardcore’. The title and theme of the journal represents the fact that the journal is pertinent to issues of critical writing, also that the journal takes methodology of art writing, critical writing, critical theory as its subject matter. The title Happy Hypocrite, originally the title of an 1897 short story by Max Beerbohm, is also a nod at the delicate relationships contemporary critical writing, and its writers, have to negotiate with regards to author, art institutions, writing and artistic subject matter. So, art in the Happy Hypocrite is located firmly on the page. Questions about what this means for the writings’ generosity, criticality or relationship to the artwork or objects under discussion might appear begrudging at this point. I keep quiet.

20. 07. Maria tells an anecdote about her being Northern Irish and asked to review a Northern Irish artists’ work. She questions the value or agency endowed to writers who are seen to be complicit or have special access to their subject matter – whether sexually, racially or culturally. She gives agency in writing the same rough treatment, the same critical overturning, or poke, that she gives to facts. I think about raising the point that I would be happy, perhaps a happy hypocrite, to be paid to review white middle class Northern artists.

Writer torture

20.15 We’re getting practical. Maria reveals useful strategies (in addition to fiction) for taking a unique, sideways glance at your art writing subject. i.e methods on how to ‘poke’ the object of your attention. It is a particular method of looking that enlivens the subject and is employed in many art writing texts with varied and surprising results. Constraints – self imposed or not- can also be useful as creative challenges to set in writing. Constraints and challenges can overcome a block, or create re-investment in the object/subject where something unexpected is forced out onto the page. Tried and tested art writing challenges include limiting word length, limiting time spent on a text, reviewing the most boring show or the most banal art object you can think of. Although painful, these exercises in writer torture often force a writing around the object/subject, instead of being immediately pulled in buy it (and so avoids the writer being susceptible to mere descriptive writing).

Back from the dead

20.30. It’s question time, someone mentions Derrida and with this the notion of the reader arrives into the room. Ironic that the reader- and Derrida- comes onto this scene late, since it was Derrida who articulated that the temporal and physical drag - the distance from me to you which these marks manifest – is how writing marks itself as writing. Were you, reader, waiting for your moment all along, in the corners of the Whitechapel Cafe? I’m anticipating you reading this now. Does the distance between you and I make art writing possible? Is this critical space or separation – be it physical, temporal or in meaning- the very space that art writing exploits?

The Happy Hypocrite is published by Bookworks.

For more details on the Art Writing MFA at Goldsmiths College see

Rachel Lois Clapham

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