An unfinished conversation about art writing, reading and publishing
Since we last met, I’ve been thinking a lot about the reader. How we discussed what the reader was owed by the writer/editor.
In 2018 I finished a language diploma where we studied English conversation pattterns. Shirley Brice Heath in her study of the English essay links conversation and the essay as joint causes. Alike in the way they move and are constructed.
Both essays and conversations may toss a topic into the ring for discussion and then walk around the topic, ramble and digress to unrelated matters. Neither essays nor conversations must have highly specific purposes or goals; they happen, more often than not, for the pleasure of the speaker-writer and listener-reader.1 1. Shirley Brice Heath, ‘The Essay in English,’ (1997) in Macovksi (Ed.) Dialogue and Critical Essay, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997, pp. 195-213.
Maybe the reader is often treated like a person in a room who is within earshot of a conversation? Where the polite/generous option would be to invite them in?
The more I think about critical generosity, the more I think about intimacy with the reader (listener). Consider that the more intimate you are with your listener in conversation, the less you are inclined to make adaptations and omissions of subjects, facts and anecdotes. Similarly, you are more prepared to take risks in subject matter, attempt humour, or say something potentially inaccurate.
Should we be searching for intimacy with readers?
I found this yesterday:
I think sculpture happens in that space, between the object and the person who is looking at it. It's obvious but it's still mysterious how much you can do with that space.2 2. Gabriel Orozco, Clinton is Innocent, exhibition catalogue, Musée d'art Moderne de la Ville Paris, 1998, p. 43.
It feels as though everyone involved in this program, writers, editors even attendees of the public forum, are experiencing or inhabiting this space. Or perhaps experiencing the discomfort that emerges from this space. Via experimentation, meditation or engagement each writer, editor, public forum attendee, has waded through this discomfort, as provided by Rothschild.
It's what you said about not knowing what you're writing or why you're writing at the time, but that the emotional impulse is clear in hindsight. The process as murky or self-directed. The practice, at moments, leading the practitioner?
I went away with the Brow crew over the weekend, and I finished my book (Paul Takes the Form Of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor - my favourite of the year, I think.) I've been editing this amazing essay by Aimee Knight, which is forthcoming in the next issue of the Brow. It's an attempted to theorise a gendered ear, commensurate to a gendered gaze. I've been wrestling, a bit, with the weight of editorial responsibility. Having a writer trust you with their work is such a privilege, and sometimes I worry I'm crossing the line from helpful to intrusive. I want to make the work as good as it can be, but not just my good--the writer's good, the reader's good. I'm sitting in the middle, trying to make space for both. With a writer like Aimee it's easy - she writes so generously, she writes to be read. Or: she writes to tell you something, not just to talk.
So interesting you say that Australians tend to orient conversation towards the other party. At one point in her essay, Knight mentions that Australians tend to speak fewer words per minute than the average American (the American average being 150wpm), but that the human brain can process up to 450 words per minute. This is why the mind wanders--it has about 300 words of cognitive space to fill. I wonder how many words would be the perfect amount for a human to focus on. Maybe we can think of generous arts criticism as an attempt to find that balance--giving its audience enough to feel absorbed and held in the twofold work of the art and the writing. Not to dominate or dictate to the audience, but to keep their attention in the artistic space. 3. See for instance Gibbs, Anna (2005) Fictocriticism, affect, mimesis : engendering differences TEXT : journal of the Australian Association of Writing Programs, Vol. 9, no. 1.; and Rendell, J., 2010. Site-writing: the architecture of art criticism. IB Tauris & Davis, K., 2014. Intersectionality as critical methodology. In Writing Academic Texts Differently (pp. 31-43). Routledge.
Is that what I (or you) find exciting about arts writing? Its ability to hold a person in a space? To make an artwork feel like a space a reader could inhabit? Critic as mediator? Critic as psychopomp? If arts writing is a way of making a space, how do we (forgive me) "expand the field" in a way that is accommodating, rather than putting more distance between art and audience?
Thinking of this line from Louise Gluck:
Why treasure your voice / when to be one thing / is to be next to nothing.4 4. Louise Gluck, The Wild Iris, The Eco Press, London, 1992.
Thinking about writers making space, and taking up space. How can a writer assert authority in a way that is generative, and not domineering? Have you ever made installation or sculpture work? Can you think of a time that a piece of writing made you feel welcome?
Polyphony, intimacy, authority as an invitation to respond in kind. Something about empty space, how maybe it only seems inviting to people who are used to taking up that kind of space.
waves, and over waves, birds singing.5 5. ibid.
Ainslee sent me her piece early. I can't wait to see the others. I hope you're dealing with this weird tropical summer ok <3
This is such a key question. Often, regrettably, the reader is placed somewhere adjacent to the writer-editor relationship.
…she writes to tell you something, not just to talk.
If the writer writes to express an idea, what does the editor do to it? Do they make it louder, clearer, less dense, more ‘palatable’? Why is there an ongoing inclination to make it less? Is it a great editor who can cut a word count by half? Reading the pieces Kiara Lindsay wrote in response to Kosmos, I recall immediately thinking: more. But it’s in these instances that the editor doesn’t immediately ask for more, instead applying the word resolved. A tick. We move on.
The role of the editor shifts again when we consider expanded writing. The obvious question: how does anyone edit expanded writing? It begins, I believe, with the editor learning to stomach the discomfort. A discomfort of which the reader is capable. Since you brought it up in messenger, I can’t get the idea of generative discomfort out of mind.
In the first session of the program we began on the ground. Barefoot or palms to the floor, the point was to begin from below the gallery. The overwhelming outcome of this activity, was the capacity for Kosmos, in its size, its colouring, to evoke a childhood sentimentality. Looking up at, under, around geometric objects. A shared lack of clarity, as to whether these objects may be touched, knocked, utilised.
The will to bend into one’s surroundings, to be absorbed into space by reversing one’s distinction from it.6 6. Di Rosa 2018, Pamela Lee, In conversation with Dodie Bellamy, link
I agree. To compose generous criticism is to absorb the reader. Not to dictate. Not to dominate. To write generously, is provide permission for the reader’s mind to wander. To create its own connections between art, writer, viewer, reader.
Not: what do I think of the art? But: what does the art (writing) make me think of?
To welcome the viewer/reader into their own acts of responding, is one of the most exciting parts of arts writing. A promotion of thought and connections, in contrast to the hushing of voices those familiar white walls encourage.
As for the critic as psychopomp? Over and over again in our false acts of absolute judgment and criticism, we deny the realm of death.6 7. Kathy Acker, Writing the Impossible, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
In her essay The Centre of Gravity, Dodie Bellamy writes:
Gravity does not bend. Art writers lie. Art lies. An unattainability of truth.8 8. Dodie Bellamy, When The Sick Rule the World, Semiotext(e) Active Agents Series, 2015.
There should be no large gap between the reader and the writer. And as such, no space for domination. It’s not an assertion of authority, but instead something like a display of leadership?
To respond to your closing excerpt I’ll return to Acker.
Let one of art criticism’s languages be silence so that we can hear the sounds of the body: winds and voices from far-off shores, the sound of the unknown.9 9. Kathy Acker, op. cit.
I love the words editors use when they want more from a piece. Fill out, extend, explore, flesh out. The body coming out in the writing, asking for you, bare feet and open palms. Berger described himself as a listener before anything else. Every story, criticism, idea, spinning out from that central quietness. I feel that in his writing, I think. His willingness to exist in a space without taking up all the room. Ways of Seeing (outrageously ambitious, deceptively humble title that it is) drastically changed my understanding of what art writing can do, and maybe what it should do. With Berger, I always feel spoken with, never explained-to. Rereading, I can feel that gauntlet (to listen better, to speak with and not explain) being laid down again.
(A gauntlet laid down / So that we can also enter the space of art with bare feet, open palms?)
I love that image of your first session. It’s a beautiful thought, transgressing a gallery space in the most patient, gentle way possible. It is a transgression, though, and I think this gets to the heart of what I’m interested in. We don’t allow ourselves vulnerability around art much. I feel like art is allowed to be way more naked than we are. And it’s easy, in a rarefied space like a gallery, to feel like you’re just as on show as the artwork. More, even. Performing art-appreciation by analysing, cogitating, translating, but maybe not by listening. It’s a loss.
I think what I’m describing in my experience of reading Berger is the feeling of communion—how he leads you to “bend into” the art, as in the dialogue you cite between Bellamy and Lee. My first exposure to Bellamy was Shiver: I think a more honest and interesting approach to pop culture is to delight in its tackiness but at the same time admit you're profoundly moved by it.10 10. Dodie Bellamy, ‘Shame’, Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, Ontario: Coach House Books, 2004. No false acts of absolute judgement and criticism here, just an honest space to inhabit—because we actually want to; we want to understand. Something to flesh out, extend, and explore. It’s kind of magic.
Berger describes, The experience of art, which at first was the experience of ritual, was set apart from the rest of life - precisely in order to be able to exercise power over it.11 11. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin, 1972. p. 32. Perhaps today, this mysticism and ritual is transposed to the world of social more, and elitist performance.
I wonder if expanding our understanding of art writing is one way we can find our way into an honest, curious personal experience with art. Bare feet, open hands. We need critics and storytellers who are listeners first.
I can’t believe this is all coming together so soon, and I can’t wait to see it done!
Love, J x