Experimental Writing on Art

This open development of ideas and discussion is just one of the many reasons to love James Elkins. One of the most relevant and engaging cultural theory practitioners in existence, his work is operating on a whole other level – and it’s a joy to be part of the audience for his writing and ideas. The discussion about Artists with PhDs offers compelling and thoughtful explorations into the challenges and benefits of engaging in higher research as a creative practice, while the updated essay  Fourteen Reasons to Mistrust the PhD in Studio Art gives an extremely thorough run-down of the vagaries and misgivings round the artist-as-academic enterprise.

“Reason 2. It is not clear what kinds of art, exactly, are potentially improved by serious research.

PhD-granting programs still lack any extended analysis of what sorts of practices can benefit from the PhD dissertation. A satisfactory answer to that should also include an account of what kinds of art would not benefit….

Aren’t there art practices that benefit from a lack of clarity about their objectives, or a lack of understanding of historical precedents?

Here are some examples, just to indicate the kind of thing I have in mind. Any number of twentieth-century artists wrote manifestos that have little to do with the reasons their work is valued; if those manifestos has been written in contemporary academia, they would have been thoroughly criticized for overreaching rhetoric, lack of system, lack of argument, and lack of evidence…. Some kinds of art practice can benefit from the kinds of discipline involved in producing research proposals and working systematically: many others might not.

E. Questioning whether art research should be defined at all

Research in art is characterized by interaction with artistic practice: it is an inseparable part of the work of the artist. With research in art (as opposed to research about art, such as art history, for instance) there is no set goal or expected result, any more than there are predetermined general procedures. The outcome of the research is completely open. This openness is a condition for conducting research in art and design.”

Although I am in favour of artistic research and knowledge transfer in structured and informal means, as Elkins notes, this may or may not be beneficial to the artists practice when taken under the aegis of the academy. In my own experience, the newly – and forcibly – amalgamated Melbourne Uni Media Arts Department was far less forgiving of experimentation and liberties being taken by their students in formal writing than other disciplines, such as Geography, History or Social Studies. I am in the process of exploring other forms that will allow me to deepen my own research practice within a more flexible framework that can still provide rigorous critique and discipline. JR

These are his notes on the course material he is developing on critical and experimental writing on art.

via @jameselkins.com

Image from "How to Write an Essay in 10 Easy Steps" http://www1.aucegypt.edu/academic/writers/
Image from “How to Write an Essay in 10 Easy Steps” http://www1.aucegypt.edu/academic/writers/

What is an Essay?

This is a topic from the course “Experimental Writing on Art.” It is a draft; please post comments, additions, questions, etc. The image here (and in other posts) is only there for the sake of the internet: when files like this are posted on Facebook, Google+, Academia, etc., they look better if the software can find a thumbnail image.

The problematic

To raise the question of experimental writing on art, it is necessary to have a notion of what kind of writing is involved. Writing in the humanities is nominally nonfiction, although that term itself has long been problematic. Creative writing programs tend to use the expressions “creative nonfiction,” “literary nonfiction,” or “narrative nonfiction,” all of which imply that techniques are borrowed from fiction.

There are two problems with these expressions. First, many scholars who attempt unusual narrative forms borrow from fiction, but not all do: some are interested in developing the forms of writing they find in historical sources. And second, designating the kinds of writing that are involved here as “nonfiction” defines them by a negative, which limits the kinds of questions that can be asked and defers the question of what the subject is in itself.

David Lazar prefers the term “transgeneric,” which avoids the problem of assuming that something from literature is being imported; but it also defers the question of what genre is being transgressed or enlarged.

Of the candidates for defining “nonfiction” without a qualifier, and without a negative, the most prominent is the essay. The difficult here is that the term has been widely contested, and tends to be used as a placeholder for “nonfiction.”

What counts as conceptualizing the essay? Before the mid-twentieth century (I hope to make that date more exact) there were many texts offering to explain the concept of the essay. Essay writing, expository nonfiction, and academic scholarly writing were subjects of anthologies and textbooks. The advent of poststructuralism changed that, because—to condense a large subject into a phrase—it made scholars aware that all “philosophy” was “literature,” that all writing has voice, that it does not make sense to divide fiction from nonfiction as the academy had done. Books explaining how to write academic, nonfiction essays largely disappeared.

As a result there is little conceptual work done on what constitutes a viable, institutionally acceptable essay in a given field, and more generally there is little work on what a piece of nonfiction might be considered to be, in relation to writing more generally.

A preliminary bibliography

These are some sources for the theorization of the essay, in no particular order. They are intended as preliminary bookmarks; eventually I hope to rearrange them as patterns become more apparent.

(a) John D’Agata’s Lost Origins of the Essay, which is an idiosyncratic book; d’Agata’s recent debates about objectivity (and that book’s many negative reviews) make it even more problematic as a representative of contemporary thinking on fiction and nonfiction.

(b) Philip Lopate’s Art of the Personal Essay, which traces a particular trajectory of the essay. Again, Lopate’s subsequent books help to read this book, but also make it difficult to see how it could be an exemplar for contemporary thinking about the essay.

(c) Adorno’s essay on the essay is from a previous generation (1984, first published in New German Critique), and has a different critical trajectory, leading mainly through academic writing, sometimes identified as “critical theory.” David Lazar (see the entry below) is among the theorists of the essay who would like to merge some qualities of the Adornian sense of the essay with some North American nonfiction. Among the stakes here are what an author reads in preparation for writing her own essay: is there full bibliographic research on the subject? An awareness of the history of the essay? A sense of community with Barthes, Benjamin, Adorno, Lukács, and others?

(d) Max Bense, “Über den Essay und seine Prosa,” Merkur 1 no. 3 (1947): 414-24.

(e) Alexander Butrym,  ed., Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989).

(f) Réda Bensmaïa, The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text, translated by Pat Fedkiew (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

(g) Graham Good, The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay (London: Routledge, 1988).

(h) György Lukács, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,”  translated by Anna Bostock, in Soul and Form (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974).

(i) David Lazar, Essaying the Essay


(α) Truth in Nonfiction: Essays, edited by David Lazar (University of Iowa Press, 2008).

(β) Understanding The Essay, edited by Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter (Broadview Press, 2012).

(γ) Metawritings: Toward the Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot (University of Iowa Press, 2012).

(δ) Constructive Nonfiction, a series of interviews conducted by Andy Fitch, on Bookslut, 2012–.


Experimental Writing on Art

[Note to readers: this is a sketch for a syllabus for a course I will teach in autumn 2013. The full syllabus, with assignments, paper assignments, and all that, will be posted on the School of the Art Institute site, where syllabi are password-protected. This is the conceptual outline and material for the course. This was originally posted here.

I will be adding examples and links, and expanding the description, up until September 2013, when the final version will be posted on the password-protected site.

This is the first in a pair of course; the second will be held in winter and spring 2014, on the more general (and I think more fundamental) theme Writing with Images, meaning any narrative, nominally fictional, that incorporates images without captions. The topic Writing with Images includes the case where the images are art as a special case, and the narrative includes nonfiction as a special case within fiction. But more on that later. All comments and additions are welcome! Add comments here, or write me via the website.]


This is a writing workshop for art historians, critics, visual studies scholars, and art theorists. The motive for the course is that the three principal disciplines or fields that involve writing about visual art—art history, visual studies, and art criticism—are not centrally concerned with writing.A. Art history doesn’t teach writing beyond the basic criteria of clarity, institutional protocols, and a functional style. There is no theorization or critique of writing in art history. Innovative writers on art tend to be excluded from mainstream art history (Didi-Huberman, Damisch, Cixous, etc.). What counts as interesting writing in art history is belletristic (as in Alex Nemerov’s work) or otherwise disconnected from contemporary writing in other fields (as in Leo Steinberg’s writing). Conversations about writing in art history are impoverished and don’t benefit from conversations in literary criticism; there is no close reading in the literary sense; no discussion of voice beyond the choice of first person or confessional modes; no sense of art history’s places in the history of modernist and pre-modernist literature.B. The same is true in visual studies, despite its more intense rhetoric about the involvement of writing, observing, description, and history. Just as art history’s principal interest is fine art, and not writing, so visual studies’ interest is visuality and visual practices, gender, identity, politics, hybridity, visual regimes, and other subjects, not the medium of writing. There is no discourse in visual studies on writing: no one engages the last four decades of literary criticism, the idea of close reading, of voice, of the lyric, of the essay.C. Art criticism is much more variegated than art history or visual studies, and it doesn’t lend itself to a single description. Some art critics are interested in reviving consideration of the essay form, and a number are also poets or fiction writers. In addition there is a large and heterogeneous group of writers who are influenced by French poststructuralism, and write in experimental amalgams of philosophy and art criticism. There isn’t a way to characterize all these together, except perhaps by the rarity or absence of literary criticism in the reception or teaching of art criticism, and a concomitant lack of attention to writing per se.

The strategy of this course is to read innovative, experimental texts from each of these three fields as a literary theorist might read them, paying attention to literary precedents (in nonfiction and fiction), voice, belatedness, the effect of anachronistic styles, the effects of the assumption that writing isn’t important (or is transparent, or simply a vehicle, or simply needs to be logical and clear).

In this class writing is central, rather than peripheral: what matters is the quality of historical and critical attention we can bring to bear on the writing, and the expressive properties of the writing itself, rather than whatever we may learn about the visual art that the authors describe.


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