Search for ‘Brian Dillon’ (4 articles found)

'Magisterial but muffled'

In her mid-twenties, [Elizabeth Hardwick] had befriended the singer [Billie Holiday] in New York. In darkling fashion, her [1976 NYRB] essay recalls textures and spectacles of the 1940s: the “underbrush” of cheap hotel interiors, fingertips split while rummaging through secondhand-record racks, the birdlike figures of great jazz musicians as they stooped out of taxis and into the clubs. And at the center of it all, the “puzzling phantom” of Holiday herself, who is heard to speak only once in the whole piece. Her character leaches out instead in performance, in relations with her tired and flummoxed entourage, in vignettes of addiction, illness, imprisonment. Most of all in the odd, skewed language Hardwick has fashioned to evoke her, with its vexing repetitions and sly inversions: “She was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat.”


How exactly to describe Hardwick’s singular style? For sure, it is a kind of lyricism, a method that allows her as a critic to bring the reader close to her subject via the seductions first of sound and second of image and metaphor. (In the Times Literary Supplement in 1983, the British novelist David Lodge called Hardwick the first properly lyric critic since Virginia Woolf, but this cannot be true: the lyric mode is indispensable even to a criticism that imagines it’s doing something quite else.) Joan Didion has approved Hardwick’s “exquisite diffidence,” and in an interview for the Paris Review, she herself remarked: “The poet’s prose is one of my passions. I like the offhand flashes, the absence of the lumber in the usual prose.” There is a sense always that Hardwick’s sentences stand alone, pay little or no attention to one another, that each is a self-involved and sufficient whole. She advances (if that’s the word) paratactically: impression piled upon impression, analogy stacked against analogy, till she runs out of conceits and gives it to us relatively strict and straight.


The metaphors in Hardwick’s essays are always unusual, which is what one wants from a metaphor. They are often simply bizarre, or strained as far as they will go. She can be straightforwardly graceful and apposite, as in the opening sentence of “Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf”: “Bloomsbury is, just now, like one of those ponds on a private estate from which all of the trout have been scooped out for the season.” But what are we to make of the moment when, having told us that Zelda Fitzgerald’s biography had been buried, she goes further and says that Zelda lies beneath the “desperate violets” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memories? Hardwick, who had abandoned a dissertation on metaphysical poetry to become a writer, was ever committed to the vivid, cumbrous oddity that could be canvassed in metaphor.


Criticism as advertisement (2009)

BRIAN DILLON Reading your essay ‘Critical Reflections’, in your recent book Art Power, I was reminded of two texts about criticism from the late 19th century. In his essay ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’ (1864) Matthew Arnold writes that the critic’s job is ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’. Twenty-seven years later, in ‘The Critic as Artist’, Oscar Wilde reverses Arnold’s dictum: criticism is rather supposed to ‘see the object as in itself it really is not’. Has this distinction – between criticism as science and criticism as art – gone away, or is it still with us?

BORIS GROYS Both quotations have something to do with description, with the ability of an art critic to describe the art object in a certain way: in one case, to describe it correctly; in the other, to describe it in an interesting way or in a way that is more interesting than the correct description would be. But it seems to me – and it was on my mind when I wrote that text – that description is part of what is expected from criticism, but it’s not the most urgent thing that readers expect. What they expect is a value judgment, from somebody who has more taste than others, rather than a greater ability to describe.

And that’s precisely what seems to me to be in peril at the moment. When I came from the USSR to the West at the beginning of the 1980s, almost immediately I started to write about art for the German newspapers, and I very quickly understood that people reacted only to the fact that I had written a text, that this text was published in the newspaper, had a certain length, was illustrated or not, and was or was not run on the front page of the feuilleton section. They absolutely didn’t react to what I wrote, be it description or evaluation, and they absolutely couldn’t distinguish between positive and negative evaluation. So if they saw, for example, a long text with illustrations on the first page, and it was a negative review, everybody perceived it as a positive review. I understood immediately that the code of contemporary criticism is not plus or minus; I would say it’s a digital code: zero or one, mentioned or not mentioned. And that presupposes a completely different strategy, and a different politics.

BD What, then, are the politics of mentioning or not mentioning an artist?

BG You can escape politics as a theoretician, or as an art historian, but not as a critic. This politics excludes absolutely the possibility of being representative of the public, in whatever sense you understand that. Instead, it presupposes a certain obligation toward artists, curators and so on. You mention people that you like, and you don’t mention the people you don’t like. And you mention people because you like them, and that’s the only reason for mentioning them. If you mention them, it makes no sense to criticize them, because it’s obvious that whatever you say is an advertisement for them. If you don’t like them, you just don’t mention them; if you like them, you just approve them. So the system excludes the phenomenon of negative appreciation: something that has a very long tradition. I don’t have a feeling that negative art criticism is something people do very much now. So today’s criticism mostly does not function as a critique. Today artists want to be critical – but art criticism is almost always affirmative. It is affirmative, for example, by siding itself with art that wants to be critical.

BD It seems as though, on the one hand, criticism has lost its commitment to advancing an argument or ideology, and on the other, that critics are no longer eager to appear paradoxical: that is, to contradict themselves, even to appear hypocritical.

BG You can be hypocritical only if you say something you don’t believe in. The question is whether criticism today is a statement about one’s beliefs at all. Cultural production is based on memory: we have known that since Plato. And today, I’d say, we have lost our memories, and memory has been replaced by Google. Instead of memorizing, we are Googling. And that’s precisely what the art critic is doing. The critic creates a search engine for the reader; fundamentally, he just says, ‘Look at this!’ Whatever is said beyond this is perceived merely as an explanation or legitimization of this advice to look. People are not so interested in why they should look at it; they’re interested in the question of whether they should look at it at all. They’re also not interested in the critic’s opinion, but in whether they should have an opinion themselves about this phenomenon. I’m often asked by colleagues: ‘Should I look at this exhibition or should I skip it?’ There is a certain honesty in this: maybe there’s no reason to look at it…

BD The question ‘Should I look at it?’ suggests that, rather than enjoying or being fulfilled or improved or educated by the art object, one takes something useful from it: ideas or images that can be put to use elsewhere.

BG That’s too charitable an explanation. The question is: would you get lost in a conversation if you didn’t know the phenomenon in question? There are works and exhibitions and books that may well be awful – maybe not – but you have to have an opinion about them because, if you don’t, you are perceived as being uninformed and out of touch with whatever definition of contemporaneity you are faced with. Of course, there are a lot of things that don’t have this urgency: if I say I’m too busy to look at them, I’m forgiven for that. But with some images, some exhibitions, some books, you are not forgiven for being too busy to look into them. If I’m asked should I look at it or not, I always ponder the question seriously: would I be forgiven for not looking at this?

BD You write that the critic of the late 18th and early 19th centuries affected to makes value judgements on the basis of knowledge. He also wrote from outside the art world and deliberately distanced himself from artists. The Modernist or avant-garde critic, on the other hand, claims to speak for the art work, or for the artist. You suggest, however, that the critic is subsequently rejected by artists, whose work may very well speak for itself. How did this happen?

BG The critic has a fear and a desire, like everybody in this cultural system: he is afraid of appearing to be uninformed, not up-to-date. So he has to mention Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, he has to have an opinion about Jacques Rancière, he has to know that, in contrast to yesterday, it’s not a good idea to mention Jacques Derrida but it’s a good idea to mention Gilles Deleuze and so on. So he has to be informed and to show explicitly that he is informed: that’s one source of his habit of mentioning. He mentions these people not because he’s interested in them, but because he shows that he belongs to a certain level of discourse. Then, after he establishes himself, he asks himself why and what he wants to advertise to the public.

I don’t believe in neutrality. There’s no objectivity in art. Art is not a system, not a world: it’s an area of struggle and conflict, of competition, animosity and suspicion. That’s why I’m always irritated by any systemic approach to art: as though art production is like shoe production. You have to decide what you want to advertise, what your ideological position is, what you want to make known. Of course, you’re no longer interested in criticizing anything; you’re interested in forwarding what you think is interesting for you, what should be regarded as interesting for culture in which you are living, what you’re ready to support. If you make a bad judgement, and support something that fails in a non-interesting way – because it may fail interestingly – then it was a bad choice. It’s about taking risks.

Brian Dillon on 'Aspen'

In August 1971 the US Postal Service wrote to Phyllis Johnson, the publisher of Aspen, an arts and culture quarterly then in its sixth year, to inform her that the magazine’s right to reduced postal rates had been definitively revoked. Aspen, which is the subject of an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery until 3 March, seems to have fallen foul of Title 39 US Code 4354 on several counts, not least the journal’s increasingly intermittent publication schedule. There was the matter too of its eccentric form; whatever else it was, according to the Postal Service, a periodical was surely a discrete object made of printed sheets, bound together and maintaining more or less the same format from issue to issue. Aspen was a bureaucratically flummoxing proposition: an unpredictable agglomeration of essays and articles on loose pages or in booklets, packaged with flyers, photographs, diagrams, flexidiscs and even in one issue a spool of 8mm film – all housed in a box whose design and dimensions varied from one mail-out to the next.

Eternal return

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When Wire’s Colin Newman introduced the swift svelte stab of ‘12XU’ with these words (on their 1977 debut album Pink Flag), he doubtless intended a sardonic swipe at the so quickly sublimated, normalized expectations of a Punk audience already willing to hear the shock of the new parlayed into fresh orthodoxy; already favouring the recognizable classic over the fractured innovation that was ostensibly Punk’s point. If the song itself, with its faux guttersnipe delivery and mad dash to the 1 minute, 55 seconds mark, was a knowing parody of expected Punk moves, the intro was a neat rejoinder to the audience’s hankering for newly canonized favourites: in short, for repetition.

When the band performed Pink Flag once more at London’s Barbican Centre earlier this year, and Newman duly delivered the pointed preface to ‘12XU’ right on cue, it was doubly difficult to know just what manner of repetition was being canvassed 26 years on. Here it was again. Again: though not quite; now laden with the weight of a nostalgia that threatened to consign the whole performance to the status of mere heritage event; yet also, somehow, in its uncannily accurate reanimation of a dead time, quiveringly and weirdly alive.

Such is the nature of repetition. On the one hand, there is nothing so predictable, so tiresomely unwelcome, as the ideal copy: it is a marker of a merely traditional, conventional desire for consistency, a loyalty to a past that, repetition assures us, has never really gone away. Repetition, as some of our most lingering modern cultural beliefs inform us, is nothing but a serial disorder: a compulsion equally tragic and pathological, so the argument goes, in both its contemporary manifestation as revival or nostalgia and in its classic form as cultural continuity, the way ‘we’ do things. On one reading, repetition is a sort of endlessly reflected dementia: echopraxia (the thoughtless and meaningless repetition of the actions or movements of others) or echolalia (imitation of speech).

But repetition is also the indispensable condition for all kinds of cultural values: from a coherent sense of a self that we carry from one moment to another, to the notion of scientific truth. How valid would an experiment be if it could never be repeated? What would a human history look like that was incapable of discerning, in the tumult of events, surprises and cataclysmic upheavals, some strand of repetition? In fact, at precisely those moments when history seems to convulse in the agony of innovation and renewal, repetition is not far away. The very word ‘revolution’ implies a movement of return, a spectral rehearsal of what has gone before that, so the revolutionary believes, can be made to live again …