Is there a field of ‘arts reading’? 

Runway asked me to write a column so I decided I’d write about arts reading:  not strictly art writing or even books about art or with art in them — though they will figure — but the books that artists read, the books that are referenced by artists or curators, or that make up the general compost of the art world’s reading habits. It will be a kind of reflection on reading and writing as it exists in ‘the art world’ now and a way of thinking through ‘art writing’ or the ‘art book’ as an expanded idea that takes into account the readership and the place in which these books are exchanged. Together, this might offer an expanded definition of what counts as arts writing: not only writing for the arts, or creative writing by artists, but writing that matters to artists and writing that is purchased in the context of art, at art museums and galleries and as reading lists for exhibitions. What are the books, including the novels, memoirs, poetry, etc. that influence the art world or arise from it, but are not necessarily part of the art world, or maybe even seperate to it, as it is defined through programming or art journals? 

Simply, this could be many different things. I’m immediately thinking of Paul Chan and the Badlands erotic fiction series; Chris Kraus’ recent After Kathy Acker as well as texts by Acker herself; or Kraus’ I Love Dick and the Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents series; Maggie Nelson; Eileen Myles; Kate Zambreno; An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel; Zadie Smith’s essays on art; the short stories of John Berger; anything by Patti Smith; art writing in the novels of Don DeLillo; Paul Virilio; Patrick White (think The Vivisector); Emily Bitto, The Strays; Humiliation by Wayne Koestenbaum; anything by James Baldwin; D. H Lawrence’s Women in Love; Known and Strange Things, by Teju Cole; Virginia Woolf, in particular The Waves, which I know is a favourite among many friends in the art world; Rachel Cusk; Mark von Schlegell and many other science fiction titles; Ursula K. Le Guin; Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles; any of Sheila Heti’s novels; Lydia Davis, Steven Millhauser and Amy Hempel; Han Kang; The First Bad Man by Miranda July; Ingo Niermann’s solution series; and, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark — this list is personal and introductory, a list that reflects my reading tastes and my own partiality toward ‘the novel’.

There are sometimes coincidences that lead us to particular books, but often we are brought to them through conversation with family, friends and colleagues. When we acknowledged this, it becomes unsurprising that if we spend a majority of our time participating in the art world, then we will share a reading field. My list above is pretty skewed toward the novel authored by people in the West, but these things evolve and change depending on your location. I’ve spent much of the last two years living in India, working and researching the contemporary art world there, which has dramatically changed my reading patterns. The intertextuality of art, music, literature and history in the context of India can not be easily defined as separate “fields” and a contemporary artist living and working in India is, arguably, more likely to reference the 15th century poetry of Kabir then they are to explicitly evoke the Anthropocene or some other contemporary art world frame. Just as there are many reading lists, of our own and others’ making, so too are there many art worlds and many fields of art reading.

So, this is a column and a call-out. I need your help. Please tell me in the comments below (or if you’d prefer email) what you are reading; what are the books on your to-read list; what are the books that are important to you; what books or texts have informed your practice; what books have helped you be in the art world; what books function as entertaining novels, think pieces, stimulus or references for conversation; what books have validated your connection to contemporary art?  


So where are we located? We are in a field, not a meadow or a plain, but a field. In fact we are not located in the same field, but different fields. These fields are battlegrounds, competing zones for capitals and status and distinction. But they are also swaddled areas of protection, laws unto themselves. They are reserves. A field of reading is the result of contrasting class and education. This is what Bourdieu articulated through ‘cultural capital’ when he spoke of his concept of the ‘field’. The field is one interpretive frame of the various contested categories of ‘art’, ‘literature’, ‘feminism’ etc. And it is within these categories that the divide between ‘dominant’ and ‘non dominant’ cultural capital are bridged or divided further. So, what is of capital and currency in the local formal field of visual arts in Australia right now? How do we conceive of power through informal contexts? How does the power shift in accordance with the field we find ourselves in?

Belonging to the field of contemporary art does not stop us from belonging to other worlds — the academic, the literary — or that we belong in every remote corner of the art world as a whole. There are moments at biennales or in spaces that the art world inhabits (online or otherwise) where a series of references seem to pop up constantly. Moments where texts slip in and out of fashion, texts of the zeitgeist that are difficult to pin down. Gestures towards common texts that we all should know or at least be aware of. Often these references snowball after key moments, particularly the death of a writer (science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin or Richard Adams author of Watership Down). But, maybe what we read helps locate where we are within worlds, like a big Venn diagram. Reading particular writers matters for knowing where our world is, where we are within it, and where others are too. What we read develops our personalities; it shapes our attitudes. Reading is an education as an informal exchange.What we read, or do not read, gives us an awareness of our identity in the world and alerts us to fields and other worlds we may not have known before. And what we share of our reading experiences is how we build our ecosystems of mentors and peers. But what about designations of taste? How might examples of my reading display associations of power and privilege? How am I outing my own place in the world with this mottled list? Am I merely an inheritor of the notion of reading as moral activity amongst the leisure classes? Reading for instruction? Reading intended for transformation? A vanity of conspicuous consumption? Do I really have this much time on my hands?

Maggie Nelson in her oft-read and oft-quoted The Argonauts gestures to this idea of the field and the importance it has in crafting personal practice with what she calls her ‘many gendered mothers’ of her heart, a phrase borrowed from A Kentucky of Mothers, by one of those many mothers, Dana Ward.  I, and perhaps others in the art world, are drawn to The Argonauts and Nelson’s other texts because they adopt the strategies of fiction but offer a unique combination of art criticism and theorising, postmodern feminism and formal experimentation with memoir to create works that are easily placed in conversations that are of the art world that I inhabit. The book is among many other things a big ol’ syllabus that I keep returning to for further details on the many influences of Nelson including Eve Sedgwick, James Schuyler, Eileen Myles, and Allen Ginsberg. Nelson’s own list of mothers, have merged with others’ lists to become my own as I have over the last five or so years formed an irrational love for her work. I will never forget a conversation I had over lunch with a friend with whom I was working on a project, who proceeded to tell me with such hubris how overrated he thought The Argonauts was and how much of a betrayal it was to her family. To share her personal life as she had was an offence. Can you believe that in a world where Karl Ove Knausgaard exists, the beautifully sensitive, unsimplified, non-cis, thoughtfulness of Nelson in regard to her family was being used against her? I stood, jaw-agape, barely able to respond or argue on behalf of the text. I was wounded. The field is an unreasonable and vicious place with foxes at the edge.  


Coming up in Is there a field of ‘arts reading’? I set myself the task of describing the invisible hand that directs us by musing upon: science fiction and the art world; Arundhati Roy throwing shade at Subodh Gupta in her recent The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and the pleasures of secret criticism; why I think Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love was an okay novel but a very bad example of art writing; tracing Chris Kraus’ 30 year obsession with Kathy Acker; the novel as the dominant mode of what we perceive to be reading and locating form and technology within all this; and, why Zadie Smith, novelist and essayist, is a better arts writer than all of us, and how the writing matters, not content alone.



Is there a field called ‘arts reading’? is an ongoing series by Kelly Fliedner exploring the influence of reading on Australian contemporary art.

We want to hear from you! Comment below or email Kelly directly to let her know which texts are on your to-read list; texts that are important to you; texts that have informed your practice; texts that have helped you belong in the art world; texts that are entertaining; or texts that have validated your connection to contemporary art.


Kelly Fliedner is a curator and writer based in Perth. Most recently she was the Writer and Editor of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale based in Kerala, India. Before that she lived and worked in Melbourne where among other roles she was the Program Curator at West Space


Image: Kelly Fliedner.


12 thoughts on “TEXT 1_Is there a field of ‘arts reading’?

  1. Anything by John Berger really, his acute and sensitive perspective is always very inspiring. I reach for him when I’m struggling with my visual arts practice, seeing things clearly and so on. Kenya Hara’s book ‘White’ is also beautifully written and presented, as is The White Book by Han Kang. Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter has been wonderfully inspiring and thought-provoking, as it moves from poetry to prose and back again, and plays with motifs and symbols of death. I read constantly, but sometimes I’ll read about art history or Roman, Greek, religious history in a focused ‘learning’ sense. I’ll take notes, research further and it feels very much like I’m on the hunt for facts and figures. Other times, I’ll absorb novels – 4 3 2 1 was a breathtaking effort by Paul Auster for its complexity and multiple narratives. A book I haven’t stopped thinking about since I read it 6 months ago!

  2. Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway
    Iris Murdoch The Sea The Sea
    Flann O’Brien The Third Policeman
    Dan Rhodes Gold
    Siri Hustvedt What I Loved
    Han Kang The Vegetarian
    Donna Tartt The Secret History
    Gregory Day The Patron Saint of Eels
    Tara June Winch Swallow the Air
    Jillian Watkinson The Architect
    Per Peterson Out Stealing Horses

  3. Canons only come about years if not decades too late. The surrealists read Lautreamont, but we only understood this later, with the Lykiard translation around 1970. The artists of New York in the 1960s wanted us to think they were reading science fiction in paperback, or gossip magazines, but really they were more educated than that, and too busy socialising to read too much. In the 1980s it was Gibson and, even better, Sterling, or Baudrillard, before Haraway came along and theorised them all off the page, so that there was no need to read them any more. In the twenty-first century, if there’s a canonical writer, it might be someone nobody thinks about and everybody knows. Like Bourriaud, or Krauss. Because we are living in an age that takes theory for granted, in which every artist has done undergraduate and every lecturer is teaching the same shit. And that is how canons are made. If fiction writers constitute this possible canon of the contemporary artworld, it might be Murakami, Le Guin and Zadie Smith certainly! But what if it’s something more sinister that has changed people’s lives, like netflix. Because this is what artists have confronted since the 1960s, and what made both science fiction and cyberpunk so important: that the world itself is invariably more strange than any work of art, that it is impossible to image a fictive scenario adequate to the end of the world that every generation faces, whether in a nuclear or environmental apocalypse. Because it is impossible for fiction or art to change one’s consciousness as much as the interminable press of the present itself, the historical moment clutching at one’s mind like a vice, more pressing than any fiction could ever be . . .

  4. Katrina Palmer’s “The Dark Object” is the first book I’ve read that produced an equivalent experience as looking and being with an object for me. Like writing about form that becomes it too, but not just that, about how form means and creates & bodies as form too. There’s a trick with the identity of the protagonist that shamed me into a realisation that I can’t forget – I’ve seen the same assumption I made repeated in so many interviews with her about the book, too (sorry to be mysterious, but no spoilers). It’s a 3-dimensional and magic text.

  5. This is something wonderful to get my brain working! Not is the intersection of literary works and art such a wonderful topic but I feel here the placed value on reading as an art form as well. I keep a journal of my reading habits by writing my life goings on during my time reading a novel and in that way I’m able to exercise my writing from typically academic or review construction to something interpersonal. It breaks away from the academic content and (sometimes) strict structural dictions of writing. So in the similar vein that we may see an art piece that evokes a feeling/period of time, so do books, and mine are mostly unrelated to visual art. Some of the major pieces that informed my writing in the first year of arts reviewing are Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’, Suki Kim’s ‘Without You, There Is No Us’, Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Hours’, Ian McEwan’s ‘The Children Act’, William Styron’s ‘Darkness Visible’, Magda Szubanski’s ‘Reckoning’, and Jane Austen’s complete works.

  6. This is a hard one. I don’t know how to categorise my reading habits. What I’m listing are the writers that changed my life and shaped my tastes. I’m not listing the books that taught me about life before I gained any experience (like the Russian, French and American novelists from the 19th Century). It was interesting to see James Baldwin on your list. I read his entire oeuvre when I turned sixteen. He’s always been very important. Next I remember John Berger making a big impression, especially To the Wedding which was around the time I read Chris Kraus. Afterwards I fell in love with John Waters – his books more so than the movies), and in the last decade I’ve been reading more women – non fiction tapestries such as Second Hand Time to novelists Rachel Cusk and punk and writer Viv Albertine. This list does not include my Scandinavian detective obsession, love of Michael Connelly’s crime series, or the books on trauma that I hoover up at the local library.

  7. Alexis Wright
    Patrick White
    Evelyn Araluen
    Ellen van Neerven
    Emily Dickinson
    Susan Sontag
    Hito Steyerl
    Virginia Woolf
    Chris Kraus
    Samuel Beckett
    Pam Brown
    Gorgio Agamben
    Eileen Myles
    Junichiro Tanizaki
    Et al

  8. Griselda Pollock, Suzie Gablik, Judith Butler (on recognition esp), Elizabeth Ellsworth, Elizabeth Grosz, Sarah Ahmed, Anna Hickey-Moody, Susan Stewart, Susan Buck-Morss, Meaghan Morris, Lisa Appignanesi, Barbara Stafford, Martha Rossler, Sneja Gunew, Janet Wolff, Beatriz Colomia.

  9. you know, there are certain tendencies that i see coming and going in cycles. it is hard to know if that is beyond my limited personal frame of reference, so i don’t mean this outside my self. but, building from what sarah said, and her mention of butler and haraway, i see the fading of ‘theory’ especially deleuze and guttari, and it feels like a return to practice (and attendant notions of craft and technique) even as philosophy seems to matter more, like marx. i think here of the success of ‘jacobin’ and the re-politicisaion of people post-trump, and searching for a language that responds to that. in terms of what that means for everyday reading, i would also think of the concentration and globalisation of anglophone websites – the ‘NYT’, ‘washington post’ which has become more relevant or read, ‘the guardian’ going international. i also think in australia that short stories are having a bit of a moment (see black inc cancelling their annual best of essays and poetry, but then promoting short story) speaking to fragmentation and attention spans of some sorts. lastly, i also think at the level of content there is an emphasis on racial diversity – new hot desk fellows at the wheeler centre, the stella prize shortlist – as a kind of reading list.

  10. A few years ago I was a little obsessed with Nick Garner’s exhibition/artwork ‘Acid/Gothic’ (–exhibitions-2014–acidgothic.html) which mediates an exhibition through video – in his video the artist/curator presents artworks that flirt with gothic aesthetics and include a series of shots from some peak 90s sci-fi blockbusters (with the cups on the dashboard scene from Jurassic Park being the most major). I would have discussions about loopy art like this with my similarly blockbuster-cinema obsessed artist/friend who later gifted me her copy of ‘Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment’ by Angela Ndalianis. This has been a book key to me understanding her practice as well as my own taste in entertainment and art and how I continue to approach entertainment and spectacle in my curatorial practice. ‘Acid/Gothic’ has been really influential for me, but I don’t think I even would have fully grasped what attracted me to it hadn’t I read Ndalianis work.

  11. Hey, I can think of some other writers frequently referenced in texts recently – Octavia Butler, Chris Harman, Umberto Eco, Rebecca Solnit. Also in an Australian context, Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Just edited an interview with the Otolith Group where they talk about the influence of Butler on ppl like Haraway… it’s v interesting (will share when it’s online).

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