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 https://kellyfliedner.com/
Image: Kelly Fliedner.