Artists as Writers
by Nick Stillman
Martha Rosler, “Election (Lynndie)” (2004), photomontage as color photograph.
©Martha Rosler, 2004. Courtesy Gorney Bravin + Lee, NY.
Books reviewed in this essay:
Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings 1975-2001
by Martha Rosler
MIT Press, 2004
Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages
by Ed Ruscha
MIT Press, 2002
Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism
by Mike Kelley
MIT Press 2003
Minor Histories: Statements, Conversations, Proposals
by Mike Kelley
MIT Press, 2004
Since “revisionist history” is partly the business of laying blame for what went wrong, Vasari is certainly a scapegoat for relieving artists of the necessity to write lucidly about their own work. His Lives of the Artists established a paradigm for art historiography, a by-product of which became a division of art world labor that has remained persistent: artists make the art, critics and historians write about it. Permeability between these two types of art world production has become negligible, and much of what passes for writing by artists in anthologies and other texts takes the form of informal communiqués or diaries. In a 1945 anthology called Artists on Art, editors Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves write in the first sentence of their introduction, “The contemporary artist, asked to write about his art, hesitates.” But why? Casting aside romantic “artists speak through their creations” talk, it would seem a historical truth that the mum artist stands on intellectual high ground. Impenetrability helps breed infallibility.
Of course, exceptions like Malevich, Judd, Smithson, and, recently, Pope.L, are notable and worth mentioning. But aside from a smattering of publications commissioning writing by visual artists, much of today’s writing by artists consists of an enigmatic little paragraph called the artist statement, often riddled with vagaries and clichés.
For these reasons Martha Rosler’s book of essays, Decoys and Disruptions, is the most exceptional of four recent books of artists’ writings published by MIT Press; the others collect the words of Ed Ruscha and Mike Kelley. While one of the two-volume set of Kelley’s books and much of the Ruscha book consist of statements, interviews, or project proposals, Rosler’s consists entirely of critical essays on art history, contemporary art, and the conditions of the art-making environment, all of which go a long way toward defining her own visual output, which she actually mentions very little.
In an early essay, Rosler defines her mission as writer and artist: to disrupt the idea that the way things are is the way they must be. The 1979 essay “For an Art Against the Mythology of Everyday Life” is a scathing critique of Americans’ dependence on television and other media outlets to demonstrate the appropriate way to live, and Rosler glides through an analysis of how they provide “the distancing effect that breaks the emotional identification with character and situation that naturalism implies,” a notion she continues to probe in recent photo-collages on view at Gorney, Bravin, + Lee. But Rosler’s essays don’t really concern herself as much as they map the expansive parameters of her interests, which inevitably appear in her work. Her focus ranges from pop art’s detournement of the female image to war photography to the marginalization and restrictions American contemporary artists have suffered under conservative administrations. Occasionally her logic is questionable, as in “Place, Position, Power, Politics,” when she argues that the late eighties culture wars and the subsequent loss of government funding is a severe blow to artists, although in earlier essays she had argued vigorously that artists should seek to take control of the art-presenting system. But I’m nitpicking—Rosler’s critical and visual output has remained focused, consistent, and relevant for the better part of four decades now without slipping into complacency. Decoys and Disruptions demonstrates her ability to locate key subplots affecting the conditions of making art as well as how she incorporates these into her own work.
Leave Any Information at the Signal would seem likely to annoy Rosler, who consistently expresses impatience in her book with artists who hide behind enigma or who mimic the language and/or production values of the systems they’re critiquing. Ruscha cloaks himself in enigma throughout the book, much of which is interviews. It’s important to remember that Ruscha represented a key link between West Coast pop and conceptual art, and an artist’s public attitude (constructed or otherwise) played an important role in how their work was received. If Rosler’s attitude about her own art and art in general is hot, Ruscha’s is icy.
As with Warhol, there’s a deadened air about Ruscha and his declarations: Europe is boring, a photo is just a means to an end, the work is about the West only because I live there. The interviews gradually present evidence of a cultivated personality that mirrors the dramatic banality of Ruscha’s work. He’s careful never to say too much or—God forbid!—to break character. Without the zany veneer that then accompanied art that did things like immortalize every building on Sunset Strip in an artist’s book, you emerge with the sense that Ruscha’s practice could never have been as successful as it has. So he consistently downplays all art-related decisions—Q: “Why photograph gas stations?” A: “Because they were there.” Interviewers, especially the early ones, have a terrible feel for how to approach Ruscha’s intentionally boring work, continuously trying to pigeonhole him with, “So what’s the point?” questions, which, because of Ruscha’s ability to talk in circles, is revealed as comically pointless. A smattering of notebook drawings and the abstract poetry book ending Leave Any Information at the Signal prove infinitely more evocative of Ruscha’s artistic intentions than the interviews. In a 1970 drawing with arrows chaotically zigzagging all over the place, most with captions like “Someone chickens out,” or “Commercial for bananas,” Ruscha writes, “This is a typical drawing that reminds me of what I was watching on TV while doing it.” Ruscha’s art is best when it postures as an exercise in pointlessness. The relevance of pointlessness or superfluity to the consumer revolution in the second half of the American century is obvious, and Ruscha pursues it most effectively in his photo books and small drawings, both of which were the highlights of his recent show at the Whitney.
Of the three artists, Kelley is by far the most willing to write about himself and discuss his own work. Although he writes in Foul Perfection (the first of the two volumes of his writing) that he dislikes writing and only took it up as a means of defending aesthetic decisions that proved impenetrable to the art world, he does so engagingly and charmingly, and both volumes are filled with hilarious anecdotes and refreshingly descriptive explanations. In fact, Kelley occasionally overexplains his own work, giving the impression that some pieces are just illustrations of someone else’s theories—mostly Freud’s, but also repressed memory syndrome, UFO-logy, and other various pop cultural sources. He’s always ready with an impressive—daunting, even—array of justifications and rationalizations for all decisions: this illustrates this, which can be traced to this, and so on. He sometimes comes off as an overcaffeinated grad student, manically connecting historical/political considerations of feces to the TV show Double Dare, for instance. That said, his reference-capability is impressive, and a big part of what makes his art so interesting. He’s just as comfortable talking about the Yippies or Iggy and the Stooges as he is about Freud, & Oyvind Fahlström, or sports-deifying rec rooms of major state colleges, and his art, which can look aggressively immature or pointless, makes total sense after reading his statements and essays on it. He ascribes this in large part to his background at the conceptualist-heavy CalArts, notorious for emphasizing the primacy of language over the visual.
Although his writing style is surprisingly dry for someone whose art is often so funny, the anecdotes that dot these volumes are terrific fodder for future psychoanalysts of Kelley’s work. In the funniest of the bunch, Kelly describes his sarcastic creation—a dummy for an “effigy-burning contest” during his time at the jock-heavy University of Michigan. At the contest, surrounded by frat boys, Kelley recounts a blasphemous impromptu speech he gave on the “evils” of the opposing football team, rhetoric that obviously resonates contemporaneously. While the second volume includes primarily project statements, Kelley’s often read as essays and are as enjoyable as the critical, theoretical, and creative essays in Foul Perfection.
Somewhere in Minor Histories Kelley writes, “Silence is often construed as a sign of intelligence, so the best tactic is to play dumb,” a notion he obviously rejects in his own practice. He argues various times that the artist is “infantilized” by a relationship where critics act as intermediary between artist and audience, interpreting the artist’s thoughts and gestures, which belong to the realm of the “magical.” What makes Rosler’s and Kelley’s books so valuable is their disavowal of the concept of the artist as shamanistic creator, spiritually possessed to create work that’s somehow intrinsically “inside them,” waiting to be expressed. Not to mention their demonstration that artists can, and should, double as compelling writers if they have any interest in subverting the infantile art world position Kelley believes they’re inevitably assigned. As he writes, “All of us know, those who possess language have an advantage over those who do not.”