To Whom It Must Concern
Dear Brooklyn Rail Art Writers,
I’m sure that sometimes you’ve asked: “Who am I writing for?” The answer may have been: for the artist, for the “viewing public,” for curious collectors, for posterity, for yourself (perhaps in order to understand something otherwise ungraspable about the work). But what happens if you ask: “Who am I writing to?” What happens if the response to the work of art, the exhibition, the life of the artist, comes in the form of a letter? Does something else, another kind of art criticism, more intimate, or maybe more formal, more casual, or maybe more urgent, come into play?
We know that some of the most memorable writings on art have taken the form of letters, including, to name a few examples, Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Cézanne-inspired missives to Clara Westhoff, and the letters Samuel Beckett sent to Georges Duthuit in the late 1940s about the paintings of Bram van Velde (available in the recently published second volume of Beckett’s correspondence). On March 2, 1949, after suggesting it’s time they shift from the formal vous to the familiar tu (their correspondence is in French), Beckett declares, “Your lovely letter this morning. It pushes me out into too many currents for me to worry about how I swim.” He then launches into a vivid account of van Velde’s art that, almost without one noticing, becomes a compact chronicle of Beckett’s own writerly struggles. This letter, of which we have only a fragment, is as powerful as the best pages of Beckett’s novels, and reading it one can sense how energized Beckett is by having found such a deeply sympathetic correspondent.
The theme for this edition of ARTSEEN is, thus, not a theme but a form: the letter—a letter addressed perhaps to an artist, living or dead, but, just as plausibly, to anyone else. The occasion of the letter can be an exhibition you have just seen, or maybe the fact that there is something you have always wanted to say to someone about some work of art. Write not for any general reader but to a specific addressee, and, with luck, your letter will arrive at its destination.
Perhaps the most important difference between a conventional exhibition review and a “letter review” is that a letter implies a response, or at least the hope for an answer; it is not the last word on a subject, but the opening of a dialogue.
Lately, as an art critic it has, at times, seemed hard to know who you are writing for, hard to visualize the audience that is, you hope, engaged by your writing. And if you don’t know who your readers are, it’s hard to instigate a productive conversation with them. My desire with this experiment is to stress the necessary bond between writers and readers, and to encourage direct relationships between potential correspondents not via fleeting, truncated messages within a commercialized network of “friends” but through an altogether different kind of posting. As Paul Chan has recently observed (in a piece about his staging of Beckett’s Godot in New Orleans), “a voice that desires a reply sounds different than an echo that wants attention.”
Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.