Writing from Nowhere

Timothy R. Quigley, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School in New York City, responds to David Levi Strauss’s “From Metaphysics to Invective: Art Criticism as if it Still Matters,” the fourth of the Held Essays on Visual Art, published in the May issue of the Rail.  We are pleased to publish this piece by Professor Quigley and encourage similarly thoughtful responses from our readers. 

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Mara told me about an article I’d missed. It’s about art and politics, she said, but it’s more than that.

The essay, “From Metaphysics to Invective” by David Levi Strauss, is about the relation between artists and writers—about art-making and a form of writing generally referred to as criticism. It’s an appeal for writing and  collaboration, beyond the constraints of the art market. Strauss is looking to repair a significant, but temporarily damaged relationship, and to clear the obstacles separating artists and writers. “We are currently suffering a crisis of relative values that could be treated with criticism,” he says. “Without criticism, the only measure of value in art is money, and that measure has proven to be both fickle and stultifying.” Artists today are held hostage to the marketplace—a network of commercial enterprises including art galleries, auction houses, and corporate “sponsors.” This leaves their natural and historic collaborators, the writers, in an awkward and precarious position. Quoting from an essay by Dore Ashton, Strauss makes clear what’s at stake: “If art criticism is [also held] hostage to the marketplace, and if the destiny of an artist’s work is to be evaluated on an eternal abacus, something vital has been lost—that is, good conversation among artists and their viewers.” And so, Strauss claims, “if criticism is devalued,” artists have no other choice but “to heed the market’s siren song.”

David Levi Strauss is drawing attention to a crucial need and a danger. We are on the verge of forgetting, of losing touch with an intimate relation not only between the artist and the writer, but more generally between the artist and the spectator, or what some have called “the public for art.” And it’s on this broader ground, it seems to me, that the issue must be engaged. To do that, we have to ask more of ourselves as artists and as participants who give meaning to art. Artists often refer to their “practice”—what they do as artists and  how they do it. But to take art seriously, to treat it as something that matters, the same level of commitment may be called for in those who reflect on art and long for it to address their needs and interests. That too requires skill, attention, imagination, insight, and understanding. This practice is expressed by the critic in writing about art and, as Strauss puts it, by engaging “the world through works of art.” In this way, the critic provides a model for a much broader collaborative relationship between artists and all lovers of art.

David Levi Strauss urges art writers to take seriously Paul Valéry’s suggestion that the domain of “art criticism” begins with metaphysics. I take this as a plea for confronting the work of art directly, without the protection of “methodology” or theoretical concepts. Doing so, Strauss claims, “can upend long-held assumptions and habits of thinking and seeing.” This is an important point. And I would add that if we push this far enough, we can better understand a process that goes well beyond art writing.

Part of the skill of engaging the world through works of art entails the creative use of language. The writer leads the way through writing. But where does writing come from? Nowhere. At least that’s how it appears to us in the process of creating. We may have all sorts of tricks and habits to get the process moving. But you can only write or think what occurs to you. Writing about art involves a good deal of work. And given the opacity of the process, it also requires an equal measure of trust—patiently and carefully attending to what shows up in the process of looking and what goes beyond the particular represented in the image or the text.  What comes out of the process of producing sentences are thoughts, ideas, images, and feelings. But how this happens is, in the end, a mystery—a process both inexplicable and familiar.

I have no idea where words, thoughts, sentences come from. Even in the most casual and banal conversation, words appear as parts of sentences that articulate my thoughts, more or less adequately. But I don’t think through everything I say before saying it. I simply talk and often find I’m surprised by what comes out. More often than not it strikes me as imperfect—it doesn’t quite capture what I was feeling when I walked into a room at the museum yesterday afternoon and saw that large photograph of a lone figure in a landscape on the far wall. What was it that drew me to the image? What did it evoke? Why was it so compelling? I try to explain this to you, but what comes out is too vague and seems to be missing something essential I remember feeling when I stood there in front of the image. I try again, “editing” what I said just a moment ago. I wait for new words that will express more faithfully what I was experiencing at the time and how it looks to me now, in retrospect.

And so the process continues. But the crucial point is that at no time do I see clearly what the source of these words may be, other than the situation or object that gave rise to my experience in the first place. The process—the mechanism—of finding the right words is utterly hidden from me. It’s as if they simply appear spontaneously, out of the void, from nowhere. But at the same time I trust that if I’m attentive to what was there on the wall in the gallery and how I responded to it, I may be able to understand it a little better and convey my understanding to others.

And now, it seems to me what I’ve just described to you is common process that we find in all creative activities. Mysterious and familiar. It constitutes the common ground on which the artist and writer stand. When trust in this  process of understanding is recognized as that which makes art and writing expressive, meaningful, and valuable, then the relation between the artist and the critic is reconciled. But the critic, as I suggested above, really only stands in for the observer who is, at the same time, participant and collaborator with the artist in the production of meaning. In this place we all stand together, sharing the responsibility for what we create.

—Timothy Quigley

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Timothy R. Quigley

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