Toward Polyphonic Criticismby Jarrett Earnest
A multivalent arena, rich and strange—something polyphonic, as Mikhail Bakhtin described Dostoevsky’s work—what art criticism could be.
Sun poured through the third-floor windows overlooking Avenue A, filling the room with light as it continued to swell with strangers. It was the first day of class at BHQFU, the experimental free art school. I asked anyone who wanted to be in the class to arrive prepared to discuss George Kubler’s The Shape of Time (1962), with no idea who would show up. I didn’t expect to find myself looking out at nearly 90 faces from all over the city, almost all of them holding PDF print-outs covered with notes. For two hours we used Kubler’s radical proposal—that “the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of man-made things, including all tools and writing in addition to the useless, beautiful, and poetic things of the world”—to discuss what art is and how we go about making it right now in New York City. With this diverse range of people we had a more intellectually rigorous conversation than I ever recall in a doctoral seminar. The class was called “Object Lessons/Object Relations” and focused on the tangled insights and enthusiasms artists have for ideas and things not obviously related to their work. Each week a different guest chose a text for the students to read which we discussed like this on Sunday afternoons. Over two semesters we wrestled everything from the Patanjali Yoga Sutras with Francesco Clemente, to Herculine Barbin with Juliana Huxtable; from Gesualdo’s madrigals with Dorothea Rockburne, to Benjamin’s Storyteller and the art of juggling with Michael Taussig. The special electricity of the meeting was that everyone was there solely because they wanted to be. It’s an intoxicating feeling of all being in this together.
In opposition to the way a Google search flattens information, polyphony thickens it. Bakhtin describes Dostoevsky’s novels as “not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” It is important that each voice is not subsumed by a unified ideological or authorial perspective, “constructed not as the whole of a single consciousness, absorbing other consciousnesses as objects into itself, but as a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the other.” This understanding of the dialogic is why I remain intoxicated by the artist interview as a form: an encounter that can produce a different or unexpected knowing in both directions, for the interviewer and interviewee. My desire for polyphony in contemporary art is against a background of startling homogeneity under the sign of professionalization. There are many reasons for our current situation, but mostly it’s rooted in the triumph of global capital in the digital age—“the market” is a monologue—reducing the mysterious sensuousness of lived experience into quantifiable and transmittable “information.” It is against this environment that I see both BHQFU and the Brooklyn Rail as radical openings in the New York art worlds, where the jangling of a polyphonic art discourse might begin to sound. It is no accident that these spaces are also islands of misfit toys; I believe in my core that art will always be the domain of weirdoes, even if the business of art is transacted in the land of professionals—we must always remember the difference.
I assembled this guest editorship like a valentine for those out there I love talking with, attempting to craft the section into a small choir where the specificity of each voice is enriched by the ways it butts against another, forming unusual harmonies. To evoke the spirit of BHQFU I adapted into text Lisa Yuskavage’s visit to my class, focusing her discussions of Nina Simone and Giovanni Bellini—it vividly conveys so much of the heart-felt playfulness that can come out of putting people and things in unexpected conversation. There are three personal accounts of early important friendships with poets, accompanied by facsimiles of correspondence and personal ephemera: David Levi Strauss on Robert Duncan and Jess; Nancy Goldring on Robert Lax; and Thyrza Nichols Goodeve on Paul Bowles and Mohammed Mrabet—each an iconic figure that created their own way of being an artist in the world. The recollections make visible the beautiful, intergenerational complexity with which culture ferments. To pay homage to Bakhtin’s polyphony as a graphic metaphor there are two pieces on music. I asked Dave Hickey to expand on his country music criticism of the 1970s, an essay on Dolly Parton’s songs, which he says “capture the complexities of life as it is lived in the ambiguities of language as it is spoken.” By contrast Aliza Shvarts meditates on the metal band Sunn O)))’s extended drones, seeking embodied histories of race and sex, witchcraft, and reproductive labor. Many leitmotifs across the group resonate with the acumens of Bill Berkson’s “All in One”; in fact the heart of the polyphonic theme itself is summed up breezily when he says: “Pasternak’s Zhivago told us something about polyphony: ‘You in others—that is your soul.’ I think the other way round is true, too, to some extent.”
I want to warmly thank the intrepid Phong Bui, Sara Roffino, and Sara Christoph for the heroic jobs they do every month to keep the Brooklyn Rail symphony bopping along, and Walter Chiu and Maggie Barrett, for always making it radiate.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.