Tag Archives: spring 2009


edited by Judith Rugg and Michèle Sedgwick
Intellect Books ($60)

by Patricia Healy McMeans

Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance presents itself as a forward-thinking topical discussion around the blurred and often contentious lines between curator and artist. On closer examination, though, and with a bit of detective work, it reveals itself as simply a good reference guide. For example, the word performance in the title doesn’t refer to performance art at all, but to dance—which are, in contemporary art vernacular, two distinctly different things. While anticipating a manifesto or at least a heated polemic, we get a tame directory instead.

Gathered from a 2004 symposia in the UK on curating as a form of critical intervention into culture, this collection of essays by twelve British curators who operate from centrist institutions such as the Tate and the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art), is polite and well-mannered. Each essayist briefly presents her own position, and then describes a single curatorial project at length. Few step into a larger conversation about subverting the curatorial model altogether, a hot issue currently of heightened significance.

In The Movement Began with a Scandal, Alum Rowlands outlines in great detail a discursive project “inside which the protagonists engaged in a process of temporary positioning” within one of Munich’s major historical collections. Here, twenty contemporary artists aestheticize social relations within the museum to produce institutional critique, much like Cornelia Parker coiling a mile of jute around Rodin’s bronze sculpture The Kiss. However, Rowlands fails to extend this line of thinking outward from his particular projects to the larger scope of global curation, keeping everything contained nicely and in perfect explanation. (I was, admittedly, reading Issues in Curating alternately with The Invisible Dragonby Dave Hickey, the opinionated cultural critic who is equal parts stealth and acuity, piss and vinegar, and who makes most writing seem comparatively tepid.)

This collection of essays initially feels like a defense of the curatorial practice, but eventually achieves a cumulative definition of the curatorial role, including discourse and research methodologies. Each essay describes a play-by-play of several projects of specific ownership, often going into great detail about why, say, a particular title was chosen for an exhibition. When positions are finally stated, we are left without the meat of a continued, broader conversation. The book is thorough in its assessment of the global rise in curatorial prestige in the 1990s—the curator as “jet set flaneur”—and the quickly-mounted rash of international biennials, which has created a culture of the curator as a visionary and her collection of artists as mere material. But Issues in Curating does little to follow up on the serious ramifications of these power-shifting events.

The curator’s role has arguably changed more drastically in the last fifteen years than that of the artist, and Issues in Curating skirts its inherent challenge: how to place itself within a rapidly changing situation. These essays were written five years ago in Britain, just after the UK had received unprecedented exposure from the global YBA (Young British Artist) craze. This “movement” was championed by one gallerist—the advertisement tycoon Charles Saatchi—and he let the artists do the talking. The Brits have held a grass-roots model since 2000, wherein many unknown artists enter immediately and remain in loose collectives that hold their own exhibitions, sometimes attended by curators and gallerists. A wellspring of artist-driven alternative spaces have established themselves: Cell Projects, for example, an upstart project space in East London, has on its expansive, mixed roster the acclaimed young artists Liam Gillick and Ian Monroe, the latter of whom is in its current group show.

One of the writers, JJ Charlesworth, does consider how the art world has become bureaucratized by the rise of the super-curator, creating a new managerial class where the artist has been displaced, but he doesn’t put that notion into context or examine actual occurrences where the margin has not been co-opted, as in the Cell Projects example. He merely makes a point, though performs quite well in doing so. As Paul O’Neill writes in his theory-laden essay, “the periphery still has to follow the discourse of the centre. . . . and, by default, accepts the conditions of this legitimacy.” If indeed the artist has been displaced, as Charlesworth considers, O’Neill contends that in buying into the system created by the super-curator model, the artist perpetuates his own displacement. However, they both turn a blind eye to many examples of artists bucking the system, even in the face of the super-curator reign. He offers no punk rock solutions, or any solutions at all, though they are already happening around him.

Once Issues in Curating reveals that it is shirking its mantle of actual comparative discourse, moments of thinking outside the box peek out. Jane Rendell’s chapter on critical spatial practice, interweaving curating, architecture, editing, and writing, is refreshing and eye-opening. She demands that we “exchange what we know for what we do not know, and give up the safety of competence for the potential dangers of incompetence.” Her approach to what she calls the “diagonal axis” of working in multiple disciplines demands we always work in “a place between”—the real lived experience of those who remain on the blurred line of curator/artist, editor/writer, critic/theorist. She presents a practice called “site-writing,” a way of re-thinking criticism, which involves repositioning the artwork as a site for critical spatial writing. Framing criticism as “an active writing that constructs as well as traces the sites between critic and writer, artist and artwork, viewer and reader,” she suggests “that the position the critic occupies needs to be made explicit through the process of writing criticism.”

Rendell’s ideas stem from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s radical literary movement described in Towards a New Novel (1963); crossing them from fiction into criticism and critical theory, she hypothesizes the ideas of relational aesthetics and dialogic practice as a curatorial and critical form. Finally, a provocative gesture, attacking from the flank: fiction as critique. As I read Issues in Curating, I watch myself getting thrown into Rendell’s eloquent meta-loop, like a multi-layered Charlie Kaufman narrative in which we are complicit; this book is now suggesting to me how to critique it. Trying my hand, a Rendell site-writing/criticism for Issues in Curating might go like this:

The walls in this room look like they are covered in loops—but up close it is possible to see that these are figures, lots and lots of small numbers. These are financial indices, specific quantities with particular functions, which appear here as surface ornament. On one wall is a window with four panes. In one corner, two sofas are placed at right angles to one another. A video monitor stands between them. The video rolling by is of a blonde man in his mid-thirties wearing thick black-rimmed glasses. It is continually framed in a medium-close up. He describes in slow, minute detail a completed project in a German art museum. On one sofa art catalogues and CVs spill across the cushions. Through the window next to the monitor, in the street outside, five artists are in a huddle, planning, one with a blueprint rolled up and tucked under her arm.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009


Gary Copeland Lilley
Ausable Press ($14)

by John Jacob

In Gary Copeland Lilley’s arresting volume Alpha Zulu, the long poem “Serial,” reads:

She’s a collection
of worn edges
until I push the blade
towards her heart. One hand
keeping God’s name
inside her mouth.
I look into her eyes
as she leaves.

As Kim Addonizio notes in her comments on the book, the section is “bone-cold,” the culmination of a poem that focuses on a serial killer and his prostitute victims. As the killer notes earlier in the poem, “It’s not a completely random thing, / the impersonal exactness / of the transaction / that buys every hole she has.” The serial killer adopts the justification of God, a point of view that these women deserve what they get.

Lilley deals with prostitution and pornography in a number of these poems, noting in “Porno” that “a bad woman is less faithful than the girl on screen.” But the poems as a whole deal with a variety of subjects, many having to do with the roles of African-American males within American society and Lilley’s work with the U.S. Navy Submarine Force. The poems discuss the blues, and one sequence uses the tarot deck to make its imagistic points. Most of the poems, though, are narratives about people’s transformative ability to fit in when they feel their choices are limited. As the author puts it at the end of the book, “the main rule of love is to not be dead.”

Lilley riffs on spending Veterans Day at “Rite Liquor Store and Bar,” discussing the value of one’s hopes and the fact that they do not cost anything. The reader need not know anything about the Tarot to interpret what Lilley wants to say through them, as in “Three of Cups Reversed”: “Beneath a ragged flag, the bare trees / in the departing winter, ashtrays half full, / fresh pack of cigarettes, and three cans of beer / sweating beside me on the table.” Lilley’s efforts fall down in some of the prose poems, especially the ones without punctuation, but he delivers powerful messages about the deliverance that a man demands from life, depicting the soul as a “sack of sand” and a funeral as “a fitful bed / along an obscene wall.” His verse brings beauty to the almost-failed world it creates.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

SIGNAL FROM DRACO: New and Selected Poems

Mebane Robertson
Black Widow Press ($17.95)

by Christopher Kondrich

“Some guests are givens; some, some they surprise,” Mebane Robertson concludes the first poem in Signal from Draco. Either way, they disrupt a lonesome man’s party. This is a fitting metaphor for Robertson’s entire collection; he is the operator of some guest-producing contraption and the guests are the products of his mischievous intent, showing up at the door with colloquialisms, references, one-liners, and non-sequiturs. Somewhere in all of this are profound questions and profound answers piggybacking from one page to the next.

The reckless abandon that characterizes Robertson’s best poems reveal him to be proficient in what Robert Bly called “the leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again.” In “Doctor of Teeth (White, Natasha),” Robertson grumbles, “Some jackass gets lashed behind the curtain / And guess who catches the flak.” He then registers this moment: “It’s lonely it’s getting harder / To do the dirty work of ever getting them back.” This marriage of Merwin’s punctuationless fluidity and Seidel’s backhanded regret resonates because of the strange set-up. Robertson has a knack for painting us into a corner, only to lead us out with knowledge we couldn’t have understood without that corner. Who is getting lashed, anyway, and why? Perhaps even Robertson doesn’t know, and that’s part of the fun. “Doctor of Teeth” concludes:

In the service it’s good for my hands
Not to know what each other are doing, but the agency
Wants to update my file and run some Rhine tests. I told them,
Before you lock the door, make sure I’m actually inside this time.

The humor exemplified in this poem separates Robertson from others who attempt a similar brand of rogue poetry; his subversion is considerate of the reader and grounded with sincerity. And one could argue that the humor, sincerity, subversion, lament . . . it’s all the same. It’s a way of dealing with the world around us.

This brings me to “Subject Body,” the sequence at the heart of Signal from Draco that focuses Robertson’s attitude towards the broader topic of identity. The title character “Subject Body” is portrayed as an everyman, a bit of our homogenized selves. “Pebble by pebble he came to see / His own developing, as he became more / Of a young Subject Body,” Robertson chronicles, making the issue of self-analysis more an issue of how self-analysis is represented. This is, perhaps, the greatest strength of this volume; Robertson’s strange spitfire of poetry is ultimately about how much is shared versus how much is ours and ours alone. When “Subject Body” grows into an adult with all of its trappings, one can’t help but identify. Roberson concludes wistfully for all of us:

He Kept up with What Needed Keeping Up With.
He Watched the News. Hope was in the Trees.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009


a Repo of the O Mission Error Attacks on Unit
Travis Macdonald
Fact-Simile Editions ($12)

Joshua Casteel
Essay Press ($12.95)

by Elizabeth Robinson

The O mission Repo and Letters from Abu Ghraib, are worthy of attention not merely for their politically charged subject matter but also for the distinctive formal strategies that shape their content. These books defamiliarize the newspeak that has flattened our readings of 9/11 or the abuses at Abu Ghraib, bringing us into a new interpretive relationship with the recent history of the United States.

Travis Macdonald is the “author” of The O Mission Repo, an erasure project that works with The 9/11 Commission Report. Such texts can be awkward, critiques and deconstructions of the original that are not themselves particularly illuminating. Macdonald’s work here is a happy surprise, however; it burrows through the 9/11 report (itself heavily redacted prior to public release) to create an alternate text that is downright lyrical: “We / have searched / past / sight / and witness / for / This final / fraction of / light. / We emerge from this / or / into this / as / other.” The glibness that often emerges from erasure is absent here. Instead, this book enacts a repossession of U.S. history that is by turns playful, indignant, contemplative, and elegiac.

In the course of the book, the reader encounters new versions of all-too-familiar players. “United States” becomes an Orwellian entity known as “Unit.” Counterpoint to “Unit” is “Lad,” a recasting of Osama Bin Laden. Both are implicated in the belief that “war / desires death more than / Context.” Macdonald places himself in the midst of this cultural and political maelstrom as “author”—an inspired means of owning up to his role in revising the original document while also disrupting its authority. By systematically erasing “operations” into “opera,” Macdonald captures the fever pitch of U.S. emotions during and after 9/11, but he also forces the reader to reconceive of the ensuing crisis as something akin to aesthetic experience. Lest this seem a flippant way to address so grave a tragedy, let me emphasize that “author’s” art works within a world radically changed, and his aesthetic impulse is directed toward acknowledging this change and keeping his ear attuned to it, noting that all citizens are put in the position of eating “the / error of this / equivalent / art.”

The formal strategies and serendipities of the erasure process influence the book in felicitous ways. Punctuation is elided and syntax softens the ambiguities that political discourse typically effaces. These ambiguities provide “areas for / author to police / the torn / and limiting language.” Further, the design of the book, collaboratively done by Macdonald and JenMarie Davis, modifies the visual representation of erasure from section to section. Rarely has a book’s design so impacted the meaning of a text: the writing is variously blacked out, scored with lines, blurred, lifted onto open white space, and arranged as lyrics on musical notation. Each of these possibilities points toward another dimension of the work until Macdonald cajoles us out from “fear that / sour / asylum” to a reinvigorated site where the reader is “led / This language / from / Unit / to / You.”

Joshua Casteel’s Letters from Abu Ghraib is a more formally direct text, but it remains of interest that Essay Press would choose to publish a book constituted of e-mails. Casteel’s prose, however, is quite literary, sometimes self-consciously so. Like Macdonald’s book,Letters from Abu Ghraib is a repossession of sorts, reshaping intimate correspondence as theological and political commentary. Casteel sent e-mails back to family and friends from Abu Ghraib where he served as an interrogator shortly after the torture scandal broke; in these missives, he struggles to bring his Christian faith into concert with his military service. The absence of other voices demonstrates the author as thrown back on his own resources in a site where authority is radically under question. In addition, this material takes on a peculiar allusiveness given that Casteel is a serious biblical scholar; references to scripture help bolster and affirm Casteel’s moral architecture as other institutional structures crumble (sometimes literally) around him.

In the beginning, Casteel comes across as exceedingly earnest, a young man who cultivates virtue, and yet whose assumptions have not yet been tried. This impression is uncomfortably underscored by Christopher Merrill’s introduction, which spuriously compares Casteel to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, saying, “visions articulated from behind bars may have lasting power.” Casteel, however, served as interrogator, not captive. Later, Casteel’s drive toward goodness can appear arrogant, as when he writes, “I see my job much more as a Father Confessor than an interrogator. . . . A Confessor’s aim is to help the one confessing to be sincere, to arrive at the kind of contrition that actually desires self-disclosure.” Note the capitalized C in “Confessor”!

Casteel’s initial supposition of moral clarity leads to some unsettling moments for the reader, and some of his e-mails sound embarrassingly like sermons. Fortunately, the e-mails become more unsettled as Casteel grows increasingly alarmed about what he and his country are doing. Here is the core of the book, and it’s fraught with powerful drama and tension: to have dared to publish so overt a moral dilemma was a courageous thing to do. Thrown back on the ambiguities of his situation, Casteel discusses the centrality of conversion for Christians and undergoes a conversion of sorts himself. The self-satisfaction of the earlier e-mails is scoured away by his admission that “Maybe my anger is blinding my arrogance.”

As he works through conflict, Casteel gains moral clarity. His writing becomes more direct and more emotionally honest. Casteel writes perceptively to his parents: “I do not understand why [you] cannot apply your marriage/family counseling wisdom to cultures and societies. . . . why is it you cannot see these dynamics between nations?” Reflecting on the disproportionate force used by the U.S. military against a feeble and disorganized “enemy,” Casteel writes, “War is supposed to be the threat of being easily annihilated, not the threat of annihilating with ease.”

The author’s reflections ultimately lead him to file for conscientious objector status. If it feels a little anti-climactic that his superiors readily assent to this decision, perhaps it is a positive thing that Casteel’s superiors were able to enter into dialogue with him, that military culture is less monolithic in its allegiances then outsiders expect it to be. In this way, Letters from Abu Ghraib, like The O mission Repo, demonstrates that once the veneer of official policy is rubbed away, there is ample material to engage, animate, and trouble us.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

DISORIENTATIONS: Art On The Margins of the Contemporary

Travis Jeppesen
Social Disease ($31.95)

by John Holten

“If one were to compare Henri Matisse’s work to something, it would have to be an orange”—so goes Guillaume Apollinaire’s memorable description of the great modernist painter’s work. Apollinaire’s criticism presents some of the most engaging, inventive words on the early years of modern art, applying the poet’s ability of verbal contortion in the face of the groundbreaking, neoteric tendencies of the era’s visual artists (themselves busy destroying the old guard’s parameters and familiar forms). In his introduction to his collected writings on contemporary art, Travis Jeppesen lays down a similar credo: “What is at stake here is language and the ways in which it is deployed. The debates over the purpose of art criticism seem to ignore the simple, basic fact that the art of art criticism is in fact a literary act.”

Like Apollinaire a century before him, Jeppesen is a poet and novelist as well as an essayist.Disorientations collects this interesting writer’s art criticism: mostly focused on Prague during the years 2003-2006, it features short, animated reviews of exhibitions, interviews with expatriate artists, and reports from the sets of film shootings run by such kindred spirits “on the margins of the contemporary” as Bruce LaBruce and Sue de Beer. All the pieces share a rather rough, jargon-free engagement with their subjects.

One of the more notable services Disorientations offers is an education about Eastern European art—so it’s a shame that a piece on the Slovenian art collective IRWIN’s book East Art Map comes so late in the collection, as it lays out the distinguishing features of the region’s art (along with the challenge for outsiders to comprehend it on its own terms). But that said, don’t come here for insights into more “Western” figures: a piece on Joseph Beuys from 2006 is markedly non-insightful, a piece of information journalism that reads cold.

An example of Jeppesen’s insistent, impatient critical approach can be seen in a review of Home Gallery’s attempt to offer a representative show of “Contemporary Australian Art In Prague”: “There’s something quite slothful. . . and uninspired about constantly subjecting the art-going public to these insufficient surveys of national production.” And of course he’s right on this point. Constantly fighting against boxes and the practice of curators and artists as well as critics to pigeon-hole, Jeppeson hates anything easy or overly simplistic. Disorientations also rails against the dangerous label of exoticism that faces East European art; Jeppesen not only engages this question, he goes a way in producing an answer: develop a new critical language.

Disorientations doesn’t always rise up to this challenge, because Jeppesen is a poet, a writer free of constraint: producing copy for numerous small publications on a deadline sees him trying on the mantle of the serious art critic and not always succeeding. He’s at his best when he lets his visceral, often surreal self free of the merely informative mode of writing and moves into his own world, where criticism is a kind of gnarled (and often funny) video poetry: writing on Eva and Jan Svankmajer, for example, he describes “Eva’s manic swirl of colors forming the cunt allegory, sweeping virtues informed by prosaic maladies. . . Jan and his creatures, they haunt him like a melody. The monster in the machine.” This is seeing art through the eyes of a talented poet, a worthwhile ekphrasis that Jeppesen is right to demand more of in current art criticism.

Challenging the social conditions of the contemporary, international art world at every turn, this book injects interest in Eastern Europe at a time when, as Jeppesen points out, it is in danger of being neutered by the more commercial West or being overlooked entirely in favor of China and Asia. Admirably, like his publisher Social Disease has already done with the stuffy English literary scene, he has knocked down a couple of the walls holding up the established art press with his Disorientations.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

PUNCTUATION: Art, Politics, and Play

Jennifer DeVere Brody
Duke University Press ($21.95)

by Gregory Kirk Murray

A puncturing of semantic space, Jennifer DeVere Brody’s Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play performs at every turn a subversive politics that celebrates the margins as places where the real deal goes down. The author’s prefatory “For(e)thought” eschews the traditional introduction for a less argumentative, less confrontational starting point “for thought.” It comes as a welcome invitation that we may understand our role as readers to be one of choosing our own interpretations, accommodating a multiplicity of meanings, and being both audience members and participants in the play of words that performs her investigation.

If we didn’t already sense that Brody is working from the margins, she provocatively says goodbye to the Strunk & Whites and the Lynne Trusses (“go Truss yourself should you wish to be bound by convention!”) in order to explore how the marks of punctuation function in various semiotic fields. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some “rules” to her inquiry, but these “rules” do not have the final word, a refreshing reminder that academic discourse could be subject to change.

Despite the fact that French philosopher Jacques Derrida is only mentioned by name a handful of times, a trace of him is omnipresent. But, unlike “authorities” such as Strunk & White, Derrida’s influence is set into “play.” When Brody insists that “this book, rather than arguing a point, argues and plays with points,” Derrida’s concept of play (jeu) comes to the fore. Brody “plays around” in the sense that she refuses to commit to a single telos, a feature all too common in academic discourse that seeks to make a reductive argument and defend it. Also, she raises the stakes by asking important questions about how her observations on punctuation fit into emergent linguistic theories, and she explores how those theories apply to real artists with real concerns, such as the highly political work of Yayoi Kusama.

One fruitful and interesting line of “playing around” is what acclaimed typographer Robert Bringhurst calls “typographic ethnocentricity and racism.” In chapter three, “Hyphen-Nations,” Brody plays with the hyphen, a “problematic” punctuation mark because it can “migrate, appearing and disappearing seemingly without fixed rules.” The importance of hyphenation to identity politics forms the basis for this chapter, and Brody argues over the usage of terms like “African-Americans.” She points out—with periods, of course—that Theodore Roosevelt’s 1915 statement “there is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism” is alive and well. The political rhetoric of “unity” really amounts to the necessary forgetting of one’s ethnic or racial history in order to become “American,” whatever that means. Beyond the more obvious, or marked, discourses of hyphenation, Brody also takes issue with those who, like Barbara Ehrenreich, have complained that they, because they are white, have “no race.” As Brody cleverly points out, Ehrenreich reveals her own privileged status by virtue of the complaint: “She ‘e-races’ whiteness as a ‘racial’ identity so that it becomes the (un)masked universal.” If it sounds here like Brody means business, rather than pure “play,” she nonetheless maintains her level of performativity through her discursive practice.

In chapter four, Brody explores the idea of quotation marks as “queer performance.” Relying on the poststructuralist observation that “all language is ‘meta,’” Brody looks into the ways in which quotation marks “queer” their enframed words’ relationships to the “normative” text. This punctuation performs the “simultaneous suturing of and separating of text(s).” But Brody is not content to discuss these theories in a vacuum—thank God! Discussing the fascinating work of Bill T. Jones, a performance artist who “really is” a black, gay, HIV-positive dancer, she suggests that “Jones’s ability to play with the practice of referentiality—to make his gestures gesture toward other things—is an example of the performativity of queer quotation.”

Again and again this book reminds us that artists such as Jones are not the only ones who can perform; throughout Punctuation, Brody both provides a stage for and sets her own critical practice in motion. In chapter five, “Sem;erot;cs ; Colon:zat:ons : Exclamat!ons !” Brody goes a step beyond, leaving us with a theatrical script, replete with a cast of characters, stage setting and directions, and dialogue. The characters include a couple of acronyms and the eye of a webcam, so we know what we’re getting into. If this section drags a bit, it is perhaps an indication that we, as critics, are still trying to collapse the annoying distinction between academic and creative discourse. Hats off to Brody for taking us someplace new.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

ON CRITICISM (Thinking in Action)

Noël Carroll
Routledge ($19.95)

by Nigel Beale

This book is best read by the light of another, John Carey’s What Good are the Arts? (Oxford University Press, 2006), a witty, truculent, masterful polemic which argues that a “work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art only for that one person; and the reason for considering anything a work of art will be as various as the variety of human beings.”

What a work of art isn’t, says Carey, is what many people who spend their lives working in the field say it is. It isn’t, for example, what Arthur Danto claims; according to Carey, Danto—a critic for The Nation—believes with Immanuel Kant that art is special, that there is a kind of “trans-historical essence in art, everywhere and always the same.” To see something as art requires an “atmosphere” of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art. Only those who possess this are qualified to comment on a work of art because they are privy to its background and intention; success of the work is thus determined by the extent to which it achieves this intent. What results, says Carey, is a transcendental knowledge that automatically overrides personal, subjective opinion, an authority whose verdict cannot be questioned.

Loaded with dazzling, pugilistic rhetoric, Carey’s arguments demolish this Kantian scaffolding, but in so doing, they leave us stranded unhappily in an anarchic quagmire of subjective relativism, where the intentions of artists are unknowable and the opinions of those who haven’t, for example, read any 20th-century fiction are deemed just as valid as those of critics who have read them all.

On Criticism methodically hardens and recaptures this ground, constructing a foundation upon which criticism—objective, evaluative criticism—can reasonably operate. As a starting point, its author Noël Carroll makes the case for measuring artistic success and value against authorial intent, similar works, and categorical purpose. Where Carey flippantly dismisses intentionality as something that Danto et al. still cling to with a “frantic desire” for certainty, Carroll—whose book Danto praises, examines it with a scientist’s microscope, meticulously refuting its “effective disposition” while at the same time expounding a philosophy of criticism.

Carroll’s argument proceeds, albeit tortoise-like, as follows: If there are no rules of art, there can be no evaluative criticism. Evaluation presupposes comparison, which cannot be made if all artworks are deemed “unique.” If however one accepts that this uniqueness is exaggerated, and concedes that most if not all works of art fall into a genre, stylistic movement, artistic oeuvre, or tradition, then appraisal is possible. Works can be judged based on the extent to which they implement the known purposes of their categories and meet accepted criteria of artistic excellence. The degree to which art realizes these goals determines its success or failure—i.e., its value. Without measurement criteria, evaluation cannot be based on reason. And without reason, Carroll tells us, we have no criticism, for the goal of criticism is to discover what is valuable and worthy of attention, and to provide compelling reasons that explain why.

Much of Carroll’s book is dedicated to defining the process of criticism, and defending the primacy of evaluation therein. Evaluation is feted as the essential component of criticism. Art is defined as the intentional production of the artist, the artist as an individual creator of value. Criticism, says Carroll, is about the discovery of value, not the clinical dissection and interpretation of various codes, signifying systems, or regimes of power. Description, contextualization, classification, elucidation, interpretation, and analysis are all discussed in terms of what they contribute to the articulation of those reasons upon which evaluation is based.

Throughout On Criticism, Carroll neatly throws many of the standard objections to intentionality and objective evaluative criticism up into the air, and, like so many skeets, shoots them down, one at a time. He argues, for example, that although the establishment of general artistic evaluative criteria is indeed virtually impossible, objective categories into which artworks might fit are definable; these categories are the ropes of reason that can pull us from Carey’s quagmire.

Considerable effort is also spent defending “intentionality.” In addition to the introductions, interviews, and manifestos that artists provide us with, detailing intent, Carroll argues “Barely an hour goes by when most of us are not involved in interpreting the words and deeds, the sayings and doings of our conspecifics.” Furthermore, he writes:

The ability to read the minds of others is an indispensable part of social existence. Why not approach the interpretation of artworks in the same way? . . . Isn’t it very likely that [this] is on a continuum with the interpretive propensities that appear to have been bred in our bones by natural selection? . . . Is it really so unreasonable, for example, to infer that artists intend their works to pursue the purposes associated with those categories that their works appear to belong to? Or to postulate that most artists, most of the time, want to relate to their audiences?

The cardinal value of this book is that it raises and addresses many current contentious issues that will be of interest to anyone involved in the practice of criticism. As will Carroll’s manifold definitions of the critic: he or she who says what is good in a work, pinpoints what is valuable, bolsters observations with compelling reasons, and helps an audience to understand and get the richest experiences possible from those artworks under evaluation. The critic, Carroll tells us, also assists the reader in discovering what is of value in the artist’s achievement. Finally, because of the central role categorization plays in his “objective” critical process, Carroll concludes that the good critic should also be a master of the history and categories of the art form in which he or she specializes, and of the culture in which it lives.

On Criticism is not easy to read. Unlike What Good are the Arts? it isn’t polished. There are few memorably clever lines, too much repetition, cliches riddle the text, and words frequently stumble over each other. And yet, despite all of this, like the good-natured nerd who eventually beats out the Big Man on Campus for the girl (at least in American movies), this book wins the contest. It argues convincingly that critics are indispensible lubricants to the practice of art, that their opinions count more than the average Joe’s, that artistic intent can be determined, and that relative merit can reasonably be defended. Though perhaps not containing the smoothest talk, this book is filled with persuasive arguments that will provide both substance and sustenance to those who engage with it.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

RIMBAUD: The Double Life of a Rebel

Edmund White
Atlas & Co. ($14)

by Burke Bindbeutel

Modern art has no Great Disruptor like Arthur Rimbaud. Paul Valéry, who emulated him decades after his death, put a fine point on it when he wrote, “before Rimbaud, all poetry was written in the language of common sense.” From the sticks of Charleville, France he arrived—penniless, combative, and lice-infested—into a 19th-century Paris that didn’t know what to make of him, other than to note his piercing blue eyes.

Rimbaud pried open literature and revealed startling new possibilities. The poet’s prodigious mastery of form only aided him in obliterating traditional verse. Among his many achievements, according to Edmund White in this readable and absorbing critical biography, was the invention of the prose poem, a mode only previously glimpsed in the Book of Psalms.

Young Arthur’s method for these triumphs was a life of artistic mayhem that he famously described as a “total derangement of the senses.” The boy’s conduct was downright sociopathic. He outraged nearly everyone he met in Paris as the guest of the established poet Paul Verlaine. Both writers produced their best work during the destructive, absinthe-addled “domestic farce” that nearly killed them both.

Although Verlaine had ten years on Rimbaud, it was the younger poet who instigated their artistically rich (albeit morally bankrupt) escapades. Many letters indicate that Rimbaud emotionally blackmailed Verlaine into abandoning his wife and young child for drunken adventures in Belgium and London.

White’s account benefits from the author’s honest self-identification with his subject. A bashful Midwestern teenager, seduced by books, White could only dream of crashing through the literary world, inspiring the leading artists of the day to abandon their households and run away with him. But Rimbaud ran away from his deeds as a literary genius and homewrecker for a life as a marginally successful gunrunner in Africa. By the time of his death at 37, his books A Season in Hell and Illuminations were already gaining status as treasures of Western literature. Rimbaud himself, though, had long since repudiated this brilliant poetry, referring to it in correspondence as “filth.” That such a keystone contribution to modern literature seemed to emerge unbidden from the pen of a hellion offers proof that diligence and artistic development do not always measure up to the undisciplined, incoherent passions of youth.

The ill-starred magnificence of the Paris Commune invites comparison to Rimbaud’s meteoric career. Indeed, many scholars claim that the upheavals in Paris should be considered Rimbaud’s greatest inspiration. When the Imperial Army left Paris in 1871 to fight the Prussians, anarchists seized control of the capital and established a free city-state. Utopian decrees were giddily proclaimed, including the end to state subsidies of the Church. The revolutionaries also introduced mandatory public education to the Western world. But it was all summarily crushed two months later by the returning army, and many of the Commune’s idealistic initiatives were never implemented. Rimbaud sympathized deeply with the short-lived revolution. “Like the Communards,” White writes, “he was violently anticlerical. Like them, he mocked authority, the bourgeoisie, the deposed monarch.”

White, an influential gay writer and co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, notes with particular interest the sexual precocity of the young poet, though he insists that Rimbaud’s homosexuality was not the source of his restlessness and dissatisfaction. White cites Wallace Fowlie’s assertion that gay romance, because it is free of procreative instincts, is fundamentally aesthetic and intellectual. This attitude leads him to disagree with Enid Starkie, author of the 1936 biography that for a long time was considered the authoritative English-language work on Rimbaud. Starkie extrapolates from a poem called “The Tortured Heart” that Rimbaud suffered a rape at the hands of Communards during one of his early escapes to Paris; she also insists that Rimbaud must have enjoyed the experience, since he later had a homosexual affair with Verlaine. White responds in his book that it’s second-rate Freudianism to attribute personality traits to some buried trauma, and that the historical evidence for some transformative assault is nonexistent; he theorizes it was a homophobic attempt to rationalize Rimbaud’s romance with Verlaine that led Starkie to concoct her rape narrative.

Given his turn, White paints Rimbaud’s sexuality as fluid but aggressive, and shows that he always dominated the older but less self-assured Verlaine. The upstart from the provinces had sought out Verlaine’s approval and idolized him as one of his favorite living poets. But soon after he sent the boy train fare to Paris, it was Verlaine who was drawing more inspiration from Rimbaud.

Verlaine’s character fascinates due to the gap between his strength as a poet and his weakness as a man. Relentlessly self-pitying, abusive, alcoholic, and indecisive, he recovered somewhat from his period with Rimbaud and regained a reputation as an important French writer. “If Rimbaud was the most experimental poet of his day,” White says, “then Verlaine was much more a lyric voice, someone whose superb verses were close to the delicate, rhyming patterns of song (indeed, Debussy set them to music), a poet of melancholy and shadows, of a fragile and intensely personal Catholicism, and of the springtime of love.” Of course, the debauched quality of his lived experience does not measure up to the elegant harmony of his poetry: “Verlaine was a survivor, though he was also a buffoon, lurching back and forth from men to women, from wine to absinthe, from hospital to prison to gutter.”

As for Rimbaud, his career did not survive his turbulent teen years. All the same, in the span from 1871-75, he seized control of modern literature. A Season in Hell seems to foresee the Industrial Revolution and the massive societal changes that it would herald, even appearing strangely in touch with the explosive developments of the 20th century. “What is extraordinary,” writes White, “is that in his brief writing career Rimbaud covered the whole history of poetry from Latin verse up through the Romantics and the Parnassians and the Symbolists on to the Surrealists, even before surrealism existed.”

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ANTOINE’S ALPHABET: Watteau and His World

Jed Perl
Vintage ($15)

by W. C. Bamberger

I have a fondness for books that employ alphabetical structures. In the best of them—Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare, Steve Katz’s Wier & Pouce, Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa, among others—the alphabet isn’t simply a paint-by-number for arranging random thoughts, but alloys with the content to create unexpectedly strong effects. Jed Perl’s study of the art of Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) exhibits such strengths.

In his introduction, Perl writes of Watteau as something of a sheepish pleasure: he knows that others, even his friends, see Watteau as sentimental, samplerish, and wonder at his passion for all things Watteau, including a collection of his mechanically produced black and white prints. But Perl sees Watteau as a master of “silken surfaces and fleeting emotions,” and his writing here seeks to communicate why this matters. He makes his points thoughtfully rather than with a ham-fist, and so, like the best of confidence men, draws us into his ideas under our own power.

Some letters have a single entry, some multiple entries; some are very short, some pages long. Perl gives each a stand-alone integrity, and allows us to connect them as we wish. He perhaps tries a little too hard to achieve a tone of conclusion at the end of each section, which can produce a slightly cloying feel, as at the end of G, “Gersaint’s Shopsign”: “And here he is, reaching out his hand to this woman who is among the last women in Watteau’s art whom we will see from behind. And he invites her to join him in the dance of life, dancing oh so slowly, as the world passes by.” (79) But this urge to complete an emotional circle is a weakness he shares with Watteau, and so oddly reinforces the subject matter even as it prompts the book’s only weak writing.

The intention here is the usual for a thoughtful critic: to alter our perception of art we think we know well—in this case Watteau’s sentimental scenes in rococo pastoral settings, tableaux which now strike many of us as stiff and artificial—through a kind of gentle deconstruction of givens and a shell game of substitutions. Once Perl has opened gaps in what we thought we knew he inserts views of other artists and writers, of giants and knowns, and of friends’ zigzag arguments across a restaurant table. This approach, a kind of stereopticon of thought, is of course a staple of criticism, but Perl’s pieces are chosen with such care that he surprises and convinces again and again.

Perl himself provides a visual aid that illustrates this effect well and whimsically, when he tells us (at T, “Transformation”) how he once found a reproduction of Gilles, Watteau’s melancholy clown, that turned out to be

an advertising card for Chocolat Guérin-Boutron . . . in the form known as a transformation, constructed of two pieces of printed paper, one of which slides over the other, in such a way that when you first look at the card with its black-and-white reproduction and green type and curving, slightly Art Nouveau edges, you see a reproduction of Gilles—only to find, when you push the paper tab upward, that Gilles is overtaken by a portrait of Watteau.

Perl offers a number of ideas, some conventionally spun out of common notions about the unique sensibility of an artist, while others compare not so much Watteau’s style as his feel for the world with other artists (Beardsley, Cézanne—and why not Rousseau, whose artificial utopias in writhing foliage make him a very close cousin?). But, more compellingly, there are other overarching themes that appear, vanish, and reappear, with theme-and-variation changes of hue and saturation. One particularly interesting and persuasive theme offers a number of mechanical images—drawn from Watteau’s time—when mechanics were primarily executed through wood and wire, string and hinges, in imitation of the workings of the human body. Perl begins seeding the clouds for this theme in the first pages of his Introduction: he writes of a figure in one of Watteau’s paintings that it “is a splendidly absurd mechanism dedicated to the idea of human feeling.” Later, at K, “Kleist,” the marionette returns, as a symbol of spiritual purity. Perl walks us through the steps that led Kleist to embrace this paradox. He had a conversation with a dancer who was watching a marionette show, and the dancer explained that for him the puppets had an extraordinary grace,

And this grace, strangely enough, derived from the mechanics of the puppetry, from the extent to which the puppeteer, by holding and moving the strings, gave the dancing wooden limbs a powerful inevitability—a center of gravity, a geometric elegance. Somehow, the artificiality of the marionette's movements, entirely controlled by a few strings, mostly in fact by one central string, suggested a dance stripped of all the self-consciousness and egotism that absorbed the human dancer.

Perl sees Watteau’s figures as being possessed of this same grace, because he was able to “break with the representational image, so that his sketchbooks finally became a sort of improvised anatomy from which he carpentered these figures that amount to wonderful theatrical toys.” And so Kleist’s and Perl’s logic leads us inexorably to the conclusion that Watteau’s carpentered figures are full of grace.

But what of Perl’s own carpentered, improvised figure—this book? Can a writer be (as Perl describes such moments in daily life) “quite simply, transparently there?” I think this is why he chose the alphabetic structure: in another seeming paradox, its artificiality allows him to be very much present with minimal self-consciousness, and this gives the book an underlying strength. In the end, Perl’s book is yet another “splendidly absurd mechanism dedicated to the idea of human feeling,” like his beloved subject’s work.

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VOICES FROM THE NORTH: New Writing from Norway

edited by Vigdis Ofte & Steinar Sivertsen
translated by John Irons, James Anderson, Deborah Dawkin, Erik Skuggevik, Ren Powell, Don Bartlett, and May-Brit Akerholt
The Maia Press / Dufour ($21.95)

by Poul Houe

The early 1990s saw the publication of such titles as Gillian Tindall’sCountries of the Mind: The Meaning of Place to Writers and James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape; their cover texts describe Tindall as “concerned with the relationship between place and personal identity,” and Kunstler as tracing “America’s evolution from a nation of Main Streets and coherent communities to a land where every place is like no place in particular.” In 1995 Gary Eberle issued a small volume with the same title as Kunstler’s, though with the subtitle Finding One’s Self in the Postmodern World. And Gaston Bachelard’s “classic look at how we experience intimate places,” The Poetics of Space, first issued in Paris 1958, found new audiences due to its reissue in the ‘90s. Enough said to suggest a mental trajectory from a modern geography of somewhere—specific places for self-identification—to a postmodern geography of nowhere—full-blown absences for self-displacement.

Voices from the North, anthologizing “New Writing from Norway,” is supported by NORLA (Norwegian Literature Abroad) on the occasion of the city of Stavanger’s selection to European Capital of Culture 2008. Its aim is “to give authors from Rogaland [the county including Stavanger] in Norway the chance to be read in the English-language book market. Rogaland has fostered many great authors, and the 1990s in particular was a long golden age for the region, during which all the writers included here published their first works.” In fact, the anthology interjects itself between the geographies of somewhere and nowhere to which this decade was beholden worldwide. These are, then, texts in which seven contemporary authors render their Stavanger and its environs present or absent.

Editor Steinar Sivertsen’s introduction reminds us that Stavanger was once home to three canonical Norwegian writers: the “European Arne Garborg (1851-1924); the realistic short-story writer, novelist and social agitator Alexander L. Kielland (1849-1906), and the neo-romantic modernist Sigbjørn Obstfelder (1866-1900).” It’s a useful reminder that yesteryear’s literary masters were a no less diverse group than the anthologized (and amply characterized) authors at hand.

The actual opening text, following the editorial introduction, is by Kjartan Fløgstad, by far the most famous among the seven voices speaking from the anthology’s pages. His “A White Wooden City on the North Sea,” at once autobiographical, topographical, and historical, harks back to Kielland, whoseGarman & Worse became the indispensable pre-text for Thomas Mann’s classical novel Buddenbrooks. (Much seems to indicate that T.S. Eliot’s assertion, cited elsewhere, pertains to Mann: “The minor poet borrows; the major poet steals.”)

Of the coastal town itself, Fløgstad writes: “Before it became the Norwegian oil capital, Stavanger was the sardine city, a name which is distinctly disingenuous as the catches that created this wealth were not of sardines, but brisling. . . . Stavanger and its hinterland was, and perhaps still is, the blackest part of the Norwegian Bible Belt. The county of Rogaland and the area around the city are known as the Dark Continent. . . . Because of the discovery of oil, the Sea’s Silver was replaced about 1970 with Black Gold.”

So, a place with a dark past has become one with a bright black future. According to Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Norway is “a mixture of museum and futuristic laboratory.” To which Fløgstad adds: “The model Norwegian of today is an oil worker and a smallholder, both at the same time.” No less intertwined in literature are fantasy and realism, which Fløgstad regards as “the same thing.” True or false? Well, it’s certainly fleeting, and ever more fleeting! Altogether, Fløgstad’s six colleagues demonstrate six telling versions of this “fleeting.”

Johan Harstad writes in “Overview” about a young man who finds little time to visit his dying father but much time to arrange an all-encompassing to do list including the funeral arrangements. Both this and the next Harstad story end with an ambulance speeding by or colliding head-on. Death in the form of deadly silence also marks chapters from a novel by Tore Renberg, where evidence of outright family violence nearly drowns intimations of other transgressions; that the ultimate silence attempted by the victims becomes speaking is owing to Renberg’s craft.

While this dysfunctional order is homesteaded in Stavanger, Sigmund Jensen’s chapters from an ambitious cosmological novel conclude with murderous scenes of slaughter on the banks of the Ganges river. Conversely, chapters from Einar O. Risa’s biographical novel about the Dano-Norwegian painter P. S. Krøyer bring us back to Stavanger. Yet, Krøyer was both nationally and existentially divided, with his mother in town and his foster mother in Denmark; moreover, a chapter from Risa's novel I Don’t Go Out Any More, I Hover Over the City is literally all over the place.

Another transient return to Stavanger ensues in Øyvind Rimbereid’s topographic poetry: “Practically everything I’ve experienced, I’ve experienced / here / or in a geography not far removed. The landscape / and the city crisscrossed in each other / and in me and my friends. As if all of / us were enclosed in / all this openness. / But nothing outside?” This final (rhetorical) question gets answered in sections from the author’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel (and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film) Solaris, in which, anno 2480, “Stavanger has merged with the neighbouring town of Sandnes,” while the language spoken is “a hybrid . . . of most of the languages to be found round the North Sea today.”

Most wide-ranging among these voices from the North is that of Torild Wardenær, whose prose poems conclude the volume with an impressive tour de force, but also an exercise in name-dropping across a vast terrain of science and metaphysics, of “everyday life, nature, geography, history, philosophy, imagination and the dream.” Perhaps the simplest part is a one-page collage reeling off a number of human anatomy’s soft spots besieged by an endless number of names, entirely in capital letters, of murderous weaponry, hard power, from all of human history. The implied message is hardly subtle, unlike such elusive texts as “Fifth metaphysical excursion” and “I am fixing my karma.”

In the best of these works Stavanger’s literal presence is no stronger than its virtual presence—and literal absence—as a springboard for transcendental moves in Norwegian sensibilities around 2000. The fleeting confluence of which Fløgstad spoke may be one where geographies of somewhere and nowhere conjointly evoke an elsewhere.

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