Genres High and Low (2010)

A paper presented at the Banff International Curatorial Institute conference, Are Curators Unprofessional, November 2010. Unpublished.

Genres High and Low

In a conference on curating, we shall be talking about writing on this panel, an important distinction to maintain throughout, even though the one writing is a curator. That the writer is a curator, however, contaminates the writing. Or, at least this seems the set up here, through the thematic structuring of this symposium. Specifically, this theme is proposed by the question put to panelists: “Is curatorial writing the lowest genre of art writing?” Answering, we could play it both ways, playing the symposium’s game: saying yes and no.

I am not averse to taking the low road as a curator by means of a low genre. Initially, however, I would like to concentrate rather on the introduction of value into a genre system—consisting here of art history, art criticism, and curatorial writing—related to each other as superior or inferior forms. This hierarchy recalls a very old rhetoric or, rather, poetic: that of Aristotle’s supposed tripartition of poetic modes into lyric, epic, and dramatic forms. The superiority or inferiority of a genre is adduced from its mimetic content—or thematics: the representation of superior or inferior characters or heroes. (You might recognize here the beginning of a curatorial inferiority complex in our attribution by this conference as inferior beings.) Linking theme to mode, and quoting Gerard Genette, “The superior-dramatic defines tragedy, the superior-narrative defines epic; the inferior-dramatic corresponds to comedy, the inferior-narrative corresponds to a genre that is less clear-cut—one that Aristotle leaves unnamed and illustrates sometimes by … ‘parodies’.” [pp. 12-13 Architexture] Curatorial writing, like curating itself, is a comic affair, I guess, when it is not—its saving grace—parodic. In this sense, parody is a mode still to be defined for curatorial writing in its narrative function—its inferior narrative function, that is.

Obviously, I don’t think it is the intention of the conference organizers to return us to this ancient poetics (and I’ll leave both Aristotle and Genette here) but it is the consequence of the symposium’s question of genres high and low. We leave genre theory but not, however, departing genre itself. Or, I might as well say, we depart from theory by means of genre. Theory does not help but hinder this departure. Here perhaps would account for curatorial writing’s low status—at least as I accept its function today.

Before questioning any implied hierarchy of genres within art writing, I’ll briefly address another question put forward to the panelists: “How does the exhibition catalogue mediate between the work of art and the world?” Well, curatorial writing does not mediate art to the world. It mediates the work of art to a reader, who may in the past have been a viewer, with this mediation taking place, away from the work of art, through language. Writing, though, does not mediate in terms of being transparent to the content of the artwork, conveying its meaning, as if “meaning” were equivalent and translatable. Rather, it simulates the workings of the work of art, operating according to the same principles as the artwork it discusses but in another medium. Simulation is not mediation. To simulate the workings of the work of art, writing must deviate from it—but not only by assuming another medium. To quote myself quoting myself, applying what I originally wrote about Stan Douglas’ artwork to writing itself, “And so while only a repetition, writing is a ‘diverging, dissenting and deviant version’ of the artwork it fully respects.” Respectful, yet diverging … dissenting … deviant? How so?

Here is something about curatorial writing that art history and art criticism cannot apparently do: lie. Lying: What a claim or, rather, what an admission! Rather than “lie,” I prefer, however, to say “dissemble.” Dissembling is something that I learned from Douglas Gordon, or at least from writing on Douglas Gordon: that, for artwork that is all about lying and deception, writing must lie—or prevaricate—in turn. I now believe that dissembling is the whole craft of curatorial writing—at least, for me.

Thus, I identify with the dialogue from Ingmar Bergman’s film The Magician:

“Our whole enterprise is deception,” admits Ingrid Thulin on being discovered that, as a magician’s assistant, she is masquerading as a young man;
“Deception?”,  asks Gunnar Björnstrand, the quasi-persecuting, rationalist doctor, (an art critic one could say);
“Dissimulation, false promises, double bottoms,” adds Thulin as if this should be obvious.

But wait a minute, you say. Isn’t the obligation of any form of critical writing to tell the truth? Surely the responsibility of writing is to be transparent to its referent—here the work of art. Description, analysis, judgement—the stages of writing an exhibition review, for instance—all partake of different regimes of truth. But to tell the truth, or rather, to tell the truth of the work of art, which is another thing altogether, involves other strategies, which sometimes must be those of art itself, not those of some other discipline—even, perhaps, its own! Not every work of art is truthful about itself.

To tell the truth of the work of art, but through another medium, means following its strategies even while deviating from it. To mimic or feign the strategies of an artwork already is to dissemble: to be a fiction. This writing necessarily would—as they say of both art and performative utterances—show, not tell. And whatever is a “statement” within it—purporting to be a description, analysis, or judgement—has to be read otherwise as fictionalized, or at least its context be recognized as fictionalizing. What is this “context” here that inscribes curatorial writing as fictional? And lets it be read so?

For the moment, rather than this context, let’s pass to the level of the individual sentence, looking in turn to the example of fiction, let’s say the novel, to make a few banal observations. In fiction a phrase operates within the context of the whole narrative. Obviously, it does not have an immediately attributable truth-value. (If ever.)  Indeed, its purpose may be to mislead a character … or to mislead the reader. In the end, it may reveal itself as a “true” statement (with an ironic function); but, strategically, here at this moment, it dissembles. We have to conclude that, for the function—and pleasure—of fiction, necessarily there must be dupes both inside and outside the text, that is to say, both characters and readers.

In its place, fiction is an accepted mode. Something automatically cues us to fiction’s status and the function of language within it: the unstated convention of fiction itself, it seems. While fiction is an accepted convention, it is not a convention in art writing. Here is the crux of the problem for a curator using fictional strategies in writing. No one expects it to be so! Yet, without a convention for fiction in art writing, how do you attune readers to a mode of apprehending what they read there? This is the first issue. The second is: How does fiction figure there as another level of interpretation—in fact, the primary one—that would make this seemingly irresponsible enterprise worthwhile?

First issue: In pronouncing the workings of the work of art, this writing cannot announce itself. Just as the individual sentence cannot step outside itself and advertise itself as fiction (admitting perhaps that it is lying), so too the context cannot directly say: what you are about to read is fictionalizing. Here are the two limits of this particular verbal performance, with the second (the context) performing a role as much as the first (the so-called content). Every element in curatorial writing is performative, even what may not be immediately visible.

The first of these subtle markers is genre—not the genre that curatorial writing is itself (if it is a genre) but the genres it adopts and therefore adapts itself to as another form of writing. Genre announces the workings of fiction in writing on art. Everyone knows what I am talking about when I mention genres of fiction: think of noir or pulp fiction and all the markers of that mode. However, in writing, genre itself only works through language, coextensive with it. It shapes our reading more than through just the choice of subject matter—but in its modes of address, its discursive moods, etc.

Genre lends a voice to art writing, a voice which is not that, let’s be clear, of the author named on the cover, a voice that instead is inside the text, not outside it as an authority speaking through the disciplines of art history or art criticism. Genre deviates curatorial writing from its supposed task by allowing it the freedom to be itself as a work of writing. From genre’s initial permission writing must invent itself in dialogue with the work of art, deriving the operational concepts that link the two from language’s own encounter with the procedures and experience of the work of art, not borrowed and applied from some external discipline.

I call this strategy that allies writing to the workings of the art it obliquely “discusses”—fictionally not didactically—interpretation at a remove. Yet it is a primary not secondary level of interpretation in that the writing deals with the strategies not the content of the artwork at hand, by mimicking them and not directly discussing them. Intimately allied to the workings of this particular work of art, this writing is highly idiomatic—idiomatic in the sense that its procedures cannot be theorized and applied or translated to other works of art. Idioms and genres go hand in hand: with a particular genre appropriate to each text. (Note to self on a possible contradiction in the text: Can there be a genre that is idiomatic every time?)

Genre, however, is only one means to announce the fictionalizing strategies of art writing, which it does as a context internal to the text itself. External to the text, but framing it, there is another context that can be deviated as well towards fictional ends—though its mimicry is not necessarily immediately visible as a precise construction and active component of the writing it implicitly announces.

Thus note that the questions to this panel do not discriminate between curatorial writing and the catalogue itself—that is, between a form of writing and a form of publication. Here is an advantage that we possess over critics and historians, who do not control the form of publication as we curators presumably do. But what advantage do we make of it?

If you permit me to quote myself again, in an article I recently published about my books of the past few years, I wrote: “Before writing acknowledges its audience, it addresses its twofold context in performing a double mime. On the one hand, it achieves its voice by silently assuming a genre style. On the other hand, it invisibly inhabits a publication format. For instance, my book Double-Cross: the Hollywood Films of Douglas Gordon was written to read as noir but designed to be a mirror, that is, written to be a mirror of itself through the physical form of a book. Through the double-crossing chiasm of its middle chapter, the second part of the book mirrored the first—like the facing ‘mirrors’ of Gordon’s video installations. But the second half was a dissembling mirror, which, nonetheless, revealed that the first half was a lie, in the process instantiating the two dissembling dimensions of Gordon’s work as verbal lie or visual dissimulation.”

A convention only, typically a publication format is transparent to the writing it presents, but this given, too, can be turned toward fictional ends. Indeed, the full apparatus of publishing can be hijacked for fictional purposes. All publishing conventions can be diverted to interpretation, the book’s mimicking form itself part of the staging of the writing within its covers. Context is as much performative as content. In its adaption of formats, the mimicry of artists’ books has already pointed the way for fifty years.

Finally, we can address another question to the panelists, “What is the difference between criticism, curatorial writing and art history?” There is no necessary reason why, under the genus of art writing, that curatorial writing should be considered its own species apart from art history and art criticism. After all, art critics and art historians publish essays in catalogues that are no different from those of their disciplines, and curators produce essays there indistinguishable from those their counterparts publish elsewhere. Neither context nor training account for any difference of approach or style. Indeed, both art criticism and art history remain models, as there is no curatorial exemplar to follow. Moreover, art criticism and more particularly art history are models in which curators often are already trained. Maybe it is this lack of a model that frees curatorial writing to look elsewhere, right in front of and adjacent to it: to the work of art itself and to fiction.

De-disciplined: call this writing, if you will, unprofessional. De-disciplined, it is not undisciplined, obviously, given its attention to all its performative contexts. But what makes curatorial writing differ from these other disciplines is exactly its lack of an a priori discipline. In this respect, art history and art criticism perhaps are too defining—or confining—in their anxiety to be taken as sciences. That is, the disciplinarity of the discipline rules the writing, first and foremost. Then, secondarily, there is the work of art. In contrast, curatorial writing potentially opens itself to the uncertain indeterminacy in which art presents itself to us. As such, disciplines determine relations to objects (here the artwork) in terms of modes of address: retrospective for art history; prescriptive for art criticism; performative for curatorial writing. Within these modes of address a partial object is configured within a temporal mode. Here is where curatorial writing substantially differs. For art history, art is a fragment used to reconstruct the past: “This is how it was,” it says. For criticism, art is an insufficiency pointing to the future: “This is how it should be,” it says. Yet, in curatorial writing, object and interpretation fuse in a fiction self-invented in the present: “Here it is,” perhaps it only says.

Luckily, as curators we can side with artists and not with a discipline, contaminating our professionalism in this intimacy. Through practice, curators are the closest to artists in the knowledge we possess both of their work and their working processes. Let’s use this knowledge to our advantage, allying ourselves as well to what is free, fluid, and open in what they do. Fiction follows a path to this freedom.