In his book Toward Reality, John Berger says the ideal critic would have “the historical perspective necessary” and “the imaginative appreciation necessary” to see outside one’s moment, the power to stand on the corner of the present and look both ways, assess one’s position in relation to traffic. “But in fact it is impossible.” All the critic can do is look, with painfully inadequate and subjective eyes, at the present. To see the opposite corner, look into it, understand it, and walk towards it without being flattened. And art is a busy street.
Trinie Dalton writes criticism, interviews artists, writes books of fiction, and spearheads artist books, including You Who Read Me with Passion Must Forever Be My Friends by visual and textual artist Dorothy Iannone, out recently from Siglio Press. Dalton exercises a malleable approach to her critical writing, working from ‘the inside,’ articulating the work of artists she knows. She sidesteps the need for speculation by transforming conversations with friends into critical work. But the worries of time, of faithfulness, of the need to be ‘critical,’ don’t abate. For her, criticism is a question of who gets to speak, and the ethical dilemma of having a voice.
Ianonne coined the term ‘ecstatic unity’ to define her artistic practice, and in her essay on Iannone, Dalton elucidates the concept, defining it as an “inversion (& merging) of male and female, muse and maker, sacred and profane, celestial and carnal, submission and dominance, compliment and insult, humor and earnestness,” which could just as easily apply to the chameleon work of the critic. To look at something and keep looking is an endurance test, a cross examination, sensual act, a merging of identities, a hilarious way to spend an afternoon, a leap of faith.
– Patrick Gaughan
Patrick Gaughan: So in your essay about Iannone’s work you talk about how its visual and textual aspects “accommodate the failures” of each other, and I was wondering if that balance applies to art criticism as well? Does art need the art label, to be contextualized, as much as the critic needs the artist’s work: do they accommodate each other’s failures?
Trinie Dalton: The artist and critic don’t need each other. They’re independent entities making stuff in the world. The critic, while theoretically dependent on finding topics to discuss, can always locate subject matter, even through self-reflexivity if need be. Critics who are real artists maintain a writing practice no matter what. It’s nice when art + crit come together to create cross-dialogues but it’s not a requirement.
PG: I have this idea that artists who don’t also write criticism don’t ‘get’ us.
TD: Some artists think that criticism is a sucker fish. I feel that’s oversimplified—that is to say, I think bad criticism is a sucker fish—but interesting, well written criticism can really expand ways of seeing, document, archive, shift conversation, cross-pollinate communities. It just depends.
PG: With a book like Iannone’s, where you’re helping someone (Lisa Pearson) edit a book of someone else’s work, writing the accompanying essay, what is your role, your job? To contextualize her properly? To be faithful? It seems like a tall order to communicate someone else’s intentions accurately.
TD: I don’t see myself as a spokesperson for Dorothy. There are different roles in criticism, different functions. I’m a critic who’s uncomfortable with writing that works from the outside. In other words, criticism that takes an external perspective on the artwork and critiques it. I understand the politics of that and how it happened historically, but I’m not that kind of critic. I’m most interested in using words to help people find ways to articulate their own practice. I don’t do many short form reviews anymore for that reason. I’ll do interviews; I’ll do long form essays full of quotes from the artist, but I’m very skeptical about criticism that doesn’t let the artists speak for themselves. It buys into a hierarchical system and power structure that takes agency away from the artist.
PG: So when working closely with an artist, like Iannone, how did you strike the balance between your words and her words?
TD: It’s tricky. When I’m traveling and promoting her work I’m reluctant to put words into her mouth, to say, ‘Dorothy thinks this or that,’ but I’m happy to expose the work to people who don’t know it. That’s a pretty innocent thing: to share something you love. So it’s more about the role of criticism as exposure for the artwork rather than the judgmental part of it.
PG: So for you, criticism is less about communicating your own experience and more about getting the artist’s ideas ‘right.’
TD: I come from a background of fiction writing and poetry, and started writing about art out of frustration with misrepresentation. I had all these friends getting press who would be grossly misquoted in magazines. Critics who never met any of us would write about the work and contextualize it totally wrong. So I had to take it back and contextualize it the right way. To me, the whole art form is about debating and having a conversation on the page.
PG: What happens when the conversation extends past that particular artist’s work? I’ve been doing these pieces that are ‘about’ one thing, ‘about’ one person’s work, but then I pull in all these other cultural objects that I feel relate to it. I feel like I’m making them sucker-fish.
TD: I think providing a context is valuable stuff, but it depends on how you do it. Every critic has to deal with those ethics. It’s kind of the fun.
PG: I’m curious how you write ‘from the inside,’ when Dorothy or whomever you’re working with is reading drafts. I have this hilarious image in my head of you typing away with her leaning over your shoulder: ‘Trinie, you know I wouldn’t say it like that!’
TD: I want to make sure the artists agree with what’s being said about their work. That said, it does make it a lot harder! It took me a long-ass time to write that Dorothy essay: I dealt with all kinds of personal fear and anxieties because I didn’t want to get it wrong. The second you’re working with an artist, it’s a dubious thing, because inevitably they’ll say, ‘I don’t like this part, you should change it’ and it becomes fourteen times more difficult to make the piece, but at the end you have something that you and the artist can be proud of and feel that it’s right. That’s pretty much the only criticism I do now: catalog essays like this.
PG: But I’ve also read some of your micro reviews in Artforum.
TD: I won’t take assignments to slam stuff. With Artforum and Bookforum, I was selective about assignments. I tend to only want to spend time with stuff that I’m interested in thinking about or looking at or reading. I don’t really want to spend time going around to galleries and hating everything and writing about how much I hate it. Why would you want to spend your time doing that? Some people really love that level of critique. It’s the way they dialogue, and I get that, but I’m not that kind of critic.
PG: Do you get flack for that? For not ‘hating?’
TD: Yes, because if you only write about things you love, it can be difficult to be articulate about them. Criticism is a form of prose and there needs to be drama for the piece to work. It can’t just be effusive praise all the time. That doesn’t always produce a good text, and I know criticism really revolves around those moments of tension and conflict. And ethically, it’s important and interesting to address problematic issues and aesthetics.
PG: So is judgement the way to crank up the drama? I’ve been trying to articulate the building blocks of criticism and found this art criticism lesson plan / checklist that breaks it into 4 parts: Description, Analysis, Interpretation, and Judgement. From the judgement section: “Judging a piece of work means giving it rank in relation to other works and of course considering a very important aspect of the visual arts: its originality.” Even though I do it, it freaks me out: lowering the gavel on something. Is passing judgement an essential part of criticism?
TD: This is an interesting syllabus and I’d pretty much agree with the criteria and definitions but it’s not a fixed formula that everyone has to include every component. I’m not against judgment at all, rather feel judgment can be defined by each individual. For example, limiting the discussion to “good/bad” is pretty 101, whereas comparative analysis to determine “values” of an artwork is crucial—one of the main intriguing challenges of writing about art.
PG: And how does that relate to deeming something ‘original’ or not?
TD: Some people value originality highly while others don’t even believe originality is possible, so again it’s about locating and articulating where you sit on the spectrum. It’s up to the critic to voice their position on such things. When I’m teaching, I notice that most young critics are reluctant to voice their opinions in any emphatic way because they lack confidence or they haven’t learned how to articulate those opinions yet on the page. In revisions, I almost always ask students to insert their opinions up front, and more clearly throughout. This goes back to civil rights, queer rights, and feminism for example—making your voice heard. I write because I want to have a voice. In critical writing, the personal is political. Therefore, I feel it’s important for the position of the critic to be clear. If I’m going to take an opinion seriously I want to understand where that opinion is coming from. Is the critic full of ego and base judgment, or is the critic trying to elucidate and enhance aesthetic and social dialogues? If I can’t tell where the critic “sits” in their work, I feel suspicious.
PG: I just finished this book Let’s Talk Love About Love, in which the critic Carl Wilson investigates and questions his reactions to Celine Dion. It does a great job of articulating ‘hate.’
TD: (laughs) I don’t know that one but it sounds fun.
PG: Oh, it’s incredible. And I think it relates to when you were talking about not wanting to spend your time ‘hating’ in galleries. By devoting so much time to researching and analyzing Dion’s work, Wilson realizes he doesn’t hate her or her work at all, that his hate has to do with surface reading, social capital, and negative cultural associations. Basically, the more time one spends with something, the harder it is to hate.
TD: Yeah, that’s true – so you know exactly what I meant when I was talking about deciding ethically what role you play as critic. Say Bookforum mails you a book and you think, ‘I don’t want to read this book. This book SUCKS.’ Then you start reading it and all these other factors enter in. You think, ‘Okay, maybe I’m not personally relating to it but it is interesting for such-and-such-a- reason.’ It becomes complicated instantly. Criticism, if anything, is about dedicating yourself to thinking about something, to paying attention on a deep level.
PG: And I’ve learned I can pick and choose within the work. If I have ‘hate’ or a lack of personal connection to a whole book or a whole exhibition, I’m at least drawn to a few things, maybe three, that I like, that jump out at me, and I work from there.
TD: That’s true. Do you know Wayne Koestenbaum’s writing?
PG: I loooove Wayne Koestenbaum.
TD: Yeah, me too. Earlier, you were talking about writing that’s about an artwork or a way of thinking, but then weaving other elements into it. He’s really good at that. I think it also relates to you mentioning failure, and acknowledging the space for failure between two opposing factors. Failure is part of his style and he’s really good at creating a space to bounce ideas, aesthetics, and things in the world back and forth while also creating his own space in the text to have opinions. It’s an interesting mode of critique. It’s fun.
PG: It’s so fun: admitting the failure of criticism to achieve some holistic view of a work. I’m interested in allowing the space for associational or lateral thinking within criticism. Expose the subjectivity. My favorite parts of Koestenbaum’s work are the associations, the personal anecdotes. He’ll be dealing with his ‘subject,’ and then this odd sexual exploit will drop out of the sky.
TD: And that seems more realistic to me! That’s how Dorothy’s work is: she depicts sex; so what? Who isn’t thinking about that? It’s false to pretend that you’re not as a critic. It’s such a fake stance, to pretend you’re pontificating about everything and never had a thought about sex in your life. It’s so unrealistic to me.
Trinie Dalton is author of six books. Her newest art writing includes texts in monographs for David Altmejd (Damiani), Laura Owens (Rizzoli), two for Dorothy Iannone (Siglio and Berlinische Galerie/Kerber Verlag), and Anna Sew Hoy (Oslo Editions). She is Faculty Director of the MFA in Writing and Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Core Faculty in Fiction in VCFA’s low-residency writing program. Dalton also recently taught at Art Center College of Design, University of Southern California, and in the MFA in Art Criticism & Writing program at School of Visual Arts.
Patrick Gaughan is a poet, performer, and critic in 21st Century America. Find recent writing in Poor Claudia, Howlround, Blunderbuss, and Entropy. He curates a field recording archive called #TheTapeRoll. He’s a member of the Connecticut River Valley Poets’ Theater (CRVPT), and writer/director of the play FAST FIVE. [twitter] [tumblr]