James Elkins, Chicago-based art historian and professor in art history, theory, and criticism at SAIC, is no longer writing art history. Or rather, what I should say is this: James Elkins is no longer writing art history as of December 2014. That’s the date given on his website where Elkins has published the news of his departure from art history. Elkins explains that he will be finishing all of his in-progress art history writing by the fall of 2015 (hopefully) in order to move on to his next project: an experimental novel written with images. This novel is a stepping-stone in Elkins’s larger writing practice. He has been working on a 500-page novel for the last five years that includes 150 of its own photographs and diagrams. So, not a novel written with images, but a novel that includes images. (This is an important distinction for Elkins, which will be made clear later on).
A successful art historian ceasing to write art history might seem radical or poetic or some combination of the two, but for those who have been following Elkins’s work, nothing could be appear more natural or truly Elkins-esque. Elkins’s methodological approach to art history moves like a kind of spider, legs mad-dashing over every contour and ebb of a field. His curiosity is roving, intermingling, and cumulative. His 2004 book Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front Of Paintings is emblematic of this style in its thorough chronicling not just of people crying in front of paintings, but also in its history of the fraught entanglements of emotions and vulnerability.
Elkins’s research interests are also pedagogic, meaning that for as much as he’s interested in art objects, he’s also interested in the ways we talk and think about art objects. This often positions Elkins at the boundaries and thresholds between fields. His art historical perspective in these cases is one of an outsider looking in. Elkins’s margin-haunting makes for a lot of creativity in his writing style. Many might already be familiar with Elkins from his “live writing project,” for which Elkins posts online draft chapters of four different books he’s currently working on and people are invited to contribute. As he explains, “The idea is to expose the writing while it’s in process, instead of working until it’s presentable or finished. Absolutely all comments, suggestions, and criticism are welcome. . . . All contributors to the book will be mentioned and thanked in print.”
But James Elkins is no longer writing art history. Instead he’s entering a new phase of writing and research where he’s writing about writing. And not just any writing or all types of writing or one type of writing, but a writing that, in one way, has nothing at all to do with writing: it is a writing that happens with images, but is not art historical. What does an art historian no longer writing art history want to know about images that write and writing with images? We caught up with Elkins to find out.
In the interview to follow, Elkins gives us his take on books (it’s a sweeping survey), writing (it doesn’t have to be good, and it doesn’t have to be correct), and how to interrupt your writing with pictures (spoiler: someone needs to be dreaming).
Nicole Sansone: As an art historian you often seem to write not just about art objects, but around art objects — as if you’re standing on a periphery looking in. How has this been useful?
James Elkins: It was helpful for me to stop worrying about the truth content of the art historical or art critical or theoretical writing, and to start paying attention to the ways that it was making these claims. That was helpful because that’s the essential first move that you have to make if you’re going to pay attention to writing.
I have published art historical essays on art practices, artists, and artworks, but not for a long time. I’ve been writing more on the way that claims are made in art history, theory, and criticism. It’s not only a theory of art history I’m interested in, but also in observing the way that people write these theories about art history. I take myself several removes, in terms of judgment, away from the things that people are arguing about, so I often don’t have stakes directly in current arguments either about artist practices, styles, periods, or even about methodologies. I am more interested in observing the clash between methodologies of writing about art than I am interested in trying to figure out who’s, quote unquote, best.
I know that’s not a direct answer to the question that you asked, but if you don’t step back a little bit like that then you can never make a good accounting of what counts as writing and argument in the discipline. In art history, in particular, there’s kind of an allergic reaction against saying what you think is beautiful, good, or of quality, because those are aesthetic judgments and they take place in an area outside of historical understanding. They might be trans-historical, they might be subjective, or they might be idiosyncratic or solipsistic, but aesthetic judgments as such are not part, in that direct way, of the project of art history or art theory.
But: they’re necessary for art history. They make sense of the discipline because the discipline is always about judgment and valuing one thing over another. So the farther back from those things that it’s possible to go, the more clearly it’s possible, I think, to see the effects of the unexpressed judgments, evaluations, and preferences of art historians. Or to put it in a non-academic way: it’s easier to see what they like. You could see the effects of their liking in the prose, in ways that you couldn’t otherwise.
You’ve said in other interviews that you think that writing has been hugely under-theorized, and particularly on the side of art history. What would you like to see happen, and what kind of theories would you like to see emerge about writing?
Hmm . . . let me first say why I make this sort of claim, because it can be easily misrepresented. It’s a pedagogic claim. What concerns me is if you train to write about art, art history, theory, criticism — if you train especially in a university setting, although this can be generalized, the talk about writing is tremendously impoverished and limited fundamentally to the idea of clarity. And that is generalizable way beyond art history.
There’s this scientist Steven Pinker who just wrote this book about writing clearly, and he was presenting this material along with Ian McEwan — there’s a video on YouTube of this exchange. Ian McEwan was very nice to him and didn’t see what he was saying about writing as any sort of threat because Pinker really is a neophyte slash philistine when it comes to fiction. At one point the opening line of Pride and Prejudice came up and he ascribed it to, I forget, Dickens or something like that [laughs] and Ian McEwan kind of shrugged it off.
So that part of it was ok, but the content of the book and what Pinker is talking about is absolutely not compatible with the kind of thing that I care about. His purview is all of science — he doesn’t say exactly where the limits of his critique go, but his idea is that people should try to write more clearly and write in a jargon-free way, and to avoid complicated sentences. Since Pinker does cognitive psychology, he’s done a fair amount of work on the relevant linguistic and grammatical structures, and he came to that exchange well armed, with all sorts of very obscure grammatical categories that people might want to think about, but the whole thing was aimed at getting, especially scientists, to clarify their own thoughts by writing clearly.
This is all by way of saying that for my critique — I’m just talking about the field I know, but I think it’s widely generalizable to a number of humanities and sciences — the claim would be that, within those fields, what counts as writing — good writing — has only this one set of very narrowly understood properties. It’s usually epitomized with the world “clear,” but I think properly assigned in ancient rhetoric to what was called the plain style. This is in Cicero and you can find it in the other rhetoricians under slightly different names, and the plain style, supposedly, is the optimal use of language, writing as a transparent vehicle of truth.
This is what I mean by saying it’s pedagogic on my part, because when I hear writing mentioned in art history and in a few cases in other disciplines, when teachers say something to their students about it, it’s almost always by way of clearing up the unnecessary jargon and obfuscations. And there’s an implicit equation made between the clarity of language and the clarity of the person’s thinking. You would be able to clean up your own thoughts if only you could express yourself in simpler sentences, that sort of thing. Meanwhile, across the quad as it were, there are literature departments, and these literature departments have very rich and complicated strategies and interpretive methodologies at their disposal that have been developed since New Criticism and before, all the way up through post structuralism. They have a very rich vocabulary that they can bring to bear on writing.
And so that was one of the starting points of this project: how to show people in the humanities, and particularly in art writing, that there is this history that they can draw on and that they don’t have to be restricted to one of the many styles that the classical rhetoricians were interested in, that their writing can still be non-fiction, but can make use of many more resources without ruining its fundamental goal of showing people what the world is, or telling them why Monet is so great, or whatever.
So then it sounds then that you’re trying to advocate for more kinds of writing styles, at least in the humanities, and that it doesn’t have to just be this clear, jargon-free, let me show you my brains kind of writing. You want to see other ways in which meaning can be conveyed.
Yeah, so I am advocating for that, I’m advocating for a richer, more complicated and, I think, more difficult practice of art history, in particular because writing any essay in art history does become much more difficult if you’re aware of the fact that you can bring in these various writing strategems and styles and modes and voices and banners and not ruin your fundamental purpose.
However I’m also kind of agnostic about what actually happens to the discipline as such. I’m not advocating for an infusion in and for art history. I would be advocating for making any number of people’s lives harder and then they can continue to call themselves art historians or whatever they wanted to. It becomes more interesting, more challenging, in that way.
Can you tell us more about the Writing With Images project?
In my mind it’s a target metaphor. The bullseye of the target is old-fashioned art history, whatever that is — and I would absolutely refuse to get into a discussion about what it is, but everyone knows it! [laughs] Everyone knows it when they see it. So that’s the bullseye. And as you move out from it there’s experimental writing, like Alex Nemerov, which still counts as art history, Leo Steinberg and so on, experimental in his own way.
And as you move out, say another circle, you end up with texts that are ambiguously art history and not art history. My principle examples of those are mostly French post-structuralists: [Jacques] Derrida has written on photography and he’s written on painting, and [Michel] Foucault has a famous analysis of [Diego] Velázquez’s Las Meninas that everyone has to read; Hélène Cixous has written on painting and other things. So, people like that are assigned in art history seminars. They’re required reading but they don’t count as art history. They count for art history. They are a great example of what they used to call liminal cases: they’re hybrids. They’re not quite art history but they’re indispensible for what art history and theory thinks that it is.
If you continue out, the next concentric circle would be writing that has artworks in it that are real world artworks but doesn’t present itself as non-fiction. And there are many examples of that: recently there’s a new novel by Ben Lerner, 10:04, that’s just out like six months ago, and it has some real artworks in it, including the movie Back to the Future, but also fine art, paintings, stuff like that. Donna Tartt’s book The Goldfinch has a real painting by Carel Fabritius as its sort of centerpiece, central image. You could go back to Proust where he writes about [Johannes] Vermeer’s View of Delft, one of his characters, so it’s a real art object but in a fictional setting.
Those inner rings are part of a project that I call “experimental writing in art history,” or “what is interesting writing in art history.” That’s a website and there’s literally a book worth of information on that website, readings of texts.
The other website would be the next rings out. I call that “Writing With Images.” And that’s when the writing doesn’t necessarily present itself as non-fiction, probably it presents itself as fiction, and the images are not necessarily art. I have a couple of rules of thumb for what counts as an example of writing with images. One of them is that the prose should be continuous, and that’s an arbitrary rule that I set for myself because if I don’t require that then I can start talking about all kinds of other things, like artist books.
I’m interested in, first of all, continuous prose; second, that there should be physical images in the texts and not ekphrases, not prose descriptions or evocations but actual images, and that’s again because there’s a big theory of ekphrasis about the evocation of images in literature. I would like to keep that for a while to one side so that I can have a chance to theorize this field, and then go in to that other — that’s a big, wider field.
And the third rule of thumb is that the images should not have captions, and that there should be no call outs in the text — so no interrupting saying see figure fourteen. And nothing under the image that says the author, the date, and the copyright holder, because those are markers of scholarly non-fiction prose.
So these are three rules of thumb and if you set those as rules you find, I discovered, an enormous unexplored territory which I’m still calling writing with images. The only other person who’s studying this actively is a guy named Terry Pitts and he has two bibliographies online. He hasn’t written much on them yet — he writes brief entries sometimes, but he hasn’t written any books, and he’s not theorizing them. He calls them embedded images, which I think is a terrible metaphor because if you’re a journalist writing you go with soldiers and you’re embedded with the troops. Don’t want to have anything to do with that metaphor! I’ve tried to convince him, but he’s already called them that.
Other than the two of us, almost nothing. It’s not a field that presents itself as a field except people who are interested in [W.G.] Sebald. In Sebald there are a lot of them, and there have been a lot of conferences and a lot of books on how he deals with images, and he’s had a lot of influence on contemporary writers. There are a lot of people influenced by Sebald, Jesse Ball and Jonathan Safran Foer, so there are people who study Sebald and the influence of Sebald on contemporary novelists who are interested in using images. That’s out there.
But that is a tiny, tiny part of this huge unexplored region, as far as I’m concerned, because the history of it starts in the late 19th century with Georges Rodenbach and a novel called Bruges-La-Morte, Bruges the dead, the dead city of Bruges. It’s a fabulous, symbolist novel, about an aristocrat whose wife has died and he’s in such a deep state of nuerasthenic mourning that walking around Bruges he sees his dead wife in every building and as the city itself. So thehyphenated title, Bruges-La-Morte, is kind of like an amalgam, my dead wife is the city. And it’s illustrated with photographs that he got from professional services that did things like post cards, mostly empty streets of Bruges, and when you see these you see his dead wife. I won’t give away the ending — it’s stupid! [laughs] He falls in love with the woman who reminds him of his wife, and . . . there is an indirect line of influence from that book to Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Anyway, that book is the beginning of this tradition. It’s the first fiction that was designed with photographs in it. There’s a longer history of illustrated books going back through the 18th century where novels had images, but they weren’t planned to have the images, so this is the first one. And then the usual next stopping point is André Breton, the surrealist, who wrote two novels with images — Nadja is the one that is more interesting from this point of view because it’s also about a love affair with this woman Nadja. A lot of people who have commented on it have doubted she existed, which is quite a sexist assumption to have made. It turns out she did exist, and the drawings that are in the book Nadja are actually drawn by this woman, Nadja, who wrote him [Bréton] letters, that are still around. [chuckles] So sad to say for all the people who thought that Bréton was hallucinating — he wasn’t hallucinating.
And so then from Bréton this history usually goes to Sebald. There’s a problem, though. There are two big problems. The first probably is that Bréton probably never saw Bruges-La-Morte in its illustrated version, so he couldn’t have been inspired by it. He probably saw an un-illustrated version of it, though that’s not known for sure. The first problem with this is the history.
The second problem is these two or three hundred odd books that carry bits he’s collected are very often reinventions of the wheel. The majority of these books on [Pitts’s] list are by people who didn’t know any of these people I’ve mentioned, and just thought they were the first novelist ever to put photographs or drawings into their novels. History is discontinuous and multiple, it happens again and again in many different places and different ways, which makes it even more interesting because there are many absolutely independent books that are kind of masterpieces in their own right, and they belong to a tradition of one. So there’s an American author, Wright Morris, and his book is called The Home Place. Absolutely spectacular book, with his own photographs in it, and they behave differently than photographs in any of the other novelists’ books do.
Is there a kind of cohesion amongst these authors, even though they’re all I’m the first one to do this! ?
Very often they think they’re the first, they think they’re the only one. I’m not going to do a statistical counting, but my hunch is that any time after [pauses] maybe the nineteen-nineties, from that point on, it’s not possible to embark on this kind of project without knowing Sebald. Everyone who starts on it has heard of that.
So the history is now congealing, but if you go back before, even the 1980s and definitely the 60s and 70s and before then, Sebald hadn’t started doing these kinds of novels. Then you don’t really have a history, the subject exists as a philosophic category, you might say, defined in the way that I’m defining it, and so certain things fall within that definition and other things don’t. You can, and people have, thought of this in a more expansive way, and if you do that you can include medieval manuscripts, you can include Aztec codices — I mean, there’s no limit.
My self-imposed limitations, my rules of thumb, are really just because I like to theorize the ways that images can work and I’m trying to start with the simplest case, or maybe the central case, which would be fiction, i.e. the novel. So just to give you, in a line, the kind of theorization I’m trying for: the simplest thing you can do as a writer, if you want to put a photograph in, is to have your photograph be something the narrator sees. The second simplest thing would be something the narrator remembers. But then already you’re in a very interesting, different place, because then you’re asking your readers to ask themselves: does the narrator have photographic memory? Am I looking into the narrator’s brain? Or is this the author showing me a photograph that the narrator saw? So from that one example you see that’s just the beginning, that from there it ramifies, it gets more and more and more complicated.
I’ve found in my own writing project that it’s possible to do something I didn’t think was possible because I never saw any examples of it, and that is photographs can stand for things the narrator dreams. So the narrator’s not even conscious, but it turns out, I think, that you can pull this off, because the prose — everything depends on how you describe the pictures. Can you get your reader to suspend their disbelief and say, OK, I’m in a dreaming mind at the moment, and this is what the mind is dreaming? If you can do that then a photograph can work and have no evidentiary function.
Is there an example of a book or author that does that in a particularly good way?
There’s only a single example that I’m aware of in the whole literature so far, there’s one image in a Sebald novel which is presented as having been dreamed. And actually that’s a very highly manipulated postcard where he took a piece of black paper and stuck it over the part he didn’t want you to see. That’s been figured out — there’s a woman, Lise Patt, who’s an artist and a scholar and she’s written about Sebald, and she’s followed his tracks and she’s tried to duplicate his photographs and one of the things she’s found out about this is where he got the post card, what the post card looked like. So that single example, even though it seems like it could never work, because it was a post card, because it was clearly manipulated by the writer and not even the narrator, still works perfectly! I haven’t seen anyone, no critic that I’ve found, who has objected and said, “Well I can’t believe this is a dream image! How am I supposed to believe a silly thing like that?” It actually works fine. This also could have repercussions for people who are interested in theorizing photography because it takes away the reality function of photography, or it shows that you can subtract away that function.
So, what are your favorite pieces of writing? What are your favorite kinds of writing?
Are we talking nonfiction here or are we talking . . .
Whatever you’d like to give me!
I’m curious! You’re a person who thinks and studies and writes about writing a lot. What do you like?
I can answer that in different categories and groups. I have several favorites. In terms of fiction, I’m hopelessly addicted to Thomas Bernhard, I can’t seem to stop reading Thomas Bernhard. The wilder and crazier and less happy he gets, the happier I get. The more he hates everyone around him, the more I love it.
As a kind of antidote to other sorts of modernism, I’m still very interested in many kinds of constrained writing. I find that people like Kenny Goldsmith are more interesting for the decisions they make than the works they produce, if I can put it irresponsibly in that short of an encompass. But there are many counter examples of that, even in things like Flarf and those sorts of things, and glitch art.
I think maybe if I had to name one person it would be Tan Lin. His practices are very provocative in terms of the question of words and images, because the way he combines them is so different from the ways that practically every other novelist who’s written with images before him has tried to combine words and images. He’s interested in the way we sort of skim and scan distractedly, and he’s willing to propose a block of text and an image as a thing that should be not paid attention to, and he’s willing to theorize that in such a way that you might not pay attention to him theorizing it. So, I like that.
To switch gears, though, in terms of experimental writing on art, there are a couple of interesting people these days. Leo Steinberg, who’s recently died. He had a kind of preternatural command of English. It wasn’t his first language, he’s like Nabokov, he learned his English out of Russian, and like Nabokov, he knew more words than most humans know. He was always right about the way he used every word. It creates the kind of artificial, crystalline perfection in the prose that has again not been talked about in any interesting way in art history. It has an affective and expressive charge that a lot of people don’t notice.
A genuine contemporary person who’s still alive who I really like is Alexander Nemerov, who taught at Yale [Nemerov is now at Stanford]. He comes from a literary family, so that’s Howard Nemerov, Sylvia Plath, and all the rest. And he knows it, he exhibits it, and he experiments with it. He writes these essays that chain together things that don’t seem to belong together at all. The one that I ended up writing about for my class which is on my website links a painting by [Hans] Holbein with a poem by Auden, and paintings by [Jackson] Pollack and many other things. And sometimes you can’t follow it and believe it, and other times . . . it’s like a roller coaster, and you might make it and you might not. The whole thing is chained together by kind of a sense of prose, which I think he gets from people like, well, like Howard Nemerov, he gets them from mid-century prose stylists — for better or worse. I’m not uncritical of this practice, but it’s an extremely interesting practice, very personal, and yet still counts as art history.
I’ll give you one more example that many of your readers won’t know, and that’s Carol Mavor. I think she’s at Middlesex? [Mavor is currently a Professor in Visual Arts at the University of Manchester.] She’s American but she’s moved to England. So she writes ostensibly on 19th and 20th century photography. She’s self-described, as they say, as an art historian. But her work is deeply personal, and full of first-person pronouns and personal reminiscences and associations. Her main sort of lodestar is Roland Barthes, so she’s thinking of him for the license to write freely — that’s where it comes from. And the result is texts that are kind of brilliant and wonderful, but can’t always be used as art history. They’re too personal, in a way. They’ve crossed some sort of boundary. They could work as memoirs — they do, for some people. But their disciplinary affiliation is still non-fiction history.
And what about your fiction writing project?
The general reaction among art historians is that basically it’s a stupid idea and it’s not necessary, and why would you want to waste your time, basically — they don’t say this — why would you want to waste your life writing fiction, not to mention reading fiction? [laughs]
Yeah, really! That’s academia for you, because there’s a truth commitment, you know . . . I didn’t used to think of people in the humanities quite that way, I thought maybe scientists would be that way.
There’s another side to this, too: novelists almost always try really hard to get their science right. The science in their novels. Jeffrey Eugenides was in the New York Times some time last year kind of boasting about this in relation to his new novel, all the science research he had done. Martin Powers, who is a novelist that I like, does huge amounts of research and he gets his science right. But, if you think about that — why? Not only why would they bother, why wouldn’t they think it was incumbent on them to actually invent necessary parts of science? As an abstract question, as a philosophic question, if you’re making a fictional universe, why is science exempted?
Nicole Sansone is a freelance writer, art consultant, and curator based in London and New York. She previously served as the Assistant Curator of General Electric’s corporate art collection and as Assistant Curator & Art Advisor for international art advisors & curatorial services firm g a macura inc. Currently Nicole is a PhD researcher at Goldsmiths’ Centre for Cultural Studies, a curator at IMT Gallery, and editor at Fungiculture Journal.