MARCH 22, 2020
CHRISTINA CATHERINE MARTINEZ says that her new collection of essays, Aesthetical Relations, aims to capture what it means to “be a person as an image.” Toeing the line between irony and sincerity, the book participates in a tradition of feminine subjectivity in art criticism while also commenting upon this tradition.
While working as an art writer in Los Angeles, Martinez also pursued a career as a stand-up comic, resulting in an unlikely crossover of disciplines. Many of her essays are titled as gerunds, almost humorous in their simplicity, such as “Reading, Eating, Shopping, Writing.” The essays are often short, sometimes just a paragraph or two, but they manage to capture the essence of major ideas or experiences. In the collection’s first essay, loosely written as a love letter to minimalist sculpture, Martinez observes:
A chunk of material can only insist on its own objecthood in relation to a person, the proximity of a living, breathing body. This, [Michael] Fried says, is not art, it’s theater, “For theater has an audience — it exists for one — in a way the other arts do not.” I like this. For my part, it explains why a minimalist sculpture engenders shyness the way a handsome stranger might. Both make me aware of my body, my scale, my softness, and carry the frisson of the impossible, adolescent desire between a quivering subject and an impenetrable figure.
Martinez documents her own experience as an audience member, an experience we all know but one that the critic and the comedian know best.
I spoke with Martinez over pupusas at a Mexican market in Highland Park one sunny day in December, which also happened to be her birthday.
GRACE HADLAND: Where does this term Aesthetical Relations come from? I know it’s the title of a comedy show you do.
CHRISTINA CATHERINE MARTINEZ: Aesthetical Relations started out as a joke. The irony is I kind of ended up reverse-engineering the ethos behind it. “Aesthetical Relations” just sounds like nonsense, but maybe some arty people know it’s a play on Relational Aesthetics. The comedy show is set up like a talk show; I love the super-awkward, performative-relationship aspect of it all.
But Aesthetical Relations is an umbrella term for lots of things: it’s this talk show, it’s this book, it could be a fragrance, a rollercoaster, or whatever. I’ve had feedback about the unwieldy-ness of the term, especially when I use it for different projects; it’s hard to follow, which makes it hard to sell. And the book is named after a comedy show, but the book isn’t necessarily funny. I don’t think it’s funny.
I think it’s funny! The comedy show takes the form of a talk show. What is it about the format of talk shows that interests you?
I never really thought about what I was obsessed with before I encountered art. Honestly? I really was obsessed with comedians, and David Letterman, and late-night talk show hosts in general. It’s such a weirdly specific form of celebrity — talking to other celebrities. I loved watching Dick Cavett reruns. Before him, talk shows were super-rehearsed and a little stiff. He and Johnny Carson brought about that casual conversational style we’re still aping, and Letterman in particular had this way of communicating one thing to his interview subject while communicating something else to the audience. It was smarmy and kind of cynical and so contemporary. As a little kid, I thought that was so powerful and glamorous.
How did you get into comedy?
I always wanted to be a performer, but that was so beyond what was considered possible in my family. My participation in theater and improv was tolerated while I was in high school, but never as a career. The general feeling in the air was: That’s something other people do.
Was art writing something that was tolerated more?
I kind of fell into art writing; this is where a lot of my ambivalence about culture comes from. I grew up with a lot of conflicting fantasies about what it means to be middle class in America. The idea of me becoming an intellectual was appealing to everyone, at least more so than being a performer. Before I went to college, I worked in retail and interned at a fashion magazine. I liked being a writer. I liked seeing my name in print. But I didn’t really enjoy the work I was doing there — mostly interviewing young actors and denim industry potentates.
My next-door neighbor at the time was the critic Andrew Berardini, who had already been writing about art for years. I was kvetching to him about my frustrations over this pursuit not being what I thought it was, and he said, “Well, you should try writing about art, because it’s very difficult and interesting and fulfilling.” And I went for it because — maybe this sounds awful — I felt like I didn’t have any other options. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and it seemed worthwhile, but it was never something I thought I would do. And then of course I grew to fall in love with it. By the time all that happened, I was out of the house and way past caring whether or not it was tolerated.
After I got my first job at a gallery, I wanted my own creative outlet, so I started taking improv classes again and doing open mics. I thought, “Oh, this is just my little thing that’s just for me and it doesn’t have to be a big thing” … and then it turned into a big thing. For me. A fellow comic invited me to do a comedy show in a warehouse space downtown, and I immediately complicated things by turning it into a conceptual talk show, putting together bits and PowerPoints for crowds of 10. That’s how Aesthetical Relations was really born.
Did you turn to comedy because you were feeling limited by the conventions of art writing and not being able to use humor liberally?
I definitely felt that, but in retrospect it was self-imposed. I worried so much about trying to belong by trying to be smart which is, you know … I don’t want to beat myself up about it because that’s what most people are doing in the art world. What felt really good was to allow myself to be unapologetic about the fact that I was a comedian. That there are other arenas of culture I enjoy being involved with. It made the art writing better, and made more people interested in it.
My favorite critics work with a lot of humor, so it’s great to hear that.
My reservations were less about the art writing and more about the fact that I was director of a gallery at the time. I was expected to be the face of the gallery, and I thought I would become a pariah or people wouldn’t take me seriously if they knew I was a comic. I was eventually let go because my bosses were like, “It’s clear you don’t want to be here. You want to be a comedian for some reason. Go do that.” Honestly, this was the nicest thing they could have done.
What you mentioned earlier, about the two careers being diametrically opposed or comedy existing outside the realm of what is considered art — that was a false distinction I put upon myself. Entertainment and the art world are sort of melding. And maybe I’m not too thrilled about some of the ways this is happening. It’s the art world appropriating the lamest, broadest gambits of entertainment culture, trying to get more people into art fairs and museums by turning them into the kind of defanged leisure spectacles that art is supposed to be an alternative to. It’s entertainment packing in the broadest or most arbitrary highbrow references in order to generate think pieces and leveraging criticism to do the work of PR.
I almost didn’t trust comedy at first because it was too fun. I was, like, there is no way that this is work. It’s such a Calvinist idea, but I carry it with me — the inherent dignity of work. It’s true, to an extent. What’s limiting is thinking that things that are worthwhile are always hard. My journey in comedy has been learning to trust the things that are easy, and fun.
The things that you’re good at are the things that usually come easy.
Socially, the things that intimidate people in the art world or the comedy world are exactly the same — wondering if you really belong, worrying if you’re good enough, if you’re really participating in the community. That dynamic runs across pretty much any creative sphere.
I was also thinking about comedy and art criticism both feeling like indulgent practices or professions. They’re both things that people could write off as irrelevant or self-indulgent.
That’s okay. Yay for them.
But, yeah, having some sort of apprehension about its validity as an art form — what is it really doing? Where does this fit in culture?
I’m trying to get over feeling bad about that. I used to joke that comedy and art writing are both excuses to talk about yourself. I didn’t want to fall into the slipstream of “confessional auto theory subjective female new narrative” writing, even though that’s exactly the kind of writing that thrilled me. I don’t come from an academic background. I didn’t study art formally. For me, subjectivity in criticism has more to do with trying to put all my cards on the table — it started out as a gambit, or some sort of apology for my weepy, jokey, autodidact point of view, and later I realized that’s totally valid and I don’t have to apologize for it. Being subjective is a way of betraying your own prejudices, which to me is more forthright than having some pretense to objectivity.
Yeah, and that objectivity is false anyway. An editor asked me recently what was the appeal of the feminist-criticism-merged-with-memoir genre and I wasn’t really able to give her a good answer because it’s what I most like to read and write.
Women have always felt things and written them down. I think part of the appeal is breaking out of an idea of objectivity that’s just calibration for a specific point of view. Which, right now, is maybe white male, or whatever hegemonic discourse is dominating at the time. And this goes more into your question about my obsession with modernism, which is: We haven’t quite figured out how to get past it.
I think about modern figures like the flâneur, how gendered they are. I was really affected by T. J. Clark’s writings on Manet. Manet was a quintessential modern painter, and he had this weird, psychologically strained relationship/friendship with Berthe Morisot, who was also an Impressionist painter who tended to do a lot of bedroom-interior scenes. I think her subject matter had less to do with being deliberately interested in female psychology than the fact that women couldn’t go out alone without being considered prostitutes. It’s pretty convenient that this figure of genius would be a male who has the privilege of going out in public under the aegis of privacy. For women in particular, it can feel like a back and forth between what is pejoratively called “confessional writing” or “female abjection” and pretty much just aping the macho-ness of modernism. That’s a false dichotomy. I think there is something in between that’s neither of those things, and we are still sussing out what it is.
Are there any writers you think achieve this?
In terms of what you were asking earlier, about having a model for my book, there was none and that also made it really difficult. So many influences were just sort of atmospheric, and I didn’t always have a handle on how to make them work for me. I remember, before I had read any Susan Sontag, reading a lot of essays that used the numbered-paragraphs style and then doing that for myself. On a practical level, it’s a good way to structure thoughts that have a gauzier resonance. Just numbering things and letting the meaning come through the juxtaposition and the flow. Then I read Against Interpretation in my early 20s and was like, “Oh, this is where it started.” I’m hugely influenced by Susan Sontag’s fucking gall. But she also worried a lot about looking smart, didn’t she? I don’t want to do that. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration and solace from John Berger and Eve Babitz in different ways. I love Berger’s way of being so specific and so subjective and so poetic and so full of a sense of justice and political awareness, and he just seems to do it seamlessly. Eve Babitz — she was very smart but also doesn’t always get credit for her politics or her intellectual insights, which are tucked in between her sexcapades and bubbly, effusive language. It’s sly. I like it.
It’s interesting what you said about reading the Sontag-influenced pieces before reading Sontag herself. That seems like a particularly contemporary relationship to have to culture and is perhaps a more authentic one.
I think that’s okay. People are weirder and more specific than any cultural trend can define. Flawed readings, lost sources, schizophrenia, hysteria, all this jumbled, meta-modernist tension between sincerity and irony is, to me, the most resonant affect right now. But maybe that’s because it’s the one we’re living in.