The Image of Genre




Image credit: Hanne Darboven, Detail from Quartett >88<, 1988, 1989, Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2000.

 

IT WOULD BE a very long list indeed if I were to name all of the visual artists dead and living whom I know to have written novels, commissioned novels to be written, or published other literary works. And such acts of publication have not been limited to the bound book. Artists have hung framed pages in galleries, installed (therefore unreadable) books and pamphlets in vitrines, photographed poems and novels and plays, performed poems and novels and plays, printed poems and other unclassifiable though apparently literary texts in vinyl on gallery walls, fabricated and displayed objects described in canonical poems and novels and plays, and even stopped being artists in order to become full-time writers. (Although, I personally know of no one who has done this last thing.) This is to say, it would be a very long and likely incomplete list! The phenomenon to which I refer, that of literary production for not just gallery space but also specific audiences of contemporary art, as opposed to concertedly “literary” audiences, is so broadly, variously, and at times ingeniously undertaken that I am doing no one a major intellectual favor by pointing out its existence. 

But, having thought this phenomenon over a bit, and being a writer, it occurred to me that it might be worth discussing the persistence of not just the category of literature — in these intensely mediated days — but also and more significantly the categories of literature, especially by way of the appropriation of literary styles of authorship by visual artists. I should note that I am not angry at visual artists for becoming, or already being, literary authors. I would only like to offer a few observations about how this appropriation of certain semi-professional roles seems to occur, with these observations grouped under a title that indicates, by way of preview for those with limited time, what I am about to argue. 

Since the turn of the century before last, literary experimentation has been good for creating readers fluent in the ways of literary experiment. Whether or not exclusively due to such efforts, we are now familiar enough with the diversity of literary genres, their conventions and interpenetrations, that we no longer require written works to adhere to particular laws of form or content in order to be able to read them. The progressive pastiche of various literary heroes, both modernist and post-, has greatly expanded our conception of what and where a poem might be. Even so, radio and moving images quickly overtook (or, had already overtaken) our experimenting heroes, indicating new levels of fungibility of content. These media simultaneously overtook, in publicness and popularity, a genre-agnostic entity of even longer standing than modernism itself: the novel. 

It is worth pausing a moment on the novel. I have called it a “genre-agnostic entity,” but it is, of course, also a literary genre. As its name suggests, the novel is a new or novel kind of work, and since its earliest appearances in various parts of the world previous even to the 11th century, with varying degrees of fictiveness and interest in something called a plot, it has been a kind of long-form commemorative and speculative writing that is also quite willing to absorb and depict other kinds of writing and styles of speech and thought, both literary and nonliterary. Fast-forward to the 19th century in France and the novel has become a multifariously designated space for the writing of history, of journalism and critique of journalism, of sociological and economic analysis, gossip, sex tips, table manners, poetry and song, political debate, satire, travelogue, fashion reporting, not to mention dictionary entries. (It is also worth noting that most of this mix can as easily be found in novels of the Renaissance and before.) The novel has survived on the merits of its engaging narrative structure and closeness to everyday life, but these qualities are possibly less significant than its willingness, even eagerness, to be other kinds of writing and forms of expression. As we have seen of late (with Cole, Heti, Knausgaard, Lerner, et al.), the novel, fiction’s grand unit, is also quite often documentary and/or true.

The brilliant omnivorousness — or content-agnostic composting, depending on how you understand literary evolution — of the novel has additionally meant that its diversion into an array of predictable subcategories or strictly defined, sometimes concertedly commercial types known as “genre fiction” is yet another opportunity for appropriation; here of a more fixed version of the novel by some less fixed one, or the other way around. The novel alters, specializes, divides, recombines. It plays on cultural and aesthetic dichotomy, portraying division as well as synthesis. The existence of so-called “genre” novels proves that a major part of the appeal of the novel is its ability to be other than itself: the quick read of the formulaic thriller or bodice-ripper is diametrically opposed to the slow-burning reveal of the literary masterpiece — or, at least, I think so. 

I only think so, or know I only think so, because of what I know of the state of genre. I am familiar enough with the diversity of genres, their conventions and interpenetrations, that I no longer require literary works to adhere to particular laws, in order to know how to read them. When I come to a lengthy insurance contract included verbatim in a novel, I know, for example, that I have permission to skim or skip this text and don’t need to read closely in order to discover key plot points and character motivations. It’s present merely for verisimilitude. I mean, I may believe this. On the other hand, I may believe that this insurance document is a painstakingly constructed scrim behind which lurks a secret architecture determining the course of all events occurring within the world of the novel. It’s up to me, the reader, to administrate the reading, to decide. The insurance document is a decorative accessory to the novel, or, in another scenario, the novel is a decorative, possibly interpretive accessory to the insurance document; either I am reading a novel with an insurance document attached or it’s an insurance document with a dependent novel. This is a plausible present of genre, genre as conventions of reading, as a series of decisions about which kinds of reading go where. (In the past, genre had been a succession of rules for composition, later it indicated different species of texts, and even later the kinds of textual patterns one saw in a given text.) Now genre may be in the eye of the beholder. Or, as an acquaintance recently remarked, the public sphere is built from genre. I think that what this acquaintance meant is that the public sphere is built from conventions of looking and reading, from publicly or mutually recognizable conventions for determining what kind of a thing something is and what we might be able to do with this thing.

This becomes clearer with a (mostly) literary example: I think that we are interested in the recent publication by Badlands Unlimited — a publishing concern run by artists Paul Chan, Ian Cheng, Micaela Durand, and Matthew So — of a trio of romance novels because here a high-art brand is publishing a low, popular form, several works of literal “genre” writing. In its adherence to genre convention, this series, “New Lovers,” enacts a kind of image. And in this image is included our amusement at cheerful fulfillment, as well as gentle flouting, of conventions. These books, probably fun to read (I have not read them, though I have discussed them with friends who claim to have done so), are also designed to have a valid conceptual existence, even without being read or requiring our reading. (I don’t, for example, feel pressure to read them, though I like knowing about them.) Though books have been for some time trading on this fact about their existence — that it does not always matter whether or not we read them, that they look nice on a table and so on — here it seems that the physical container, the trim size, cover design (very generic!), etc., is less important than the very genre. It is not that the books are images of books — though they have circulated widely online as JPEGs — but that they are an image of genre, an image of a series of conventions for reading as well as for discussing books, an attitude toward what they may or may not contain.

Reviewers and critics hoping to demonstrate an earnest relationship to “New Lovers”’s first installment of three publications helpfully perform our reading for us, summarizing plots, treating the writers like literary authors in interviews, adding exquisite detail to the image of genre. Indeed, here there may even be a kind of good-natured pun on the very term, as applied to painting (“genre painting”), in that scenes from art-centric everyday life, and perhaps less sex itself than the consumption of porn and images in general, are reproduced for us as the species of these novels. (For example, God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name, by Andrea McGinty, tells the tale of an “art career” as it devolves and/or improves into a series of sexual exploits.) Our ongoing interest in the image is reflected via the genre of these novels; in this sense, they represent a kind of catachrestic portrait of everyday life, documenting nobody’s — which is to say, everybody’s — actual activities and reflecting an improved, possibly “tasteful” version of our (conventional, everyday) looking habits, tastes.

Anyway, artists write novels all the time. I think immediately of AA Bronson’s Lena, or Lana, and Andy Warhol’s a: A Novel, and there is even a recent anthological publication devoted to artist’s novels to tell us more. Of course, I am not sure that the fictions of artists are inherently interesting. I am not sure if the fictions of novelists are inherently interesting! But there seems to be a special license associated with the literary enterprise when undertaken by a visual artist. The artist knows how to organize visual information. The artist manages the informational architecture of the novel, too. The artist makes available aspects of the novel that have to do with this work of management, questions of material format, discursive truth and artifice, means of distribution, intellectual property. The artist’s novel seems to celebrate the tactics of the studio, unsurprisingly, rather than the dynamics of nuclear families or other human genealogies. In this sense, the artist’s novel also seems linked with poetics, where this term refers to a set of strategies for making, especially in or with language. This is, then, not quite the private literature of the living room, bedroom, airplane, or poolside lounge. Reading an artist’s novel is often a kind of aesthetic or intellectual work rather than a leisure activity. And this is yet another perfect deployment of the novel, generically speaking: As we have already seen, the novel does not care which type of everyday life or habit or profession or other nonliterary thought or activity you want it to absorb. The novel is already (and always was) something other than, and in addition to, fiction. It is only too happy to become the discourse of art. 

Institutions and businesses displaying visual art, which are related or adjacent though not identical to the public sphere, could also be built from genre. Certainly they have a tendency to cultivate particular conventions of looking. If they do not already enact certain generic conventions, they seem like plausible sites for human encounters with genre. A gallery wall becomes peculiarly useful when we think about it like a page. This wall, like the page of a book, is more or less public, though often only theoretically so. Like print and digital books, the wall of the gallery has a mixed relationship to privacy and propriety. Like print and digital books, the gallery show is usually a mix of singular authorship and shared, collective, and/or industrial production. The analogy is broad and not particularly compelling in itself, and it would probably not be worth drawing this comparison were it not already being drawn for me. 

Recently, wandering the cubicles of a large art fair, I came upon some pieces of text by the artist Darren Bader. These were printed on a wall. I turned them over in my mind. In a space of constant potential social encounter, one needs a place to direct one’s eyes, so I read the text with care. I wondered if I should consider the text poetry. It was fragmentary, divided into smaller units. One unit mentioned Emily Apter, a professor of French and American literature with whom I had once studied. I felt a weird kind of gratitude. I also considered the fact — these “poems” were often about reading — that I should be reading more, more frequently, and also in larger quantities. I was spending, I mused, too much time in public.

A few months later, at MoMA’s show of Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series,” multiple rooms displayed books, ca. 1912–1948, behind glass. Cover art and design by Charles Alston, Margaret Bourke-White, E. Simms Campbell, Aaron Douglas, and Winold Reiss stood in metonymically for what I could not read inside. Elsewhere, books were displayed fastened open to a single spread. I photographed titles by Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Scott Nearing, Emmett J. Scott, Jean Toomer, Walter White, Carter Godwin Woodson, and Richard Wright, among others, creating a visual bibliography I later found for some reason to be more complete than the online checklist for the exhibition. I wasn’t sure what my impulse to collect or “read” these titles and authors in this way meant. In so doing, it is likely that I was mostly considering exhibition strategies and not really reading much at all. Yet, reading was being mentioned. The unit of the book — evidence of cultural production — was being mentioned. With my iPhone I dutifully (and privately) repeated this mentioning gesture. 

There is a strange promise of privacy in many public displays of books. “You’ll read this later,” such displays seem to say. And when one is alone or, at least, at home, if one is not reading something else, one might indeed read. But the promise might also remain just that: a promise, and a kind of fantasy. Sometimes displays of books or book-like displays are also an image of a kind of reading, a kind of reading worth describing as an image precisely because it is so difficult to obtain in a time of ubiquity of text. The limits of the book are, perhaps, more porous than ever; sometimes, particularly if the book in question is a PDF, I find these limits nonsensically breeched by my email. The book could, in the context of an exhibition, be a metonym for a kind of historical knowledge or cultural production, but it might also be a metonym for a kind of attention, style of reading, or even a mode of consciousness. And in standing in for a kind or convention of reading, the book-as-image is a vague image of genre. (Such images become increasingly precise and focused when they bring us closer to acts, rather than fantasies, of reading — though fantasies of reading are also pretty interesting.) There is really a great deal of exhibition of reading these days. Reading is variously and frequently — via reading rooms, performances, and installed printed objects — purveyed as a notable and attractive habit of everyday life, which it also, to be clear, is; in this sense, displays of reading are a lot like genre paintings. 

Not one to be left out of a market in which it is so clearly implied, the Bibliographical Society of America at last arrived at the party with the recent publication of an article addressing the strong showing by books in current visual art. This article, “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as a Medium in Contemporary Art” by Michael Thompson, provides an exhaustive 50-page description of the 2014 Whitney Biennial’s book-related contents. For all the nerdy delight this extremely precise and engaging account of bookish stuff in the Biennial inspired in me, it let me down a bit by concluding with a sort of non-conclusion, that “books as an aggregated medium comprising many component parts, present few constraints for contemporary artists.” Thompson further observes: 

The one component that all conceptual art needs is an idea, and a book, which can take the form of scroll, codex, score, patterned broadside, leporello, audio recording, manuscript sketchbook, and most recently electronic file, and which has long been viewed as the primary means by which to transmit ideas of any kind, whether scientific, philosophical, literary, or artistic, may therefore be the final irreducible essence of conceptual art: an idea without a fixed physical object.[i]

It is inevitably true that books and ideas go well together. However, it is a little odd to find a bibliographer turning to a canonical summary moment in the history of art, something called “the final irreducible essence of conceptual art,” in order to explain the invocation and discussion of the everyday activity of reading that the many displays in the Biennial including books undertook. Displays asked visitors not just to recognize the possibility of reading but to do it, with various necessary time commitments, levels of concentration, and access (many books were behind glass). I much prefer Thompson’s earlier claim that books have a lot of “parts,” and therefore artists like them. I’d go even broader and speculate that in addition to “parts,” books have a lot of kinds, and therefore artists know that people like books (that people even resemble books) — and that people like books so much that people want to experience their liking of them and experiencing of them, over and over again. And people want to talk about books and hear more and more, as Gertrude Stein might say, about how everyone likes them. Do people like books more than paintings? It’s a tough and perhaps silly call, but if you think about it: likely, yes.

What the final, irreducible essence of conceptual art, in all its majesty, may allow artists to do — as it broadcasts its expensive maxims into the present, out of the pit of the past — is to put things in galleries that are not works of art. Though context may do its darndest to turn these non-art things into art, it remains possible to say that what is being displayed, and therefore via visitors’ eyeballs as well as gallerists’ and curators’ efforts valued, isn’t art. I do not mean to suggest that such things aren’t valuable. Rather, their value is imperfectly symmetrical with, and imperfectly assimilable to, structures and conventions of value associated with artworks. What also becomes clear, which is to say, noticeable, is a plurality of modes of authorship; that professional artists aren’t the only individuals who make things and that everyone who makes things isn’t an artist (this last point being meant more as an economic and professional fact than an insult). Thus, if we come to look at a poem, or an essay, or a novella in a gallery — if we see a framed page from a novel by Jill Magid, for example, or a page photographed by Erica Baum —we are reminded of one of visual art’s closest outsides, the outside of reading-not-looking, even as we remain within the context of visual art. And this moment of exteriorization, this appearance of the anomalous if commonplace activity of reading along with the conventions of literary genre in the space of visual art, by way of a certain kind of image, reminds me of another moment in history, one that has little enough to do with conceptualism. 

Classicist Gregory Nagy’s “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: From Lesbos to Alexandria” gives an account of the professionalization and inscription of lyric poetry — in other words, the way lyric poems came to be treated, once they were actually written down. According to Nagy, a “reenacting I” in written lyric poems reenacts an archaic form of public address that would at one time have occurred before a live audience, at a symposium. Here the written text represents a reality that, according to Nagy, is already generic; the live performance was in itself “a fictional occasion,” with pursuant compositional rules and necessity of adoption of a persona corresponding to group expectations.[ii] In this sense, once we get to the written lyric poem, what we are reading is a fiction of a fiction, a mise en abyme, as Jacques Derrida (with apologies for the name drop) might put it, a “thinking about its own possibility.” What is real or historical in the archaic, live format, in the expectations of a certain group of listeners, must be somehow reenacted in the written environment. Nagy reads anticipation usefully: Whoever fictionally “speaks” in the written lyric poem, formerly a singer, is the product of the interaction of a group and a conventional role, which interaction, in being written down, is also being reread at some historical distance. The lyric genre, even in its earliest written forms, is according to Nagy already historical, complexly fictive, and dramatically opposed to the private, whether or not we might read such poems privately.

I have to say that I think literature that occurs in art galleries is more interesting when it has done a bit of thinking about its own possibility, and when this thinking has included consideration not just of format and some broad idea of interdisciplinarity, but also consideration of readers — readers both past and present, many of whom may also be writers. (I am thinking about the inclusion, for example, of social histories.) A mention of genre that expresses various kinds of fictionalizing of social forms, and which even socializes fiction, is also a way to think about habit. In this sense, we get to keep our pun: images of genre are paintings of everyday life in which a day lasts a long, long time.

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[i] Michael Thompson, “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as a Medium in Contemporary Art,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 109, no. 2 (June 2015): 183. With thanks to Stuart Comer for bringing this important article to my attention.

[ii] Gregory Nagy, “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: From Lesbos to Alexandria,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 1 (2004): 46.

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Lucy Ives is the author of four books of poetry and prose, most recently the novel nineties (2015). She is co-editor of Triple Canopy and teaches in the writing program at Pratt Institute.


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