Writing “Alongside” — Not “About” — Art: A Conversation with Lynne Tillman

May 1, 2019   •   By Ross McElwain

PAUL CHAN’S IMPRINT, Badlands Unlimited, may be chiefly known for its boundary-pushing ebooks by contemporary artists, but Chan is also committed to bringing archival rarities before a wider readership. One such work is Portrait of a Young Critic (2018), the transcript of a 1984 conversation between the art historian, critic, and theorist Craig Owens and the video artist Lyn Blumenthal. Owens died in 1990, having, over the previous decade, authored path-breaking essays on contemporary art, postmodernism, feminism, and other topics. (These are collected in the 1992 volume, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, still in print from the University of California Press.) It’s fitting that the conversation should find its way into print via Badlands, given that Owens did much to generate a discourse around the kind of “non-object” art that Chan and so many others are currently engaged in producing.

It is also thanks to Owens that Lynne Tillman’s Madame Realism essays found a home at Art in America in the mid-1980s. I had the following exchange with Tillman about her friendship with Owens and its lasting resonance in both her fiction and nonfiction all the way up to her most recent novel, Men and Apparitions (Soft Skull Press, 2018).


ROSS MCELWAIN: How did you come to know Craig Owens, and what was he like?

LYNNE TILLMAN: Craig and Barbara Kruger were friends. One afternoon in Soho, I saw Barbara walking with him, and I met him then. We talked briefly on a street corner. Sometime afterward, he and I had lunch at one of those steak and burger restaurants on Lexington or Third Avenue. By then, I’d given him a copy of my novella Weird Fucks (1982) to read. We discussed it a bit.

The hardest question: What is someone like? He was like what he was like with me, and may not have been like that with others. Of course, Craig liked to discuss ideas, always. Movies, books, art. He was critical, self-critical. Sometimes, I thought he worked out his ideas by talking. He was a contrarian and enjoyed intellectual arguments. He was also insecure about his writing; his standards were high. I loved spending time with him. We went to the opera; he knew opera and ballet well. He bought tickets for us, to the opera mostly. We’d sit high up, in a box seat sometimes. I was terrified to look down. Vertigo. I never told him; I said I was happy just to listen. He must have thought I was mad. We saw Almodóvar’s film Law of Desire (1987). He’d seen it, but he wanted to see it again. The mix of its look, sexuality, sensuality really moved him. Also, its cerebral melancholy, I believe. I don’t think Almodóvar ever made another like it.

When the page proofs of my first novel, Haunted Houses (1987), came to me to correct, about 1986, I was paralyzed. Craig helped me — he was a terrific editor. We sat on his small balcony and went through it page by page, until the sun went down. I knew him also as an editor. In 1986, Craig asked me to write a piece for Art in America. I wrote a Madame Realism story for the magazine.

My memories are shadowed, even shaped, by his having contracted HIV. In about 1987 he started getting very ill. We spent more time together: watched baseball, the Mets; football, he was a Bears fan, like his mother. We went on the Gay Rights March together in DC in 1988. Craig was a private person, and didn’t want to be treated as a “victim” of AIDS. He avoided many friends; that was very painful for people who knew and loved him. I don’t think he could handle their sadness or their sympathy. He was a Midwesterner, and much was kept inside. In many ways, he was very independent, single-minded. And singular.

This doesn’t really tell you what he was like. I say what we did together, that he helped me, what I think he liked. I don’t know how to say what he was like. I loved him.

That’s a moving description of Owens and of your friendship. So what was your familiarity with and thinking about art and the art world in the early ’80s?

After college, I lived in Europe for most of the 1970s, where I became involved in experimental film. Secretly writing. In Amsterdam, I was part of a film co-op and involved in structural film — ­­­also in the sexual revolution and always a feminist, from the age of eight. In Europe, I unlearned as much as learned. Reading Céline, Horace McCoy, the Bowleses. I was always reading, it’s how I learned to write. My “real” art education began when I returned to New York in 1976, though I had done studio painting with Ron Gorchov and Doug Ohlson in college; so I had some sense of practice. In the 1980s, I enrolled in CUNY grad school for a PhD in sociology, and read Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Kristeva, Goffman, Juliet Mitchell, Barthes, Foucault, Irigaray, some Lacan, et cetera. I could study whatever I wanted — the sociology department was cool. Erving Goffman became important to me. I have all my credits for a PhD, but didn’t do exams or write a doctoral thesis. I didn’t want to teach sociology; I was there to learn.

You’ve previously mentioned that you learned much about postmodernism, feminism, and art from Owens. What were the things that particularly resonated with you about his thinking?

Craig’s ideas about postmodernism, his approach to criticism; conversation with him about film, art, opera; his thinking process — it meant the world to me. He was never complacent; he questioned his positions. I hope to regard what I think with doubt. Sometimes Craig’s self-criticism overwhelmed him, I think.

Craig was learning about feminism: he was listening to Kruger, Rosler, Lyn Blumenthal, Jane Weinstock, and others; later, Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990) was very important to him. Craig was challenging patriarchal ideas — that was part of his rebellion as a gay man. His essay on feminism in relationship to postmodernism — he brought that into the discourse of the time.

Owens’s sense of solidarity with the feminist artists and theorists you mention, as well as with others such as Sherrie Levine, comes through powerfully in Portrait of a Young Critic. He speaks not so much of writing “about” art and artists as “alongside” them. He identifies one aim in particular that he feels he shares with some of these artists — the interrogation of the institutions they are a part of. This interrogation is evident also in some of your Madame Realism stories; I’m thinking particularly of “The Museum of Hyphenated Americans.”

His notion of writing alongside art was crucial. Craig didn’t want to be an “authority,” but writing what and how he did didn’t free him of that. He saw himself as part of the contemporary world, its art and thinking. Part, not separate from it. How does one criticize from within, not as an expert — that was an issue. Anyway, who can be an expert of one’s time?

Ideas circulate, attitudes, we’re breathing in the same air. I wrote the first Madame Realism story in 1983. Later, “The Museum of Hyphenated Americans” was a response to how a particular history — Ellis Island, and immigration here — was being represented. How history, histories, are written, and whose interests are served, matters profoundly.

Learning can be by osmosis, appreciation, understanding. Craig was friends with some artists. It was helpful, and sometimes a problem, I believe, but what artists thought concerned him. It may be important to know that, in college and sometime afterward, he was involved in theater, in producing plays.

Craig was a flawed human being, as we all are. He wasn’t a hero, and he wouldn’t want to be. But he died at 39. He didn’t have time to grow and change. What he did in his short life was formidable.

You’ve said that writing about art through fiction, as you do in various of your essay-stories, leaves room for “doubt.” What do you mean by that?

Characters assert ideas, theories, make statements, et cetera. The author, I, can also. I don’t need to support my theories, and I do theorize through my characters. In my novel Motion Sickness (1991), one character had been an art historian and has a theory about Velásquez’s painting Las Meninas. The problem in novels is that ideas aren’t considered “ideas.” They’re part of a story and often not noticed. I was once criticized for referring to Barthes’s “Death of the Author” without footnoting it. That was hilarious.

Does writing “alongside” art — to use one of Owens’s favored prepositions — involve engaging in a horizontal relationship with it as with peers, friends, or enemies, while writing “about” art involves asserting a vertical relationship — i.e., the right to talk about a mute and passive exhibit? I noticed, in a recent talk at the Tate Modern, that you spoke about writing “to” art, as if one can address an artwork directly and perhaps even receive some sort of reply from it. This made me think of Madame Realism’s attempt to talk to the Jeff Koons sculptures in “Madame Realism Lies Here.” She ends up being incapable of saying what she wants to say; instead, the sculptures take up all the airtime with their monologues.

I don’t expect answers from art. It doesn’t speak as people or other animals do. The preposition “to” is preferable to “about.” I’m speaking and looking “at” or “to” an artwork; I am not explaining it, not talking “about” it, but addressing myself “to” it. Craig wrote about talking “to others,” not “about others.” Mine is a rhetorical position by which I hope to further or expand ideas in writing “to” art. Or “with” it. Madame Realism, in “Madame Realism Lies Here,” is projecting, imagining what the art says. In other words, when a critic or any viewer interprets an artwork, or thinks they understand what the work means, that is, psychoanalytically, a projection.

Regarding the “muteness” of the object, I was thinking of the relationship between artwork and onlooker that Marcel Duchamp sketches out in one of his interviews with Calvin Tomkins. Duchamp says that the work of art doesn’t exist until the onlooker says something about it, which makes the object seem mute or passive. On reflection, perhaps the real point of interest there is that the onlooker doesn’t have to assert the power to determine the meaning of an object. They are always already exercising this power whenever they acknowledge an object at all. Does your decision to write “to” art through fiction involve surrendering some of this perhaps unwanted power by refusing to occupy the position of one who is capable of explaining it, instead baring your (or your characters’) projections so that they can be seen for what they are? Turning to your longer fiction, it feels like this is part of what we are presented with, at much greater length, in Cast in Doubt (1992): we get to “read” all of Horace’s projections while he fails to grasp the otherness in Helen.

Projections are often misunderstood. When one projects, one is thinking that one knows what the other thinks, but it is your thought. Those thoughts or understandings are also guided and produced by one’s education, background, et cetera, so some will be more suitable, more apposite to the object at hand. Looking at art, I can’t escape what I project or imagine/think it is “saying.” Is that a defense? As a writer, I try to learn outside my thoughts. People might hate so-called “modern art” because they don’t immediately get it. They might denounce it as stupid, which could be a defense. I understand that. But why is art smarter than the people looking at it? Art is a field of inquiry; some people engage and others don’t. Some people understand quantum physics, most don’t. “Serious” books usually have a small readership.

In Cast in Doubt, Horace doesn’t get Helen. The novel is about many issues, including how we read, what we read for. There are layers of reading and readers in it. Horace writes detective books, but he doesn’t take them seriously; he toils on his serious novel, “Household Gods.” He tries to read Helen, but she represents another sensibility. Its language is foreign to him. My idea was to narrate the clash between modernism and postmodernism, tell that story through characters who represented those ideas. Helen’s diary is important to Horace. Though he finds and reads it, it’s still obscure to him. My other idea for the novel was to write against identity prohibitions: I write a gay male character in the first person.

It’s fascinating, this question of “getting it” versus “not getting it.” You can have a strong negative reaction when you feel you don’t get something or someone, like Horace does when he excoriates himself at the end of Cast in Doubt for not getting Helen. But on the other hand, you can proceed more positively from not getting someone to getting them. This is what Owens is thinking through in “Global Issues,” the essay you were referring to earlier from Beyond Recognition, where he writes of “speaking to” versus “speaking for.” His argument is that we refashion others in our own images, speak for them, in order to relate to them — but this prevents us from grasping their difference. To speak “to” another is to open yourself up to actually getting them: you might register something that is really different or new to you.

And that leads me to my next question. You seem to have an abiding interest in thinking about “the new.” Horace notes at one point in Cast in Doubt that Helen is one of a “new breed”; also, the concept is very much there in Men and Apparitions with Zeke’s ethnographic inquiry into the “new man.” Could you say a little about this?

It’s hard to open up, maybe impossible, and to criticize oneself if and when one’s identity is threatened. If your identity, self-proclaimed or of “your people,” includes the need to know, be right, and, say, not have a stitch of racism in your old white mind, then no change or understanding of another can come about. It’s one reason I’m opposed to a rigid identity politics. Essentialist thinking comes from fear — at its base, a fear of extinction. Fear lurks behind many responses. Unconscious fears. Fear is built in, like Chomsky’s idea of language. Maybe! Whatever security might be, with it one can open up to new ideas and to the realization of your own ignorance. That happens when you don’t think you’ll be destroyed. This sounds hyperbolic, but “you” can only get “them” or it, if “you” aren’t so determined to be you, to have to stay you. It’s why I like work by artists and writers who question the reliability of their own narratives. Or question conventional and received ideas. New approaches and forms can be hard to grasp, can be rejected quickly, and are. That’s where the issue of the new may come into my writing. I’m challenged. It’s very difficult to change. People who say they can change easily might be the most rigid. They’re not in doubt. Doubt and flexibility can be partners.

Helen is a different breed from Horace. The “new man” is, in Zeke’s eyes, a new breed. Why this emphasis on the new? I’m a writer, but of what and why? The books I love and loved told me about the world that was and is new to me. They suggested other ways of thinking, of being. A society changes very, very slowly. With change, old ways are imported too. We don’t use new tech without old habits. We don’t use dating sites and have hookups without old feelings, though with time they might change. In fiction, I propose, even if only to myself, a world I’m more excited about living in. A woman once asked me, where does your dialogue come from? People she knows, she said, don’t talk like that. I said, it’s what I’d like to hear.

Last two questions. First, which contemporary artist’s work would you say excites you? And finally, you mention in your introduction to Portrait of a Young Critic that you often ask yourself, “What would Craig have made of _______?” What’s something you’ve asked yourself that about?

I don’t want to name the artists whose work excites me and leave people out. I do studio visits, go to galleries, not as many as I should — I need to write, time is limited — and I’m often fascinated. I don’t think in terms of good and bad, and don’t want to, but wonder, why is this here? What does it address, what is it responding to? I’m curious about process and about how visual art differs from writing. Art gives me other ideas to consider. I’m often surprised by what artists do, their use of materials, for one.

I try to imagine Craig, and what he might have thought. I can’t. Maybe he would have had a lot to say about identity politics, how it’s unfolded. Maybe he’d be thinking about institutional racism. Where would he have been looking and for what? He took exception to many things when he was alive. When we were on the Gay Rights March in DC, we walked past the White House. People were shouting and pointing, “Shame, shame.” He wouldn’t. He thought using “shame” was a problem, that a shaming culture was trouble. How ideas were formulated, how language was used and abused mattered. I think he believed good intentions didn’t make good politics or policy. Anyway, I do. Before he died in 1990, he hoped to write about Almodóvar, Fassbinder, Jarman. But 1990 is long ago. What would he have written? He didn’t get the chance. It makes me very sad to think about it.


Ross McElwain is a writer based in London.