The Performance Club


This article was written on 08 Aug 2012, and is filed under Claudia's Blog.

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Poets and critics and art historians

Kurt Schwitters: “Das Merzbau”


Hi you three,

Greetings from art obsessed insomniac land.

I’ve been thinking about you because I’m auditing an art history class right now and last night I found some writing of John Yau’s (I miss him!) in which he basically rips up certain academic ways of looking at art and criticism.  I stayed up way too late reading way too much.  One piece was this and then this.  And it was really helpful for me because I’ve been feeling something subtle in class where it seems like my whole way of experiencing art doesn’t have a place.  I haven’t been able to tell if it’s just because I’m a guest and not an art history PHD student or if I was actually picking up on something.  I think John’s writing helps clarify what I’ve been feeling, that perhaps that I do inhabit an entirely different universe (one of artists and art-spaces and poet-critics) related to experiencing art.  SO– I was just wondering if you have more thoughts, articulations, experiences about any of this?  Probably it’s all best done over lots of drinks. Which I would love to do soon!  But I wanted to write because you are important parts of my thinking about these things and obviously are deeply involved with grappling with these kinds of questions.

ok. hopefully you’re all sound asleep right now.  And hopefully I’ll be there too sometime before tomorrow morning!




Hello from Arizona!

Academic writing—or, what I think of as stereotypical academic writing, which is of course a really narrow slice of writing done by academics; there are people within these institutions doing marvelously creative and smart, best-of-both-worlds work—is hard for me. I can’t for example really get into most of the October folks in a serious way. For me at a certain point, so much of this overwritten and under-thought way of talking through and around and over the actual art (what it actually IS, what we experience in front of it, all of the not knowing …) all just felt like obfuscation. Like a way of somehow not living with/facing/owning up to the fact that nothing certain can be said about any of this (and by this I mean, I realize, “life,” though I don’t think I could have articulated that when I was a poor college kid struggling through this material and thinking I wasn’t smart enough to understand it, hadn’t read the right books, etc.). Which isn’t to say that the whole poet-critic tradition doesn’t get pretty darn irritating, with its whole macho/alcoholic/loner/making gods out of men shtick … just that it’s a shtick I can find my way through (also, I’m sorry, but if these explainers of the inexplicable could write one measly phrase as good as any poem Frank wrote, maybe I could wrap my mind around the purpose….). More cracks in the paint, as it were. And I like cracks, it seems, more than paint.



Hee hee hee about writing one measly phrase!  I love what you say about not living with the fact that nothing can be said (or as beckett might say, done) about any of this.  Part of what I’ve been thinking is this kind of over-theorizing comes from people being scared to actually experience art.



Hello all,

Aynsley – I am very much curious about this “subtle” feeling you are talking about and this idea of how your way of experiencing art doesn’t have a place. Could you elaborate on this?

I’m not a huge fan of this academic side myself. There’s something a bit too cool and stand-offish about it. I agree with you, Aynsley, that everyone inhabits a different universe when it comes to experiencing art. It would be so dull if we didn’t. But what I find especially magical about the art experience is how private and almost indescribable it is. My favorite moments in class are often when one of my high school students are so baffled by an artwork (not necessarily visual) that they can’t find the language to articulate it, and as a result turn to emotions.

I’m with you, Claudia about the October folks. It’s a little too wordy and pretentious for me. I also agree with you about the poet-critic tradition. I like it and feel very much a part of it, but am oh-so-fucking-sick of patriarchal, sexist bullshit that seems to run rampant in that sort of writing.

More women poet-critics, please!

And, to end on this beautiful and all too-fitting quote from The Unmentionable by Erin Moure:

“That there is a before-speaking, that we did not always speak, is this how experience is possible?”

For me, poetry comes out of this “before-speaking” space. If only more criticism could come out of it too.





My one contrarian feeling to add to this (personally, clearly, preferring to read and write the personal)—is that in the greater culture, art is hardly ever taken seriously as something important and/or definitive. That there is a whole group of people out there working with such passion for art, who focus/ed all of their great intellectual strength on the act of describing the importance of aesthetic/cultural objects, regardless of a perhaps conservative bent, is amazing.

I mean, methods aside, how strange and wonderful that art—which surely is an economy but still holds a great element of uselessness, and is the thing that makes us human, and is being taken away from kids in schools and turned increasingly into entertainment—is taken so seriously by these people? Relying heavily on theory and art history is not as bad as disregarding anything without a huge dollar sign attached, as 90% of Americans do. At the very least, it provides something substantial to push back against. Sleazy dealers and uninformed collectors (not all dealers and collectors) often don’t see any value in art beyond their own egos and wallets—and that leaves the world nothing, not even something to push up against. Just a vat of nonsense and hair gel.




I am so freaking happy to know you guys.

Thank you so much for these thoughtful wonderful responses!

So so so so true, ANON.  We’re lucky to be able to discuss subtleties because a few people actually care enough to make and see and write about this work. And hilarious line about hair gel!

I think the subtle (or not so subtle) feeling I’ve been having in class, Christine, is that the teacher is often asking for one particular way of looking at or questioning the work or readings.  What’s great about it is there is a rigor in the thinking and these very specific (and new to me) lenses with which to try to see.  (I’ve never seen art quite the same way as I did the day after reading Freud talking all about how in the absence of a penis, women are obsessed with their own shit. Or something like that. Jokes and big problems with Freud aside, as we compared some Dada art to the smearing of shit it actually helped me see more)  BUT the artist in me can’t bear to be told a narrow lens through which to experience a work.  My mind works more associatively and I would have more fun being able to share and discuss all kinds of things that the work and readings bring up rather than such specific areas.  And I think this is part of what John Yau is looking at.  The difference between a more open experience vs. a more focused one. The training in the focused one can actually help expand my possibilities for experience and it seems like both approaches are really useful but I’m too damn rebellious to stay for too long in the focused one.

hoping for drinks soon!



CLAUDIA: The problems for me often arise when the theoretical frameworks lead the way, not the art, so that the art is necessarily housebroken …. (but maybe this is just an old romantic bias I have – I can already see the accusation!). And also, maybe more importantly, that it all just seems too neat, too sure of itself, this way of thinking. Perhaps I say this the way some people say that science is all about facts, while, of course, the people who really plunge in know it has as much to do (maybe more?) with faith, with not knowing as anything else.

Too often, reading this stuff and talking these talks makes my brain feel cornered, and smaller. Totally the opposite as the experience of being in front of the art. And then, too—well, since I believe so strongly in writing as art, I never can get over the terrible violence done to this form, by people who seem to have no regard for words as physical, sensual, textural creatures in their own right. To quote Mark Morris (my favorite MM quote!): NO MORE RAPE!



  1. Karinne
    September 4, 2012

    You all are lovely. Caring before controlling I think might be a way of describing criticism that doesn’t drive a person mad. As a sometimes academic although I wriggle in the confines and stick to the artist-scholar edges (populated by so many wonderful LADIES as well as the macho mytho minds), I will defend the strangeness and rarity of academic efforts to make magic words cling, as so many metal filings, with group-efforts to flesh out and activate a term. I recently passed through the library of my own institution and was struck by the sense that criticism (of the kind that can be grouped alongside the jargon and controlling kind — theory as a medium in its own right) is really just an obscure creative field, as delicate in its appreciations as those of us with endless patience to watch a spine navigate its alignment. It becomes annoying when theory is not taken as this complementary creative field, but as a key to truth, and it becomes insanely tedious when people start feeding the theory back into the medium without letting the medium muck up the theory (see David Levine’s recent International Art English essay in Triple Canopy for a delicious takedown, sorry no link). But criticism as a kind of barnacle castle can be loving and really tender and really interesting. I think October rankles because there is a sense of a privileged, truth-telling vocabulary that peons don’t get.  Blah blah fucking blah. (To quote Kristen Kosmas.)

    I feel like besides the criticism as its own creative medium, there’s also criticism as interlocutor (which must relinquish master tones, even if it takes stock of its own experience and breadth of knowledge), one of the many varieties of essay, and this stuff is exciting, like reviews that give you a sense of the mind and matter of an event even if you didn’t see it. I was just reading Marcia Siegel’s reviews of Sara Rudner this afternoon and it was like being inside the thoughtful love that is downtown dance at its finest. “Interlocutor” is maybe a boring too academic word, maybe it would be better to say, tennis date, or something like that. What separates it for me is that the interlocutor would never repress reports of her own experience or assume that she stands outside of the whole conversation. Doing this with a wealth of knowledge, and bringing judgment, as an event of thinking and not as a gate-keeping device, is what makes some devoted, professional critics exceptionally wonderful. Often it takes being a member of the community to ensure that this perspective is maintained, but that’s not essential (see Andy Horwitz and Culturebot). But if we didn’t have an us-them sense about critics, maybe critics, or academics, wouldn’t stand outside so much. Academia can be tedious as all get out, but it has the potential to be as deep and patient as anything else. 

  2. Christine
    September 13, 2012

    Karinne – Thank you so much for your thoughtful and eloquent response to our correspondence. I am very curious about this notion of critic as “interlocutor” or “tennis date” (love that!). I feel very much a part of the dance community even though I am not a dancer or choreographer (or tennis player). I wonder if that contributes to this “us-them” sensibility…

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