Interview with Art Historian, Jennifer Doyle

image(The audience at Sin-a-matic in Los Angeles, c. 1994. Photographer unknown.)

I first encountered Jennifer Doyle’s work through her essay “Queer Wallpaper,” written for a survey textbook on contemporary art. Meant as a pedagogical primer on queer theory and queer politics in art, the essay was personal, affecting, and for what felt to be most important at the time, it conveyed what it might mean to write about visual art with an actual affinity and care for writing itself. 

So when her newest book Hold It Against Me: Emotion and Difficulty in Contemporary Art was announced, I followed the release date assiduously, eager to see how Doyle weighed in on “controversial” art (usually performance) by figures like Carrie Mae Weems, David Wojnarowicz, Nao Bustamante, Franko B, and Ron Athey. The book follows up on theories of affect and emotion that have gained large amounts of currency in the humanities, but resolutely sticks to a pedagogical, writerly, and accessible style of criticism meant to complement and expand the ‘difficult’ work on display.

I spoke with Doyle over a long Skype conversation, jumping to touch not only on the points in the book, but on her experience programming, attending, and writing about performance art in my hometown of Los Angeles. Doyle’s current book project is titled The Athletic Turn: Contemporary Art and the Sport Spectacle. – Joseph Henry

I. THE FLINCH MOMENT 

THE BELIEVER: The emotional quality of art is never the same for any one person – one viewer could find an artwork difficult or challenging and another could be bored or unimpressed. How do you approach emotion as subject in Hold It Against Me?

JENNIFER DOYLE: One of the things I’ve been saying is that we’re so used to using emotion or feeling as a kind of synonym for the subjective–and I think people that work in art criticism know this well–but there’s a subjective dimension to any critical practice. I’ll start with that: it’s not necessarily that the emotion we encounter in or around works of art is so much more subjective than elsewhere so much as it is the case that we’re very particularly invested in emotion as the place upon which we encounter the subjective. 

I’m interested in artists who work with that kind of head on, rather than say, represent emotion for us. Their work has a particular character that makes it impossible to understand it without thinking about the politics of emotion, or the politics of emotion as historically or politically conditioned. This kind of work sometimes forces a confrontation, too, with the politics of taste – I love the performance artist Franko B’s work. It can be mawkish, and that’s actually one of the things the work is about. You actually have to take on the sentiment, you have to take on the sticky and even kind of abject aspect of our own sentimentality, the narcissistic dimensions of romantic impulses, the attempt to actually make a work of art about love. I was interested in the difficulty of writing about it, of trying to figure that out.  

I think I mention this somewhere in the introduction or in a note, but when I first started working on this project, people thought I was writing a project on Minimalism. They hear that word “difficulty,” and that’s what they think about. There is an emotional landscape around Minimalist sculpture, and I’m not going to say it’s easy to write about that. You have to work at appreciating it, and being able to appreciate it is a mark of a certain kind of sophistication. It’s Spartan. As critics we understand that economy of restraint and withholding - we are taught to appreciate Minimalism’s difficulty. Its difficulty has a cultural value. But in this book, I am writing about other forms of difficulty.  

BLVR: When reading, I kept struggling to identify what would be the “difficult” aspect of any specific artwork. And, I think in the popular imagination, when people think of difficulty in performance art genres, they think of graphic bodily violence. But you seem to be expanding the whole idea of difficulty itself. 

JD: Yes. I am working out from George Steiner’s writing on forms of poetic difficulty. Performance art is an interesting case because its difficulty is often simplified in certain kinds of criticism. Take artists like Ron Athey, a performance artist whose practice considers the proximity of pain and pleasure. But with a gesture like the cut or exposure to the wound, there’s an obvious form of difficulty that goes right back to something like Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain, a basic and existential kind of problem around the body. But Athey’s work has a reputation. There’s a photographic practice around work like his, which is often the primary way through which people encounter it. We have language about the difficulty of their work, which to my mind, is determined by the difficulty of photographs of their work, by the difficulty of the idea and the image of their work. Another form of difficulty is crowded out by that image, by that idea.

You, for example, flinch at something that’s happening in a live experience of a performance. But that thing keeps happening, and you accommodate yourself to the fact that you are in a room in which this thing is happening. As an affect, that flinch is what Sylvan Tomkins described as a “transitional affect,” something like being startled. So when thinking about the difficulty of their work, there’s this very powerful transitional affect around their work in performance that has come to stand in for the performance as an event, as a whole experience, and this flattens out the experience of the work. With a live performance, in which you’re keeping company with a body that you imagine is uncomfortable if not in some kind of pain, or exposed or vulnerable, you don’t sit in that startled response, you actually get used to it. That’s actually what the work is about: the way in which we keep company with something, and even maintain and nurse it. That is what his audience is drawn to - that is, in fact, what can render that audience ecstatic.

BLVR: The works tend to focus on physical pain, oppression, violence, or death. What motivated your choice of objects, and how you would approach works that seek out to generative positive, affirmative emotions? The one piece that I would have loved to see in the book was Tracey Emin’s 1995 film Why I Never Became a Dancer. I was dying to see an analysis of that work - I felt there’s a different emotional valence there, perhaps of a hopeful quality, than the work you selected in Hold It Against Me. 

JD: I’ve written a lot about Emin’s work so that’s why I don’t go there. And I do think Aliza Shvarts’s work with abortion (which I do write about) is more difficult. That said, I don’t think about the set of affects, emotions, and feelings that circulate around the works in Hold It Against Me as positive or negative, as affirmative or negative. There’s something about that either/or structure that I don’t think really captures this work. 

One of the best comments I got about this project was from Lauren Berlant. She pointed out that implicit in my writing was that people take pleasure from this work. She asked that I make that more explicit. You can’t narrate what feels important or valuable about say, Carrie Mae Weems’s piece, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried in terms of pleasure exactly. You can’t say that it’s negative or positive. That is, in fact, one of the ways that critics dismiss this work - by representing it as “merely” propaganda.

BLVR: “Reparative” would be the term that I would use instead of “affirmative.” 

JD: Yes, I was a student of Eve Sedgwick’s, I was the indexer for the book Novel Gazing, for which she wrote “Paranoid and Reparative Reading,” it’s like that essay is tattooed on the back of my hand. It may be the case that in every single work in Hold It Against Me, the artist is not offering a paranoid reading, but is making a reparative attempt within a circumstance that would seem otherwise to demand a kind of paranoia. So you actually have both: a reparative gesture made in a situation demanding paranoia. The dialectical turn is a reparative one. It’s a reparative gesture made as a refusal of the universal or transhistorical claim. Some of what I discuss – work by James Luna, Carrie Mae Weems and David Wojnarowicz, for example – makes a strong critique of universalizing discourse, and of certain ways of practicing criticism and art history. But that is not where their work starts or stops. Sedgwick describes the practice of a “weak theory,” in contrast with “strong theory,” as smaller in scale and intimate, local. The performances and the works that I write about – their most interesting dimension to me tends to be a quite small, local turn that’s very sensitive and profound. 

II. “YOU WANT TO WRITE LIKE BARTHES, BUT YOU CAN’T. YET.” 

BLVR: Touching on your literary background, I’ve always associated your work with a kind of belletristic, almost confessional style. You’re very explicit in Hold It Against Me about writing for a general audience and writing pedagogically. Can you talk about what structures your approach to writing, both academically and in your other kinds of work?

JD: I would like to write in a way that lets readers feel like there’s room for them in the text. I think this is a reflection of my class politics; it’s not that I don’t appreciate difficult writing, nor do I think that something that is easy to read is necessarily better written than something that’s hard to read. But, it is the case that a lot of people spend a lot of time being made to feel stupid, especially in their own encounters with contemporary art. It’s bothersome – it’s something that thing I wish I could change, because it’s one thing to feel humbled. But it is another to be exiled from the conversation, to be identified as not the right reader by virtue of one’s lack of access to a pretty rarified set of terms. Maggie Nelson writes really wonderfully about how cruelty and certain kind of intelligence seem to go together and curl around each other.    

In graduate school I wrote a no doubt ridiculous seminar paper for Toril Moi. We met to discuss the paper and she said –I think she gave me an A-, I’m not sure, she did not give me an A - she said:  “You want to write like Barthes. But you can’t. Yet.” There was a long pause between each segment of that, and I felt so called-out, because it was completely true. 

If I could write like anyone, the people I think of are the Roland Barthes of Lover’s Discourse, the Monique Wittig of The Straight Mind, the Audre Lorde of Sister/Outsider, and Theodor Adorno as we know him in Minima Moralia – that’s like the wildcard element. It’s a strange sort of cocktail. I read Adorno just because, I think with Adorno a lot. It’s preposterous for me to say that I want to write like Lorde or Adorno. But I want to write like the people who turn me out as a reader. They all have in common a capacity to make you feel them thinking in their writing. That’s a high art.

My job is to provide the context within which my writing will give the reader an experience that will help them to understand a work they might not understand otherwise. It is not to mark out the gap between their experience and the experience that’s required to understand the work, to say, “I, the author, have that experience and you, the reader, don’t.” I am perhaps inspired by some aspects of the very kinds of belletristic practices in art criticism, that say, the folks associated with the contemporary art journal, October, defined themselves against, and for really good reasons. But you know, why throw the baby out with the bathwater? By that I mean one can access the hard, historical ground of contemporary art through one’s writing - in the form of that writing. If critical theory in art history considers the politics of the form, why not consider that same question as it plays out in our own writing?

BLVR: It still feels like a hugely controversial aesthetic dynamic though. This discrepancy happens not only in what we would call academic platforms, but in seemingly “general audience” venues writing about art, too. There seems to be a contradiction where academic writing is taken to be not only bothersome and difficult for contemporary audiences, but the accepted critical standard at the same time.

JD: Yes, and depending on what you’re writing about. This is where my blogging is actually sort of like a funny contrast. If you did that to sports, people would just revolt: it is not ok to write really obscure sports criticism. People have no patience for it, no challenge for it – I don’t think that’s a good thing! I think there’s actually as much room for really difficult writing about sports. So much of sports discourse really just goes to oiling the machinery, by which I mean the sports world as a commercial enterprise. I may be in relation to sports where art critics were in relation to contemporary art in the 1970s. I may want to found like the Artforum or October for sports criticism. I’m kind of half-joking. I’m finding that as I turn to writing about sports as a scholar, my writing is becoming much more philosophical. Not dense, exactly, but abstract.

III. FEAR AND BLEEDING IN RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA

BLVR: I was thinking about your upcoming project on athletics and art, and the first thing that came to mind was Kevin Ware’s basketball accident, where he fractured his leg.

JD: Oh yeah, eugh!

BLVR: That’s it precisely, that dynamic of you cringing. You mention in Hold it Against Me that the violence in sports is naturalized within certain cultural contexts whereas the violence in art becomes controversial or shocking.

JD: Actually, there’s a great story behind this. I started producing sports writing totally independent of my writing about contemporary art. I was a fan, I was playing soccer, I got obsessed, I started a blog. It was a post-tenure project, I never expected that this would actually become the next book project, which of course it has.

But around that time, I collaborated on a project at UC Riverside with Ron Athey. About two months before the event, we had some difficulty with the institution –we basically got exiled from the art space in which the performance was supposed to happen. 

This was in 2009. Riverside, California, for those who don’t know, is one of the epicenters in the collapse of the housing market. There was actually a clear solution to getting kicked out of the art space. I walked around the pedestrian mall in downtown Riverside and called the numbers on the signs of the empty storefronts, of which there were many – and there still are. With shockingly little effort, we managed to rent a big storefront space just two blocks down from the gallery that we were supposed to perform in.

I had to work directly with officials in our risk management office at the University of California, Riverside, because they’re the office that signs lease agreements. I called the chief risk management officer at the university. These are masters of the dark arts of university life. These are the people that actually control our lives. 

I described the performance to him: “This is a very gay event, there will be nudity, there will be piercing and bleeding. And Ron is HIV-positive and has Hep C, as well.” And this is known, right. And then I explained the way the performance would unfold, and the protocols we would take, and how we we’re working with the space, and the precautions that we were taking, etc., etc. 

BLVR: Which piece was this?

JD: Self-Obliteration Solo. In this piece, he’s on his hands and knees. It opens with him brushing a long, blonde wig. Then he sits up on his heels, flipping the hair over and then he proceeds to take the wig off and it’s this flinch moment definitely, where you realize it’s actually pinned to his scalp.

BLVR: No, I know the piece, I’m already reacting to it.

JD: There’s another chapter to it now, where he fists himself, but he hadn’t quite gotten there yet in the development of the work. Anyway, I just described the piece to the risk management guy, and he was not an art person, at all. And I was like, so this is what’s going to happen, and I explained, he’s been controversial in the past, there have been phobic reactions to his work, etc. So he says, ok I’ll have that paperwork for you at 4:30. I was like, what, why is it that easy? And he said, “Well all I need to know is what’s happening. My job is to manage the risk and to produce the right paperwork so that the university is protected.” 

So I asked him, “How is this not a big deal?” And he said, “You’re not serving alcohol.” And then he said, “You know what I worry about, I worry about rock concerts that we have on campus, I worry about basketball games.” People get hurt at sporting events routinely, that’s the risk of playing a sport, that you might break a bone. And then he said, “People don’t get hurt at art events, even when it’s really weird.” 

This is a place where affect is really important: there’s a feeling that we are risking something, a feeling that the artist is risking something, but that’s an idea, that’s a fear, that’s a thought – it’s not an actuarial reality. The fear is the controversy; what we fear is the phobic response that becomes the headline, that becomes a story, that leads to the university maybe getting less political support. It’s important to me, ethically, in terms of the kind of the material that I work on, to be willing to take on the public responsibility of not just being a defender of that work, but actually an advocate for it– to proactively support this kind of performance. 

We had 150 people at the event – I think it’s one of the most well-attended art events that have happened in that area in terms of the kind of event that it was. There was not one complaint, not one complaint, and in fact I got a lot of very moving emails, particularly from gay men living in Riverside. Their emails went something like this: “Never in my life did I think something like that would happen in Riverside, and that it would be sponsored by the university, thank you.” Ron’s work feels like home to some of us, those emails spoke to that. That means the world to me – that someone felt recognized as a part of my university’s community, somebody who never thought that that would ever happen. Ron’s work has the capacity to do that, to actually make room for people who otherwise don’t feel that there is room for them in the world. So, yes, it is affirmative.

Joseph Henry is Assistant Editor at ARTINFO Canada and writes freelance on contemporary art. He’s published in venues such as The Los Angeles Review of BooksThe New Inquiry, and esse and worked at institutions including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He lives and works in Montreal.