In 2009, Christopher Hitchens, who was devoted to impeccable writing but also expected his readers to sit up and pay attention, wrote a review of a book about Abraham Lincoln. The biographer acknowledged that while he’d made many educated guesses about Lincoln’s life, he had omitted from the text any qualifying phrases such as, “It seems likely that…”
Hitchens responded favorably to this decision. “It is agreeable to be informed,” he noted, “when embarking on such a long and demanding work, that one will be treated like a grown-up.”
Hitchens’ assessment got me thinking about relationships among artists, writers, and viewers. What we need, I think, when we experience works of art, is generous maturity: artists who do what they must do, rigorously, and who talk and write about what they do, vigorously; curators and writers and critics who employ their intellectual, physical, psychological, emotional, and all other faculties in understanding and interpreting what artists are up to; and viewers who allow themselves to relax deeply into comprehending a mind unlike their own.
Over the weekend, I read an early 1990s interview of the artist Allan McCollum. I’d been curious about his work because I was drawn to it whenever I saw it, but I had really no idea what he was getting at. McCollum was fantastic in the interview, talking about how his work relates to art history, to museums and galleries, to collections of personal souvenirs, to fossils and deep time, to longing for what we don’t have, to the expectation that artists will only create rare objects, to the eroticism of industrial design, to the poignancy that is unacknowledged in every human life.
The McCollum interview threw me back to Tom Wolfe and his objections to art that needs interpretation, and to arguments about whether artists can ever reliably interpret their own work. But I like hearing artists talk about their work. I needed McCollum’s voice to give me a point of entry.
Grayson Perry, the 2003 winner of the Tate Britain’s Turner Prize, and an artist whose work is very, very different from McCollum’s, said recently, "People outside the art world often want art to be instantly gratifying, and I say, 'No, it's not going to happen like that.' You can't walk into an art gallery and expect to know and understand and appreciate it all on the first visit. Art history is a long conversation...."
That’s the key, isn’t it? Grown-up conversation. Let’s talk.
Books and articles mentioned here:
Christopher Hitchens, “Abraham Lincoln: Misery’s Child,” in Arguably, a collection of essays published in 2011 by Twelve Books. The biography reviewed is Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life.
Allan McCollum interviewed by Thomas Lawson
Originally published in Allan McCollum, A.R.T. Press, Los Angeles, 1996.
Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, was first published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1975. It’s available in many subsequent editions.
Grayson Perry in “National Treasure?” Apollo, December, 2013.