Introduction: What is "Interesting Writing"?

In this project several words get asked to do some work they don't usually do. For example it is necessary to try to say, even if only provisionally, what sorts of writing present themselves as "interesting" in this context. Especially in the art world, "interesting," is a stereotypically, famously useless word, because it may mean either a principled avoidance of aesthetic judgment (that is how Donald Judd used it) or an unprincipled avoidance of the responsibility of judgment. There are several sources for the problems of the use of "interesting." It's discussed in Art Critiques: A Guide; in Beyond the Aesthetic and the Anti-Aesthetic; and in Sianne Ngai's The Zany, The Cute, and the Interesting. 

In this project, "interesting" means avant-garde or otherwise innovative in relation to some tradition—initially, that will be forms of contemporary art history. Sometimes I also mean "interesting" to denote "experimental," as in postmodern and contemporary experimental writing. (The term "experimental" is nearly as problematic as "interesting"; it is discussed in the companion project to this one, Writing with Images.) The important thing is that the writing in question knows itself to be in an unusual relation to what ever is taken to be normative or expected writing practice in the discipline, genre, or mode in question—again, initially that will be art history. There has to be a feeling of resistance or discontent: something that is being departed from, a practice that seems inadequate for some reason. The writers I consider are either thinking about what might be the best future or optimal form for the discipline, or else they are not proposing their work be counted as disciplinary art history. I will work on those characterizations as I go: for the moment I just want to register the essential quality of dissatisfaction or distance. I think the same can be said for experimental writing when the qualifier "interesting" is applied to contemporary conceptual writing, flarf, constrained writing, language poetry, spam lit, code writing, or intentionally "unoriginal" writing: each of those practices presents itself as different from some other practice that is taken as normative.

Hence a crucial criterion for the texts I consider here is that they attempt to diverge from some specifiable prior or existing practice of art historical writing. This criterion is meant to exclude two kinds of writing in and around art history that otherwise might be pertinent: first, writing that is normative or unremarkable or does not present itself as anything other than clear and eloquent (examples can be found in any art history journal, such as The Art Bulletin); second, writing that is non-normative but not in relation to any specifiable model or practice (this happens, for example, in artist's books that take art as their subject matter). The first of those exclusions will be apparent enough in all the selections I make in this project. The second is more problematic, I think, because it means I will usually not be looking at the very large field of artist's books—but that is an issue for the second project, "writing with images."

"Interesting" is a critical judgment made against a certain history. The impetus to write with attention to the words, the writer's voice, the narrative, the form, the rhetoric, and the possibilities of language does not come from a generalized ambition. It springs, for me, from two historically determined sources: the conviction, since poststructuralism, that writing engulfs all our best attempts at rigor, objectivity, and control; and a growing awareness, on my part, of an unsettling gulf between writing's sad closeted existence in disciplines such as art history, and its flourishing life in contemporary fiction, theory, and literary criticism.


  1. Once again, Mr. Elkins, you have fascinated and inspired me. The considerations of theories of images in themselves, versus the same considerations of text on images--and everything in between--can be the MFA student's minefield or rose garden. I have seen enough MFA work to form the opinion that the tendency is to slide one way or the other, with the best solutions being images in series that stand on their own. I have worked with palimpsest theory and am currently exploring the phenomenon of allusion in images: cracking the nut of Twombly's work as a beginning, but this article has opened a new path.
    Thanks again,
    Jahner (Ken) Johnson

  2. “Captions are a custom like call-outs, and they can be discarded. Clearing them away helps focus a reader's attention on what the pictures are saying.”

    --But isn’t the title of a work, the dimensions and media important to understanding the work? Viewing images in a book is bad enough; displaying images on the net--a highly filtered picture of the art that can be viewed on a phone or a jumbo-tron--is the difference between viewing a live stage play and sitting through a movie.

    “… and so I want the stakes to be as high as possible: compelling images, compelling texts. Writing that demands to be read, images that call out to be seen. Dispersing either one creates new possibilities, but those games have fewer rules, they are easier to play. Aesthetics can conceal many unresolved moments.”

    --But isn’t unwrapping the concealment of “unresolved moments” the essence of art appreciation? the dialogue between artist and viewer? Does everything need to be an inch from the end of our noses?

    1. Thanks for that. About the second point: true. But perhaps there is not much is always gained by "unwrapping" something like a page of blurred text: it is blurred so that it conjures legible text, and "unwrapping" (interpreting) that just means acknowledging the author's intention to gesture in the direction of legibility.

      The first point: yes, to a point: the information in captions serves several purposes (copyright, references that enable readers to go see the actual image, reminders of size). So I couldn't generalize: but most of what happens in captions is disciplinary habit and requirement, not narrative necessity.