Table of Contents


This book exists in three forms:

1. This website.

2. I have taken the 2017 version of this website and made a book out of it (left image at top). The book can be purchased for $22.49 here.

3. A succinct selection from this website is avbailable as a short book (right image at top), published by Edinburgh University Press, available free on Academia.  

As always: all comments, criticism, etc. are welcome. Email


This book (full-length book, 200+ pages), with a question for a title, is part of a larger project on the history, theory, and possibilities of writing that includes images.

By "writing," in the wider project, I generally mean fiction (modernist, experimental, conceptual, unclassifiable) but also nonfiction (including some art history, art criticism, cultural criticism, visual studies, and art theory).

By "images" I mean principally photographs (but also charts, diagrams, maps, photocopies, and other graphics) and sometimes drawings and paintings.

The larger project is therefore meant to be about all writing that includes images, and especially novels and experimental fiction with photographs in the text. That larger theme surrounds the topic of these chapters, which are focused on the narrower subject of experimental writing on fine art, and especially writing that presents itself as art history. The idea is to try to lead from the specifics of art history out into wider spheres, and eventually into any writing (fiction included) that uses images (which aren't necessarily art). In all this, writing has center stage.

What is Interesting Writing in Art History? and its surrounding project, called Writing with Images, are exercises in criticism. They're also meant to be practical, because I am trying to open this field for myself, for my own writing. I hope these chapters can be useful to others who write, necessarily, differently.


All of this material has been written online, and I am grateful to the readers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and on my website and Online readers of online drafts are thanked in the text, in this fashion: "Reading a draft of this chapter, Joseph Post wrote that..." The text is therefore crowd-sourced, and it has also developed in the conventional way, as a product of readings in the seminars I teach in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute.

Related material appears in “Das Ende des Schreibens über Kunst,” interview with Ruedi Widmer, in Laienherrschaft: 18 Exkurse zum Verhlältnis von Künsten und Medien (Berlin: Diaphenes, 2014), 71–85. My own vita is here.


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 whatever 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 history, criticism, or theory. 

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, 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.

Chapter 1

The Space Between Interesting Writing and Art History

I have in mind three frames for this project. Each one centers on a text I wrote for some other occasion. Looking back on these scattered writings, I am surprised to see that they align very accurately, as if I had had this project in mind all along. (It's not a very comfortable feeling, because it also means that much of that earlier work was to one side of an unnoticed, or at least undeveloped, central theme. It took me a long time to recognize that theme.)

I am hoping that beginning with excerpts will not seem too indulgent; I have certainly been put off by authors who quote themselves. Each of the three texts I will be revisiting here had specific purposes in relation to art history, theory, and criticism, and it matters that the general idea of "writing with images" began in such contexts. Still, if you would like to begin with the thing itself, stripped of the problems that generated it, please go straight to chapter 4.

Each of these three excerpts concerns a gap between established forms of writing on art and what could, in different ways, be called interesting writing. The first gap is between writing and art history. The second is the smaller, but just as treacherous gap between interesting writing and visual studies; and the third is about the positive gulf between writing and art theory, aesthetics, and philosophy.

The seed of this project, and my first try at articulating a space between art history and interesting writing, was in the opening and closing pages from the book Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: On Art History as Writing (1997, reprinted 2000). That was, or is, a long and oddly assembled inquiry into art historical writing. 

That book's introduction sets up the complaint. Then I reproduce the book's final page in its entirety.

1. Preface to the Routledge paperback edition (2000)

The book you’re holding is a strange introduction to art history. Strange because it fails to round up the usual suspects like social art history, psychoanalysis, feminism, deconstruction, or postcolonial theory. Strange, too, because it omits some of the leading work in the discipline. It may need more of an introduction than I first gave it, so I am adding a few words here of encouragement and apology.

The three basic arguments of the book can be put succinctly. First, I am dissatisfied with the usual way of learning the discipline, in which students study parts of some theory (say Lacanian psychoanalysis) whenever it seems helpful for interpreting the art that interests them. That practice leads to monographs that read like tours of different theories: a little linguistics from Jakobsen, then some semiotics from Saussure or Barthes, an anthropological account of liminality or hybridity, and perhaps some reference to performative speech acts. This is exaggerating a little, but not much: it has become normal in art history to move from one interpretive model to another. Various names of drift in and out of the writing: Benjamin, Warburg, Riegl, Badiou, Foucault, Rancière, Deleuze. In a sense, that state of affairs is unobjectionable—after all, it serves the practical goal of finding the best words to describe the art.

Behind this successful practice is a simple assumption, which I think should be deeply troubling: that it is possible to tell which theories are appropriate, and to know how and when they should be applied. I doubt that the motives or methods of interpretation are as well controlled as is often thought. That is the reason I avoid expositing individual theories in this book. The idea is to stop applying theories, or even studying them, and look at the whole discipline more abstractly. I want to ask: What tells me that I have found an optimal way to interpret a work? Do I know why I am attracted to this theory, or that one? It strikes me art historians are confident about these questions, and one purpose of this book is to reflect on that confidence until it disappears.

The second theme enlarges the first: I want to argue that much of art history (and not just the manipulation of theories) is not entirely conscious. Most of this book is a meditation on the ways art historians meander among the works, only half in control of the discipline that leads them. Thinking about art and history is like daydreaming: we drift in and out of awareness of what we’re doing. Sometimes it may be clear what impels me to write a certain passage: other days, I have very little idea why a certain theory rings true, or a certain phrase sounds right. This book is a compendium of reasons why art historians are not in full control, and in that respect it runs strongly against the grain of contemporary theorizing, which remains rational and confident in the face of any number of post-structuralist accounts of the breakdown of intentionality and perfect rationality. Some readers of the first printing of this book thought it was unnecessarily pessimistic and anti-logical. For me, those aren’t bad things: I am half asleep when I look at art, and when I try to write about history. That’s the maziness of it, the lovely hopelessness of ever understanding my reactions to art outside of art history.

The third and last theme is the most important, and it is the reason I am happy to see this book reprinted, even with all its unresolved conundra and odd backwaters. In the end, art history is a kind of writing. It has its blindnesses and its moments of control just like any other writing, and it expresses the lives and the thoughts of its writers just as much as any fiction. Normally art historians don’t think about the writing as writing, because it seems more important to convey the facts of the past that are being recovered and displayed for the present. Yet there is no way around it: what we write, as art historians—as academics of any sort—expresses who we are. By not thinking too much about the expressive dimension of our writing, we end up writing poorly. From a writer’s point of view, the writing in a typical art history journal might seem beautiful, but it probably also sounds dry and emotionally distant. In other words—to put it as directly as I can—to an outsider art history will often seem like bad writing, concocted by someone uninterested in the writer’s self, and unaware of the writer’s voice. Some contemporary art historians are at work on this problem, but the recent interest in first-person writing has only made matters worse, because it has injected an unmodulated confessional voice into a setting where it just doesn’t fit. Good writing, as the rarity of good writers attests, is harder than that.

Does this matter? Well, it doesn’t if the only purpose of writing art history is to learn about the past. But if you ask yourself what you are actually producing, what you are spending your life making, then it starts to matter more than anything else. I’ve said this as strongly as I can in the last page of this book, and I still think that page is worth the price of admission. The rest is a thicket of problems that can have no clear solutions: if they were clear, they wouldn’t be art history.

2. Envoi, on our dry texts

It would be wrong to conclude without underscoring the unimportance of all this.

To say that what art historians and other academics write is rarely read outside a community of like-minded scholars, is to say that it will be forgotten forever. The books we write—most emphatically including this one—are consigned to dust from the instant they appear. Some, which will never be read, turn to dust in our hands, even before they are printed. Each year there are tens of thousands of dissertations in the humanities, and even seminal texts are lost in fifty years’ time. Scholarship, as Derrida says, is dangerously “biodegradable.”

Thinking about the differences between the kinds of writing that go under names such as art history, visual theory, methodology, and historiography, I have been led toward a way of considering the texts that is, in important respects, alien to all of them. In general terms, the readings in this book approach art historical writing as if it were expressive in intent.

What I have wanted to know is how the writing stands up as writing, as what is uninformatively called imaginative or creative writing—as if a principal purpose of art historical writing were to act on a reader as a novel, a short story, or a poem, rather than as a source of information. In doing so I have tried to read the texts in a fuller way, and cast some light on the nature of their relation to one another; but I have also been motivated by some ideas about the value of scholarly writing in general. The conviction on which this book is built is that in the end all the questions we customarily ask ourselves regarding the choice of theories and theorists, methods and methodologies, evidence, interpretation, and the constitution of the discipline are swept aside by what we actually produce. Our writing is our testament, it is what matters about what we do. And if that is the case, then our writing must be understood as an expressive endeavor, one that speaks for us and for our contemporary situation. To me art history is in a certain sense an arbitrary profession, since I tend to use it to explore my own thoughts, and to learn about myself. An object is always also a mirror of what I want to see, and of how I understand myself.

What this commonplace helps us remember is that even though our texts afford some challenging puzzles, academic writing may be inexpressive and in the end uninteresting because it is chosen by people who do not wish their writing to compete on a higher level. There has always been truth in Nietzsche’s descriptions of scholars (“the herd animal in the realm of knowledge,” and so forth) and in those terms, art historical writing may be a fitting expressive vehicle: a kind of writing that is highly evolved to complement and maintain a certain kind of life.

Our texts appear as history, as facts, as discoveries, as stories, even sometimes as truths, and they function in all of those capacities—but they are also our way of recording who we are. We need to begin to think about how our quizzical, convoluted, dry and distant writing tells the story of our lives.


Those two excerpts from Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: On Art History as Writing can stand as they are to express what I think is missing from art history. Today I wouldn't say art history is necessarily "distant" and "dry," although it often is. But art historians still pick and assemble theorists and theories without paying attention to how they have been chosen or how they work together. And that, in turn, is only possible when the historian isn't paying attention to the writing itself, to its voice, its coherence, or its expressive content. Art history remains, in that sense, very much unconscious.

In art history there is an intermittent interest in writing, and an inconstant awareness that in poststructuralism, writing cannot be adequately understood as a utilitarian vehicle for the articulation of historical thought. But writing on writing in art history has tended to be local (regarding qualities attributed to the writing of individual art historians), disciplinary (involving judgments about whether certain writers can usefully be considered primarily as art historians), or abstract (regarding the importance of writing, in general, in poststructuralism since Barthes). At the same time, art history as a discipline remains oblivious of the state of contemporary literary theory, so art historical discussions of writing tend to be conceptually and analytically impoverished, and to depend on old-fashioned criteria of literary style and taste.

Writing in art history is constrained four times over:

1. By disciplinary habits, expectations, and protocols about art historical narrative, argument, evidence, and citation. These aren't uniform: they differ from one publication to the next, and they change from one decade to the next; but they exert a strong influence on the field. Every young art historian writing in English knows what kinds of narratives might be acceptable to The Art Bulletin or October.

2. By the disciplinary agreement that writing is optimal when it is clear, serviceable, economical, direct, persuasive, and adequate to its subject. What Cicero called narratio or infinum, the “plain style,” is the default ideal for art history and much of the humanities. Clarity—Hermogenes’s term is sapheneia—is the principal goal. (In effect art history and visual studies also admit the “middle style,” aequabile, whose purpose is to please, but not the “high style,” supra, whose purpose is to move the reader.)

3. By the disciplinary consensus that rhetorical properties of writing, such as metaphor, allegory, apostrophe, repetition, are understood to be potentially useful or pertinent, but not central or essential. Rhetoric, in general, is imagined as an ornament on writing. (There is a link here with art criticism, which sometimes imagines itself as unconstrained by academic concerns: in art criticism, too, informational, plain style writing is imagined as a base, on which rhetoric is built.)

4. By the disciplinary custom of limiting moments of expressive writing. Tone, address, style, manner, mood, voice, diction, authorial self-reference, the lyric, and metanarrative are intermittently encouraged in graduate students' writing, but only within the bounds of proper disciplinary interests.

Outside of these constraints, and outside the art historical constraint of writing about fine art, there is the unexplored territory of writing in general, as it has been theorized in literary criticism since modernism began, and in poststructuralism since the 1960s.

Reading a draft of this text online, Karen Schiff wondered what the goal of abandoning conventions might be, other than the pleasure of writing. My interest is in what might have to happen in order for art history and its neighboring disciplines to take writing as seriously as it has been taken since Barthes, Derrida, De Man, Altieri, Conley, Culler, Perloff, Apter, and many other critics and theorists. What I have in mind is a critique of art history's senses of writing, and how it presents writing to itself. 

In general, and with many exceptions, art historical writing remains dry, timid, affectively distant, conservative, and often inadequate to the very works it wants to address: and part of the reason for that failure of writing is a reticence about writing itself. The principal goal for writing outside certain conventions is to engage writing, and therefore the condition of the humanities in the twenty-first century, more fully. A secondary goal, which would not be mine, would be to capture more historical meaning for art history.

Chapter 2

The Space Between Interesting Writing and Visual Studies

The second starting point for this project was a gap between interesting writing and visual studies. This excerpt from Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction is the last entry in a list called “Ten Ways to Make Visual Studies More Difficult.” The passage turns on the strange position occupied by John Berger, who was a model and precedent for much of what visual studies has become.

The Challenge of Writing Ambitiously

What can I say on this last subject that has not been said before by every scholar to herself, or deliberately left unsaid by every academic who thinks of writing as an effect of politics, or repressed by every historian who wants to imagine that writing is the transparent vehicle of truth? Nothing new, except that it is seldom a good idea to try not to think about what ambitious writing means in your field. Ambition, for lack of an easier and more manageable word, is essential to a visual studies that is committed to being less easy. 

When it comes time to write an article or a book, think concertedly about the kind of writing you hope to produce. There is no penalty for paying attention to writing itself, and often there is a reward: what you write will be read more widely. 

Here is an example to indicate how under-theorized the problem of good writing in visual studies has become. In my experience a surprisingly wide range of people who study art history and visual culture name John Berger as an important inspiration. I have been told so by scholars who specialize in such different fields as performance art, the semiotics of cubism, and the history of design. Berger seems to have become a patron saint of social art history and visual culture to a degree that social art historians such as Frederick Antal or Arnold Hauser never did. 

What makes this strange is that no art historian or specialist in visual culture writes anything like Berger… Why don’t the many people who have taken inspiration from Berger’s Ways of Seeing and About Looking also take on board any of the kinds of writing that he practices? 

I can think of two answers, both somewhat depressing. Most of us do not think of ourselves as poets and novelists, and therefore we excuse ourselves from experimentation; and most of us have, at one time, wanted tenure, and tenure requires propriety. Here is how I would put the question that I think remains when these two inadequate answers are set aside: given that academic social art history and visual culture has found Berger’s message about the politics and gender of seeing so fruitful, what kind of elaboration of his position has allowed contemporary scholars to avoid Berger’s conviction that the writer’s voice is never irrelevant, that gender and politics require the writer to involve the writing? 

A few people working on visual studies do take the writer’s voice seriously—so few I can count them on one hand: the sometimes brilliantly incoherent Jean-Louis Schefer, the ecstatic and unpredictable Joanna Frueh, the kaleidoscopic and confessional Hélène Cixous, the slightly paranoid, inconsistent, and often inspiring Dave Hickey. (That’s paranoid about what academics think, inconsistent about his desire to ignore them, and inspiring for people trying to.) Writers like these do not form a set—although by coincidence Hickey and Frueh taught in the two largest cities in Nevada—and that testifies to the rarity and difficulty of genuinely experimental writing. Most art historians and visual theorists interested in the writing and the writer’s voice keep their experiments narrow and safe, so that academic work is well separated from poetry, reverie, and fiction…

That is all that I think is worth saying about writing ambitiously. If you are a student or a scholar, writing is what you do. It can only make sense to do it absolutely as well as you are able. 


I wrote the original version of that passage in 2003, and I think it’s still true. Only today I would put it more strongly. There is no discourse in the field of visual studies regarding writing. The field includes a fair amount of experimental writing (for example in The Visual Culture Reader) but no one has said how writing might work in visual studies: the discourse on writing in visual studies is even more impoverished than it is in art history.  

This is a second starting point for this project: art history has an impoverished sense of what constitutes good writing, but visual studies has no visible sense of writing at all. Visual studies has spent very little time considering writing; despite the overlaps between visual studies and experimental forms of nonfiction, the fields of visual culture, Bildwissenschaft, and visual studies are effectively naïve about writing. And yet at the same time visual studies intermittently claims to possess a new sense of how images work with texts, how they “theorize” or “argue,” and how art history has failed to acknowledge those properties—there's more on this in Theorizing Visual Studies. In this context I just want to register the paucity of literary criticism in visual studies.

Chapter 3

The Space Between Interesting Writing and Art Theory

The third starting point is the book What Photography Is, which is a reply to Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida; I had the idea that in order to respond fully to Barthes's book, it would be necessary to take writing as seriously as he did. What that means, to me, is that the writing should risk overwhelming the argument: Barthes was bereft, and he knew his thoughts about his mother were flooding his thoughts about photography. When he was writing Camera Lucida, he was also thinking about writing a novel—or at least pondering what such an enterprise might be like. In Camera Lucida, writing is unchained from many academic protocols and linked to undependable conditions: it is bound to doubt, and entangled with mourning. I tried, in a different way, to do the same.

1. From the Introduction

There is career and community, and then, for me, there are also sources of visual pleasure and fascination that just do not fit with current critical discourse. It’s like Freud’s division of desires into “love” and “work.” I see that for many of my colleagues, there is a fairly good match between the things they love about visual art and the writing they produce as scholars. For me, love and work have finally been coming apart. It’s not a divorce, exactly: I still spend most of my time writing as an academic, contributing to books like Photography Theory. But increasingly I find that it matters a great deal to resist the tremendous tidal pull of academic discourse, to recover and nourish the things I have seen and felt on my own.

So many scholars are overwhelmed by the oceans of words that well up from the past, by the intoxicating sharpness of academia, by the occasionally riveting language of scholarship, by the glow of hard-won approval. They come to forget that they are not writing about what it is in art that gives them pleasure, that transfixes them, that makes them speechless. Or they think they are, but what they are producing is books that only other scholars read, where moments of encounter are braced by hard argument or safely cosseted in soft footnotes. That kind of writing can produce rewarding careers, but not books that speak beyond the conference circuit. It is dangerously easy to live a full academic career, imagining that your writing expresses your best thoughts about art, when in the end it never really has.

What matters in scholarship is research, argument, persuasion, and originality, and those ideals make it easy to spend your entire working life without thinking of your own voice. I know that almost nothing in this book can be justified as scholarship, or even as criticism, but it is what I want to write because it is what I have seen for myself.

2. It occurred to me that despite my promises to attend to writing at the possible expense of argument, my book had proposed a number of things about photography and hadn't been undermined by the attention I had paid to writing. This is from the end of the book:

I find I am starting to talk again about Barthes’s claims, and not his writing. I suppose that I should be content not being able to tell if the acid of writing has entirely perforated this book, eating away its claims about photography, or even if it is the same sort of acid that seeps through Camera Lucida, weakening its stability, undermining its logic.

At least I have tried to see what it might look like, just for me, just with this one subject, if we take our allegiance to the poststructural critique of truth, writing, and philosophy as seriously as we say we do, and actually write something that forgets to behave itself, that fails to be dependable, that isn’t good scholarship, but that tries to remember that even the most determinedly erudite and well-researched monograph is only writing.


Despite these passages, and my best attempts to let writing have its say even over photography, reviews and responses to this book were all about its claims. The book is full of claims, but it is also about writing, and what it means to try to mix strong affect and an openness about writing with the intention to argue about something as specific as photography. Art theory, I think, needs to consider the dissonance between its interest in truth and its model of writing.


Envoi, on artwriting in general

This list, leading from art history to visual studies and art theory, could be expanded to include art criticism, artspeak, and artwriting in general. In some art criticism there's an extreme contrast between the experimental nature of the writing and the lack of discussion about writing. It's as if there's an unwritten rule in art criticism: experimental writing is what's needed to move beyond academic models, but any discussion of the modes of experimentation would be academic.

Good writing in art criticism is often portrayed as mainly a matter of avoiding academic clichés, jargon, or International Art English. Sympathetic responses to IAE tended to share the authors' assumption that jargon—in the sense of technical language, ambiguity, and intricate sentence constructions—is avoidable. But Adorno and other difficult writers are part of the historical reception of art, and so their concepts, and in some cases their imprecision about their concepts, cannot be simply avoided in the name of clarity or some undefined sense of good writing. There is much to agree with in Alix Rule and David Levine's argument, for example the "semantic unmooring" of IAE, and its propensity to be what they call "pornographic." But speaking seriously about art in the twenty-first century does involve coming to terms with the inheritance of the Frankfurt School, phenomenology, and other discourses that necessarily, structurally, involve complexities of the kind that lead Rule and Levine to conclude that the writing has unnecessarily departed from some norms of clarity or logic. "One might object," as Michael Warner does, "that the need for unfamiliar thought is not the same as the need for unfamiliar language," and yet one might also want to agree with Judith Butler that "the apparent clarity of common sense is corrupt with ideology." (Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 2002, p. 132.) 

At times some obscurity of the kind Rule and Levine describe is necessary and appropriate; many other times it isn't. A discussion of Adorno or Benjamin has to involve concepts and language that may appear to some readers as unnecessary, mannered, obscure or obscurantist, academic, or "pornographic." But good writing is itself impoverished when it is imagined as the opposite to some construction such as IAE. What matters about writing is much broader than what is contained in debates about jargon or academic styles.

Like art history and visual studies, the practices of art theory, art criticism, artspeak, and general forms of artwriting all share a lack of serious attention to style, manner, mode, voice, rhetoric, and other nameable elements of the study of writing. The subject I'm hoping to address here is not the exclusive province of university-based practices.