It’s Complicated

Art historian Isabelle Graw wants us to stop idealising friendship.

Isabelle Graw. Photo: Rob Kulisek.

In 1990, Isabelle Graw founded the art magazine Texte zur Kunst in Cologne, together with Stefan Germer (1958–1998). Aiming at interweaving art history with visual studies and popular culture, social history, and philosophy, Texte zur Kunst has for years been a leading voice in the arts, juxtaposing writing by established academics and theorists with that of younger, often more activist voices. In addition to being Texte zur Kunst’s publisher, Graw is Professor of Art History and Art Theory at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where in 2003 she founded, together with Daniel Birnbaum, the Institute for Art Criticism, which has since published several books on art criticism and theory, as well as seminal essay collections by figures such as John Kelsey, Kim Gordon, and Jutta Koether. As an academic, she has written extensively on the value of art and painting theory, most recently in her 2018 book The Love of Painting.

In the past, Graw has tried her hand at literary fiction as well, commencing in 2018 with her combined memoir and social critique In Another World: Notes, 2014–2017 and continuing with a book on friendship titled Vom Nutzen der Freundschaft (On the Benefits of Friendship) which came out in July and will be published in English later this year. Drawing from Graw’s own friendships and experiences from the art world and beyond, the book takes the form of a fictionalised diary interspersed with discussions of the cultural history of friendships. I met with Graw via Zoom in the beginning of July, just days before her German book launch. Among other things, our conversation circled around her thoughts on friendships in the art world, the conditions for art criticism today, her ambivalent loveof painting, and her turn to more experimental writing.

Congratulations on your upcoming book on friendship! Before going on this video call with you, I was re-reading your memoir In Another World, where you write poignantly on the liberating feeling of being in between having finished a book and waiting for its release. I hope this is where you’re at now. What was your motivation for writing this book?

That is indeed my current mood; I am nervous but calm. The attraction, potential, and pitfalls of friendships – especially in the art economy – is something that has interested me for a long time. For me personally, coming from a more or less dysfunctional family, a shifting circle of friends has been of enormous importance. In my youth, projecting on friends and the possibility of having a circle of like-minded people that would support me was an ongoing theme, and this was something that the art world could provide for. I’m looking particularly at questions around how to negotiate friendships that are partly instrumental in nature, which means that there’s a certain degree of mutual use and benefit.

“Avantgarde und Massenkultur,” issue No. 1 of Texte zur Kunst from September 1990.

You’ve written about instrumental friendships in the art world previously as well. In The Love of Painting, you write that you find it crucial as a critic to have close and personal contact with painters who are regarded as relevant or influential. And in the 2020 essay ‘Ponge and Us: For a Doubly Materialist Art Criticism’, you point to how the French poet Francis Ponge didn’t shy away from exposing the instrumental nature between writer and artist, considering these friendships both instrumental and based on true feelings.

I think that these kinds of ‘useful’ friendships are pretty common in the art world and the cultural sphere in general.  I’m interested in the vulnerability of these bonds that are on the one hand based on sympathy and affection, and on the other hand have an instrumental trait. What happens with these friendships if one of the involved suddenly seems to have less to offer professionally? And what does it mean to cooperate closely with friends that – in today’s economy – are also often our competitors? In times of ideological and political rifts, I’m also wondering how prone to crisis these friendships are; what happens, for example, if a friend drifts to the right politically, becomes a corona denier, and so on?

Is that why you found it pressing to write on friendship now?

In a way, yes. I was supposed to write a book on the value of art, which I delayed in favour of this one. One of the reasons for this was that it seemed to me that friendship is one of the last ideological sites that has not been reconsidered and demystified yet. In his deconstructive perspective on friendship [The Politics of Friendship, 1993], Jacques Derrida proposes to understand friendship as something that is based on misrecognition and misunderstanding. But Derrida still seems to idealise the mostly intellectual bonds between always male friends. I was more interested in other types of friendships between subjects who identify as women for instance and in the feminisation of friendship that has occurred lately. It was equally important for me to look at the dark side of friendship: how it can be a site of pain and disappointment as much as fulfilment and joy.

While romantic love is now regarded as deeply immersed into economic rituals of consumption due to the studies of Eva Illouz on Tinder, friendship still gets idealised. I wanted to reconsider friendship in view of its increased importance in an economy that tends to isolate us from one another. When traditional family ties have been weakened as well, friendships are strongly associated with the hope for life-long care, support, and solidarity. But at the same time, friendships are structures prone to failure – and this coexistence between an idealistic belief in friendship and the new challenges friendship faces interested me.

Love and friendship are themes that have been on the agenda in the art world for some time.

It is true that there is an increased interest in ‘friends’ of artists – often as a way to provide context for artistic practices. But the dominant take on friendship in most of the exhibitions that I’ve seen is quite idealistic. I miss an acknowledgment of the bad feelings that occur in friendships as well. Where is the aggression, the disappointment, the rivalry, or the paranoia between friends? For me, friendships are both: a haven for joy and solidarity, and a site of difficulties and pain. I wanted to do justice to both of these aspects by writing a book that is a lament and a hymn on friendship.

In artistic production, friendship has, since the early modern times, had a knowledge-generating function. If you look at the early painting treatises of [Leon Battista] Alberti or [André] Félibien, you find that they always underline how their knowledge of painting derived from intense discussions with their artists friends, like Raphael or Poussin. Since the early modern times you also often have a situation where critics and theorists write about their friends. It is easy to condemn this as nepotism, but I think that is too simple. There are often good reasons for writing about the work of one’s friends. Most importantly, you might be so close to what’s on their mind and you might understand what is at stake in their work. You also support the work because you have a quite unique understanding of it. Of course, there are many instances where distance can also contribute to interesting insights about a practice, and I’m not at all trying to say that writing about friends should be the norm. But being close to an artist makes one realise how artistic production is not something that comes from nowhere or falls from the sky, but that it is always related to and evolves from discussion, situated in an artistic formation that very often consists of friends. I think that there is an enormous productivity inscribed in these friendships.

On the other hand, we have Aristotle, who coined the term “utility friendship,” which according to him could never be a true friendship because true friendship is free of self-interest. But in my opinion these “utility friendships”  that are marked by use and benefit can not be clearly delineated from “true friendships,” where one is befriended for who one is, or seems to be. In reality, instrumental expectations and a strong degree of attraction, sympathy, and love go hand in hand.

The Florentine School, Leone Battista Alberti, ca 1600-1650. Oil on canvas.

Have you had any realisations on how to negotiate the ambiguities of such relationships?

Once friendships have an instrumental subtext – and I think that this is true for most of the friendships in the art world, if not all – they have a better chance to survive long term if their instrumental dimension gets addressed, reflected upon, and spoken about as a problem. At least, that is my experience when going through difficult phases with friends.

In my experience, the competitiveness and utility aspects of friendships in the art world are rarely addressed.

It is very difficult to address these latent subtexts as they are often atmospheric and hard to grasp. No one wants to sound paranoid or overly sensitive, but I think everyone knows the feeling of slight jealousy or rivalry if a friend or colleague is very lucky and gets an incredible opportunity. Although you’re happy for your friend, on some level there might be a slight sting. You’re right about the fact that these difficulties are rarely addressed, and in my experience, if you don’t address them, they have a tendency to get sedimented in the friendship. At the same time, some things have to be left unspoken for the friendship to persist and survive. While I don’t believe in transparency when it comes to friendships, I do believe that work is needed if you want to keep your friends in the long run. [Sociologist] Klaus Theweleit famously insisted on love being a lot of work, and I think that this is true for friendship as well. Even though it is rarely treated as such, it is a site of work.

Texte zur Kunst, the magazine that you founded in 1990, also came out of a group of cooperating friends. It has now been running for over thirty years. What main movements within the magazine and art criticism in general do you trace over this time?

It’s impossible for me to have an overview over the many debates and shifts during the last thirty years. I tend to not look back so much and rather consider the issues that we will do in the future. But one thing comes to mind: from the very start, there was a strong emphasis on context, social history, and insights of feminist and psychoanalytic theory for art history. And instead of just focusing on the present, we wanted the magazine to have a strong historical investment. The magazine was from the get-go a meeting point between a scholar specialised in eighteenth-century art history – which was my co-founder Stefan Germer – and myself, who was interested in a sociological analysis of the field of contemporary art. Apart from this emphasis on context and historicity, it was important for us to take popular culture and the formations of cultural studies and visual culture that evolved in the 1990s seriously as a type of knowledge production that needed to be integrated into our art-historical methodology. Lastly, we wanted to consider artists as discourse producers as well, and especially a group of artists that the magazine was associated with early on, from Renée Green to Jutta Koether, and many others. They all wrote texts for us on a regular basis that had a very different discursivity than that of the critics or art historians.

Many twists and turns followed over the years. For example, in 1992–93, we realised that our emphasis on social context and social history maybe blinded us to the material specificity of the artwork, which made us focus more on material formal languages. Then came 1996, or 97, with the so-called methodological struggle, which was a conference with our colleagues from the American art journal October. We argued about the rise of cultural studies and visual cultures, which they considered as a threat that would lead to a deskilling of art history. We, by contrast, were convinced that you needed popular culture knowledge if you wanted to understand the practices of artists like Mike Kelley or Zoe Leonard. It was a harsh debate at the time, which caused polarisations and rifts, but which since has calmed down completely. More recently, we did an issue on globalisation in order to do justice to the changing maps of artistic production and the world we were operating in. A reconsidering of the canon operated in a similar way. We were also interested in fashion and regularly looked at this industry as a kind of structural precursor to those structural shifts that also seemed happened in the artistic field, albeit with a slight delay. Personally, I’ve also always been interested in questions of value, and we’ve done several issues on the art market and the specific value-form of the artwork.

Zoe Leonard, I want a president, 1992. A High Line Commission, on view October 2016–March 2017. Courtesy Friends of the High Line. Photo: Timothy Schenck.

How would you describe the current state of Texte zur Kunst?

In the last years, it has been important for me to make Texte zur Kunst an intergenerational meeting point between a younger, very politicised generation that rightly insists on a post-colonial perspective, a revision of the Western canon and a very critical perspective on critique and art history, and the older members of our advisory board who still remember similar debates from the early 1990s. We’ve had many highly politicised issues in the past years, and sometimes maybe downplayed the fact that we’re an art magazine. For me, it is important to relate political debates on discrimination or collectivity to questions of artistic production. I am also really interested in developing different languages of critique in the magazine and to include more experimental or literary forms of writing. Since we are currently faced with a tendency towards collective amnesia, I also find it important to fight for a historical awareness and to relate the current debates and practices to former ones.

The upcoming issue on “resortization” is quite important to me. This is a term I coined to point to the renewed structural transformations of the art economy. I use the word resort here in two senses. Metaphorically, it points to Instagram and social media in general, which can be seen as a secluded resort-like place that abstracts from labor conditions. In another, more literal sense, the word evokes the luxury resort, places characterised by lack of accessibility, like the South Hamptons, Aspen, Monaco, and so on. Mega galleries have opened branches here in order to mirror their clients and in order to share a certain lifestyle with them. These resorts will be the starting point for rethinking notions, such as the public or Modern Art, that have traditionally depended on one another.

Could you elaborate on this changed notion of the public?

Historically, the idea of Modern Art always presupposed the existence of a public. The class structures of the audiences at the Salons in the 18th century, for example, were actually rather diverse and hybrid, as [art historian] Thomas Crow has demonstrated. Modern Art only existed because it related to this public that judged and discussed it. What happens if this public becomes socially very homogenous? Can we still call what is presented in these resorts art? Another question is what does resortization mean for artistic production? How does an artist deal with a situation where the public is missing, like in the resort, and their labor conditions are abstracted by a resort-like social media? And what does resortization imply for critique – when critical judgments are replaced by fast evaluations online or when critique is not even wanted or invited, as in the luxury resort? I believe that these current shifts lead to radically changed conditions both on the side of artistic production and reception.

In your book High Price (2010) you wrote about how the laws of celebrity culture reign in the art world. How do you view the immense pressure on artists now to be present online – much like celebrities – in relation to what you wrote back then?

On the one hand, I totally understand that young artists in particular seem to have no choice but posting non-stop on Instagram, because otherwise they wouldn’t exist, their work would not be registered – especially in the recent times of lockdown, but also apart from that. On the other hand, it is very interesting that this risk of being forgotten seems to be considered higher than what it entails to surrender to one of these platform companies: to actually submit your life data to them and allow them to make money on you and to cooperate with a platform that aims at destabilising the democratic order, as many social theorists have demonstrated, such as Joseph Vogl in his book Capital and Resentment (2022).

I think that social media and the digital economy, as you suggest, takes the personalisation of every product and every thing, that is so typical for celebrity culture, one step further. It was striking to see how far this has gone during this year’s Venice Biennale, where many galleries posted pictures not only of their artists’ works, but of the artists themselves standing in front of their works. This way, they immediately cash in on their Venice participation, and it also seems to be a demonstration of how the artworks as products get more credibility and authenticity if their author stands right next to them. This kind of mise-en-scène would be considered completely cringe only a couple of years ago, but is now something everybody does all the time. I’m not blaming anyone here; I just found it interesting and symptomatic that there is so little hesitance towards operating in this way.

Hauser & Wirth Menorca on Isla del Rey. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Daniel Schafer.

Your forthcoming book deals with value, a recurring topic in your work. What has changed in the years since your previous writings on value?

I’m proposing that artworks have a different value-form than ordinary commodities. I’m looking at the sphere of production and the sphere of reception at the same time because value is something that gets produced and attributed, it results from an interplay between the spheres of production and reception. I started this book before the pandemic, and then when that happened, many of the pre-conditions that I had presupposed as value generating disappeared on both the production and the reception side. Due to the flight to so called “online showrooms,” it became difficult to grasp the symbolic value of an artwork: what is at stake in it, as well as its specific materiality are difficult to perceive online. At the same time, value stood on shaky grounds once the social exchanges that generate trust and credibility – such as an art opening or a dinner – didn’t take place anymore. These changes needed to be addressed. It also became more urgent for me to consider a process that I call value discrimination. I tried to understand why the products of artists who are marked as female or Black encountered value discrimination for a long time.  This required a meta-analysis of structural racism and sexism and a close-up examination of reception patterns.

In the March 2022 issue of Texte zur Kunst, you describe youtuber and political critic Natalie Wynn’s video essays as an “exemplary form of dissent.” Do you think that the art field needs to draw from such alternative forms of criticism to stay relevant today? 

I was very interested in Wynn’s approach to critique because of my own dissatisfaction with a certain know-it-all attitude and a refusal to write as a situated subject among some of my colleagues. Even though “situated knowledge” is a rather fashionable term right now, I still see very few people actually practicing it. What Wynn manages to do is to methodically go into very overheated subject matter in a nuanced way, while never forgetting to mention how she herself is implicated. She mentions her subjective experiences –  with the process of cancelling, for instance – and this is her point of departure. I called the text ‘Taking a Bath in Controversy’ – in German, ‘Baden im Dissent’. This is really what Wynn does: immersing herself in dissent, going through it, and then coming to a conclusion – without already knowing beforehand who’s wrong and why. For example, when it comes to cancelling as a cultural phenomenon, she considers how cancelling can be an important political tool for those who have experienced sexual abuse and discrimination. While keeping its emancipatory potential in mind, she also looks at its flip side: how cancelling can eliminate a competitor, for instance. What I furthermore like about Wynn is that she takes the arguments of her opponents seriously before proving them wrong, and that she admits to her own mistakes.

I also like how Wynn presents herself as a subject that is definitely not in control, by, for example, exposing drinking sessions. She thus demonstrates how the subject is not a master in her own house – at least according to psychoanalysis – which does not mean that she can’t provide a coherent analysis. I do think that art criticism can learn a lot from this approach. For me, the text on Wynn became quite personal: I could express myself through Wynn without going into personal details. The widespread attitude of thinking of oneself as being right and always knowing where the enemy is is also one I wanted to leave behind with Wynn. She reminds me a lot of an artist that I really admire, who is Andrea Fraser. I think that the two of them should definitely sit at the same table at some point.

ContraPoints, Beauty, 2019. Still from video.

Wynn’s use of fictional dialogues and narratives also evokes Denis Diderot’s Salon critiques from the 1700s, where he took on the roles of collector, artist, and critic to present the art from different points of view. Beate Söntgen and Johannes Grave wrote about this approach in an article in Texte zur Kunst in 2012, concluding that contemporary art criticism could learn a lot from fiction.

Beate is a good friend and colleague of mine, and we are both very interested in the use of fictional strategies in critique. One device that I am particularly interested in, and which is connected to what you’re bringing up, is the conversation, and also the made-up conversation, such as what Diderot practiced for a period. In my book The Love of Painting, I have a made-up conversation with myself, which is a kind of pro-et-contra voice about Jana Euler’s work. What I think this form allows, first, is to have a distance, and second, a more playful way of going through arguments without losing the possibility of positioning yourself in the matter. It is the same thing that I enjoy with Wynn – that her critique is playful and wearing different hats, while never being unclear about her own position.

The Love of Painting gathers and reworks your long-time research on painting, which you describe as a “success medium,” due to its ability to absorb critique and revitalise itself again and again. Where does your interest in painting stem from?

To be honest, I’ve always been a sort of painting lover. As a young woman in Hamburg, I was following the painters that lived there at the time because I found that this art form allowed for a witty type of political critique that I didn’t see happening elsewhere. Werner Büttner was my hero at the time, which is ironic considering the blatant misogyny in his early works. Later, when I moved to Cologne, I became more skeptical of painting because I realised that – especially in the Cologne scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s – painting was credited with this special, if not holy, status. Painting was treated as if it was a higher being in itself, and although there is truth in the artists’ experience of surrendering in front of the painting, it is also a mythical concept. So I guess growing up with artists who embraced “bad painting” and a do-it-yourself-attitude – a kind of deskilling that allowed for a reskilling of painting later – formed my preference for a painting against painting. Financially, painting has always been a “success medium.” I wanted to acknowledge that it has expanded beyond the picture on canvas since the early 20th century while also understanding how it remains specific in the midst of this de-specification. Even under the conditions of its de-specification since, say, Duchamp and Conceptual Art, painting seems to still have something specific to offer – which I think is its value form.

A funny thing about this project is that many misunderstood the title The Love of Painting as a serious declaration of love! To me, it is a tongue-in-cheek title that refers to other people’s love of painting, or to the love that can be invested into painting, or to the co-existence of both love and painting. This was my approach, but many people thought “oh, finally she admits that she really loves painting.”

In the book’s introduction you write that “love and painting are like sisters” and define them both as institutions. Could you elaborate a bit on these definitions?

The rise of the picture on canvas occurred in the 16th century, but painting really became institutionalised via the academies and the Salons in the 18th century – at the same time as romantic love was invented. I know that this is a bold proposition, but I think that this coincidence is worth noticing. The notion of romantic love wouldn’t exist without romantic love literature, in the same way that we wouldn’t have painting if there hadn’t been painting treatises, starting with Leonardo da Vinci who argued for paintings’ higher status, or without the painting academies, which theorised painting in “conferences” and regarded it as higher than, say, sculpture. It is not something that I’ve worked on in detail, but I have a sentence in the book saying, “where there is painting, love is not far away.” I meant this in a historical perspective, looking back to the 18th century, but also in view of all the highly love-saturated painting discourses that I encountered in my time in Cologne.

Werner Büttner, Die Markierung des Abgrunds [The Marking of the Abyss], 2012. Oil on canvas, 150 x 120 cm.

As a person who is critical of painting’s mythical reputation and historically elevated position within the arts, how do you reflect upon your own role in securing paintings special status?

I am, of course, aware that trying to question painting’s superior, if not holy, status while arguing for its specificity is a contradiction. The book strongly argues for an expanded notion of a painting that is beyond itself – a painting that has thus de-specified and that can occur in many guises. But it also maintains that there is something specific about painting in the midst of its de-specification. I like inner tensions and contradictions of this type; this is when things get interesting to me.

In Another World, Notes, 2014 – 2017 takes the form of a sort of memoir, and it is your first foray into a distinctly non-academic form of writing. What prompted this shift in genre?

To me, this book was a rather daring experiment consisting of notes that I wrote in the morning before starting my art theoretical and historical writing. Over the course of some time, I realised that so many of the observations I make on a daily basis got lost, and that a book that consisted of fragmented miniatures could be a good place for them. A leitmotif that runs though the book is mourning, as both of my parents died in the period between 2013 and 2017. I was recently reading Roland Barthes’s book on the novel that he wanted to write but never wrote, where he writes that after the death of his mother he had this urge to shift from an academic writing style to something different, and I can really identify with this. It was the rupture of finding myself orphaned all of a sudden which kind of asked for a different form of writing.

Another thing that is important to mention are the political shocks like Brexit and Trump, but also hopeful social movements like #MeToo and later Black Lives Matter, that occurred during the time that I wrote the book. These shifts prepared the ground for what we are going through right now: a kind of permanent sense of crisis. I wanted to capture how these more general universal developments leave their traces in me as an individual, and how my individuality is social through and through while also remaining specific.

Do you think that the art world holds a place for a form of writing that academia today doesn’t, and does your shift towards alternative formats have something to do with this?

When I started writing in the 1980s as a young art critic, many academics were attracted to different forms of knowledge production – as in popular culture. It was considered cool at the time to aim for a more experimental or journalistic style of writing. Some of my colleagues would stop their academic careers for a good job in a magazine. This has completely changed. Nowadays, because of the increased pressure to finish one’s degree and to get credit points, young academics can’t afford to experiment with journalism or literature. I am still very invested in my art theoretical work, but I guess that having opted for these more literary forms will change the style of my academic texts as well somehow.

For me, writing In Another World had less to do with academia and more to do with my desire to work in a slightly more self-determined fashion. When you write about art, you encounter many external constraints: you have to do justice to the object of your study, also to the history of its production and reception, to the wider social history of its time, to its phenomenological perception, to current debates, to your own theoretical investigation. I’m not saying that literary writing is necessarily freer, but it allows for experiments that would be very hard to do in an academic art historical text. It might sound pompous, but I would like to have my own artistic practice as well, and not only write about other people’s work.

Isabelle Graw. Photo: Rob Kulisek.