Just like painting, art criticism is declared dead with almost clockwork regularity. But whereas painting is revived again and again – partly by art criticism – no one seems eager to help criticism out of its apparently persistent comatose state.
This makes the brand-new book by Travis Jeppesen extremely welcome as a defence of not only art, but also of art criticism – quite the book’s best feature.
Jeppesen, who holds a PhD from the Royal College of Art in London – and has invented what he calls ‘object-oriented writing’, a discipline he teaches at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai – has published several novels and shown so-called ‘calligraphic works’ in exhibitions. As a writer and artist, he occupies a position somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between art and criticism, and it’s clear that text and art are regarded as equally important in Jeppesen’s collection of texts, which is first and foremost a love letter to persistent and personal artistic expression.
And the title of this new book is good. Bad Writing is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which ‘bad’ is to be understood in two ways: first in the sense of something inferior, dreadful, or terrible, and second as something naughty, unruly, and (mischievously) wicked – such as when Michael Jackson sings that he is ‘Bad’ while performing bad(assed)ness like some weird rock doll, prophetically fulfilling the demise of his own mythology as he was ultimately proved to be genuinely bad.
The book addresses this badness, this deficiency and mischief, through readings of oeuvres (written and visual) that Jeppesen believes hold the right, liberating doses of badness: Gertrude Stein, Ryan Trecartin, Dieter Roth, George Kuchar, Bjarne Melgaard, and others. It’s a marvellous gang of writers and artists who may not exactly be outsiders of the literary and art historical scenes, but are an irreverent bunch nonetheless. And then there is one of the book’s best features: a scathing and persuasive critique of Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place and ‘uncreative writing’.
Having to write a piece of criticism about such a book, which is to a great extent about writing art criticism, pushes all my tender buttons of desire, triggering a self-inflicted (and perhaps self-inflated) expectation to ramp up the creative writing and dial down the entire description-analysis-assessment regime. I might write about having a pain in my ass, quite literally, after a long Sunday morning spent with a lover with razor-sharp stubble. I want to embrace the queer badness of text in which imperfection, flaws, and lukewarm qualities are the very point. I just don’t think Jeppesen and I share quite the same kind of tenderness towards things.
I’m sure that we have lots to talk about, though. Especially his readings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who join Nietzsche in acting as a kind of philosophical sounding board for the twenty-four texts collected in the book. Dating from between 2011–2016, these writings have already been featured in other contexts, appearing as criticism in various magazines such as Artforum, Afterall, and Art in America, or as more or less poetic exhibition and catalogue texts. They are about the ‘lawlessness’ of art, which for Jeppesen is at its best when unrestricted, running free in frivolously heated (over)productions rather than in coolly intangible conceptualism. Put differently, it’s a book full of ‘bad’ writing about ‘bad’ (awful and unruly) art.
There is a fine and affectionate reading of George Kuchar’s VHS project ‘The Weather Diaries’ as a perverted diary which saw him repeatedly, year in and year out, filming tornadoes in Oklahoma and being horny. And then there’s the funniest text in the collection, ‘Reading Capital in Venice’, whose fictocriticism meets every expectation regarding a gonzo, free-flowing prose, and takes us – in ways sure to elicit a great degree of identification amongst most art professionals from this part of the world – on a somewhat disinterested tour of the Venice Biennale’s eternally hypocritical mirage, in this case the 2015 instalment curated by Okwui Enwezor.
Bad Writing could have been really fun and good, brimming with productivity galore and striking a strong blow for the rapid and quantitative production of art and text – more, faster, now! But unfortunately, the collection of texts all too often becomes a somewhat surly and strangely roundabout apologia for something that we might describe as… expression? Expressing oneself? Self-expression?
A component of hyper-productive artistic machinality – a conceptual device borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari that Jeppesen describes throughout the book as ‘vehicularity’ – is evoked here in a version akin to accelerationism, but is disconnected from the two French philosophers’ penchant for critiquing capitalism – and their fondness for ethics, of course (read Anti-Oedipus as a book of ethics, as Foucault said in the foreword to the English translation).
The machine, productivity, apparatus, and interconnection are all essential concepts for Deleuze and Guattari when talking about art as creation – the creation of a world. For them, the issue is about unshackling desire from the Freudian-Marxist triangular logic of (self-)oppression in the capitalist system of production. They point to the energy inherent in the fierce and unruly productivity of the human as a dream machine, a schizoid ‘writing’ oneself out beyond, deep into and with the world.
Anyhoo, throughout the book Jeppesen’s take on this D&G machine is contrasted to identity politics and ‘political correctness’ (who uses that term in a serious context anyway? Americans?). With Bad Writing, he essentially formulates an entry in the great – and to my mind artificial, unloving, and deeply unproductive – war between the freedom to express oneself on the one hand and identity politics on the other.
Reading about Bjarne Melgaard’s gym-toned and phallocratic version of ‘faggotry’ and about how Norway as a society struggles to accommodate such a figure makes for fun reading. But making Melgaard out to be a warrior against ‘politically correct’ identity politics makes less sense – against what kind of politics, exactly? Queer-feminist? Homonormativity? Moreover, Jeppesen’s claim that such identity politics are more part of a neo-liberal economy than Melgaard’s hyper-productive art machine is just bad analysis. It makes no sense to consider Melgaard without also considering the whole history of ‘faggots’ and other marginalised individuals that preceded him – an entire community of politicised identities that formed the social ecology whence Melgaard emerged. For Jeppesen, the realm of the social – socius– is never part of productivity. The social is presented as a controlling apparatus of consensus, whereas the individual, solitary artist is a specimen of pure Nietzschean exceptionalism. That’s sort of a douchebag idea. Is this what perversion looks like when it has to be sexy at the same time?
Desiring the ‘lawless’, the ‘unframed’, and the perverted issexy. But does it necessarily have to manifest as über-individualised accelerationism? Not that I think the art world is lacking in that position. On the contrary, the art world is itself a perverted and accelerated infrastructure that privileges a production apparatus by and for the singular über-artist. Whether or not that type of artist chooses to be a douchebag is of course entirely up to them. That’s the cool thing about perversion: it doesn’t exist, yet at the same time, it’s ubiquitous. It’s just that not everyone enjoys the ‘freedom’ to let their freak flag fly.