Loosen Writing’s Leash

  • by Pristine L. de Leon

 

When I read essays on art, I wait for the point when the rope that binds writing to its subject snaps a little. Evidence of this unsettling looseness could be traced in descriptions. Was it really a fleshy, puckered, yellow, as the writer remembered? What could possibly be so tender in a grid? Between paragraphs, I find connections snapping in the sudden leaps: the unexpected, sometimes unnerving, cheerful jumping between topics, theories, and images. These episodes often provide me brief moments of enchantment. I read them as invitations not only to return to the work, but to be with the writer in rethinking, dreaming up, and undoing the fixities of the thing being seen.

 

It is easy to associate enchantment with the image of an escape hatch, a door that admits a hasty exit. But I’ve also been curious about what theorist Jane Bennett calls a kind of enchantment that enlivens and disturbs, the sense of being “caught up and carried away,” tossed “onto new terrain,” an affective experience that might propel ethical generosity.1 Unlike passive amusement and the limited responses it demands, looking at art and reading it often invites openness to being unsettled, estranged from familiar signposts.

 

I started writing on visual art because I was drawn to its pauses and provocations, and also because of the nourishment it could give. During that period, mainstream media publishing, where I was working full time, was undergoing a shift to digital platforms. First-person narratives, hot takes, and thinkpieces gained currency along this protracted migration. And while these were hardly detached from the fast-paced, capital-fueled likes-economy, they were also case studies in writers negotiating stances, rethinking and refusing neutrality, and learning how to position themselves in a deeply problematic world. It was a time I thought I could start writing opinion pieces on gender. But whereas thinkpieces need me to argue through things that I know, art invites me to confront and court intimacy with things that I do not.

 

How do we think through the brittle white surface of a Lao Lianben painting? Or attend to its gold’s fickle candlelight-blush? How do we take care not to write over art’s giving silences, but instead write through them, affirm them, have them generate a breadth of possible associations? Art writing attracts me because it opens up a different register, one that encourages flexibility, tentativeness, sometimes even nervousness. I’m thrilled by tones and moods that cherish art’s ambiguities, its evasiveness and uplifting mischiefs—those that tend to fall away with a tone that’s too rigid and didactic. How might writers bring out art’s sensuousness, at the same time loosen writing’s leash? 

 

If art writing must be critical, art critic Jennifer Doyle reminds that criticality has many moods. When she looks back on performances that are necessarily difficult—either difficult to watch, to write, or to parse—she turns her attention to tone: “Sometimes the affect of my own writing was at complete odds with the work, adding a level of pathos to something that was actually restrained, or hesitancy where a work was furious or melodramatic.”2 There are many unseen tasks that take place around writing, and Doyle makes me think of the affective labor involved. Understanding a work is not just a matter of penetrative unravelling; comprehending also means moving with it through tone and cadence, speaking to it, staying close and living alongside it.

 

As we can imagine, it isn’t always a convenient errand. There are moments when I would rather have glanced briefly or looked away. Got distracted, uncomfortable, itching to move on to the next attraction. But somehow writing, the gentle taskmaster, does not want me moving on. It has entrusted me with the work of attending closely. Call writing a durational exercise in opening ourselves up to being unsettled and affected. I think of Roland Barthes’ word punctum—the accidental detail in a photograph that arrests, bruises, and pricks—and here it reminds me of those that I would not have discerned if I weren’t close enough, if I did not let the work affect me. Maybe it’s a history, context, experience, detail, touch, or nuance—a bright leaping thing I might not fully catch but only move with.

 

What I’m trying to outline here—albeit hurriedly, or should I say nervously?—is a disposition. So far, I haven’t taken up questions such as who is art writing for, where is it produced, and how does it circulate—perhaps because I’m trying to pick up loose strands of an orientation, a kind of affectionate attention that turns up and sustains art writing’s various modes: art history, research, criticism, exhibition notes, or arts journalism. Closeness to art, I want to think, grooms us to attend—intimately, and sometimes inconveniently—to the material, to the world it comes from, and the world it wants to belong to.

 

The keen, cheerful, anxious jumping that writers do is an effort to track the many things that flock around the image. Among them: What histories and lineages align these objects with art’s contentious categories? What image ecologies lend them thickness or a certain resonance? What exploitative social systems drain their critical force and affective charge? Perhaps part of being enchanted and affected is knowing just how unsettling it is to be an arts writer in these times. Within volatile economies and extractive circuits, art writing is also where we tease out difficult contradictions. Constantly, I’m fumbling for words to say how art in these troubled times sustains us, and how art, in crucial moments, also fails us.

 

When art meets writing, I wonder how loose the rope could be. Early on, art has enchanted me because it resists fixed definitions and easy declarations. Can writing, then, also be a way out of fixity and stuckness? I imagine art writing as a site where readings proliferate and would not always align, nourishing a looseness that might help us live more ethically in the world. Part of art writing’s premise, if not always its practice, is envisioning a future for these objects, holding space for a world that is yet emergent. Writing is grounded in material, history, and political context—but somehow always fumbling, feeling, and finding not so much an escape hatch, but another door to engage, another leap, another possible entryway.

 

Notes:

[1] Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life (Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 3-6, 111.

[2] Jennifer Doyle, Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (Duke University Press, 2013), xii.

 

Banner image: An exhibition view of 'Untitled Blankets' (2019) by Brisa Amir. Image courtesy of the artist and Artinformal Gallery.

 

On Art Writing is an ongoing series of opinion essays based on the prompt of the role of art writing today, as understood by the contributing art writers, researchers, and journalists. Pristine de Leon's 'Loosen Writing's Leash' is the first piece.

 

Pristine L. de Leon is an art writer and graduate student pursuing MA Art Studies: Art Theory and Criticism at the University of the Philippines. A recipient of the 2016 Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Prize for Art Criticism, she has written art reviews and features on visual art and theater for The Philippine Star. She took part in the 2018 Curatorial Development Workshop at the Vargas Museum, and in the 2019 Asian Arts Media Roundtable organized by ArtsEquator in Singapore. She teaches at the Fine Arts Department of the Ateneo de Manila University. To buy her a coffee, tap the button below: