The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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MAY 2011 Issue
Art Books

Try a Little Tenderness

Jan Verwoert, Edited by Vanessa Ohlraun
Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want
(Piet Zwart Institute and Sternberg Press, 2010)

Jan Verwoert’s first published collection of writings takes as its title part of that indelible refrain from the Spice Girls’ 1996 smash-hit “Wannabe.” Both forthright and provocative, like the song, Verwoert delivers what Roland Barthes called a “text of pleasure” as well as, at times, a “text of bliss”: writing from a point rooted in culture, Verwoert regularly addresses his reader as he posits new understandings of the ever-shifting landscape. However, that precarious responsibility of the critic, to proffer positive and negative judgments of specific works, is largely suspended, since Verwoert’s is a more general cultural criticism than one focused on the successes, failures, and longevities of specific vanguards within the limited sphere of contemporary fine art.

At one point, Verwoert asks, “Does meaning do anyone any good?” Then he answers, “Not necessarily.” Rather: “Beyond meaning lies feeling. And feeling someone feel what you feel makes all the difference.” What we have here is writing that has less to say about meaning in art and more to say about feeling and art; such sincerity ensures an intimate relationship between the author and his reader and causes his treatment of subjects to come across moreas evocative than fixed.

Imaginative and generous, Verwoert grounds abstract and philosophical exposition within a broad field of cultural references. Lyrics from Bill Withers and the Dead Kennedys are comfortable complements to Michel Foucault and Guy Debord in an analysis of the exhaustion prescribed by high-performance, post-industrial society. And it is Edgar Allen Poe’s musings about returning strength in a state of convalescence that inspires Verweort’s ideal of a collectively-minded community, one whose members would show a sincere dedication to productive activity.

Verwoert imagines an art that follows in the tradition of hoping for a better life and society, and which allows for the conception of new and different social arrangements; a permeating type of love allowed through communal empathy, in part following from the deterioration of gender binaries, is often considered to be a potential feat that such an art could accomplish. Ambiguity, Verwoert rightly argues, is a productive state for art, and he addresses several of its forms: metaphor, translation (across media), indeterminacy (see his metaphor of the stoa), and the détournement of the Situationists. Alongside these terms he adds his own: “‘I Can’t’ in the key of ‘I Can,’” to describe actively keeping meaning abstract or latent in order to preserve its potency.

At times, Verwoert mistakes the potential for art (as well as writing) to be “intimate and indeterminate” with the responsibility of criticism to render judgments. For example, “Living with Ghosts,” a convincing account of the social and historical conditions that steered the evolution of appropriation in postmodern and contemporary art, only theorizes an ethics of referentiality and, as such, does not make use of its potential to critically activate otherwise static, clinical, contemporary practices of appropriation. Only elsewhere, in a text specifically about the work of Cerith Wyn Evans, does Verwoert affirm the dynamic type of practice that he fell short of advocating in the more general case: “Instead of displaying knowledge, [Wyn Evans] invests passion in the invocation of a spirit…Crucially, though, a certain quality of irreverence is present in this gesture of reverence.”

Implicit in the attention that Verwoert gives to an artist or a work of art is his support thereof. Explicit judgments of concrete projects, both positive and negative, are mostly lacking, but they would go far in firming the reader’s understanding of how to continue searching for satisfaction and promise in the contemporary landscape.

In this collection, Verwoert is never as strong or compelling in writing extensively about one artist or body of work (with the exception of the passages on Július Koller) as he is in his commentary and declarative passages. Still, through the charismatic and seductive voice of Verwoert’s writing, this array of essays draws its reader intimately into a dynamic cosmos of remarkable intelligence. More deliberation than criticism, for its range and its personality, this collection is inspiring as well as humanely moving; it is engagement, after all, which is the wellspring of both meaning and feeling in art and writing.


John Beeson


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

All Issues