“Art lies,” Dodie Bellamy writes in When the Sick Rule the World. These books, Bellamy’s included, seem to prove her point. Art tells lies about the future, its role as a vocation, its own history of appropriating black bodies and black culture. It even lies about what it’s doing on the Internet — or what it can reasonably be expected to do at all. If these things are true, though, it stands to reason that no worthwhile book about art should be about art alone. (Who has time to listen to art lie to itself?) With this in mind, here is a list of art writing’s ten most pivotal lies from 2015.
Roger White, The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World
Roger White cofounded the invaluable (if irregularly published) art magazine Paper Monument, and his dexterity as a writer and editor — as well as an excellent painter and teacher — is on full display in The Contemporaries. It is simply the best-composed work of American essay writing on art as a vocation to be published in several years. And it runs the gamut, from the uncertainties of the RISD MFA student to the trials of the resurgent, older artist who “never stopped.”
Triple Canopy, Speculations (“The future is ______”)
“This book is meant as a finding aid,” Sarah Resnick writes in the introduction to Speculations (“The future is ______”), a brilliant arrangement of “speculations” on our social and political futures by 60 of our most alert minds. (The list of thinkers includes Kim Stanley Robinson, Astra Taylor, and Gopal Balakrishnan.) Drones, bioengineering, hedge funds, the limits of attention, the uses of art and literature — the range and quality of the writing makes the reader nervous with hope. A guide to the contradictions of the present, yes. And maybe a flash on art’s horizon.
When the Sick Rule the World, Dodie Bellamy
“Art writers lie. Art lies.” Bellamy fishhooks these sentences into an essay that begins with an ingenuous art review, passes through cancer and the Rust Belt, ends with the dreams of a child. And each piece of writing in this book does something similar — whether it’s essay or narrative or both at the same time — which is to say that no two pieces are alike. Whether she writes about the death of her mother or Occupy Oakland, Kathy Acker’s Gaultier dress or “Techrification with Heart” (in a letter to Twitter), Bellamy never fails to infect the holistic pieties of contemporary culture, to expose art’s enduring lies.
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus
Dedicated to “Beauty,” Lewis’ poetry collection Voyage of the Sable Venus “modifies the grammar” of Western visual culture by employing a triptych — that classic form — in order to reclaim the role of the black female figure from the appropriating mania of the Western canon. It likewise works to “re-erase” Western archival culture’s erasure of slavery. The central poem consists of eight “catalog” sections “comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” Unlike anything I’ve ever read in poetry, the book is, unfathomably, a debut collection. It has been shortlisted for the National Book Award
Hal Foster, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency
The well-known critic-historian Hal Foster is at full tilt in Bad New Days, a book that chronicles (and categorizes) more than two decades of contemporary art. At the same time, Foster posits a way forward in an art world that is arguably prone to exaggeration about its own capacities, especially as it toils under an unforgiving austerity regime. No book of art criticism this year has made my blood boil more than Bad New Days.
Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network
The most original argument about art and politics this year comes from Caroline Levine, who contends that perceivable shapes and arrangements — forms — organize our lives across historical moments. Levine asks us not only to train our focus on forms that bring together seemingly disparate works of art, but also to consider how these forms are imported into political life.
Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
A capacious memoir, a beautiful interchange of lyrical writing and photography, Mann’s book contains everything under the sun, from family struggle to deep considerations of race in the American South. It’s also a book about art that doubles as an indispensable artwork itself. We’ll find out later this month if it wins her a National Book Award.
Paul C. Taylor, Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics
A considered and considerable undertaking, Taylor’s book, to be released in December, examines “the most significant philosophical issues that emerge from the aesthetic dimensions of black life.” And it promises a much-needed realignment of the discussion of aesthetics away from the myopia of the “Western fine art” tradition. You can sample Taylor’s work here.
Robert Walser, Looking at Pictures
Just when it feels like the Walser revival has reached its peak, New Directions releases this precise and often hilarious work of artistic observations on painters like Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Rembrandt. Looking at Pictures, which features unpublished essays that are more than 90 years old, speaks lucidly about the aesthetic gaze in 21st century.
e-flux, The Internet Does Not Exist
One of the most convincing, forward-looking books of art writing released in 2015, The Internet Does Not Exist expertly captures the feeling of drifting along a flat surface — of surveying the depthless “variety” of digital art. As an organization, exhibition space, and journal, e-flux is remarkable for the way it never rests on the laurels of prophetic optimism or revisionist negativity. This book is an emblem of their tireless work.