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Dietmar Dath

Critique of Self-Critique: The next round

The highly gifted art critic, structurally and chronically unchallenged by her current job in the darkest corner of crap art sales, younger than me, asks my advice — that is, she needs moral support to bolster the confidence her business day has trashed: “Remind me what I went to school for”, she asks herself and me, “if all I get to determine is the color of the price tags? And what am I saying, determine: I offer suggestions. Is there anything more pathetic than suggestions?” I point out to her that she is offering inspiration far beyond the sort that serves to breathe life into the market; I tell her what she has already heard from me, who was immediately present to the event: that a smart and very versatile author personally known to both of us recently expressed, almost semipublicly (let’s say, then: tertiopublicly), interest in some of the ideas in the young art critic’s master’s thesis. “Ah, well”, the art critic says, “my master’s thesis, that, too, was long ago, very long ago.” She says she would love to get started on a big, solid project with pretty pages related to the topic of that thesis. “That would be my cup of tea”, she says, and as I joke weakly about reification and moreover babble something about the “processual” aspect of intellectual enterprises, which, say I, cannot be esteemed too highly, and of mutual inspiration between good minds, and then, why not, come back to the smart and versatile author personally known to both of us, who recently no less than expressed etc. etc., she says: “You people who were shaped by the nineties are always all about your fucking networks. We, the younger generation, would much rather at some point get to the real stuff instead of this stupid business about relationships.” I am about to protest when I realize that that would take longer than would be healthy: it wasn’t the nineties at all but the prolonged late eighties, but how am I going to explain to this woman that and how and why, in the good old days, you had to, or at least could, raise what is called gossip as the “last materialist weapon against opinion” (Diedrich Diederichsen), against the idealist self-misunderstandings and misjudgments of freewheeling writers? This last idea, the one about the weapon, after all, is still on occasion brought up as a relatively young and useful one (though no longer deployed seriously), born from an acerbic smartness that had all the tricks of pop-music reporting down pat; an idea that is said to have more precisely arisen during the late seventies or, in fact, perhaps long before that; how would I know. Hang on, no, I am having another realization: this intellectual approach, vigorously politicizing the accidental (the private, but also the market-dependent) aspects of journalism and arming the political with the sting of an insult that poisons the private, really goes back all the way to the era of the twin birth of the culture industry and modern journalism, the glittering and grubby nineteenth century. Even in Victorian England, they called the heroic acts of men such as George Augustus Sala and Edmund Yates “New Personal Journalism”. Disciples of Charles Dickens, the two had risen from the London scene to nationwide honors; before everyone’s eyes, they called their peers to account, raising them to the heavens or ridiculing them, by creating scintillating writings, half epic portrayals of their times shrunk into caricatures and half polemical lead editorials for the arts and culture pages. Where that sort of thing is attempted, sparks will fly — Sala to Yates, October 1857, after the latter had delivered an especially merciless blow: “Do you want Bohemia to open upon you with its great guns? […] Do you want to be told that you are not a professionally literary man, that you are not a member of the press; that you have no right to impugn the motives or to blacken the character of men who, whatever they may be in private life, do their duty fearlessly, honestly and ably to the public; — who have served a long and painful apprenticeship to a thankless craft, and who look upon literature, not as a polite passetemps, but as a serious mission.”1 Their quest to mediate as thoroughly as possible between a convincing selective recreation of reality, as a promising or threatening totality, on the one hand, and their incessant self-correcting engagement with the current materiality of their own actions as part of a lifelong existence as a writer, on the other hand, impelled Dickens, Yates and Sala to organize their creativity by distributing it between the two modes of “novelistic” (for the totality) and “journalistic” writing (for the current materiality); even Rainald Goetz still speaks of the converse ambition to create a “literature that is like newspapers” — yet that I perceive and historicize matters this way may also simply be the most comfortable rationalization available to me of the contingent biographical circumstance that I got into journalism in the first place only so that I would be able to afford the exhausting and economically catastrophic vice that is novel-writing. I feel this whole historical and biographical self-reflexive drivel boiling up and jerking around within me, urging to be laid at the feet of the young art critic; she is to absolve me or learn something or, that would be best, both. I exercise restraint and keep it to myself, instead telling her about Stefan Germer and the creation of the journal Texte zur Kunst, about the objective consequences the most personal journalistic decisions had for intellectual life in the petty state of German art, and finally about the fact that some of those people there who keep Germer’s ideas alive in thought and writing do not (or cannot) know how important their doing so may well be also for people like me, who never met Germer, even though I might very well have, back in the day when it all began. And the woman listens to all of this and, in the end, says something that amounts to the sort of blessing only a younger person can offer to an older one: “So what you’re trying to say is simply that there is no defensible excuse, not even a self-critical and reflective one, to stop doing something that is right, no matter how fucked up dumb the world may be at any given moment?” I tell her that that is exactly what I wanted to impart to her, passing in silence over the fact that I wouldn’t have figured it out even in a hundred years without this highly gifted art critic, structurally and chronically unchallenged by her current job in the darkest corner of crap art sales, and her disgusting ordinary little problem.

(Translation: Gerrit Jackson)

Note 1 Sala to Yates, 16 Oct. 1857; Letters of George Augustus Sala to Edmund Yates, in the Edmund Yates Papers, University of Queensland Library, ed. Judy McKenzie, Brisbane, Department of English, University of Queensland 1993, pp. 39–40.