writing with art (rather than about art)

Consider how the Soane’s Museum, conceived as an “archive”, could inform your own practice of writing with art (rather than about art)?

What does that even mean?

And here lies the crux of my difficulties, I think. I am unable to understand this method of working, this very philosophical practice.

In the other courses we are dealing a lot with Jacques Derrida who seems to epitomizes this way of thinking. For instance, in the course ‘Philosophy and…’ we are reading the English translation of Che Cos’è la Poesia? (1988) published in A Derrida Reader1, and in the introduction to the piece the editor says:

As always, Derrida works to abolish the distance between what he is writing about . . . and what his writing is doing.

In this case he’s writing about “poetry, the poem, or as he will finally call it: the poematic”, and so his writing is being positioned as closing in on poetry itself.

It seems odd to me to describe writing as “doing” anything. Does writing “do” poetry or literature? It seems to be taking the activity away from the writer, the writing that the writer does becomes self-generating or generative of further writing.

The introduction carries on:

Reference without referent, this poem defines or describes itself even as it points beyond itself to the poetic in general.

These texts (inevitably?) make a lot of assumptions on the readers knowledge, or they make spectacular leaps of metaphor which leave you wondering just how much you were oblivious to in that little sentence.

As an example, here Derrida is referring to his response to the initial query—“ ‘Che cos’è la poesia?’ (What is poetry? or more literally, What thing is poetry?)”—he claims:

. . . the answer sees itself (as) dictated (dictation). I am a dictation, pronounces poetry, learn me by heart, copy me down, guard and keep me, look out for me, look at me, dictated dictation, right before your eyes: soundtrack, wake, trail of light, photograph of the feast in mourning.

. . . la réponse se voit dictée. Je suis une dictée, prononce la poésie, apprends-moi par coeur, recopie, veille et garde-moi, regarde-moi, dictée, sous les yeux: bande-son, wake, sillage de lumière, photographie de la fête en deuil.

Why those particular words stressed? What significance do the references to death have – “wake”, “photograph of the feast of mourning”? Why specifically a photograph of the feast of mourning? How do these relate to “soundtrack” or “trail of light”? Are they very personal things, or, if I was to read more Derrida, would they re-occur at significant points. Why do I need to know this?

For me, there is a touch of meaning, a fleeting glimpse in the corner of your eye of another world of content slipping by without your having the dexterity to turn and comprehend it in time. On the one hand it’s frustrating to be left straining at thin air in the wake of meaning, on the other there is such a nearness to it that you hope against hope for the leap of the electrical spark of comprehension, the short-circuit to take place.

  1. Peggy Kamuf ed., A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998

The Art of Art History

It occurred to me, driving home from Sainsbury’s with the weekly shop, that it could be said we’re not interested in art per se. All we’re dealing with is Art History, and talking about it as the Art of Art History1. Which strikes me as a paradoxical: we’re learning about these historians and how they viewed the progress of art but not looking at the art itself. Hegel theories get illustrated as an aside with examples of Art, when shouldn’t we look at the art to show how they generate Hegel’s theories? Perhaps the latter is easier, as—although the theories usually originate from artworks—they often become tenuous when applied back onto them. The theories by necessity deal with an ideal that rarely finds adequate expression in the world.

It’s tacitly understood, I think, that they (the tutors) are expecting us to take it to a next stage and apply what we’ve learned to art works and also to recognise these theories in other contexts, see how they’ve progressed and informed other theorists or artists. We are being taught Art History as a strictly historical sequence. Every theorist has their place in the sequence. With writings it’s perhaps much easier to deal with moves towards or away from previous writers. The matter of influence.

However, in the same way that Art History has found it hard to get away from the impression of a progression in art works (à la Hegel, Winckelmann) is it mistaken/distracting to judge Art History itself as progressing? If we are to talk of an “Art of Art History”, if it’s an Art then the same principles and developments that it theorizes can equally be applied back onto it. Indeed, if Art History is to be seen as another branch of Art then will the study of it take Art into new areas which will then become fodder for Art Historians.

Maybe Art History will be the revitalization of Art.

Of course, artists themselves have already started questioning art historical institutions. Andrea Fraser, Mark Dion, anyone who has been invited to curate an exhibition of works from an art institution’s collection have all rewritten the histories of these works in relation to each other. Is this different from if an Art Historian were to do something similar? Or would an Art Historian do something else with a similar effect/intention in mind? I think these days it’s an artificial distinction to make between Artists and Art Historians, the roles are interchangeable. This probably has some effect on the argument itself.

  1. Taken from Donald Preziosi ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, OUP, Oxford, 1998, but also used to describe the course by the tutor, Astrid Schmetterling.

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SEMINAR—Framing Art—Fitzwilliam Museum


As part of this week’s seminar for the Framing Art course, we were asked to put together a short 5 minute presentation on “a significant visit to a museum” following on from a reading of texts by Zola1 and Déotte2. In the event the presentations didn’t take place, but rather than waste the work I’ll post the outline of my presentation here.


  • Hi, I’m Edward and I’m on the PGDip in Contemporary Art History.
  • This piece is about the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I lived and worked in Cambridge for 5 years prior to moving back to London to begin this course. The office in which I worked was just down the road from the Fitz but I only ever visited it twice in all the time I was there.
  • What I’m going to talk about is not my own significant visit, but someone else’s which focused attention on the potentially conflicting demands of display and conservation in the museum environment and is an interesting case study of the way in which a museum can put a bad experience to good use through the application of PR.

The Museum

  • In 1816, Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam, bequeathed his collection of works of art and library and the funds to house them to the University of Cambridge.
    • The collection included 144 pictures, including paintings by Titian, Veronese and Palma Vecchio.
    • 400 albums of engravings, including a series of Rembrandt etchings, apparently the finest in England at the time.
    • 130 Medieval manuscripts and a collection of autograph music by Handel, Purcell and other composers.
  • The Museum building opened in 1848 and was designed by George Batevi, a pupil of Sir John Soane, although he died before it was finished and the work was completed by Charles Cockerell, who also designed the present building of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
  • It’s built in a rather fine Neo-Classical design, looking very similar to the Tate Britain in fact.
    • Which was built some 50 years later in 1897.
  • If you ever visit Cambridge it’s well worth a visit.
  • To quote the website, the Museum now houses “a world-class collection of works of art and antiquities spanning centuries and civilisations.”
  • The range of work goes from Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts through to Impressionist paintings.

The Vases

  • What I’m going to focus on are five vases that entered the collection in 1948.
  • They’re Qing dynasty, made during the reign of Kangxi and date from the late 17th or early 18th century.
  • Three of the vases were put on display on a recessed window sill, half way up an imposing 1930s marble staircase and had been in that position for decades.
  • They were described as possibly some of the best known pieces on display because of this prominent position.

The Event

  • On the 25 January 2006, a visitor to the Museum slipped on a loose shoelace and fell down the stairs, bringing the vases crashing down as he tried to steady himself.
  • At the time the event was described as an accident and the visitor was allowed to leave, but in April he was arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage.

The Issues

  • Leaving aside the criminal investigation, what interested me was the ongoing PR campaign following the breaking of the vases and how it has been used to justify the museum and present an image of their being on the ball after such a serious accident.
  • The public reaction at the time was exemplified by the BBC. In their TV report the same evening, they explicitly criticised the Museum for the display of the vases, saying: “Was it really a good idea to put them on a window sill?”
  • The Director responded in that same report that one of the things that they pride themselves on is that they have objects on display that are “almost within reach” and “accessible” to the public.
  • So here we have the requirements of the audience’s in conflict with conservation of the objects, two of the Museum’s major reasons for being.
  • I realise I’m making rather a tendentious connection here, but in a sense this event can be seen as a way in which the museum can end up serving both camps effectively.
  • Since the breakages, the Museum has begun using their website to post ongoing information and pictures about the progress of the repairs to the vases, with information about the way the aftermath of the event was handled, from the almost archaeological collection of the pieces of pottery to details of the conservator hired to undertake the repairs and her progress.
  • They have made something an event around it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t create a temporary exhibition around the eventual reinstatement of the vases.
  • It seems that a potentially disastrous event like this can be turned to good use by the Museum for the purposes of raising their profile with the ultimate aim of encouraging more visitors. And at the same time it can be used to promote their conservation activities in an populist way.
  1. Zola, Emile. L’Assommoire, transl. L. Tancock, Penguin, London, 1970, pp. 76–107.
  2. Déotte, Jean-Louis. “Rome, the Archetypal Museum and the Louvre, the Negation of Division” in Pearce, Susan ed., Art in Museum, Athlone Press, London, 1995, pp. 215–22