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Dimensions of Devotion

Jarrett Earnest, interviewed by Daniel Drake

Jarrett Earnest; photo by Jonathan Grassi

Jarrett Earnest; photo by Jonathan Grassi

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


The art critic Dave Hickey died in November 2021, aged eighty-two. In our June 23 issue, Jarrett Earnest grapples with Hickey’s legacy, and finds that behind his reputation as the “iconoclastic” “bad boy of art criticism” was the originality, rigor, and sensitivity befitting a man who “was not interested in ‘beauty’ as an aesthetic or philosophical category, but rather in a ‘proliferation of beauties,’ around which communities of desire congregate.”

This week, I e-mailed with Earnest to discuss Hickey, Susan Sontag, and the pursuit of beauty.


Daniel Drake: Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from, and how did you get started writing? Was it art that you were interested in first (do you have an art practice?) or writing and criticism?

Jarrett Earnest: Like many artists will tell you, I connected with art and with the feeling of being an artist at a very young age, even though I grew up in an unlikely place: a small ranch in south Florida. It’s not a story that is explicable by circumstance—I just knew about art on some level, which meant from making and looking and thinking on my own, and of course from books. I remember on vacation in the third grade hauling a large book on Michelangelo from the local public library to the beach. My parents didn’t know anything about literature or museums, but they supported the fact that I was interested and never made me feel like it was weird, although it sort of was.

I went to college at the San Francisco Art Institute, where I studied with the great poet and art critic Bill Berkson. He basically told me that if I had all these bratty opinions, I should write some of them down. I’d spent my entire life making stuff, and, while I devoured literature and talked a lot, I had never felt the same intuitive understanding of language as a material the way I did with images. But Bill gave me the sense that it was possible. It took me a long time and a lot of concerted effort to change my relationship to writing. I do think of myself as a “writer” now, but that is really an extension of my essential feeling about myself as an artist, whether or not I show anything to anyone. It’s more like an attitude about being.

Who were the first art critics you read and wanted to return to? What was it about their thinking that pulled you in?

When I was about sixteen I read a collection of essays on Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona, which was a defining teenage obsession. The best essay in the book articulated my own complicated experience of the film, but with startling clarity and incredible style and without explaining away any of the film’s mystery. It was by someone I’d never heard of called Susan Sontag, so I tracked down her books, starting with Against Interpretation. It made talking about opaque, difficult art and books seem sexy and worthwhile. I think people have had that exact experience with her essays for several generations now. Sontag is the gateway drug of criticism.

In your essay, you write about Dave Hickey’s understanding of “beauty,” which is essential to his conception of art. But in the setting of museums and other elite institutions dedicated to art, he sees beauty as “a word without a language, quiet, amazing and alien.” What might be the ideal setting, in Hickey’s thinking or in yours, for experiencing beauty in art? How does art survive outside of an institution?

Don’t get me wrong, I love museums—small museums in the middle of nowhere as much as the most prestigious behemoths. They keep things safe. They make them special. The problem for me comes from the mindset that institutions produce, separating people’s experiences of art from the context of their own lives. And that’s the only way art matters as far as I’m concerned, and why, as a writer, I’m so engaged with narrative form, biography, psychoanalysis, and anecdote: because these modes attempt to keep art woven into the fabric of human life.

I think one “ideal” setting to see art is in your home, or your friend’s home, where an image or object can accrue meaning every day—most of the time just in the background, at the periphery of your consciousness, but then sometimes directly, you notice it again. I have a painting in my house by my friend Nathlie Provosty that I’ve looked at for years; it holds a space to think and be still and I’ve never not wanted to look at it, but it also doesn’t impress itself on you. That is an amazing test of an artwork. Most art does not sustain itself like that, and in contemporary galleries or museums it doesn’t have to. Another ideal setting is any glamorous, out-of-the-way locale that you have to make an effort to go see—I’m big on the pilgrimage model—and then the art is inextricable from the story of your trip to see it. You can go back to check in, and you will be different, and so then it will be different, and it becomes a marker in your life.

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There is also a communal, or perhaps social, aspect to Hickey’s conception of beauty—the “‘proliferation of beauties,’ around which communities of desire congregate” that you identify. How is this distinct from the more mundane concept of “fandom”? (Or am I betraying some snobbery in that distinction?)

Art is a social phenomenon. It is a knot that exists between people. The fandom thing is interesting, because of course to be a “fan” is a debased position, and I think it’s clear that fandom is now the defining position of contemporary culture.

I talk about this all the time with my friend Alissa Bennett, a self-described “historian of bad behavior.” Alissa hosts a brilliant podcast with Lena Dunham called The C-Word that tells extended true stories about maligned women, and does so with a lot of empathy and identification. It’s a kind of aesthetic-intellectual rescue mission, and I feel like that about my own work—what I wrote about Dave Hickey was obviously in that vein. Alissa is the only contemporary writer who I feel aligned with in that sense. Our research methods and worldview are unusually similar; only our subject matters and styles are a quarter turn apart. We’re both essentially interested in countercultures and subcultures, in the occluded or exceptional people who have a critical or diagnostic perspective, but from there Alissa is basically talking about “low culture” (in that her work is classified as “true crime”), and I’m supposedly writing about the “high” (what I do gets called “art criticism”). Although, as I said, I think our worldview doesn’t really support those kinds of distinctions.

The forthcoming collection that you edited, Devotion: Today’s Future Is Tomorrow’s Archive, seems specifically to be about communities of desire, in this case queer communities that had to work outside of institutional settings to preserve and honor the art of excluded and overlooked artists. Can you tell us about some of this art, and its original reception? Where was it exhibited?

My interest in queer histories has forced me to attend to the ongoing impact of the AIDS crisis and to ask what my responsibilities, as a gay guy in his mid-thirties in 2022, are to those earlier generations. For instance, the essay about Jesse Murry that I published in the Review last fall was not only about his painting and poetry—which had been almost completely unknown since his death in 1993, at the age of forty-four, from AIDS-related illness—but was also about the people who hold memories of him, who have kept his paintings safe in a storage unit, who have preserved the only copies of his complete life’s work in a box.

During my research I was incredibly moved by all the work that people do to take care of “stuff”—physical objects, even just papers, have to live somewhere and that means they have to be somebody’s dedicated project, usually at great cost of time and money. The only reason to take on such thankless work is love. I wanted to try and visualize the devotional dimensions to this kind of labor, and that became the book. I’m very proud of it. It includes essays by artists and writers who have taken on different aspects of archival work and reparative history for themselves, outside of institutions. These are accompanied by a number of images and artworks and documents that have never been reproduced or, in some cases, seen at all, everything from a complete facsimile of Typhon Dru (1990), a very rare collaboration between the radical lesbian Québécois poet Nicole Brossard and the artist Christine Davis, to archival photographs and ephemera of the great female impersonator Paul Lavern Cummings that were saved, almost by happenstance, from certain destruction by a curator at the Nevada State Museum.

One story encapsulates the project for me. I became interested in the writer Alexander Wilson, who published an unbelievably prescient book called The Culture of Nature shortly before his death from AIDS in 1993. His partner, an artist named Stephen Andrews, is still living. I went to Toronto to meet Stephen, interviewed him about Wilson, and asked if he could help me find more of the writing. Stephen has all of Wilson’s papers in his basement and let me go through them. What I encountered was an astonishing mind—incisive critical memos about politics and art directed to the famous Body Politic (a magazine put out by a group of Canadian queers from 1971 to 1987), where he was editor, and the complete raw transcript of a 1982 interview he did with Michel Foucault about gay liberation and sadomasochism. I published a selection from this archive, in facsimile, as a portfolio. Stephen had made etchings for the friends who were on Wilson’s care team, as a thank you, after he died: a diptych, one half is a kind of spectral image of Wilson’s smiling face, and the other was the last note he wrote, about when he would go to sleep and when to wake him up, then he never woke back up. That portrait became the cover of Devotion—you see not only this beautiful man, but a piece of art that communicates so much about the intensity of loss and the persistence of love. Made by a grieving lover for grieving friends, with gratitude, and for remembrance.

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