Isabelle Graw founded the art journal Texte zur Kunst, which has been synonymous with reflected critique since 1990. In her books the art historian and critic engages with celebrity culture, art and its value, as well as her enduring love for painting. She is professor for art theory at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main. Since 2020 Graw has been offering another aspect of her work to the public: what she previously had been writing only for herself found a new, literary form, which some might call autofiction: In Another World (2020) is a collection of fragments, everyday observations, reflections. Her latest book, On the Benefits of Friendship (2022), is an attempt to come to terms with a topic—friendship in the art world—in the form of a fictionalized diary. In a conversation with the Berlin-based author Philipp Hindahl, which is part of our thematic cluster on “fabulating,” Graw explains how fiction relates to critique, what friendship in the art world looks like, and who actually benefits from it.
PHILIPP HINDAHL Isabelle Graw, early in On the Benefits of Friendship you pick up a distinction made by the Greek philosopher Aristotle: true friendship versus utilitarian friendship. You seem to advocate for a hybrid model—and I get the impression that you’re trying to rehabilitate utilitarian friendship from the charge of lowness and immorality.
ISABELLE GRAW That’s true. I wanted to dissolve the strict dichotomy of virtuous and utilitarian friendship; yet, I also believe that Aristotle’s psychology of friendship can still give us much today. The only thing that’s changed is that the line between usefulness and disinterestedness in friendships in the art world is usually blurred. It can happen, for example, that you feel drawn to a person, to feel an authentic liking for them, and, at the same time, to just want something from them. But this oscillation between instrumental motivation and affective attraction also creates new problems that interest me. I’m not just concerned with rehabilitating utilitarian friendships but more so with closely analyzing where it can go wrong and cause pain.
PH Pain is a good starting point. The first part of your book has the title “Lamento,” that is, a complaint. It’s concerned with your coming of age in Cologne’s art world, which is presented as a fairly bleak place dominated by macho men.
IG Curiously it’s mostly men who tell me how hard or “frightening” my descriptions of the art world are. Women among my acquaintances just say, “yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.” If I set a plaintive tone with the title “Lamento,” then that should be taken as a literary exaggeration. And I don’t just complain about others; I also take a long hard look at myself—which is to say that you could also read the book as a self-accusation. It wasn’t my intention simply to castigate my evil false friends with a utilitarian mindset; rather, the book shows that the protagonist also acts with calculation every once in a while and that she’s not always conscious of this. I purposefully exaggerated the confessional sound of the book, which was a lot of fun. I used Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions as a model, which is also a highly constructed work of literature. Although he promises in the beginning only to tell the truth, the truth he delivers is completely controlled. I really wanted to find a tone that signaled urgency but also emotions such as disappointment and bitterness. These emotions seem to be somehow taboo, particularly for women that no longer are really young.
PH The economy of the art world does something to friendships, doesn’t it?
IG I could have called the book “the economy of friendship.” Take the case of artists that enjoy commercial success. That raises the question how this success impacts their friendships with the critics and art historians who will never earn as much but made crucial contributions to the artists’ commercial recognition. The tensions, power relations, and also envy that arise from inequalities play a large role in the book. These are negative affects that I believe have their place—as long as you don’t make this place your home.
PH I was frequently reminded of your book High Price, a study concerned with how value is negotiated between art and its market. In your latest book you add an emotional layer.
IG That’s what it was about for me. Over the last few years other authors and sociologists, such as Didier Eribon, Annie Ernaux, and Saidiya Hartmann, have tried to connect theory and emotions. But it was important to me to channel emotion in a specific literary form, which led me to the fictionalized diary, which does not have the character of a sociological study. My previous book, In Another World, was a first step in this direction. I realized that I had literary potential that had been hidden and dormant and that I only practiced for myself—even though this type of writing gives me so much joy. Over the last years I became more fascinated with contemporary literature because I got the impression that there people were trying to combine subjective experience with forms of social oppression that often are more convincing than what I see in many works of fine art. That’s why I wanted to try my hand at literature and to conquer new terrain.
PH There’s a point in the story where caring instead of usefulness moves into the foreground. Your protagonist has moved to Berlin by then. Is this the reason for this change, or has our culture changed?
IG On the biographical level the heightened importance of caring certainly has something to do with growing older, the death of my parents, break-ups, experiences that show that you need something else from your friends than just stimulating intellectual exchanges. But it would be too simple to consider this as a chronological development. Even in my hard Cologne days, when friendships were based on use, there were moments of caring. Starting a family is another reason for the renewed focus on caring. After all, you make yourself vulnerable when you put a child into the world, and you’re increasingly reliant on the help and support of others.
PH There is a scene in the book in which a friend of the protagonist practically ignores the child—almost comically so.
IG This again is an intentional exaggeration, but one that is based on a specific biographic subtext that I changed in writing—which is the case with almost all of the book. Peter Handke once put it like this: literature today is always about transporting the concrete, but then makes it more universal through abstraction.
PH Your book is full of secrets. I tried to find the real models for the characters, but then there’s a big emptiness in the middle. The protagonist is embroiled in political controversy, but you never fully reveal what this is about. There’s only the pressure put on by her friends.
IG On the one hand I wanted concrete experiences to be the foundation of the book because I thought otherwise it would lose tension and intensity. On the other I didn’t want it to end up as a roman à clef, which is why the characters are hybridized. Each one contains multiple names and the genders are changed. The big controversy is not about what’s at stake in terms of content but about the partisan dynamics of political divergences. My protagonist writes a book about Cologne’s art scene. There’s the sense that an underground project has been betrayed for the mainstream and, additionally, that it has been too focused on the male actors in the scene. This leads to a flood of bad reviews, and many people turn their backs on the protagonist. These are painful experiences, but they also give you a chance to learn who you can rely on and how the dynamics of friendship function in the art world.
PH Your book is clearly set in our world, and things happen that we recognize from our own experience, but there’s also a distance whenever certain information is withheld. An interesting effect.
IG It’s not about panning anyone, to hurt someone, or to take revenge. I wanted to analyze what is going on in this situation and to transfer the emotions it causes into language. Because there is a coherent story of betrayal, and there is a plot, but there are no characters of the kind you usually expect in a novel. That’s why it was important to me. I was less concerned with the people themselves than with how people are impacted by the structures of competitive society. And I don’t exempt myself from this impact. The book ends with the diary as a best friend, but it also proposes that we should find a way to accept the imperfections of our friendships.
PH The book is rather harsh. For example, there are no psychologized representations that explain why someone would break off a friendship, or are there?
IG For the English edition I made a little addition because a friend asked me after reading the book if it wasn’t simply the case that everyone in the art world, us included, had a screw loose. Was it not the case that these people were driven by their own pathologies which they had through no fault of their own? I included this idea. If you consider this, then you can assume a more generous perspective on the rather harsh events.
PH It could be that people in the art world are more willing to speak about their own pathologies. Though when I think about the male-dominated art world of Cologne in the 1980s, then I have to say that a lot certainly remains unsaid.
IG The silence of the late 1980s and early 1990s also occurs in the book. The question how you were was taboo. At the same time art of course also offers a space where quirks and pathologies of all kinds are not only tolerated but almost encouraged. The excess-loving alcoholic, for example, had been a promising model for being an artist for a long time, and it would help you to act disgracefully.
PH One of the merits of #MeToo…
IG …is that sexually aggressive behavior now occurs in a different context! Having said that, one should not announce the dogma of total normie-normativity. The fact that the art world is neither morally nor economically regulated has advantages and disadvantages. My initial fascination with this milieu certainly also had to do with this lawlessness and its consequences.
PH We also have to speak about the form of the text. In Another World, your previous book, consists of fragments that usually are based on everyday observations. At the beginning there’s writing in the morning—a ritual. In On the Benefits of Friendship the protagonist calls a friend every morning. How important are routines for you?
IG This, too, does not correspond to my life one-to-one. I don’t phone up a friend every morning. I also don’t write down impressions every morning, although In Another World actually was written that way. That was a time when certain changes were happening in society and in my life. The book picks up on private crises such as the death of my parents and societal paradigm changes, for example Brexit and #MeToo. Routines aren’t sacrosanct for me, but you need them of course if you want to finish a book, particularly during the pandemic, the time when I wrote my book on friendship.
PH Why do you write in the form of a diary?
IG It’s a fictional diary. The dates don’t correspond with the dates when I wrote the entries, but I wanted the text to have a relation to a certain time and certain societal developments. The book didn’t come into being in a vacuum but among concrete social conditions. I don’t talk about everything, but the suggestion of a report that creates the impression that it authentically describes what haunts the protagonist only becomes possible in the form of the diary.
PH One podcast claims that you had liberated yourself by writing In Another World. Would you agree?
IG I might say it differently. What this take presumably means is that I slipped off the corset of art-historical writing, for which you always need to account for many different contexts—the aesthetic object, social history and the history of reception, your own theoretical ambitions, and so on. Literary writing is free in comparison, but there are other constraints: you have to find the right tone, a fitting form and structure. There’s also the question of genre: is it a novel? That’s how some of my French and American colleagues rather unselfconsciously read the book on friendship. I wouldn’t have been able to call it a novel in Germany where thinking on the topic is more categorical. I also think that I revealed myself more in this book even though I also shrouded myself. In art-historical writing you usually don’t use “I” throughout. Already with In Another World I had the desire to make something out of the observations and thoughts that fall by the wayside in my scholarly writing. However, it’s also scary to leave a familiar place.
PH When critics write fiction, it usually raises eyebrows. I’ve never heard anyone say something good about Susan Sontag’s novels, for example.
IG I also looked into the question if there are art critics that manage this parallel activity. I’m thinking of Catherine Millet, whose book La vie sexuelle de Catherine M I thought remarkable. I get the impression that there’s more leeway for such parallel activities in France. In Germany it’s more difficult. There there’s a desire for clear categorization. Even after Didier Eribon and Annie Ernaux there’s still the question if it’s sociology of art or literature.
PH But Eribon also took an indirect path to sociology.
IG True, but so did I to art history. To be honest: in writing the friendship book after In Another World, I also wanted to show the world that I’m serious about my literary ambitions. Of course I continue to write as a scholar and continue my research on the question of value, but there’s also a whole other strand now.
PH If one looks at the history of art criticism, then one could begin in the 18th century, with Diderot, whose salon critiques are highly experimental. In this sense writing about art flirted with fiction until the 20th century—there’s fabulation; different genres are tried. But then a strongly formulaic art criticism, which frequently sounds a little scientific, began to dominate.
IG I wouldn’t subscribe to this version of a history of decay. I’m still deeply invested in theoretically ambitious art criticism. In the 1960s—and even before with Marcel Duchamp—artists became producers of discourse as part of the advent of conceptual art. Their own theoretical statements were regarded as an integral part of their work. In that constellation art criticism stepped out of its role as a mediating, literary apparatus; instead, it became one of social critique. Later Texte zur Kunst took up the cudgel for methodologically reflected and theoretically grounded forms of art criticism. Much has happened since then. I’d find it a lot more interesting to ask if such a theoretical ambition is compatible with fictionalizing strategies. Why should they be mutually exclusive? My book The Love of Painting, for example, also is a fictive, controversial dialogue about the works of the artist Jana Euler.
PH I wonder why so much autofiction is set in the art world or even is written by people in it. Do you have an explanation?
IG I think the art world is appealing for two reasons: it provides glamour and it’s a paradigm case for the exploitation mechanisms in the creative industry. Because of its high potential for distinction it offers a welcome background for many books. The fact that the fashion world is approaching the art world is symptomatic of the high rank of the fine arts: fashion either goes to it for collaborations or uses artists’ as resources for their campaigns. In contrast to luxury goods artistic work is associated with long-term symbolic meaning and high speculative value going forward. Books also appropriate this form of capital because they can’t approach the commercial value of art works.
PH Authenticity used to be eyed rather suspiciously in art and literature. Is it returning in the form of autofiction?
IG I wouldn’t say that. In the end it’s a manipulated authenticity. The friendship book too aims at the midpoint between authenticity and artistic control. As important as it is to me that authentic experiences of friendship are the foundation of the book, as terrible I’d find it if I hadn’t put any effort in shaping the form of the book into something that doesn’t correspond to and isn’t my life: the protagonist writing a diary is a character with whom I have a close relationship but she is someone other than myself.
Interview: Philipp Hindahl
Translation: N. Cyril Fischer
Title photo: Rob Kulisek