To be a critic is to be an immigrant in one’s own country. It is to seek the new in the oh-so familiar. It is to insist on understanding when judgment comes easily, and seek surprise and the overturning of one’s own certainties. It is to want to be wrong. To prefer to be wrong.
Perhaps that’s what drew me to Miguel Angel Hernández’s novel Escape Attempt, recently translated by Rhett McNeil for an English language edition from Hispabooks. The narrative tells of a suspicious box — part of an artist installation — and a missing immigrant, and a moral conundrum that is well beyond the arbitration of our coiled cerebellum and our snaky self-justifications. I saw, in Escape Attempt, the high-wire act of a novelist and critic; a creative performance of engaging every question while deferring every answer.
On his visit to New York City, Hernandez and I spoke before an audience at McNally Jackson Books. The conversation was just a start — so a few days later, before his return to Spain, and the University of Murcia, where he is a professor of art history, Miguel and I met at my office at the New School.
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John Reed: There are some books that I think about in the context of “painter” books: Flaubert’s Salammbo, The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz, maybe Kathy Acker, maybe Jane Bowles. Do you think of any books that way, or as “artist” books?
Miguel Angel Hernández: When I think of those kind of “artist” books, I think of a tradition starting in Balzac and Flaubert, and extending to Michel Houellebecq or Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Art may be background to the plot, but there are also some artistic ideas in the way an “artist” book is written. Art is fully embodied in it. I wanted my book to be part of this tradition of books not only with a subject of art but penetrated by artistic ideas — so not only about art but with art.
JR: What’s the relationship, if there is one, between art and ethics?
MAH: As an art critic I am always worried about what are the limits of art, to what extent an artist can do anything, everything, and that is what I was thinking about when I started writing that book — this problem of ethics is at the core of modern art. In fact, I suspect modern art is a reflection on ethics. From Courbet, Manet, to contemporary art and the neo-avant-garde. My work as a critic and now as a fiction writer has been to examine that problem.
JR: In general, I think of art and ethics as running parallel; they occasionally intersect but seem separate. You can have art that is unethical, but it is still art. The quality of what is ethics does not influence and is not influenced by the quality of what is art. And yet, it seems that each act of art encompasses some transgression or criminal intent, or at the very least some kind of interrupted expectation. Yesterday I was hanging out with an old family friend — she was a dancer in the ‘80s and is a highly skilled potter — and she was showing me these big pots that she made. Some of them were just terrific pots and then another group of them had a glaze which gave the appearance that it had eaten into the clay, deconstructed the clay, which seemed really quite wrong; but those pots were art and the other pots were just pots. So that’s my question, what is it about the transgressive act that makes a pot into art?
MAH: Okay, that’s a hard one. I think that, like any job, in the profession of art there are some applied ethics; you have to be honest, coherent about what you do and what the profession is. That kind of ethics is not different from that of a butcher or any other profession; artists have to be authentic, ethic, truthful, and they have to be good in their profession. So there is an ethics of art that is close to deontology. But in art, at least in modern art, there is another dimension to ethics. What makes a good work of art is that deontology, those applied ethics, but sometimes a really good work of art can be an absolutely awful social act, and I think modern art is about that dichotomy. It is about how art and ethics are absolutely separate dimensions. And that is for example what made Manet or Courbet so dangerous for the epoch, that for the first time they were presenting something that was happening at that time, such as prostitution, but with no moral position. They were just showing prostitution, unveiling it through art.
JR: Which brings us to Escape Attempt, and the work of your character Jacobo Montes.
MAH: Yes, if you look at the work of artist Jacobo Montes, whose work is at the center of Escape Attempt, you may see a really good work of art that is nonetheless highly disturbing. As a critic, I have great difficulty looking at that kind of art; works that I consider good art but works I have problems with as a citizen. Sometimes you have to choose between art and life.
JR: I often have objections to political art in that the arguments are overly simplified, not complex enough. And then of course I have objections to work that I think is unconscious, that is politically unaware. But my more passionate objection is to work that takes on a missionary-ism, that espouses a political position but in fact is a colonialist occupation. It’s traditionally been the role of artists to move into a culture and infuse it with the dominating culture’s values: religion, art, fashion, language, music. And I very often feel that that is the underlying message of political art, that it is not really about what it’s looking at but it’s about the absorption of the subject. And I saw that specifically in terms of Montes. In Escape Attempt — well … I don’t know, I don’t want to reveal too much, maybe you want to take a step in.
MAH: Jacobo Montes is a radical artist that embodies so many different ways of being radical. Being radical in his body, being radical as an activist, being radical in working with others. I don’t know if such an artist actually could exist, but at center his character represents the idea that art can show injustice, that art has a social mission and that mission is just to show that injustice in the museum, in the gallery. It is the discourse about the others. Jacobo Montes works to put injustice in the museum. In that sense he is the social artist of the hour, but his work is quite problematic — as political art often is, in the sense that art may not be the best way to speak to some issues. And that’s also my position; I don’t believe that art can show something that immediately changes our perception of the world. The audience that goes to a museum to see art about injustice usually agrees with the artist. That is to say, artists are confirming our vision, creating a space of consensus. That’s for me the liability of political art; you are not changing reality. Political art has to be a little bit more complex; when a work of art is about something it can’t change, it is just reproducing it.
JR: It seems there is a distinction common to art and storytelling. Storytelling exists either with the goal of changing who we are — even if it is just to evolve a memory that we have — or it’s a self-justification for who we are already, or a fantasy for who we believe ourselves to be. And in those regards it can be really toxic. Often, narcissism is in the guise of political thinking. Do you think about the privilege that goes into politicized art?
MAH: It is a privilege and it is a danger. I think it was Walter Benjamin who in his celebrated The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction spoke about art’s resistance to the aesthetization of politics — art was engaged with life and society. But art, writing, and culture don’t only represent life, but change. Our privilege is not just to speak about reality but trying to modify it. And in order to do that, what we have to do — in Benjamin’s terms — is not just represent the world but fight against our medium. So if you are a storyteller, what is your first task? To fight against the form of storytelling. And of course you can speak about political injustice but if that is not embodied in your process of writing the result is a mere reproduction of what already exists. Your first place of engagement has to be your medium. And this is also working for an artist. Imagine you are an artist making pictures of some sort of injustice. If you are not questioning your medium, your task, the memory of the tool you are using, the same idea of representation of injustice … if you are not doing that your art is futile. So our privilege is the capacity of actually transforming our medium. That’s for me the political engagement of art. Only then, after that, you can represent injustice. But this is a second step.
JR: Which of the characters in the novel has stayed with you the most?
MAH: Well, I think I’m Marcos. Marcos is the student that is the assistant of the artist, and 10 years ago I was like that, a nerd outside of society. But of course as a professor I am closer to Helena. The way in which I teach is close to the way Helena teaches. And when I imagine myself doing bad things, I am close to Montes. Every writer is a universe of possibilities; it is in our experience, our desire, our fears. I could be closer to Marcos or to Elena or Montes. But then maybe I am not Omar, the immigrant, the radical other. I think it is quite curious and quite strange that this immigrant, who might be or not in the box, who in the end is the character who is mobilizing the whole plot, is the one who is invisible even for the narrator. Even when we remember the story after we finish reading, he still remains invisible, so it is quite difficult for one to be fully connected to him. He is the radical other. But I think he is the character that I really like the most, because he is the material, the object of the art, but also the subject that mobilizes everything. And the one that really remains invisible.
JR: And did the characters, and the novel, influence you as a critic?
MAH: I think so. My way of writing art criticism changed completely. After publishing the novel, I could not return to scholarly writing and the established formulas of criticism. For some months I felt blocked. And in the end I decided to write another novel — also close to art. My texts are now far from what you’d expect from an art critic. They are more like experiments, experiences, closer to narrative or even fiction. Curiously, I feel now that I understand art better than when I wrote traditional art criticism. And I must add that the experience of writing a novel changed my perception of art. It made me love the art more.
JR: What about your vision of the future, for art and political consciousness? What’s in the box?
MAH: I am not a pessimist. But I am a skeptic, and I think we need more skepticism. Art and literature have to promote discomfort and incertitude. We need to ask questions. In a time in which everything has an answer, art and literature are charged with the task of provocation. “What’s in the box?” is a question without answer. I don’t really know what is inside. The box is a metaphor of an endless questioning. And I think this is precisely the mission of the novel, to produce that question in the mind of the reader. A future of change is only possible if we have open questions. Answers are dangerous. I fear people with answers. I fear they might convince me.