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Why Lucy Lippard Never Gets Writer’s Block

Lucy Lippard answers questions from the audience with a warm smile
Lucy Lippard speaks at the New School’s Tishman auditorium (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

A packed house received Lucy Lippard for a wry lecture about her life as an arts writer at the New School on Wednesday, October 30. Staff from the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, which co-sponsored the event, stood leaning against the wall. Students sat on the floor.

The crowd was intergenerational. Collegians were eager to hear the voice behind landmark essays on how art entwines with feminism and activism; for their own part, the generation that first received Lippard’s words turned out in force. The prolific writer was delivering the sixth annual distinguished critic lecture of the International Association of Art Critics, United States — a moment of recognition from her peers in art criticism.

Lippard opened the talk by asking how many arts writers were in the audience. Twenty of us raised our hands. She then asked the group to keep our hands up if we started out thinking “that’s what we were going to do.” All but two of the hands went down.

Above her typewriter for many years was a paper slip from a 70s fortune cookie. “Do not think ill of your craft,” it read. That proverb epitomizes how Lippard rejected the Greenbergian mode that defined her generation. She did not refuse “art criticism” by writing essays of theoretical polemic. She honed accessible prose that championed imagery for its ability to convey radical ideas, and heralded art that spoke to the pressing questions of its time. She put the craft of writing to work to reveal how traditional formalist art criticism was missing out on the cutting edge of conceptual and activist art. The familiarity of her approach to readers in 2013 is a measure of how much Lippard’s ideas have won out in the eyes of history.

Lippard explained “I’ve freelanced all my life — a happy consequence of my authority problem.” Unlike other famous critics whose names seem tethered to their publications, she was a free radical jumping from publication to publication — sometimes to explore her burning desires and other times writing a review to pay the bills.

Lucy Lippard speaks about feminism
Lucy Lippard speaks about feminism

She spoke openly about her rejected pitches that look embarrassing to the publications in retrospect. As the women’s movement was gaining momentum in the 70s, Lippard pitched  Artforum on a series of short essays on women artists, with the purpose of catching everyone up on practitioners with little previous press. It was shot down. Nor could she convince any major publication in 1992 to print an article exploring the art of American Indians and their reaction to the quincentennial of Columbus’s “non-discovery of America.”

The loudest applause of the night erupted when Lippard remarked that “feminism is not just about standing up for yourself, it’s about standing up for other women.” When asked by a young woman to define what the feminist challenge means today, Lippard admitted she didn’t have much left to say, called most of what she’s said and written dated, and dared the woman to take the torch from her. “Don’t lay it on us” she concluded, chiding the next generation to look beyond septuagenarians like her for inspiration.

Lippard’s last question was about dealing with writer’s block. She gingerly responded “I don’t have writer’s block. It’s because when it’s how you make a living … well, you bloody well better write.” But money is not enough to motivate many paid writers to break the block on a bad day — nonetheless, it was a revealing peek into the fast mind of this feisty and articulate writer. Quick on the uptake, Lippard is seldom lost for words.

Lucy Lippard’s lecture “Changing: On Not Being an Art ‘Critic'” was given on the evening of October 30 at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium (66 West 12th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan).

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