Excitement and privilege

Agnese Čivle

An interview with the internationally renown arts writer Kate Sutton


Over the last few years, American curator and arts writer Kate Sutton’s name has been very visible in such visual culture publications as Bidoun, Frieze, The Hollywood Reporter, Ibraaz, LEAP, and Artforum. Articles by her have regularly appeared in the online version of the monthly contemporary arts magazine Artforum ( since 2008. In 2013 she received the Andy Warhol Foundation’s Art Writers Grant. 

At last autumn’s Vienna art fair viennacontemporary, Sutton curated the Talks programme titled Borderline, which focused on ‘the comprehensive changes that European cultural institutions face on a political, social, and cultural level’. One of the featured talks was on the theme of ‘Positions in Print: The Ethics of Art Writing’, a subject that spurred to query the experienced author if she wouldn’t mind answering for us a few pertinent questions on the behind-the-scenes of today’s art journalism.

In the following conversation, Sutton shares her opinions on the role of language in art writing, including the often elusive quality of clarity. Sutton also discusses the question of whether we’ve seen the last of the period of ‘the more complicated the writing, the smarter the writer’, and comments on the current era of the internet blog, in which top billing seems to go to the author’s own train of thought and perception of the artwork rather than than the artwork itself.

Did studying comparative literature make an impact on the way you look at art?

There is a lot of debate these days as to what constitutes the “ideal” education for an art student in today’s ardently interdisciplinary, aggressively networked art world. I ended up in comparative literature on a technicality – the marvelous Leigh Dickerman had left Stanford’s Art History department my very first quarter, and Maria Gough would not arrive until my senior year, leaving a gaping hole precisely where I had imagined myself fitting in – but in principle, I think literature was just as helpful an entrypoint as art history, given how every project you encounter is written in its own language, drawing on its own references and allusions. I should add that I had two other educational experiences, the first more romantic than the second. My junior year I stopped out of school for a trip to Siberia (part of the long tradition of “having an adventure”) and ended up falling for St Petersburg, where I slipped into the scene around the New Academy and the art squat Pushkinskaya-10. With no money and an embarrassingly spare command of the language, I was exceedingly fortunate to have been adopted by artists like Andrei Khlobystin and Oleg Kotelnikov, true dandy-punks in every sense of the word. They knew every old raver or underground club, yes, but they also knew every palace, every painting in the Hermitage, and they seemed surprised at my ignorance around, say, Flemish masters. But this is where one really gets a sense of the vast discrepancies between the American education system and its various indulgences – I took a whole class just on Nabokov’s late period – and the European system, which seems to take a more holistic approach to art history (“to begin at the beginning…”). My third education was geared more towards perfecting a professional camouflage. I had signed up for the fledgling MA program at the San Francisco Art Institute to try to put my experiences in Russia into another perspective. Well, that was the main reason, but also they were desperate for an inaugural class and were happen to shrug off standard requirements like GREs or language proficiency tests. Working alongside curators like Okwui Enwezor and Hou Hanru, however, I learned less about their own projects and more about how to speak a certain tongue. (That, and how to negotiate biennale-sized egos – earned or otherwise.)

When studying art processes, do you feel like a detective, or more like a timid observer standing on the sidelines?

I’m not sure I could answer this, honestly, as it depends so very much on the work in question and what its contours allow. Some pieces lure you in right away, others elude you until you realized you’ve been seduced, and still others strike no spark whatsoever. I do find that the art that I want to live with, to wake up to every morning, rarely aligns with the art that I want to wake up and write about. This is especially true of a certain genre of research-based practice, where the histories recuperated can be absolutely intriguing, but it’s often not enough just to point out these histories. And don’t get me wrong, it can be immensely pleasurable to research those stories, but I think the question really should be, is there a better format for this information, a more suitable context for the content, etc. Otherwise you end up basically narrating the artist’s research without actually engaging with the work.

When writing, do you keep in mind that there is also a part of society that is absolutely uneducated about how one should look at contemporary art, and how to understand it? In writing on art, how can one find the right balance point that makes it comprehensible to a diverse audience?

Again, I think I have a specific perspective here, as I write for multiple outlets that expect varying levels of engagement and attention from their readers. For instance, my online diary column for Artforum takes a very light tone, but it also allows you to sneak in observations that are more nuanced or even daring than what you might be able to get in print. When it comes to other publications, I think you can get away with some beautiful or surprising writing in the unlikeliest of places, but you also have to be firm with what you are okay having in print – particularly in the age of Google, where your digital tail can wag far longer than you might wish. (Though believe me, it’s a rare thing indeed to be able to afford principle as a freelancer.) But I think this question was more about populism, and anticipating your audience. I think writing for glossies can be really helpful in that it emphasizes what you are trying to say, not how. Thankfully, I think we’re past the moment when everyone presumed the more complicated a text, the more intelligent. Clarity cannot be overrated, whatever your audience (as the prevalent parodies of “International Art World English” might attest.) The danger there is that the “honest,” Instagram-like responses we’re seeing now risk might say more about the writer than their subject. 

What do you think it is that allows some texts to stand the test of time?

It’s a tough question, because some of the very things that made me love the written word I can now find exhausting. Take Anne Carson’s blistering, pristine verse, for instance. Autobiography of Red propelled me through my college years, while I’ve had Nox on my bookshelf for three years and haven’t read a verse. And I can’t explain why I’ve lost that enthusiasm. There’s something similar going on in art writing now. I mentioned it earlier, but this “refreshing” confessional tone of a lot of art writing doesn’t feel as refreshing anymore. And I know that I am part of that machine. Columns like Scene+Herd first appeared precisely because there was a shift in the way the art world operated, and the forums for art writing hadn’t yet adapted to it. When you’re only given 600 words to cover an entire show, it’s rarely enough space to address the content, let alone the context and the specific tensions it carries. But at the same time, with the proliferation of similar formats – the “I” dominating reviews – you can lose sight of this larger context (it’s not called navel-gazing for nothing.) So maybe I’ll return to my earlier answer and say clarity. I remember Rachel Kushner describing Clarisse Lispector as having “a diamond-hard intellect,” and for some reason, that description has stuck with me. I know plenty of writers who indulge in some jaw-dropping flourishes, which can be a decadent thrill, but it can also be absolutely taxing on your readers. I love Elif Batuman, who studied with me at Stanford. Clear and honest and a humor that comes from observation, not from the ton-of-brick wit of forced one-liners. Her style is immaculate, yet you aren’t aware of it. It refreshes and replenishes as you read. When it comes to art writing, I think a lot of my preferences are based in a technical admiration of balancing certain contexts. Kaelen Wilson Goldie is a master of this. I know this is an Artforum heavy list, but I think David Velasco, Sarah Nicole Prickett and Prudence Pfeiffer other examples of elegance and clarity.

What is your overall opinion on the role of self-publishing enthusiasts in arts writing? How does the environment of social platforms affect it?

Part of what interest me in my travels is the search for other writers, for coverage of areas that may be overlooked. Blogs and social media outlets have been amazing resources for circulating and disseminating these kinds of critical perspectives. That said, the sheer enormity of what’s available and accessible also wears on one’s capacity and attention span. It’s like when I tried to live in New York, it’s such a big city, that you have to make it small enough for yourself to live in comfortably: in other words, there are so many shows that you never see more than a handful. In this sense, there is more published than I can keep up with, particularly when the last thing I want to do is use my downtime to look at my screen any longer than I have to. But for those who are interested in running or maintaining these kinds of sites, the best advice I can give is to find a second job that allows you to write without any expectation of making it profitable. I think we can just accept that art writing rarely allows for self-sufficiency. At least, I’ve never actually made any money writing, I’ve always had to subsidize my writing through other side jobs. But it’s a passion and a privilege, and, for now, worth it. That said, there’s an interesting ethics of what you give away for free. In some ways, it’s a necessary evil for establishing your perspective and viewpoint, but your digital presence also plays into reinforcing those expectations that one shouldn’t have to pay much for opinions shared for free online.

Is having an art history or arts-related degree still essential for becoming a professional arts writer these days?

Not at all. I would say the primary requirements (besides those side jobs!) are passion and patience, a commitment to a job that will cost you more money than it will make you, and a sense of responsibility for your actions and your community. This last one might be controversial, but, particularly as the blogosphere morphs and leeches into official outlets, it’s very easy to allow yourself to act as if you have nothing at stake in what’s around you. That can be seen as a plus, like you’re not beholden to anyone, you don’t give a damn, how cool… Except you can only write those sorts of pieces a few times and then it becomes all too clear – if you don’t give a damn, then why should the audience? There’s a problem when writing about your experience of a work is less about the work and more about applauding yourself for how ingenious your response might be.

Does today's arts writing keep the artist at its center?

Two poles here. The one is what I just mentioned, about the writing that preferences the writer’s own experience, so that the takeaway is “wow, what an amazing mind that writer has!” The second pole is the automated reverence of describing an “approved” artist without taking anything to task. You don’t have to prove you “get it” by parroting the press release. At the end of the day, what should be in the center is the art.

How would you respond to the statement “Arts coverage is dying”?

It’s not dying, but it’s in a bit of an awkward phase right now, I’m afraid. A liminal stage. What is dying is the previous structure of professional art criticism. 

Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016), Oil on canvas, 99 x 135 cm; Collection of the artist; courtesy Petzel, New York

At this year’s viennacontemporary, you curated the Talks Program at which one of the discussion themes was “Positions in Print: The Ethics of Art Writing”. Could you tell us what were the main points discussed? What were the essential conclusions?

This was an important conversation for me, because it touched on what I wanted to express earlier about having a stake in what you do. This year there have been a number of high-profile debates – admittedly, namely in the American art scene, though not exclusively (thank you, documenta…) – policing whom can give voice to whom, who has “the right” to speak for which communities. Does a critic have to have a certain level of shared experience to comment on the experiences of others? What do we consider “authenticity”? What is the relationship between “authenticity” and authority? These questions sound like they’ve been answered before, but I think there’s a curious backswing of the desire for political correctness, where now we’re seeing a sanctimoniousness over whose voices can matter, when and how. But it’s certainly not a cut-and-dry question. “Authentic” viewpoints often reiterate the presuppositions or prejudices we’re supposed to be working past. At the same time, I don’t want to downplay the roles hegemonies have played in privileging certain viewpoints over others (The fact that I have built my career parachuting into art scenes and delivering a verdict after two days can be seen as just so many pirouettes of privilege.) This was the second year I’ve worked on the conversations program for Vienna Contemporary, and I have been fortunate to have the support of the fair’s director, Christina Steinbrecher Pfandt, and Lisa Shchelgokova who encourage actual conversations, instead of the usual vanities of panel members politely taking turns tepidly complimenting one another on stage. For the panel on art writers, I invited Osei Bonsu, one of the most elegant voices I have encountered in the last year (and so young too!); Ana Teixeira Pinto, who is never shy when it comes to articulating firm positions, in a moment when ambiguity seems all the rage; and Valentin Diaconov, now a curator in the Garage in Moscow, but formerly a critic at Kommersant’, Russia’s main paper. Valya was unfortunately unable to join us, but we were delighted to have the brilliant critic and curator Anna Kats on hand to step in. Granted, the conversation may have been skewed towards the Dana Schutz controversy at the Whitney Biennale, but I think there’s a lot more to be said on the topic. For instance, we didn’t even get to one of my original interests in the conversation, which is the odd situation wherein “art writing” is automatically ascribed virtue as being on the “right” side of politics (that is, the left), when the very mechanisms that support the publications and platforms underwriting this writing might hold counter-positions. There’s this farce of pretending art writing exists outside money (when really that might just be the art writers existing outside money…) when in fact, it’s intricately tied up in the machine that creates values for the art world – including the all too real capital shifted around at auctions.