Lauren Elkin’s ‘Art Monsters’ thrives in the messy

The author’s latest book profiles the great and grimy women of the last century

In high school, I wrote a frenzied manifesto lamenting the bridge toll of palatability and preening I understood to be requested of me as a woman. My zine, printed on bright pink paper, surveyed the apparent options: defang my ambition to become beautiful or surrender to the solitary emancipation of ugliness. Jenny Offill dubbed this madonna/whore bind for the creatively inclined woman as the problem of the “art monster.” When writer and translator Lauren Elkin encountered Offill’s phrase—one that my 17-year-old self, it seems, was searching for—it ignited her to write two dozen essays.

Art Monsters—itself a pink book, though one, it goes without saying, miles more erudite and relevant than my adolescent self-publication—plunges into the problems of gender, aesthetics, labor, and art that modern and contemporary female artists have confronted. Where Elkin’s first book, Flâneuse, adopts an ambulatory form mimetic to its subject of walking, Art Monsters is activated by the flexible, connective potential of the forward slash and all the friction that punctuation mark implies. Profiling the great and grimy women of the last century, Elkin asks: What is so abject about the female? How might monstrosity be an aesthetic and political strategy?

But above her pages hovers another implicit question: Can the critic be an art monster? In a conversation with Document recorded on the day of the book’s publication, the author shares how her subjects, from Ana Mendieta to Kara Walker to Dana Schutz, guided her voyage into the profane.

“When you’re writing, you are in a body and in your history. That’s inescapable. I think we have to be clear about that. It might not always be comfortable—it might feel like an invasion—to acknowledge what’s happening.”

Olivia Treynor: The somatic is so central to the works you engage with in Art Monsters. What do you think is the role of the critic’s body in their writing practice?

Lauren Elkin: I wasn’t thinking much about my body as I was starting to write until I got pregnant. Then I was like, Well, I’m writing about monstrosity, and this is the most monstrous thing that’s ever happened to me. Pregnancy is a total transformation. There’s more blood somehow—I don’t understand how more blood gets in, but your body is circulating more blood, your brain is growing.

If we’re thinking about writing as a form of voice, can we think about the body articulating? Especially if we’re trying to collapse the mind-body split that we’ve labored under for centuries. What other ways does the body speak to us and signal its presence? Writing this book, the physical condition of being pregnant and, later, a mother, created a certain kind of thinking, a certain way of speaking. That’s a big part of why the book is in these short sections. In Flâneuse, the writing is much more fluid; there are entire pages without a break. In Art Monsters, I was thinking in short bursts. I had to find a form for the book that could accommodate the fact that my body was doing something new.

Olivia: In writing about Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses—an experimental film which documents the artist having sex with her partner—you note that the critic necessarily sacrifices their (and your) privacy for the sake of the work. Do you think writing this book was an invasion of your privacy?

Lauren: I think that it’s incredibly important, from an ethical perspective, to be clear on who’s writing, who’s speaking, who the ‘I’ is. That was why Flâneuse was so memoir driven, because it’s like, if you’re physically walking through a city, it should be clear who is walking. In [Art Monsters], I’m still committed to that. But the idea that you’ve isolated—the word invasion—is timely. Last night, I was at McNally Jackson in conversation with Merve Emre. I’ve been talking about monstrosity in terms of aesthetics of aggravation, and [Emre] asked, ‘Isn’t there an element of invasion happening in terms of becoming pregnant?’ I think it’s a really interesting moment where you are invaded, or, at least, I felt invaded by Fuses. Watching Kathy Acker’s sex tape, you don’t necessarily want to be turned on. It’s not what [Acker] is trying to do. Yet she must have known that it would be an inevitable side effect.

When you’re writing, you are in a body and in your history. That’s inescapable. I think we have to be clear about that. It might not always be comfortable—it might feel like an invasion—to acknowledge what’s happening.

“Something about the material, or where I was in my life, or the pandemic, meant that Art Monsters had to be this messy, monstrous book.”

Olivia: Can cultural criticism do what the art monster does?

Lauren: Last night, at the event, [someone] in the Q&A asked me to reckon with my ‘pretty privilege.’ I was really taken aback because, well, I just haven’t been asked that. But it is something I’ve contended with before. I felt, when I was writing, that I wasn’t monstrous enough or cool enough to be writing about, like, Kathy Acker. At a certain point, though, I kind of got past that. I say early on [in Art Monsters] that I was raised to be as small as possible. I remember being a kid, and my mom shaking her head, ‘All those kids you’re playing outside with, and yours is the voice I hear.’ It gave me this idea that my voice was louder than other people’s. The idea that it’s important, as a woman, not to be too big. This book was a dare to myself to see if I could take up more space. The way that I’m trained as an academic and a critic is to have a direct thesis, explored in a clear succession of case studies. And I couldn’t do it. Something about the material, or where I was in my life, or the pandemic, meant that Art Monsters had to be this messy, monstrous book. That was the point where I was like, Okay, it’s a book about monstrosity. Maybe I just have to let the book be what it is, and stop trying to tame it.

Olivia: Art Monsters chews on the politics of aesthetics. Were you trying to write a beautiful book?

Lauren: Probably not. In Flâneuse, I was actively trying to write lyrically and beautifully about the city. In this book, I was trying to be very precise. While I wasn’t trying to write beautifully, per se, I was trying to think about beauty as a category. When Eva Hesse reflects that she overworked the fiberglass piece and went into the ‘beauty zone’—that’s what I was afraid of, revising the book. I took a note from Hesse to not mess with it too much, not because I was worried about it being too beautiful, but because I was worried about it becoming too flat, having the life go out of it. I understand that to be what Hesse was shying away from; she just chose to call it ‘beautiful.’ As if there’s something suspect about making something beautiful. I don’t happen to agree.

“Sometimes the things that are missing are more powerful than laying out a case. Leaving room for the reader or the viewer to be implicated, to co-create the meaning of the text.”

Olivia: You write, “the opposition between speaking up and being silenced is a false one…I have found…the dare to articulate something beyond speaking or silence that is a paradoxical alchemy of both.” How does Art Monsters stage this paradoxical alchemy? How does silence or omission figure into your process?

Lauren: I’m always interested in space on the page. I think Sebald’s work, for instance, looks very beautiful on the page; It’s just these columns. There are few paragraph breaks, there are no slashes, it’s justified. It looks so beautiful. Very distilled, like he’s managing to speak in a hushed way just because the space is so organized. It’s a visual way of thinking about writing that doesn’t have to do necessarily with what’s in the text. While writing, I was thinking a lot about how it looked on the page. That’s part of why the slashes were so important. Sometimes there’s really nothing you can say. I don’t think that we need to forever be filling in the space by saying things. Silence doesn’t have to be the enemy of engagement. It can be, definitely; silence can be extremely cowardly.

Olivia: You write that Art Monsters started as a reflection on Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas. How did that project inform this book?

Lauren: One of the most important parts about Three Guineas is that Woolf doesn’t include the photographs of the dead children in Spain. She alludes to them, and they form a present absence in the text. The question there is: what can a writer say in the face of fascism and violence? There are aesthetic concerns that come in, because you don’t want to tip over into—I’m not gonna say sentimentality, because I am trying to reclaim sentimentality—but that sort of thing.

Sometimes the things that are missing are more powerful than laying out a case. Leaving room for the reader or the viewer to be implicated, to co-create the meaning of the text. It almost feels like Woolf, if she’d printed the photographs of the victims, would have been lecturing the reader about how to feel. Instead, she provides pictures of pompous patriarchs. It makes the ethical stance of the book a little bit more complicated because it’s saying, You don’t need to look at the pictures of dead children in Spain to think about this conflict. You can look much closer to home. Her amazing contribution, in that book, is to make that connection: to say, You think that’s just your local priest, but the philosophies of dress and comportment and hierarchy are shaping the worldview that leads you to react—or not react—to photos of dead children. It’s almost like specificity is the enemy of ethics in Three Guineas. I think that’s a pretty monstrous thing to contend. It’s not just that she’s aligning feminism with pacifism, it’s also that she’s pointing out uncomfortable truths about society.

Olivia: You write about artists, like Ana Mendieta, whose work was created to decay. Do you think of this book as an object that will also decay?

Lauren: I was given a tour of the former home of Louise Bourgeois yesterday, by one of the people who works in the foundation, and they took me to the bedroom. After Robert [Goldwater, her husband] died, she left the marital bedroom and moved into another room in the house. Her bed is amazing. It’s built into bookshelves. The shelves are lined with leather-bound books, paperbacks. There’s one book from the 16th century that’s bound vellum—and it’s immaculate. Clearly, our bookmaking skills are not what they once were. I don’t know about my little pink book.

In terms of texts decaying, it seems to me to be a question of the moment, how hospitable the time is to that text. What changes is the context. I don’t think we need to throw out a book [like] The Bell Jar, but I also don’t think we need to be precious about preserving narratives. If it’s something that people are having lots of problems with, we don’t have to read it, we can put it aside. Maybe in 20 years, it will read differently in ways that we, now, can’t imagine. That was my thinking in regards to the Dana Schutz painting [Open Casket]. The controversy of whether she should destroy it or not completely hijacked the conversation. Art historian Aruna D’Souza pointed out that, instead of a discourse about institutionalism and who profits from depicting Black suffering, it became a question of, like, ‘Can artists make whatever they want?’ Which is kind of a stupid conversation.