Chris Kraus on confessionals in art and feminism

Chris Kraus. Photo by Reynaldo Rivera

Chris Kraus is an indefinable amalgam of novelist, critic, artist, editor and mentor who, in the Nineties (“post MTV, pre-AOL”), pioneered a new sort of subjectivised criticism that blended personal experience with theory.

She founded and co-edits the Native Agents series for the  independent press Semiotext(e) which publishes work by non-mainstream, mostly female American writers working in the first person. Meanwhile, she herself has produced several novels (“I Love Dick”, “Torpor”, “Aliens and Anorexia” and the recent “Summer of Hate”) that meditate on the role of women in the sphere of cultural production while simultaneously dishing on art world gossip.

Kraus has helped to shepherd the radical female “I” to the place it is today. But where is that exactly?


Mara Goldwyn: Somehow, somewhere, women’s reports from the sidelines of the art world – or from the beds of the men at the centre of it – became the artworks themselves. How did that happen?
Chris Kraus: Female writers have always been criticised for any account of their sex and romantic lives. Mary McCarthy published a story in 1941 called “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” about a young woman – clearly her – who slept with a middle-aged businessman on a train and woke up realizing he looked “like a young pig”. The men were all scandalised! Saul Bellow called the piece “bullshit”, and Alfred Kazin condemned her “contempt for men.” Just last year, a 21-year-old writer named Marie Calloway blogged about a sexual encounter engineered with an older “n+1” type guy – in graphic detail. She wrote, in a very deliberate, moment-by-moment way, about how it felt, using the phone on her camera to record his cum on her face.

McCarthy wrote in the clean modernist style of her time. Calloway is channeling the rambling blah-blah-blah Tao Lin style of our time. Either way, the fear and loathing of what women can say about men in that most “intimate” state is still there. We’re supposed to be silent witnesses. Though whether sex is really the most intimate thing about anyone is something we could debate.

Which female artists do you think have successfully – or unsuccessfully – used confession and self-exposure in their practice? What’s art and what’s just cheap titillation? Can we even make that distinction?
Sophie Calle gained notoriety for her “stalking” of B., with her famous  “Address Book” piece. Frances Stark made a video based on her online sex/dating chats. Neither of these works disturbed anyone much, perhaps because of the cool and aesthetic way these “experiments” were staged. So these works were “art”. Other experiments have been more problematic. There’s a huge trend among female writers to use real-life sex-and-relationship experience as material. Ariana Reines, in her magnificent book-length poem “Coeur de Lion”, “confesses” to hacking into her boyfriend’s email. Arianna has the guy’s number all round; and that was disturbing to some. But, younger women – especially American women – are placed in the bind of having to be transgressive AND lovable at the same time. Blame the culture for that! An American  interviewer asked Canadian writer Sheila Heti how being Canadian and Jewish “contributed to her identity,” and Heti replied: “Well I AM Canadian, I AM Jewish.” In the US, especially for girls, “identity” is something we have to make up, and have approved, all of the time.

When you published your novel “I Love Dick” in 1997 it was a pioneering mix of confession and criticism, and the first person in that case was definitely you. In your fictional works your main characters (Sylvie in “Torpor” (2006) and Catt in “Summer of Hate” (2012)) have since migrated to the third person, though “she” still resembles you. Can we call this an evolution? Can “I” still be radical? What happened to it?
I abandoned the first-person in “Torpor” because it was a much more personal book. In order to tell the truth about the two characters, I had to treat them as clowns, a very high kind of Punch and Judy show. You can’t turn your “I” into a clown, especially if you’re a girl, without people becoming distracted, actually pathologising, your “sad lack of self-worth.” I found in both books I could treat my female characters’ situation more comically by giving them character names. I still use “I” in my critical work; it’s a more mature and intellectual “I” in this case. But I began using character names to convey fiction’s mess of real-life, contradictory experience.

What passes for feminist art nowadays? How did we get from Kathy Acker and Carolee Schneemann to Miranda July and Lena Dunham?
[Writer] Masha Tupitsyn posted a brilliant critique last week on her Love Dog blog, quoting Miranda July: “‘Girls’ is a great show. Sheila [Heti] and I were talking about Lena Dunham’s generation, whom we admire. These women are able to make art at a much younger age, without having to go through, like, a punky rebellion like us older feminists have. They already just love themselves. And that’s great.” And Masha, I think, nails it when she adds: “Miranda July acts as though feminism is some kind of default or preventative measure – you’re a feminist because you have no other choice. You don’t have power yet. You don’t have access. It’s not a life-long struggle or commitment to social justice. It’s something you have to be until you no longer have to be it. For the record, feminism is not just about ‘loving yourself’; loving ourselves in the way that loving ourselves has come to be defined (‘Sex And The City’, HBO’s ‘Girls’, etc) and accepted is overrated, privileged, and self-indulgent. A lot of assholes love themselves, don’t they?” Put another way, Germaine Greer lamented that when the media finally dropped the derogatory word “libbers” to describe the Women’s Liberation Movement, she and her friends were overjoyed… They didn’t realise yet that the very idea of “liberation” was being excised. To cultivate “self-worth” is a far cry from wanting to change the world. 

So what’s the alternative? I mean, what can work?
The work I love most is the work that doesn’t try to make itself loveable.

Does the current epidemic of female over-sharing, not only in the artworld but across Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and so on, ever feel like the Monster created by these mid-century feminist Doctor Frankensteins?
Yeah, and it’s sad when women lose sight of the world in a myopic obsession to self-analyse. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t kiss and tell. 

Interview by Mara Goldwyn 

“Summer Of Hate” by Chris Kraus is published by Semiotext(e)/Native Agents 

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