Maggie Nelson, Like Love, 2024. Courtesy: Graywolf Press

Does Language Make Art Happy: Maggie Nelson

The author of a new collection of art criticism and conversation on pitching oneself towards one’s idols, grappling with broken collectivity, and loving what can’t love you back.

In her newest book, Like Love (2024), the essayist and poet Maggie Nelson brings together conversations with, portraits of, and analytical criticism about Kara Walker, Sarah Lucas, Hilton Als, and Hervé Guibert, among many others of contemporary art’s leading lights. Reading the pieces, which are arranged chronologically from 2006 to 2023, is a bit like accompanying Nelson on an intimate intellectual journey across genres and through relationships with old friends (and some unexpected interlocutors, like Björk) about reading, writing, observing, thinking, and living.

Amanda DeMarco: Reading Like Love, it’s so wonderful to go on this long journey with you through your reflections on art and, as you talk to old friends, through your intellectual relationships. When you hold this book in your hands, what is it like to see it so compressed?

Maggie Nelson: It’s awesome. Maybe because of the conversations, it feels like I’m not really holding something all to myself, but that there are other people there, too. It feels like a record of a best life, talking to people that I feel so lucky to have gotten to talk to, looking at art, and getting to thank the artists for inviting me into their worlds.

AD: It occurs to me that not many people could pull together a collection of what is nominally their writings and have it feel so social and interactive.

MN: Yeah, I mean, it’s almost like the essays could have been conversations, but I chose to write them as art essays instead. And a lot of the conversations in the book are ongoing, so these are, in some ways, snippets from longer enmeshments.

AD: The title of the book comes from a Hilton Als quote in White Girls (2013): “every mouth needs filling: with something wet or dry, like love, or unfamiliar and savory, like love.” Your question in response is, how can the attention one pays to art be an act of love, if art can’t love you back?

MN: Clichéd as it is to say, there are a lot of kinds of love and a lot of ways that love can look and work. Requited love from sentient beings who are alive at the same time that you are is really just a subset of the category.

There’s idols, there’s peers, and then there’s people that, as they say in twelve-step recovery, have something that you want, who you can try to move towards, because you’re excited about what kind of life they seem to be living.

AD: I can imagine that being very comforting to young people who are coming into an intimidating world.

MN: As a teacher, the sentiment I want to give them is that what you’re doing with your friends, in your now, is the basis for that rad best life, you know? That said, you do need to kind of pitch yourself or to orient yourself towards the things that excite you the most. I think both Wayne Koestenbaum and Eileen Myles, to whom the book is dedicated –

AD: – and who formed the first and last sections of the book –

MN: Correct, yes – my Alpha and Omega. When I was just out of college and newly twenty-one, I really pitched myself toward Eileen, whom I’d seen read, and I just wanted to be around whatever they were doing in New York. And when I decided to go to graduate school some years later and was thinking about the kind of life I might want to lead, I really pitched myself towards Wayne, who became my professor at the City University of New York. There’s idols, there’s peers, and then there’s people that, as they say in twelve-step recovery, have something that you want, who you can try to move towards, because you’re excited about what kind of life they seem to be living.

AD: It occurs to me that the conversations bring in moments of doubt or frustration that the essays do not. Were you more likely to express those feelings in talking to other people?

MN: People always say, oh, you don’t know what you think until you write, but sometimes, you write, and you still don’t really know. This is true in all kinds of writing. To me, emotional truths seem more obviously itinerant than writing in a more critical idiom. I can write in an “Oh, let’s see it this way, let’s see it that way” style and people can get frustrated with that because they want me to, like, say the real say. I do try, at some points – not all points, but at some points – to deliver proclamatory sentences and to take stands. But to me, those are usually performative, and they’re what the moment required in a piece.

Portrait of Maggie Nelson

Portrait of Maggie Nelson. Courtesy: Graywolf Press. Photo: Sarah St Clair Renard

AD: It sounds like it’s your impulse to hold on to complexity, but that you might feel pushed to let go of it, and that letting go is the performance.

MN: It’s a push and pull. As somebody once put it to me, you don’t want to protect yourself in your writing by using the words of others as pillows or shields. I definitely want to push through that if I’m really trying to illuminate that something is difficult. I’m thinking of a chapter of On Freedom (2021) that is about sex and trying to get at being a sexual subject, rather than only lamenting being a sexual object – something our blame-the-victim culture puts up road block after road block to talking about. To me, it’s worth holding that complexity up, because otherwise, you might feel like you’re doing sex (or life, you name it) wrong. But for me, complexity, which has a lot to do with holding ambivalence, doesn’t mean anything has necessarily gone wrong.

AD: I also think of your reading of another book that I love, Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 (2014), and how, in your essay, you excavate the worthiness of the attempt to be to be socially oriented, even in a compromised situation.

MN: Being socially oriented right now is difficult, in that American culture has a somewhat pathetic infrastructure for it. It’s easy to feel like you’re failing at finding belonging or a socially oriented existence when it’s really more that we just don’t have an infrastructure that makes that easy for anyone. That means that all attempts will be busted or compromised in some way, and may exist on something like a “good enough” to “not good enough” continuum. At the same time, however, I don’t personally feel any nostalgia or longing for the provincialism of some tight-knit social structures that maybe had a lot of communal life built into them, but only if you were in accordance with their norms. If you didn’t conform in some of those environments, you might find yourself banished from them – which is why so many queers have historically migrated to big cities. I read 10:04 as grappling with all that, grappling with the fact that sociality or collectivity may look or feel pretty busted right now, and it’s always going to have to be reinvented, but what we make and find is not negligible, and it matters.

AD: That’s a great thing to be reminded of, that if you’re going to be generous, you’d better do it now, in our current situation, because there is no other one.

MN: There’s a part of On Freedom where I talk about this. I quote Mark Fisher, the late British theorist, where he’s like, “Hands up – who wants to give up their anonymous suburbs and pubs and return to the organic mud of the peasantry.” I think he’s getting at a kind of disingenuousness with which we sometimes talk about what we wish we had; we don’t all really wish we had it. We wish we felt better in what we do have, and the very close-to-the-ground parts of me thinks, well, then, start with that. Any good therapist will tell you that you don’t need to feel like an eleven on the scale of one to ten, but if you usually feel like you’re a two, feeling like you’re at three-and-a-half might really matter.

Does language make art happy? Not really. But artists often need it, and I sometimes feel like that’s something I can offer.

AD: In Like Love, you engage with works of visual art – I’m thinking of Kara Walker’s Event Horizon (2005), where you’re looking up at this stories-tall, site-specific work in a stairway at the New School in New York. Does writing about visual art make you feel like you experience it differently?

MN: I think everybody experiences art differently. I can remember reading in Benjamin Moser’s 2019 biography of Susan Sontag that everybody was really surprised when they went to a museum with her, like what a poor museum-goer she was. I felt really mad at that part, because Sontag produced all these essays which, whether or not they reflected one person’s idea of how long you should spend in front of a painting or whatever, made a lot of things happen, and certainly caused me to look up a whole canon of mid-century avant-garde art, a whole universe. And, the quality of her looking aside, she did it through the contagious energy and strength of her prose and through the rhythm of her attention in the world.

People in the art world want and need writers to translate and connect their work to the language world. I talk about that a little bit in the piece on the artist Rachel Harrison, who asks: Does language make art happy? Not really. But artists often need it, and I sometimes feel like that’s something I can offer.

AD: Seeing a collection of essays spanning this long a period, I am curious if there’s anything you feel distant from?

MN: I don’t feel far from anything. The only thing is that a lot of the conversations are taking stock of things that were happening in the world, and from 2006 to now, we’ve lived through a lot of different moments. Some of the terminology about gender and sexuality has changed (as have the gender identifications of some of the people in the book). As you may have noticed, too, the pandemic hits about two thirds of the way into the book, and a lot of people I’m talking to in the last few pieces are kind of just sorting through the wreckage of these past few years. I wasn’t really sure how all that would date, but I opted to include it all as a journey.

In my 2012 conversation with the poet Brian Blanchfield, we are talking about gay marriage and bathroom bills [US state laws mandating people use public toilets that correspond to the sex they are assigned at birth]. It was bad then, but it was also kind of a hopeful moment, in its way – the ground was really shifting. Since that time, we’ve just been battered with anti-trans and anti-queer hatred and legislation. So, knowing all of what’s happened in the Pacific Northwest and the West since that conversation, it really brings tears to my eyes when he ends by saying, “I want to be one of a group that, as a group, secures the chance for happiness and self-expression for its most marginalized members. I know some of them here in western Montana.” And I’m like, yep, it’s all still happening.
Maggie Nelson’s Like Love is available from Graywolf Press. Her previous books of prose and poetry include On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (2021), The Argonauts (2015), The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011), Bluets (2009), and The Red Parts (2007). She teaches at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles.