The War of Art

Art Is Everything: A Novel by yxta maya murray. evanston, il: triquarterly books/ northwestern university press. 232 pages. $19.

The cover of Art Is Everything: A Novel

RARE IS THE ART CRITIC who writes novels, though I’ve never really understood why. In 2012, I asked eminent art essayist Lucy R. Lippard about her only published work of creative writing, I See / You Mean (1979). She sighed and said, “I thought I was going to be a great novelist. . . . I was not a great novelist.” Not so rare are fiction writers and poets who pen art criticism. Lippard’s contemporary Susan Sontag famously thought of herself as a great novelist first. In the 1980s, Lynne Tillman began to mix genres in her “Madame Realism” fiction-essays. Today, authors such as Zadie Smith and Eileen Myles regularly compose essays on art. Yxta Maya Murray does something similar to Tillman in her latest novel, Art Is Everything, with dashes of Sontag’s penchant for philosophy and Smith’s attention to identity and belonging. Murray is a law professor, novelist, and an art critic. Much of the content here reflects the author’s understanding of how Chicana artists have navigated the racist demands of the lily-white art world. Murray also updates the innovations of Tillman and others (including Lippard, whose novel is great) by having the book mirror the feel of online postings that double as art criticism.

The novel is Murray’s seventh and her third book in the past couple years, following Advice and Consent: A Play in One Act (2019) and the story collection The World Doesn’t Work that Way, but It Could (2020). Of Art Is Everything’s thirty chapters, twelve were previously published. I mention this because on first read, I thought the book had passages that were somewhat redundant. I couldn’t grasp why its protagonist, the Los Angeles performance artist Amanda Ruiz, introduces herself several times, along with other major characters, including Amanda’s girlfriend Xōchitl, a wealthy actuary who dumps her because she wants to have a child, and Brandon, a lawyer who also breaks up with Amanda, right after siring a son with her. There are echoes throughout the novel that emphasize the book’s primary preoccupations: the death of Amanda’s father, her aspiration to make ambitious art, and the daily pressures of family and trying to make a living. Above all there is the fear of not making work. “I’m just seriously scared that if I stop making art I will disappear,” Amanda says, at least a dozen different ways—something I’ve heard from many artists navigating the predatory dynamics of the art world.

Though the novel’s reprises irked me, it helped to keep in mind that Amanda seems to be online 24-7 and that many of the chapters are styled as overlong, sometimes unpublished posts on Instagram, Yelp, Wikipedia, and Vimeo, among other platforms. (To be fair, much of the book is new, including sections presenting Amanda’s web searches, complete with time and date stamps.) Taken together, Amanda’s comments and reviews constitute a type of Wittgensteinian personal code. She is grieving, has lost everything, and yet she still wants to make art. What’s more, she desires to be connected with the artists before her who have drawn on their pain to make formidable work. Her writings soon become her primary mode of production: “Artists post their art to the web and wait to see if anyone can hear their private language,” she claims, making it explicit that she wants to be seen and heard while acknowledging that, historically, the vast majority of underprivileged non-white, non-male artists have not experienced such recognition. Without gallery representation, publications, or much in the way of help—aside from Xōchitl’s money—Amanda broadcasts her research-rich (à la Robert Smithson) and deeply personal (à la Tracey Emin) writings online, using social-media and consumer-ranking sites—any platform that suits the moment. Midway through the book, Amanda is in the back seat of a Lyft with a gallerist named Craig, following the successful reading of her opera Texit at his gallery. After she rebuffs his advances, he attacks her. She posts about this on, in response to the question: “What is the statute of limitations for sexual assault?” With great difficulty, she survives the violence. The episode bolsters Murray’s project of demonstrating how marginalized women artists have prevailed through dire circumstances.

Each chapter typically includes a lengthy meditation on someone of great interest to Amanda—her many influences, most of whom have also faced systemic injustice. In just the first seventy-five pages she considers (and I’m definitely leaving out some subjects here): Marisa Merz, the sole woman in the Arte Povera movement, as a working mother-artist; the lack of institutional attention paid to photographer Laura Aguilar; Sanja Iveković’s feminist protest art in Zagreb; the erasure of Agnes Martin’s schizophrenia and lesbianism from art history; and the rhinestones in Mickalene Thomas’s paintings as riffing on Stendhal’s ideas of love crystallization. This is where Murray’s experience as a fiction writer who arrived at art criticism really shines. Unlike most old-school art historians and critics who were taught to disregard an artist’s gender, sexuality, race, and class, and focus entirely on the art outside of this context, Murray is much more open-minded. She confronts these subjects through writing, including Amanda’s web postings, even if that (regrettably) means having to repeat details from the larger narrative.

Over twelve years, Amanda slouches away from art stardom, going from being broke and often homeless to becoming a stressed-out marketing associate. Her story parallels the extreme highs and lows that countless women artists face, as they negotiate capitalism’s demands to create and procreate, and neoliberalism’s commandment to be self-interestedly individualistic. In the end, she says goodbye to all that. Amanda commits more to her labor of love, her confessional artists’ writings and criticism, with an eye towards eventually publishing them. It’s a risky path of reinvention, one made exciting by the renegades she brings along.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler’s forthcoming book, Let’s Have a Talk: Conversations with Women on Art and Culture, will be published this year by Karma.