James Trainor

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Writing Survey

Writing Survey

'What writing has most influenced the way you think about art?'

frieze, Issue 100, Jun/Jul/Aug 2006

'What writing has most influenced the way you think about art?' Writers, artists and curators reveal the often surprising literary influences – from Theodor W. Adorno to Lester Bangs, Gertrude Stein and P.G. Wodehouse – that have shaped their thinking.

James Trainor
US editor of frieze.

The writing that has most influenced how I see art is the writing that has most influenced how I see everything; writing that confirms that art is not something isolated from the world but of the world, subject to the same messy physical and psychological laws. I would put near the top of my list personally revered figures like Joseph Mitchell, who so modestly perfected and shaped the New Yorker style of narrative non-fiction from the 1930s through the 1950s that he is often thought to have invented it. He wrote about things that nobody else would give a second thought to: the life of a Bowery burlesque show ticket taker, the aquatic journeys taken by a drowned suicide’s corpse in New York Harbor. Mitchell’s elegiac clarity is that of a man chronicling what in his mind’s eye has already passed, the stories taking their leave of the world as he types. John McPhee, a writer of the so-called ‘new journalism’ school that picked up where Mitchell left off, makes it jaw-droppingly obvious that there is no such thing as a dull subject, just dull writing. No matter how obscure, technical or dry on the surface – the realities of transporting hazardous chemicals across the interstate highway system on an 18-wheeler tanker rig, the whys and wherefores of the common orange – he always makes you slap your forehead in bafflement that no one had ever cracked that particular nut before, never looked at a thing, a process, a system long and hard enough to appreciate the hidden calculus of its everyday wondrous beauty. With unbeatable eye/hand coornation, he makes plain how people invent themselves through the work they do and the things they make, the way people become their vocations and embody their actions; and why it all matters.

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Read online at frieze.com