As an editor for an art magazine, I’ve often agonized over what it means to write criticism today. Too many times, at a gallery opening, I’ve heard someone declare criticism ‘dead’, our contemporary moment ‘post-critical.’ Long-time frieze columnist Lynne Tillman’s writing proves that it lives still. She teaches us that its loss would also mean a loss of consciousness – an abandonment of the inquisitiveness that drives not just all critical thinking, but all creative endeavors as well. Her fictional cipher, Madame Realism, makes criticism personal – and all the more indispensable for it.
The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories, newly released by Semoitext(e), is the first comprehensive collection of Tillman’s Madame Realism stories, first published serially in Art in America beginning in the 1980s, along with her Paige Turner novellas and ‘Translation Artist’ essays. Their subjects – filtered through the settings of blockbuster museum shows and less trafficked historical sites – are incredibly contemporary; their style might be the creative jolt that today’s criticism needs. On a visit to Morocco’s Palais Mahdoub, Madame Realism surveys Malcolm Forbes’s toy soldiers, musing about the valorization of war and the aristocratic compulsion to collect. On a visit to London’s Freud Museum, she considers the carpets, statuary and famous couch of Freud’s study as extensions of his psychoanalytic theories. (The Met is a frequent, more local target.) Psychology and perception, love and war – in each of her jaunts, Madame Realism considers the grandest themes with a casual yet biting dispensation of wit. Yet her gaze also returns inward, and her scrutiny of cultural artifacts often doubles as a scrutiny of self. Such is the secondary, but no less important task of criticism: to reveal the affective power of objects. Madame Realism is a lonely figure, because looking is a lonely task. She gives us the courage to look with resolve, and cultivate a life of the mind in the company of nothing more than great art.
In one particularly cutting entry, Madame Realism visits the Ellis Island Museum, considering the disconnect between the real experience of immigrants in the US today and the historical, overwhelmingly white tale the museum spins for its visitors. The gaps between both narratives, she wryly observes, reveal how messy and complicated our country truly is. At one point, she writes in her notebook, ‘beware of premature closure’ – beware, that is, of the impulse to wrap up history with a happy bow, to declare America ‘great again.’ The statement is hauntingly prescient today, with the spectre of Trump looming over next week’s presidential election. The future of this nation of immigrants might just depend on the critic, the Madame Realism, in all of us.