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  • Abstraction and the Amateur:De-disciplining T. E. Hulme
  • Laura Heffernan (bio)

In 1913 and 1914, T. E. Hulme wrote a series of reviews of abstract art gallery shows for A. R. Orage’s The New Age journal. Reading them, however, will not give you a feel for the artworks that hung in the Chenil Gallery or the Alpine Club. Hulme’s reviews dwell instead on the reviewing game itself. “An article about one man’s pictures is not a thing I should ever do naturally,” Hulme protests in a review of David Bomberg’s abstract drawings and paintings in July of 1914, “Only the expert art critic can prolong the gesture of admiration artificially by cliché—that, of course, is his métier. I wish I could do it myself.”1 In a review of work by the Grafton Group in January of 1914, Hulme writes, “I find it more interesting to escape from this show for a minute” to consider instead how certain “Post-Impressionist or Cubist appearances” have acquired “cachet” among other reviewers (Hulme, 124). A review of Jacob Epstein’s sculpture from December 1913 begins with an apology for responding to Epstein’s critics rather than discussing the work itself: “All through this article I write about Mr Epstein’s work in a way which I recognize to be wrong” (Hulme, 114).

Hulme’s fellow critics at the The New Age, like his readers, regarded his meta-reviews as laughable. Parodies soon appeared. Written by staff writers and readers alike, these suggest that Hulme talks about reviewing because he lacks the discernment, style, and focus to write an actual review. One reads, “Dear me! I have nearly finished my appreciation, and I am nowhere near five and a quarter columns. I cannot do it sir!”2 Another implies that Hulme is reduced to tracing the outlines of the reviewing world because like all philistines he substitutes quantification for [End Page 881] qualification—“I waggle my hands before a picture, but even so I feel uncomfortable and say, ‘How much?’”—or perhaps because he has so little taste that he cannot even distinguish aesthetic objects and experiences from non-aesthetic ones: “I am interested in my interest in my shirt thrown interestingly over a chair.”3 For these prewar parodists, Hulme’s reflections on the reviewing world offered neither enlightenment nor a fresh perspective—instead, they seemed like the equivocations of an ungifted amateur who names the rules because he cannot learn them.

This is now a familiar theme: the gaucheness of the person who speaks reflectively about an institutional function that he or she should simply perform. Erving Goffman begins his 1976 Katz-Newcomb Lecture on “the lecture” at the University of Michigan by reassuring the audience that he is not “another self-appointed cut-up, optimistically attempting a podium shuck”; for him, to “occupy a status for purposes other than fulfilling it” is to engage in the sort of “puerile opportunism” one can expect from “classroom practitioners of group dynamics, the left wing of ethnomethodology, or the John Cage school of performance rip-offs.”4 Pierre Bourdieu, in his 1982 “lecture on the lecture” at the Collège de France, discusses how a “discourse which takes itself as its object . . . referring to what one is in the process of doing” rather than being “entirely absorbed in what one is doing” has something “unusual, or even insolent” about it.5 In general, Bourdieu warns, the “science of institutions and of the happy or unhappy relationship one may have with institutions” can look dangerously like the skepticism of “ordinary existence” in which “everyone willingly turns himself into the sociologist . . . of his enemies” (Bourdieu, 183). More recently, Bruno Latour has decided that large swaths of the sociology of science, including his own past work, too closely resemble the “critical barbarism” of everyday people like his neighbor in the Bourbonnais village where he lives, people who try to conceal the “real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements.”6 These asides question the status of knowledge that speaks about the institutions that legitimate knowledge. In taking reflective distance, does such knowledge become more objective or less so? Does...


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pp. 881-898
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