Steven Nelson Interview

This interview with Steven Nelson, author of “Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Writing about Deana Lawson’s Work,” is part of “Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Art Publishing: Conversation with Dushko Petrovich,” a series of conversations led by Dushko Petrovich about the tensions and processes of art publication, speaking to the parties involved with, and implicated by, Steven Nelson’s two-part Hyperallergic essay of June 2018.

Dushko Petrovich: I am really excited to chat with you because I found your piece so interesting. I had been waiting for some piece like this; it’s a problem in the field that people tend to just avoid. To start I wanted to talk about why you did something in this case. As you point out, a lot of art historians and art critics have this kind of experience or problem, and basically, people just sit on it and get annoyed or resentful.  But you decided to take it further, and published this piece with Hyperallergic that chronicles your experience. What made you do that?

Steven Nelson: Thanks for asking and also, it’s great to talk with you, Dushko, about this issue. I think that what made me decide to move forward with this piece was actually the essay’s second rejection. If it had just been the Aperture monograph and Deana Lawson, at that point, I would have walked away. What was so mind-boggling to me when I got the second rejection wasn’t that Deana Lawson didn’t like the piece—it was that she didn’t want to see it published anywhere. I thought that was outrageous. And I also thought that given my own position, as someone who is ensconced in a tenured position at a prestigious university, I had nothing to lose by saying something about it and by chronicling the experience. I was also amazed at how many people had had the same experience.

Petrovich: Could you say more about how this all made you feel as an art historian and a writer?

Nelson: On a certain level, I was angry. If I can be perfectly blunt, in fact, some of that anger sort of seeped out in some earlier drafts of the second part of the essay. I also felt, and have always felt, that while we as critics and as art historians write about artists and about art history, our endeavors are creative practices as well. The artist has her practice, and that’s wonderful, but the writer does as well, and the artist should not have the final say on the writer’s creative work—I feel that way about editors and presses as well. There has to be a moment at which we start letting go. This is a big issue. We are far too dependent on the permission of the artist to reproduce an illustration. We should either be pushing fair use or we should be willing to publish things without illustrations.

Petrovich: There’s this latent, not-often-discussed idea that somehow, as writers or critics or art historians, we are serving the artist. You pointed out and emphasized that there is integrity on both sides. There needs to be a mutual integrity for the exchange to function.

Nelson: Absolutely. The first thing one has to realize is that we are writers and we are creators first. We are analysts, we are critics, but we are not publicists. All too often, parties don’t know the difference between the two. In the case of this particular commission for the Aperture monograph, I was given a lot of information, as I said in the essay, and I chose to come up with my own ideas on the work, assuming that, given my experience in the field, that I had a platform from which to speak.

Petrovich: Sure. They didn’t just invite any random person to write the piece.

Nelson: Exactly, they invited me for my expertise, and then they rejected it. To be very clear, I have no problem with Deana Lawson deciding what she wants in her monograph. That is her business; that is her book, as it were. Where I have the issue was later with frieze. It was part of a larger issue. Of course, frieze has responded with the claim that they only accept pieces that were pitched for them specifically. And my response to that is it’s kind of ridiculous. There are probably many writers who have pitched to frieze things that have been rejected elsewhere. And the only reason frieze would know is if someone tells them. There is no ethical burden on a writer to explain the provenance of a piece that she is pitching for a journal.

Petrovich: I thought you asked a series of really interesting and important questions at the end of the second part of the piece, and I hope it’s not too mischievous to ask you to answer some of those questions, or at least start to answer them. For me, the central ringing question that you asked was: “Do artists understand the clear benefits of myriad views of their work?” What would your answer to that question be?

Nelson: I think that most artists are not confused by that.  Most artists are happy to have people tell them about their work, at least in my own experience writing about living artists. I have had presentations or papers where the artist whose work is under scrutiny has been in the room, and in those experiences, the artists have thought they learned something new about their practices, and see that as a good thing. They see that as a plus. They start thinking about dimensions of their work that they might not have thought of without an outside push. I think that actually the norm is artists who totally get it, not artists who don’t. I think that this was an exception to a certain degree.

Petrovich: But still emblematic of a certain kind of problem, you know? On the one hand it is an exception, and on the other it does happen. I’ve heard about it; I’ve seen people complain on social media in vague—but not that vague—terms about what’s going on.

Nelson: Right. I had an experience with an artist a couple years ago, where I was writing a large piece that involved dozens of artists. And as the editors and as the publisher were collecting commissions for images, they sent the blurbs from the piece to respective artists and galleries, and one of them balked and said, well, I don’t like how you’ve framed my work. However, it did not cause her to withhold permission. She said, look, you can write what you want to write, just make sure you get the facts straight. And so, she corrected my factual mistakes, and I actually very much appreciated it. I fixed the facts, but it did not change my interpretation. And I see that as a really positive outcome.

Petrovich: There are obviously cases where something is egregiously wrong, and any artist, or anyone who is being written about, has a certain right to correct misrepresentations.

Nelson: Exactly. In this case, of all of the responses that came from whatever parties are connected to this, not a single one of them said “you were inaccurate.”

Petrovich: For me, the interesting part was how it all turned on the supposedly commercial nature of these journalistic photographs, right? You and I work in journalism, to some extent. I sort of understand what that means, but I also have to say that I don’t find journalistic photography to be more commercial than selling work in a gallery.

Nelson: I agree—I find it to be less commercial!

Petrovich: Right! There’s this sense of it being for the public good. And it wasn’t as if you were talking about photos she did for Adidas, or something like this, you know? It was grounded in a very heavy, direct, historical moment.

Nelson: I actually felt a number of things about that. We have been doing all this work over the last two or three decades to break down these boundaries between what we consider to be fine art and what we consider to be everything else in terms of showing how artwork works, how images work, and how images signify. And to then fall back on this “this is my commercial work, and this work is my fine art work,” and to have put something else in a published interview, made no sense to me. The fact remains that Time hired her to do this work because of that other work! So, to me, they’re all of a piece. Or, when one looks at the field of African American photography, some of the most famous work appeared in magazines: for example, Gordon Parks’ work in Life Magazine in 1956. When I saw this discourse about “well, this is not fine art,” or “this is not going to go into the book,” I thought, well, then perhaps they should be in the book. Part of deciding to go public, as it were, was that I was never asked to change the essay.  There was no conversation, just outright rejection. I don’t want to infer anything beyond that, but it was a flat-out rejection. Twice.

Petrovich: It is hard to speculate.

Nelson: And I don’t care to speculate.

Petrovich: But I do have to say that from my point of view, I found the commercial/noncommercial split to not be applicable for all those reasons you just delineated.

Nelson: Right. But, you know, an artist said to me privately, “Well, I believe in the split, but I don’t do it precisely because I don’t want to have to make these calls. So I don’t do this kind of ‘commercial work.’” But in this specific practice, which is one of studio shots, one of appropriation, one of working for magazines, I have a hard time trying to parse that all out or to compartmentalize it. It just doesn’t make sense to me considering the kind of work that this particular artist does.

Petrovich: You are willing to write for a venue like Hyperallergic, you publish books, you publish in different voices and different registers, on social media, and different places. Part of the shock, for me, was that, as you were saying, a lot of us have decided that that is a fruitful way of being. So it is a little bit shocking to get the guardrail popping up all of a sudden in what you think is an open field.

Nelson: Right, well, the field is open until it’s not, right? We are all free to do anything we want until someone balks. But I think what was so important here, in terms of talking about this openly, is that what we all do is go home, lick our wounds, and vaguely complain about it on social media—which I did with this too. It was at that point last September that I decided to do something. The process with Hyperallergic was long.  I don’t know what Hrag said to you, but from my vantage point, we wanted to get it right.

Petrovich: You say at the end of the piece, “Versions of Lawson’s behavior toward my essay happen all the time. Many friends and colleagues have stories about a piece that was killed because a living artist took issue with some aspect of it.” Going past this case study, what kind of ramifications do you feel like this has for the field?

Nelson: One of the big ramifications is that writers become timid when writing about an artist that they think is going to be difficult. Or they decide not to do the work at all. So, in essence, it has a chilling effect on the field. If I know that an artist is going to the final arbiter on my creative work, I might just do something else instead. I think a lot of people make those choices.

Petrovich: It’s funny, because—your example notwithstanding—these things are really hard to chart because they exist as gaps. They exist as that moment where you just decide that it’s not worth the trouble, or you start thinking about some artist and you think, “I’ve heard that their estate is really difficult, so I’m going to choose some easier battle.” It has this weird, difficult-to-trace effect on art history.

Nelson: Yes. Or, in one of my own cases, many years ago, I wrote another piece on multiple artists. One artist was being very difficult about permissions, so I just went back and said, never mind, I’ll just write my piece without it. I was allotted X number of illustrations and I was writing about more artists than I was allowed illustrations for, so I just decided not to use one of that artist’s illustrations because I didn’t want to deal with it. But I also think that we have to be more willing to forgo the illustrations. That cannot be the thing that dictates what we do. Especially online. It’s different for print. If I’m writing online and I don’t include an artist’s picture with my piece, if those pictures are available online publicly somewhere, all I have to do is link to them. That’s legal and I don’t need permission to hyperlink. Even with print, on a certain level we might think of ourselves as sort of like radio announcers, where you have to describe things because you don’t have an image.

But because we write about these visual things, we have become beholden to showing illustrations that we are almost incapable of doing any kind of writing without. Maybe that’s something thing we have to unlearn—so then if we have permissions, that’s great, but if we don’t have them, we do our work anyway.


Due to a recording and transcription error, a previous version of this interview misattributed the source of the comment “Well, I believe in the split, but I don’t do it precisely because I don’t want to have to make these calls. So I don’t do this kind of ‘commercial work.'” This has been corrected.


For Dushko Petrovich’s interview with Anastasia Karpova Tinari, Director of Rhona Hoffman Gallery, click here; to return to the main page of “Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Art Publishing: Conversations with Dushko Petrovich,” click here.

Steven Nelson is Professor of African and African American Art and Director of the UCLA African Studies Center.

A founding editor of Paper MonumentDushko Petrovich is Chair of the New Arts Journalism Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.