All products featured on Vogue are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Lauren Elkin changes the way you see the world around you. In addition to translating from French, she is an astute cultural critic and novelist: Her last book, 2017’s Flâneuse, took the reader through several of the world’s greatest cities, following paths well worn both by women from history and Elkin herself.
Now, there is Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), in which Elkin embarks on an achronological, art historical thrill-ride for the senses. Initially encountering the phrase in Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Elkin wondered what would happen if it were interpreted as a verb: art that monsters. After reading the book, you’ll find yourself googling, watching, placing holds at the library, and never seeing a museum in quite the same way again.
Recently, Vogue spoke to Elkin about Art Monsters, motherhood, “uckyness,” Virginia Woolf, and so much more.
Vogue: What is an art monster?
Lauren Elkin: I came across the concept of the art monster in Jenny Offill’s brilliant 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation. I thought there was more to it—that perhaps we should direct our attention to the kind of work feminist artists had made. Somewhere towards the middle of writing the book, I realized I was less interested in legislating who was or wasn’t an art monster, but in using the term as a verb—art monsters. It disrupts, reroutes, surprises, undoes, and in that sense it has vital power.
Virginia Woolf is all over this book. She gets an epigraph and the last word. Can you tell me a bit about the role she’s played in your life and why she was so vital to this project?
I had initially planned to write a book about how Woolf came to write Three Guineas. It seemed to me like the issues at stake resonated with those I was thinking of writing about in the art monster book—this idea that it was worth being called a monster to make certain works of art, to intervene in the culture in a particular way—and so I integrated the writing I was doing for the Woolf book into the manuscript for Art Monsters.
In the introductory section, you talk about the book we are about to read, but also a very important aspect of the way it is put together. When is a slash more than just a bit of punctuation?
I’m fascinated by the way punctuation conditions the way we experience a piece of writing, speeds it up or slows it down, extends it, conveys mood, et cetera, so why not lean into it, ask how it’s functioning, see if we can put it to work for us in an unexpected way? In a book like Art Monsters that is so much about disrupting conventions, re-routing narratives, about fragmentation and collage as feminist practice, the slash provided a way to practice what I was preaching, to reflect the concerns of content on the level of form, and to allow form to create a particular kind of reading experience.
Did you always intend to write yourself into the book?
I didn’t have a particular plan about that—I was willing to do it if it felt necessary or germane to the subject—as, for instance. in the Kathy Acker chapter, where it seemed unfair to be talking about everyone’s body but my own—but I didn’t set out to write a memoir or anything. I’ve been surprised, in fact, by the number of people who’ve said they appreciated the personal passages I included, because I didn’t think there were very many!
There are a dizzying amount of references made to varied works of art. How did you decide who made the cut?
It was all pretty unsystematic! Basically there were a number of people whose work I saw as being in relation to one another, and I saw it as the work of the book to draw the lines that would make clear the affinities I perceived, for instance between Julia Margaret Cameron and Sutapa Biswas, between Virginia Woolf and Kathy Acker, between Artemisia Gentileschi and Helen Chadwick. The connecting material isn’t “they’re all women”; it’s far more specific and tactile than that.
What surprised you as you were writing?
How much work I can get done in a short period of time before the baby wakes up from his nap, or my partner’s childcare shift ends, or the school day is over! Now that I no longer have the luxury of writing during the evenings and weekends, I’ve realized I can get a fair amount of writing done in concentrated bursts. I think it had a very particular effect on the writing itself—it made it very episodic in a way I decided not to fight. Non-fiction can be as creative and innovative as fiction—it’s not necessarily in the best interests of the work to force it into a conventional shape.
There were several artists whose lives and work I was introduced to through your book. Did you have a similar experience in researching the book?
I really did. The world just kept throwing me these women to think about, whether through Instagram or museum exhibitions or just by chance. I didn’t know much about Eva Hesse, for instance, when I started, and I watched the wonderful documentary that Marcie Begleiter made about her because Hauser & Wirth made it available on their website. It helped me get clear on what I was trying to say about tactility and texture—or “uckiness,” in Hesse’s own term, which is another thing I learned from that documentary: Her friend Sol LeWitt said that Eva “wanted to make her work ‘ucky,’ not ‘yucky’ but ‘ucky,’ which meant that it had to have the right feeling to her.” I had it in my mind that these women were trying to restore touch to the aesthetic, and Eva Hesse became a really important part of how I would go on to address that in the book.
Whether it’s #MeToo or BLM, COVID or Trump’s impeachment charges, the insurrection or the Kavanaugh hearing, there’s a sense of urgency, and writing for the moment, which leaps off the page. This is in contrast to the artists, thinkers, and writers of the past that you are predominantly writing about. I wondered as I was reading if this book could ever, in a sense, be done, or whether these art monsters continually appear? Are there art monsters amongst us today, or is it a thing of the past?
I was talking to a journalist recently, and found myself spiraling off into counterfactuals, like: what would become of the art monster if equality reigned, if there were no more misogyny, or racism, or classism, or homophobia or transphobia or ableism or climate denial or… et cetera. There would be no more need for them, and we could consign this chapter of history to the books. But until we reach that more just world—which, honestly, from where I’m sitting, seems depressingly far off, if not impossible—we will need figures of opposition and disruption and excess. I guess art monsters are like superheroes that way! Wherever men attempt to control women’s bodies for their own profit, she’ll be there. Wherever there is racial injustice, she’ll be there. And so on.
Towards the end, you write, “What we manage to produce can never be as alive and dynamic as the idea we had for it.” Does that apply to dance, film, and writing as well, or just visual art?
I think it’s probably the case across the arts—it may be the very essence of what we do as creative people. Walter Benjamin once wrote—and I used to have the piece he wrote it in taped up over the sink in my old apartment in Paris—“the work is the death mask of its conception.” It will always been some frozen, imperfect version of what you hoped it would be. You have this dream of what you want to make, and then you have to come to terms with your own limitations, in terms of what you or anyone else can do. Dance is a good example of this; you can only work within a certain range of motion. These constraints are valuable to us! They give us a vocabulary to work with.
I cut about 100,000 words, and had to make peace with not writing about people I had really wanted to. I cut entire chapters about music and the voice, and those form the foundation for the next book I’m writing, which is about women and singing—it’s called Vocal Break. There are chapters about riot grrrl, Pussy Riot, Beyoncé, Diamanda Galás, PJ Harvey, and there’s a whole section about feminist art punk (Poly Styrene, The Raincoats, the Slits, Kim Gordon, Laurie Anderson)—I’m very excited about it!
This conversation had been edited for clarity.
Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art