Quijote Talks presents Naomi Fry, “Make Them Choke on It”
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
School of Visual Arts, 132 West 21st Street, Sixth Floor, New York
A recent talk by the Brooklyn-based critic Naomi Fry was as wide ranging—one could even say scattered—as both her cultural interests and her curriculum vitae. “I always have to remind myself that I’m a writer,” she said, reflecting on her roles as a professor who teaches writing at the Rhode Island School of Design and New York University and also as a copy editor for the New York Times. Like many critics Fry must do other things to earn a living, which creates a shaky self-perception. At a lecture for the School of Visual Arts’ MFA program in art criticism, she didn’t have a paper to read, just notes, and thus spoke off the cuff for a small crowd of students, alumni, sympathizers, and friends.
Asked beforehand to talk about her challenges and successes, Fry began by discussing a favorite piece of writing, her contribution to the series “See Something Say Something,” published by the Brooklyn-based journal Paper Monument in 2012. This five-hundred-word essay examined a photograph, taken by Brad Elterman in 1980, of the emerging actor Nicollette Sheridan at age seventeen with her then-boyfriend, the television and pop-music heartthrob Leif Garrett. This “check out my young girlfriend” photo, as Fry called it, “encapsulates everything that’s been interesting to me, ever … ever.” It was quite a surprise to hear this coming from a critic who has published in top art publications like Frieze and Artforum and other important cultural forums, such as the London Review of Books, T Magazine, n+1, and the Comics Journal. In both the essay and the lecture, Fry teased out what intrigued her about the image, which I understood to be celebrities, television, literature, sex, music, interior decorating, and politics. Putting the serious subject matter aside, how did she gravitate toward such vapid and vulgar things?
Born in Israel to left-leaning academic parents, Fry spent a significant amount of time in the United States and grew up with American popular culture. She was also an educational product of the 1990s, a time when, she said, William Shakespeare and chewing gum wrappers were worthy objects of scholarly attention, and when books, movies, and art formed the core of interdisciplinary studies. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Tel Aviv University, Fry studied literature at the PhD level until 2007, and since then has always tried to throw references to nineteenth-century novels into her writing. D. H. Lawrence and Theodore Dreiser make appearances in her Paper Monument article, and Honoré de Balzac and Horatio Alger are name-dropped in a recent Los Angeles Review of Books piece. The latter essay, “‘Till They Choke on It’: On Wolf of Wall Street,” rages against Martin Scorsese’s newest, much-maligned film about “the disgusting people of Wall Street,” a project that many criticized as being complicit with the 1 percent. “I’m this incredibly angry, bitter Marxist,” she snarled, who has “psychological problems with morally repugnant artifacts” such as The Wolf of Wall Street and Harmony Korine’s debaucherous 2013 flick Spring Breakers.
After leaving Johns Hopkins, Fry worked as a fact checker for the glossy celebrity magazine Us Weekly from 2007 to 2011 while indulging her passion for writing. “You’re dancing with the devil,” people told her—or did she tell herself that? (My notes from the lecture are unclear.) At the time Fry was happy that someone had employed her, so when someone at an art opening asked her if she felt guilty about the real-world consequences of working at the gossip rag, she went ballistic on him. “By the time you read Us Weekly, you’re already fucked,” she explained. “I don’t feel like I was feeding babies poison.” Conversely, the work gave her endless material with which to work. “The trashy place is my happy place,” she said.
An audience member asked her about writing a “deliberately negative” review. Fry responded by saying she can be negative about things backed by money and power—such as books and films produced by publishing houses and production studios—but would hesitate for an exhibition, as long as that artist was “sincerely trying,” she said. I would argue that the work of any artist takes not an insignificant amount of capital—from purchasing artist’s supplies to paying rent on a storefront space—but her point was taken. My larger concern was what the questioner meant by “deliberately,” which would indicate a critic purposefully and nefariously trashing an artist.
The writing process is hard for Fry, but she has a routine, a unit system, in which she writes for forty-five-minute chunks of time. During this time she’s offline—no Facebook, no Instagram—and doesn’t get up or talk to anyone. Fry briefly acknowledge that people write for little or no money these days, which makes it hard for critics who, as she mentioned at the lecture’s beginning, were not born wealthy and did not marry rich. Did she have advice for current SVA students? “I couldn’t really come up with anything,” she conceded. What makes her hopeful? Fry admitted that although she might sound like a “middle school art teacher, I think about being creative. The work—I told you I was a Marxist.”
An audience member called Fry “intrepid” after the critic told a brief story on how she started getting assignments despite being a former academic without the usual writing clips. “The more things you put in your sack,” she said, “the more it grows. Before you know it, you’ve got a really big sack.”
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