Adrian Piper, My Calling (Card) #1, (1986-1990). Offset lithograph on brown paper; published by Angry Art. Gift of John P. Bowles, Indiana University Art Museum Enlarge
Colin Cloute (January) from ‘The Shephearde’s Calendar’ Edmund Spenser, 1579

The short of it

Colin Clout is a jack of all trades. He has been a rebel, a hero-prophet, a bumpkin parrhesiastes, a shepherd, a spurned lover, and (perhaps consequently) a poet. Now, having been repeatedly fired by the canon of English Literature but refusing to clear out his desk, Colin gets by as an art critic.

Over the next ten weeks, MAP’s reviews section will be given over to charting Colin’s misadventures through the art world(s). Artists and writers have been invited to compose a serial fiction that will be published on a weekly basis, culminating in a reading marathon at David Dale Gallery on 14 July.

It is unknown what will assail Colin throughout these weeks, or where he will end up. Borders may be crossed, pronouns changed, limbs lost or gained, Stendhal syndrome diagnosed and treated, conversions undertaken and revolutions fought. And what will come of the mysterious glossator E.K., hovering at the margins of Colin’s life?

The long of it

Colin Clout has a long history of outspokenness. Or rather, a long history of being a foil for the author’s outspokenness.

He first crops up in John Skelton’s Colyn Cloute (1522), as an ‘average country man’ who gave his opinions on the state of the church. Skelton was poet laureate and tutor to Henry VIII, although this prominent position did not protect him from being serially imprisoned by Cardinal Wolsey, who Skelton frequently attacked through the character of Colyn. Because of the individuals and events it referred to, Skelton did not see Colyn Cloute published during his lifetime.

Fifty seven years later, when the young Edmund Spenser wanted to make a name for himself as a poet, he composed The Shephearde’s Calendar (1579), borrowing Skelton’s character, Colin Clout, for its protagonist. The calendar is a cycle of twelve eclogues—short pastoral poems—with Colin depicted as a humble shepherd, enamoured with a woman called Rosalind and full of praise for the monarch, Queen Elizabeth. Like Skelton’s poem, Spenser’s calendar is richly allegorical, love of woman standing in for love of country, and other sidelong allusions that held a mirror up to the political problems of his time.

More interestingly, The Shephearde’s Calendar contains the first recorded use of the word ‘sarcasm’ in English. The narrative is presided over by a glossator referred to only as ‘E.K.’—both a helpful and baffling presence in the text, whose editorial glosses on Colin’s jaunts are by turns illuminating and obfuscating. Like de Selby, the very unscientific scientist in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, E.K. is an indirect character, relegated to footnotes and margins, whose absence enhances the plot.

Amongst the etymologies of clout are a lump of something; a rag or tatter; a clod; a woman’s sanitary napkin; a patch of cloth used to mend a hole. The physical sense of clouting someone (or something) came later, as did the notion of clout as having influence on others. For some reason, thinking of Colin as an abject lump or rag imbued with critical faculties makes him endearing. At one point in Skelton’s poem, Clout seems to be hinting at the drudgery of secretarial, administrative or ‘clerkely’ labour:

My name is Colyn Cloute.
I purpose to shake oute
All my connyng bagge,
Lyke a clerkely hagge [1]

Shaking out the bag, in a critical sense, might be the carnivalesque gesture of a hermeneutics of suspicion, described by Rita Felski as ‘a distinctively modern style of interpretation that circumvents obvious or self-evident meanings in order to draw out less visible and less flattering truths’. [2] The object of critique shaken out to reveal its inner truth. Yet clout also implies a patching over, mending or covering up—the opposite of shaking something out. Does the critic with clout upend his subject and shake out its truth, or does he patch over it with his own rags? What’s really in the bag, Colin?

The history of serialised fiction is threaded into the history of the assembly line. Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth (2013) draws on the tradition of the ‘tobacco reader’, now a largely defunct profession except for in Cuba, where the idea was first introduced to cigar factories by journalist and abolitionist Nicolás Azcárate:

‘In order to reduce the tedium of repetitive labor, a tobacco reader would read aloud to the other workers while they made the cigars. Emile Zola and Victor Hugo were among the favourites, though lofty volumes of Spanish history were also read […] Around the same time this practice emerged, the modern serial novel was also invented. In 1836, Balzac’s La Vielle Fille was published in France, and Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers was published in England. Distributed as affordable, serialized chapbooks, they reached an audience not traditionally accustomed to reading fiction.’ [3]

The Story of My Teeth is itself a serialised, collaborative work of fiction. It began life as a catalogue commission from an art gallery in Mexico City, whose source of wealth is a nearby juice factory. When considering how to bridge these two worlds, the art collection and the factory, Luiselli decided she didn’t just want to write about the factory workers, but for them. The novel came about through months of meetings with and recommendations from the factory staff, who had direct input and response to each chapter as Luiselli wrote and distributed them amongst the workforce.

Out of Office Auto-Reply draws inspiration from Skelton and Spenser’s employment of poetic, dissenting personas, and from Valeria Luiselli’s experimental collective novel that probes the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature. The impetus for exploring these disparate subjects was my use of two lazy similes during a conversation: the first that bad editing feels like a factory line, the second that good editing feels like gardening. All three (editing, assembly lines, gardening) depend on a calendar of sorts, an order in which things must be done, a dormancy period after planting while something grows or is assembled out of sight.

The artist-invented-critic is not entirely new; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), a German expressionist painter and one of the founders of Die Brücke, conjured the figure of a French art critic, Louis de Marsalle, and under this pseudonym published many reviews lauding his own work. Apart from confiding in his psychiatrist’s wife, Kirchner took the secret to his grave, although not without difficulty: a few of his contemporaries were so taken with the critic’s writing that they insisted Kirchner give them de Marsalle’s address in Paris. Kirchner then had to invent a cover story: that de Marsalle had been dispatched to North Africa as a military doctor. When one keen friend expressed interest in visiting the critic while he was passing through North Africa, Kirchner knew the ruse was unsustainable, and in 1933 killed off his ever-adoring, fictional critic.

When it came to enlisting a fictional art critic for this project, the readymade, dissenting character of Colin Clout seemed perfect for the job. Which definition of clout he will manifest, where his authors will send him, or whether they will kill him off altogether, remains to be seen.

[1] John Skelton (1522) Colyn Cloute

[2] Rita Felski (2012) ‘Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion’ M/C Journal, Vol 15, No 1

[3] Valeria Luiselli (2013) The Story of My Teeth, Granta, trans. Christina MacSweeney


Daisy Lafarge is reviews editor at MAP