115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ekphrastic Anxiety: Ben Lerner’s “The Polish Rider”

Claire Daigle, San Francisco Art Institute

This paper offers critical analysis of Ben Lerner’s story “The Polish Rider,” in which a painter leaves her work behind in an Uber. It narrativizes Lerner’s argument that literature transcends visual art. This failure to address how different media harken distinct modes of encounter exemplifies W.J.T. Mitchell's conception of “ekphrastic fear.”


“The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it.” – Ben Lerner 

This paper offers close, critical analysis of Ben Lerner’s sly short story “The Polish Rider,” which appeared in The New Yorker in June 2016. At the heart of this story is the question:  “And isn’t it really true of all ekphrastic literature, fiction and poetry, that even when it claims to be describing or praising a work of visual art it is in fact asserting its own superiority?” The narrative develops, quite literally, from the loss of painting: an artist, Sonia, leaves her work in an Uber. An art critic (nearly indistinguishable from the author) is the story’s first person narrator. He tells the tale of the search and ultimate failure to retrieve the artwork, while simultaneously crafting a small parable about the writer’s triumph over the visual artist. “The Polish Rider” is fiction disguised as art criticism stealing conceptual art’s shine. In the end, the narrator’s words, quite literally, displace the paintings that Sonia had intended to exhibit.

Further complicating this, the narrator’s claim that literature trumps visual art is cribbed, word for word, from an essay, “The Actual World,” that Lerner wrote for Frieze magazine in 2013. The intertextual gamesmanship is meant to underline the fact that, in their readymade mobility, words are virtual while artwork is merely actual. Lerner’s argument is slippery, making it impossible to determine definitively whether his pose is ironic or sincere. He, nonetheless, dismisses medium specificity. By refusing to account for the formal and material languages of art, he dispenses with particularity of thought, sensation, and emotion that they evoke. Lerner’s resistance signals what W.J.T. Mitchell describes as the “ekphrastic fear” that results from the anxiety that the visual might displace the verbal. The question that Lerner avoids is perhaps the most productive:  how do different media harken distinct modes of encounter and experience?  Parsing out the capacities particular to the visual, the spatial, the tactile, the time-based, or the verbal offer the means by which fiction might think with the visual arts in complex and expansive ways rather than “transcending” them.

The title of his story ostensibly refers to Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider in the Frick Museum, yet this painting appears nowhere in the story. Lerner makes invisible what escapes when images are made solely of words. Susan Sontag famously called for “an erotics of art,” a form of writing that would render “works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us.” Ben Lerner perhaps does not love pictures enough.