A bit more on Susan Sontag and “Against Interpretation”

Tôle irisée de réacteur d'avion

I’m still bogged down with school (almost done) but I thought I’d throw a little something up, pun intended. Two months ago I wrote an analysis of Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” where I argued that, rather than being opposed to all interpretation, as some believe, Sontag was instead opposed to “metaphorical interpretation”—to critics who interpret artworks metaphorically or allegorically. (“When the artist did X, she really meant Y.”) I thought I’d document a few recent examples of this—not to pick on any particular critics, mind you, but rather to foster some discussion of what this criticism looks like and why critics do it (because critics seem to love doing it).

The first example comes from Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, in particular the exhibit “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962” (which is up until 2 June). One of the works on display is Gérard Deschamps’s Tôle irisée de réacteur d’avion (pictured above, image taken from here—I didn’t just stretch out a swath of tinfoil on my apartment floor). The placard next to it reads as follows:


Craft Notes / 5 Comments
May 13th, 2013 / 11:13 am

Experimental fiction as genre and as principle

Mothlight Cut-Up

A few years ago at Big Other I wrote a post entitled “Experimental Art as Genre and as Principle.” That distinction has been on my mind as of late, so I thought I’d revisit the argument. My basic argument then and now was that I see two different ways in which experimental art is commonly defined.

By principle I mean that the artist is committed to making art that’s different from what other artists are making—so much so that others often don’t even believe that it is art. As contemporary examples I’m fond of citing Tao Lin and Kenneth Goldsmith because I still hear people complaining that those two men aren’t real artists—that they’re somehow pulling a fast one on all their fans. (Someday I’ll explore this idea. How exactly does one perform a con via art? Perhaps it really is possible. Until then, I’ll propose that one indication of experimental art is that others disregard it as a hoax.) Tao visited my school one month ago, and after his presentation some folks there expressed concern, their brows deeply furrowed, that he was a Legitimate Artist—so this does still happen. (For evidence of Goldsmith’s supposed fakery, keep reading.)

Eventually, I bet, the doubts regarding Lin and Goldsmith will fall by the wayside. Things change. And it’s precisely because things change that the principle of experimentation must keep moving. The avant-garde, if there is one, must stay avant.

That’s only one way of looking at it, however. Experimental art becomes genre when particular experimental techniques become canonical and widely disseminated and practiced. The experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, during the 1960s, affixed blades of grass and moth wings to film emulsion, and scratched the emulsion, and painted on it, then printed and projected the results. Here is one example and here is another example. And here is a third; his films are beautiful and I love them. (The image atop left hails from Mothlight.) Today, countless film students also love Brakhage’s work, and use the methods he popularized to make projects that they send off to experimental film festivals. (Or at least they did this during the 90s, when I attended such festivals; I may be out of touch.)

Those films, I’d argue, while potentially beautiful and interesting, are not necessarily experimental films. As far as the principle of experimentation goes, those students had might as well be imitating Hitchcock.


Craft Notes / 144 Comments
April 22nd, 2013 / 8:01 am

In case you’ve missed it, Kent Johnson’s gone after Marjorie Perloff (PDF) for her entry on “Avant-Garde Poetics” in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed. Writes Johnson:

[With] exception of a passing reference to the Brazilian brothers Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and their Concretista moment, not a single poet or group outside the Anglo-American/European experience is acknowledged. The entire Iberian Peninsula, even, goes missing!

Among those missing, he argues, are Vicente Huidobro, César Vallejo, Aimé Césaire, Kitasono Katue, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Raúl Zurita—plus he takes a few swipes at Conceptual Poetry and Flarf. Well worth reading.

ToBS R1: flarf vs. AWP

[Matchup #4 in Tournament of Bookshit]

If my own personal feelings toward a thing had anything to do with it, flarf would win this in a landslide, but feelings are not real. Last year, I introduced a flarf poem by K. Silem Mohammad to a class of fifth grade students while teaching a poetry unit for an unpaid internship (it was the one Mohammad poem I could find without cusses or things a fifth grade teacher could get mad at me for). The students became immediately enamored with the flarf process and the possibilities of poetry that refused to do whatever it is that poetry has been expected to do since the first caveman uttered the first O! Poetry was finally fun to these kids. They wrote poems that were funny and surprising in ways that only a child or google can be surprising. But now I can’t help but imagine these children, thirty years from now, well into their poetry careers, paying $190 ($150 if they pre-register) to attend their own book-signings, getting stupidly drunk and sleeping next to a stranger in their hotel rooms, and then possibly fantasizing about responding to an htmlgiant post about whether or not they’ve gotten laid at AWP with “i can’t remember.” Then, redirecting their browser to Google, the poet will search for blog posts about their own AWP readings and find their name only in a long list form and this will happen again the next year and the next year. The poet will then go to Whole Foods or Costco and buy some food for vegans or food for cheap and carry it all back home in their ugly AWP tote bag and once back home the poet will gis “AWP” with this suggestive result.

Daniel Bailey

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Contests / 22 Comments
November 30th, 2011 / 5:45 pm

Vanessa Place: Why Conceptualism is Better than Flarf

Web Hype / 150 Comments
April 19th, 2010 / 1:37 pm

Hey remember that time something happened about laughing at a poetry reading in New York? Me either. But Craig Santos Perez does. And he sees a connection between Laughter-gate ’09 and the death of flarf–except flarf isn’t actually dead, or something. The best thing about the Perez blog post and/or its comments section–wherein a bunch of smart, otherwise interesting people conspire to take all their (and your) time and energy and drown it in a bathtub of pointlessness–actually occurs in the very first sentence, where Perez links to Dan Hoy’s epic study of flarf from Jacket 29. But again, I stress that flarf isn’t the issue here–nothing is the issue here. There is no issue here. So don’t click the link and don’t read the post. Read Dan’s old essay. Or, if you’re desperately spoiling for a fight, have it about Emerson. That horrendous article that Ken linked to earlier has been drawing fire all day. Our own thread-regular Mather Schneider is tearing it up over there, and I’m on-record as well. No word from the piece’s authors. Yet.