Last week at Big Other, Paul Kincaid put up a brief but intriguing post in which he asks to what extent various factors surrounding a text influence the way we think about it or its author. He gives the following example:
The program I use for databasing my library pulls down information from a wide variety of sources ranging from the British Library and the Library of Congress to Amazon. More often than not, this can produce some very strange results. I have, for instance, seen novels by Iain Banks categorized as ‘Food and Health’, and novels by Ursula K. Le Guin categorized as ‘Business’. In all probability, these are just slips by somebody bored, though you do wonder what it was about the books per se that led to such curious mistakes.
Paul’s musings raise many interesting questions. For one thing, we might wonder whether the factors he’s describing are indeed extraneous or external to texts. Because I can imagine a good post-structuralist immediately objecting that texts more porous than that, and that it’s all just a sea of endless texts slipping fluidly into one another.
Me, I don’t have a problem with treating texts as discrete and coherent entities, but I admit the situation is complicated.
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:
OK, back to this. In Part 1, I traced out how in conceptual art, the concept lies outside whatever artwork is produced—how, strictly speaking, the concept itself is the artwork, and whatever thingamabob the artist then uses the concept to go on to make (if anything) counts more as a record or a product of the originating concept. (This is according to the teachings of Sol LeWitt, as practiced by Kenneth Goldsmith.) Thus, we arrived at the following formulation:
- Artist > Concept > Artwork (Record)
Now, I’m not going to argue that every conceptual artist on Planet Earth works according to this model. But LeWitt’s prescription has proven influential, and continues to be revolutionary—because choosing to work with either a concept or a constraint will lead an artist down one of two very different paths. To see how this is the case, let’s try defining what a constraint is, aided by the Puzzle Master himself, Georges Perec . . .
[Update: Part 2 is here.]
I wrote about this to some extent here, but I wanted to expound on the issue in what I hope is a more coherent form. Because I frequently see concepts confused with constraints, and the Oulipo lumped in with conceptual writing. For instance, this entry at Poets.org, “A Brief Guide to Conceptual Poetry,” states:
One direct predecessor of contemporary conceptual writing is Oulipo (l’Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a writers’ group interested in experimenting with different forms of literary constraint, represented by writers like Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Raymound Queneau. One example of an Oulipean constraint is the N + 7 procedure, in which each word in an original text is replaced with the word which appears seven entries below it in a dictionary. Other key influences cited include John Cage’s and Jackson Mac Low’s chance operations, as well as the Brazilian concrete poetry movement.
I would argue that the Oulipo, historically speaking, are not conceptual writers/artists—although it’s easy to see how that confusion has come about, because the Oulipians have proposed some conceptual techniques, such as N+7 (which I’d argue is not a constraint). (Also, it’s each noun that gets replaced, not each word.)
What, then, distinguishes concepts from constraints? And why does that distinction matter? In this series of posts, I’ll try answering those questions, starting with what we mean when we call art conceptual.
by Kenneth Goldsmith
Columbia University Press, 2011
272 pages / $23.95 buy from Columbia UP
1. Uncreative writing is situating. A détournement. A patchwriting. Goldsmith: “context is the new content.”
2. A portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé with “A Throw of the Dice” inserted three times:
3. Uncreative writing is language as pure material. Quantity over quality. The digital-age inheritor of Stein, Concrete Poetry, Mallarmé, Herbert, Apollinaire, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. It sees the internet as language abundant, language swim, all text thrum. Goldsmith: “What we take to be graphics, sounds, and motion in our screen world is merely a thin skin under which resides miles and miles of language.”
4. Much of what Goldsmith says uncreative writing is is stuff I already know. Through Flarf, through FC2 and Les Figues Press, through Goldsmith’s own work like Day or Traffic or Sports, through Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein and Vanessa Place, through this blog, through Ron Silliman’s blog, through David Markson, through any number of conceptual writers working today.
If you’re familiar with these things too, you’ll nod your head and move along through a number of the early essays here. If you’re not familiar with these things, this book’s a solid place to begin.
5. But I’m not sure Goldsmith thinks he’s saying anything radically new with these essays as much as he’s articulating (again) a stance toward language that should be obvious to anyone writing, but still, for some reason, isn’t.
A sense of perplexity—maybe even frustration—about a large segment of contemporary writing runs through the early essays here.
Goldsmith wonders: What happened that made most 20th and 21st-century writers miss the work of Duchamp, LeWitt, and Warhol? Why did conceptualism take off so readily in the visual arts and not in the literary? What is taking writing so long to mine the possibilities of the conceptual text? What’s with all the holdover from literary Romanticism? The stuff about genius? The stuff about ego and originality? All that stuff about having a voice?
Still worthwhile questions.
6. Here’s Goldsmith’s annotated copy of Charles Bernstein’s “Lift Off,” a piece of uncreative writing Bernstein built by transcribing the characters from the correction tape of his manual typewriter.
Here’s a recording of Goldsmith performing it.
I like this poem because it’s hard to see it being made today. I like this poem because of its impossibility.
And I like Goldsmith’s performance of it because, even with all that, he shows how the thing’s still legible.
7. When’s the last time you typed another writer’s story word for word?
8. Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein with excerpts from The Making of Americans inserted: READ MORE >
February 5th, 2013 / 12:09 pm