WHAT WAS “CONCEPTUAL WRITING”?
by Richard Kostelanetz (© 2014)
One of the curious cultural phenomena of our time is that radical epithets developed in the rather small audience for visual art acquire a prestige that makes them glibly applicable to arts with larger audiences. Though “Minimal Art,” coined in the early 1960s, described visual art with remarkably little surface content, often monochromic for painting or unadorned geometries for sculpture, the epithet minimal was appropriated by music publicists in the 1970s mostly to describe compositions of, say, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley that were less minimal than modular, with motifs or modules repeated in various ways. The most truly minimal composer from that period was La Monte Young, whose work with sustained loud sounds presages more current noise music. For minimalist esthetics the key principle is Less Is More—an epithet commonly credited to the architect Mies van de Rohe. Moving in 1974 to Artists’ SoHo in lower Manhattan, I fell under the spell of minimalist esthetics, which largely originated in my new ‘hood.
So catchy was the epithet minimal that it appeared in fiction chatter in the 1980s to merchandise stories that weren’t really minimal at all—just shorter. Raymond Carver, working in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway, wrote narratives only a few pages long. Implicitly acknowledging that adjective “minimal” as inappropriate, such short texts are now customarily called “Flash Fiction,” which gains integrity from not appropriating an honorific epithet developed in another art. Indeed, so discredited did “minimal” become in a literary context that I had to use Micro Stories (2010) as the title for a collection of 900, each no more than three words long, set one to a page (and thus a hardback a few inches thick). These are, needless to say, far closer to Minimal Art than fiction previously published under that term. Micro was meant to be a successor to my much thinner Minimal Fictions (1994) that were composed with the same constraint of three words or less, which, all would agree, made them measurably more minimal than, say, Raymond Carver’s.
Oddly, Minimal has rarely been used in poetry criticism, though the epithet could have characterized the texts of, among others, Robert Lax, who was incidentally a college buddy of Ad Reinhardt, a painter whose virtually monochromic canvases were a major inspiration for Minimal Art. I’ve long regarded Reinhardt among the great post-WWII painters (and writers about art) and Lax as a major poet. Both influenced my producing in the past decade a variety of one-word poems, which, all would agree, are measurably minimal. Three Poems (2012) is a recent collection.
Considering Craig Dworkin & Kenneth Goldsmith’s Against Expression(2011), which is sub-titled “An Anthology of Conceptual Writing,” I necessarily recalled that Conceptual Art was coined in the wake of Minimal Art to define activities or statements that, once framed in a certain context, gained esthetic resonance. In the tradition of Marcel Duchamp, Conceptual Art embellished the radical principle that ideas implicit in an art object could be more important than retinal experience. Recall Duchamp’s bringing nearly a century ago a second-hand urinal to the annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York and solemnly calling it “Fountain,” which was a resonant artistic move. Later mature Conceptual Art consisted of prose statements that needed only cogitation for the reader/viewer to have an esthetic experience.
Conceptual Art depended initially upon the framing of absence. The work or whatever had to come from someone trained in art–someone who had already defined himself as an artist, perhaps because he went to art school or previously exhibited in galleries, much as Duchamp did. For me, writing about “Inferential Art” in 1969, the pioneering example appeared in a context not visual but musical–John Cage’s so-called “silent piece,” 4’33” (1953), even though it wasn’t initially perceived that way. Recall that in a concert venue where contemporary music by the established composer John Cage was expected, the precociously distinguished pianist David Tudor sat down at his instrument and did no more than raise and lower the keyboard cover three times during the course of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The unannounced theme of this demonstration was that all the incidental sounds heard in that space during that time constituted the music. However, without the quadripartite framing of Messers. Cage and Tudor in that venue in a concert program within that announced time period where the piano’s keyboard cover was raised and lowered, their moves would have less meaning. Indeed, if any of us made these exactly same moves at home under our own names, the resulting near-silence would have no conceptual weigh at all. Conceptual art too had a presence in SoHo whose population consisted primarily of artists, that fact thus granting an esthetic weight to everything that any of us did. (The biography-based category of “artists’ books” was likewise a SoHo invention.)
The closest I’ve come to making Conceptual Art are two books, Inexistences (1978) and Tabula Rasa (1978), that are acknowledged in certain histories of Book Art (aka “artists’ books”). The first I identified as a collection of stories; to the latter I gave the dimensions of a novel. In both are hundreds of perfectbound pristine blank white pages, respectively 4 ¼” squared and 8 ½” squared, framed on both fronts by a title page and then a single-page preface that connects them to my Constructivist Fictions which are square line-drawings that metamorphose in a systemic sequence. Two CF collections had appeared before 1978; several afterwards. This framing established by my other CF books, along with the title covers and prefaces, needless to say perhaps, distinguishes my bound blank pages different from someone else’s. Neither of my Conceptual books can be reprinted or anthologized, because their context can’t be fully replicated, though they could be described, as I’m doing now. Indeed, so unique were my “blank books” in their literary framing that no one else’s come close to resembling them.
The principal problem with Against Expression is that while the title is accurate, the subtitle isn’t. Very little here could be called Conceptual by anybody who knew what he or she were talking about. Instead, one of its editors, Kenneth Goldsmith, practices what can only be called Transcription Writing, which, in the editors’ headnote to himself, is traced to two visual-arts precursors: “Sherrie Levine’s edition of Gustave Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple (Ghent: Imschoot, 1990) in which she reprints Flaubert’s story with her name appended, and two projects from the early 1970s by Allen Ruppersberg, who copies—longhand—the entirety of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (under the title Henry David Thoreau’s Walden by Allen Ruppersberg).”
As if confirming the point I’ve made already about the crucial importance of context, this anthology’s editors, perhaps Goldsmith alone, add, “A key difference, of course, is that these intertexts were produced within the regime of the gallery system, not published in the system of small-press poetry.” The point of that last phrase, pay attention kiddies, is to claim that Goldsmith is making Literature, not visual art. Goldsmith (b. 1961) implicitly understands that in this “gallery system” his recent appropriative moves could be dismissed as passé—“done” not one or two or three but a fully four decades before.
Anyone familiar with the best works of Jorge Luis Borges, surely not unknown, can connect Levine and Ruppersberg to a yet earlier short fiction done yet three more decades before them–Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939), whose protagonist is described as writing out of his own head choice chapters of the Cervantes classic. While Borges chose not to reprint Cervantes within his nifty masterpiece, considering his reluctance proto-Conceptual, we can now say, consider that Sherrie Levine and Ruppersberg are simply enacting the Borges character named Menard.
Copying the Borges text word for word would have been yet more resonant around 1972, when his reputation was growing; but as it was still in copyright, whose rules can be elusive, an artist could exhibit his transcription of the Borges text, say in a gallery, but not sell it or print it. Today, here in print, I could still write this about a writer named Menard Pierre:
Long an admirer of the great Jorge Luis Borges story about “Pierre Menard,” I have mastered that text so deeply that I can write it out of my own head word for word with no errors. However, since the text as well as English translations are still under copyright, I must confess to a “writer’s block.”
Or conclude in print:
…copyright, I must ask you to believe that I have indeed done so in the privacy of his studio.
I need not write out what is already known.
you can get your own copy and try to duplicate my experience.
There, zwowie, would be four variations of Conceptual Writing—suggesting without actually realizing, perhaps with some humor, the materials for a reading experience. Another example of proto-Conceptual Writing would be Kenneth Burke’s “Project for a Poem on Roosevelt,” which is, as its title says, some notes toward an ambitious poem never completed, incidentally reprinted in my anthology of Possibilities of Poetry (1969).
Indicatively, for this Conceptual anthology the pioneering conceptualist Joseph Kossuth is represented not with his more typical textual work but with Purloined: A Novel (2000, though purportedly produced in 1966), which appropriates single pages from more than one hundred novels. (Even then, try figuring out whether pages 332 and 333 here reprint one original book page or two? While the typefaces look slightly different over the two-page spread, the prose text runs continuously from bottom left to upper right. A diligent copyeditor might have asked for clarification.) Clark Coolidge, a major experimental poet, appears here with similarly untypical 1960s texts appropriating words from identifiable sources. While most of this book is devoted to writers who are, like the editors, currently in their 40s and early 50s (and thus anthologized for the first time), the selections from older figures now in their 60s and 70s mostly appeared decades ago, implicitly discrediting any publisher’s claim for this book as epitomizing innovation in the 21st century.
For his own contribution to Against Expression, Goldsmith offers a selection from Day (2003), which he describes as “a complete transcription of the entire edition of the New York Times from Friday, September 1, 2000.” However, in contemporary art lingo, this Goldsmith-Kossuth-Coolidge strategy resembles not Conceptual Art but something else–Appropriation Art, whose progenitors include Sherrie Levine and Ruppersberg both of whom Goldsmith correctly acknowledges.
Ap Art enters arts chatter in the late 1970s, more than a decade after Conceptual Art; but perhaps because the former epithet hasn’t gotten much beyond the insular visual arts world in the past three decades, it’s not exploited for this book (or any other literary anthology known to me). Indeed, Ap Art wouldn’t sell at Northwestern University Press, not to mention other provincial institutions.
Also consider that whereas Minimal arts and then Conceptual Art represented developments within high modernism, Ap Art arrives as a species of Postmodernism, which was then and is still now wholly something else—an inferior tradition in my considered opinion that depends upon opposition to Modernism. Confusing the two is to the cognoscenti the equivalent of today confusing, say, Language Poetry with Ap Poetry. This editorial dithering between contrary esthetics is one way to account for why very little here approaches the radical resonance of Cage’s 4’33”. Indeed, perhaps D&G don’t know what truly Conceptual Writing can be—indeed, wouldn’t recognize a masterpiece of the genre if it struck them on their heads.
Indeed, the closest semblance here of true conceptualism is Elizabeth S. Clark’s “Between Words,” whose title frames horizontal arrays of punctuation marks that are displayed on the page as though invisible words were once (or will be) between them. In the tradition of Pierre Menard, a British artist named Emma Kay writes out of her own head, without research, according to the editors, the history of the world, The Bible from Memory, and Shakespeare from Memory, that, unlike Pierre Menard’s Quixote, differ considerably from their sources.
The most valuable scholarly discovery here, new to me at least, recalls that the avant-garde French poet Stéphane Mallarmé in 1874 edited a women’s fashion mag for which he audaciously wrote all the articles in a variety of specialized columns under several pseudonyms. (How this move should exemplify Conceptual Writing misses dense me, belonging however, in a book or anthology about strategic pseudonyms, including Fernanrdo Pessoa, Theo von Duesberg, Peter Schickele, and perhaps me.)
Otherwise, the two most original and amusing texts here are Claude Closky’s “The First Thousand Numbers Classified in Alphabetical Order” and the excerpts from Dana Teen Lomax’s Disclosure. The first, described somewhat falsely as “a model of conceptual literature,” begins, as its title says, with, surprise, “Eight, eight hundred…,” as no number’s word starts with an earlier letter. Neither Conceptual nor Appropriation, this is to me an exercise in radical formalism that can, like others of its sort, be appreciated without being read word for word. (Indeed, “Radical Formalism” would be an original rubric for another path-breaking anthology.)
The Lomax piece, billed as “the most radically confessional work of poetry ever published,” is scarcely poetry at all and probably not strictly conceptual either, though surely “confessional” and appropriative. Working out of a current visual arts tradition of audacious personal revelation, Ms. Lomax here reprints as unvarnished images a wealth of personal documents including her teacher’s handwritten “pupil progress report” from elementary school, x-rays of her teeth, a credit card statement, and a solemn (if hilarious) letter dated 11-4-98 from some “adult village” informing Dana Teen that she was included in their prayers. For more of such selective appropriation, I’d gladly purchase her book.
Another original text is “Ligature” attributed to Donato Mancini, a name new to me. As an example of radical formalism, he writes a series of semantically meaningless lines whose concluding letters become the opening letters of the next; so that the successor to the opening line concluding “blemish mishap shape aperture” begins “urethane anemone.” Let me suggest that this formal constraint would have benefitted, semantically, from more meaningful sentences and, visually, from being set as instead continuous prose with the overlapped letters boldfaced. Prefacing this selection, the anthology’s editors write that “different versions of this work have appeared as an installation, in an eponymous book Ligature.” However, unless the author’s name is likewise Ligature, which it isn’t, this book isn’t “eponymous.”
While appropriation can be a good idea, I find hard to measure is why one should be better than another? John Ashbery distributed parts of a trivial text, William LeQueux’s adolescent novel Beryl of the Biplane (1917), through his masterfully disjunctive “Europe” (1956), which I’ve long considered his greatest poem. (It’s not reprinted here.) One issue to consider is how to value the face that nobody would know the implicit obscure source had not Ashbery publicly identified it elsewhere.
By contrast, I have chosen to rework texts that already have some resonance—the “Declaration of Independence” reprinted in my Prose Pieces (1979) and also realized on video tape; the first four books of the New Testament realized as a fugue on audiotape and then videotape in Die Evangelien (1982) and The Gospels (1982). My judgment is that stronger source texts make for better reworking. In an alternative autobiography titled Recyclings (1974, 1984), I also selected words drawn from texts of mine in part to reveal my language tastes apart from conventional syntax. More recently, in the second decade of this century, I’ve been rewriting, literally repossessing, classic literary texts, of both prose and poetry, to make them my own. In my own judgment about influence, these rewritings echo not Ap Art but modern compositions by Igor Stravinsky and others who have reworked earlier musical themes that are nonetheless identifiable.
Another kind of contemporary appropriation not reprinted here results from the partial visual covering of certain texts, so that only some words show through, usually with comic results. The modern classic “treated text” is The Humument (1973, first edition; several editions since) by the British artist/writer Tom Phillips, but among the Americans skillfully enhancing a previously printed text through partial visual obliteration was the late Doris Cross in Santa Fe in the 1970s. A classic variation results from the poet’s Michael Basinski’s removal of all vowels from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells,” so that the opening three lines read: “H r th sl dg s w th th b lls–//S lv r b lls–//Wh t w rld f m rr m nt th r m l dy f r t lls!” Nothing like any of these writers’ texts appears in D&G’s AE.
Goldsmith’s other selection from himself comes from Soliloquy (2001) which he and/or his coeditor here describe as “an unedited record of every word Kenneth Goldsmith spoke during a week in April 1996, from the moment he woke up to a Monday morning until the time he went to bed on Sunday night.” To the art world this is Documentation, or more precisely, self-documentation, which quite the opposite of Minimal and different as well from Conceptual. Its precursors in visual art include the paintings made by On Kawara in which in simple unadorned letters he paints today’s date in the language of the country in which he is residing; but since Kawara has extended his project begun in the 1960s into the 21st century, it gains the aura of a spiritual discipline unavailable to Goldsmith within a single week. In strictly literary terms, Soliloquy extends early 20th century Naturalism or, jockularly, Theodore Dreiser gone bananas. This is no small achievement for Goldsmith, as Dreiser’s dogged dumbness has been routinely ridiculed over the past decades. Congratulations, Kenny.
Working in this documentary tradition, another contributor to AE, Noah Eli Gordon, transcribes in his Inbox (2006), in part reprinted here, “the body-text of every email that was addressed specifically to me (nothing forwarded or from an listserv) currently in my inbox (over 200) and let all of the voices collide into one continuous text.” Had I not already reviewed this embarrassing book in Book/Mark (Summer 2007), to be reprinted in my Person of Letters in the Contemporary World (2012), I’d say more about its peculiarities here.
The resident guru behind AE is Marjorie Perloff (b. 1931) to whom the anthology is dedicated, who has long functioned as the gatekeeper required by every academic publisher. On page 263 of this book, in his selection from his own Soliloquy, mentioned before, Goldsmith writes this about her in, remember, April 1996:
I’m meeting her actually at the MOMA [sic] Members Dining Room for lunch today. And she’s deeply powerful and I’m going to get her, I hope, to write a blurb for the back of my book and promote it. It should I’m very you know I’m really excited about having lunch with her.
Need I add that I had to read the last sentence again to confirm that I transcribed it accurately, so apparently excited, if not hysterically incoherent, must KG have felt that day about his career prospects.
Consider, kiddies, the advice implicit here, as what followed from this auspicious meeting is history, no History, as Perloff has since routinely supported Goldsmith’s activities. Never, kiddies, refuse an invitation to the MoMA MDR, especially from someone “deeply powerful,” who likes to babble but doesn’t much listen; and, if you behave yourself, glomming onto her, maybe she’ll launch your career in poetry and academia. Am I alone in thinking that Goldsmith’s publishing such a confession here is embarrassing, if not EMBARRASSING? Incidentally. I’ve never been to the MDR during my 70+ years in New York City, no doubt marking me as a social-climbing failure, elite recognitions notwithstanding.
Editorially this book has problems. I’ve written before and so despair to mention the fault again, but any anthology whose contributions appear in some dumb order, whether alphabetically by name, as here, or chronological by author’s birth years, say, is ipso facto under-edited. The names gracing the cover of such an anthology didn’t know or like their selections well enough to discover an optimal order where they could have complemented or supplemented each other.
That said, what can be made of the fact that the first half of the alphabet is so disproportionately overrepresented that the letter N doesn’t appear until page 457? And then my sense that the last 130 pages, from contributors whose names begin with N to Z, have stronger selections, many of which, in a more intelligently composed anthology, should have gone to the front of the book. May I suspect that, presenting a longer manuscript, the editors were asked to cut it and so did so from the back of their book?
I detect Perloff’s stylistic influence in certain moves, beginning with the book’s subtitle but including the headnotes, that depend upon assertive bluster without requisite support. Otherwise, this book demonstrates a point I’ve made before—that composing a strong anthology requires more thought and, yes, experience than some beginners think. That’s one way to explain why mine got better after the first half dozen.
D&G reprint Dan Graham’s editorial directions in his “Poem-Schema” (1966) without its necessary realization. The point of this highly original text—a proposal, literally–is that the publisher or his editors must fill in answers to a questionnaire about details about the actual page on which it is printed, so that each printing would have in its last part different information, the varying responses intrinsically documenting Graham’s theme whenever several publications were exhibited (as in his 2009 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City). I know what needed to be done, because Graham’s “Schema” appeared under that title alone, respectfully realized in my Possibilities of Poetry with his general proposal on an opening page, the outline/questionnaire on the second page, and the unique realization on the third.
Since D&G shoved the first two elements into continuous prose, while omitting the last, perhaps they didn’t understand or read Graham’s text. How else to account for why guys otherwise committed to transcribing didn’t follow Graham’s instructions to transcribe and thereby complete the publication of Graham’s innovative instructions? This is a reprinting default comparable to omitting the last stanza from a conventional poem. For such disrespect, Graham has good reason to block the further distribution of this book.
Graham or his admirers should also complain about one of this book’s editors, Craig Dworkin, surreptitiously appropriating Graham’s third page, missing here, for a text of his own titled “Fact” that appeared in the venerable Poetry (Chicago) in July/August 2009. Here, with no acknowledgment of Graham’s “Scheme,” Dworkin realizes Graham’s proposal by itemizing a wealth of verifiable information about the page on which it is printed in Poetry, beginning:
Ink on a 5.5 by 9 inch substrate of 60-pound offset matte white paper. Composed of: varnish (soy bean oil [C57H98O6], used as a plasticizer: 52%. Phenolic modified rosin resin [Tall oil rosin: 66.2%. Nonylphenol [C15H24O]: 16.6%. Formaldehyde [CH2O]: 4.8%. Maleic anhydride [C4H2O3]: 2.6%. Glycerol [C3H8O3]: 9.6%. Traces of alkali catalyst: .2%]: 47%): 53.7%. 100S Type Alkyd used as a binder (Reaction product of linseed oil: 50.7%. Isophthalic acid [C8H6O4]: 9.5%. …
How Dworkin as an aspiring poet could steal from Graham with one hand without completing him as a co-editor with his other hand is a mystery for Dworkin to explain to his confessor.
That said, how ignorant could the editors at Poetry be not to recognize a ripoff of a text that had been published in magazines both artsy and literary, anthologized, and even exhibited over the past four decades, which is to say almost the entire life of Poetry’s current young editor? (I first discovered Graham’s “Schema” in the essentially literary magazine Extensions around 1969, while a current search through Google Images will provide not only the scheme but different “variants”.) A few years ago I noted that “The Humor Issue” number of Poetry (July/August 2006) has Paul Muldoon, the Princeton arts chief, misspelling NYC’s premier musical academy as “Julliard,” which he may have misdone or some editorial genius misdid for him. This is not just a spelling mistake but an illiteracy, much like adding a pesky apostrophe to Finnegans Wake. No matter whose fault, all would agree that wherever went the $100 million that the Poetry Foundation received a few years ago, it evidently hasn’t gone to such elementary low-paid editorial tasks as proof-reading and fact-checking.
Perhaps Dworkin marks himself as a provocateur whose ulterior function is exposing editorial sleepiness. Anyone doing this once usually does it again. Don’t discount the value of such people in a mature cultural milieu. Also, whenever an anthology is coedited, as this one is, one partner becomes responsible for correcting mistakes and excesses made by the other. In this case, one guy makes the other look illiterate, even though I know him well enough to testify that he isn’t.
Erroneous orthography for the MoMA acronym is a subtle illiteracy that a simple Google search could have corrected instantly. MOMA isn’t MoMA to the cognoscenti unless the former is an in-group nickname for Marjorie. (Was this university-press book copy-edited? Whoever left behind not only such erroneous typography but “eponymous” and Goldsmith’s public acknowledgment of courting the publisher’s advisor, both quoted above, might have been sleeping through his work or intentionally setting someone disliked up for embarrassment.) On page 266, in a Goldsmith text, is “pretty neet,” which doesn’t reflect Poetic License. The late Hannah Weiner’s name is misspelled on page 197. If you don’t believe me, you can shell out a handsome amount of money to see for yourself.
Otherwise, my favorite editorial howler appears in the headnote on page 296 in the fullpage preface to ten lines by the British artist Michael Harvey: “To be punctilious, one should note that Harvey Americanizes the British stop with period.” However, to be yet more punctilious, may I remind that the British prefer “full stop” to describe the small circular punctuation mark, literally a dot, at the end of a sentence. When the producer monitoring my Third Programme talk in part about Thomas Pychon’s first novel for the BBC in 1965 taught that proper limey epithet to me, he solemnly warned, “Only women have periods.” That’s advice that, decades later, I’ve not forgotten, as can be witnessed. Nor should anyone reading this ever again gauchely confuse MoMA with MOMA.
One question to ask about any avant-garde anthology is whether its contents can be taught in a classroom? Perhaps as anything easy to do becomes popular in most classrooms. On the other hand, too much here was done in the last century, even if never previously collected. A second question is whether this anthology will open literary practice or close it. As a guide for appropriation, it has appeared too late. Speaking for myself, may I judge that Against Expression didn’t inspire me to do any further work in this or any other vein. Simply, there was nothing here to steal directly, other than indirectly inspiring my short-short post-Conceptual text(s) above.
May I suppose that if D&G wanted to include my non-Conceptual work beside similar ringers here, they could have. There has been certainly enough stuff of mine around for decades, and it’s been reprinted in anthologies, some of them canonical. Since I wasn’t coopted, to remember a verb from decades ago, someone might suggest that their omission prompted this negative review—that they set themselves up to be massacred, so to speak. That hypothesis raises another question: Were D&G in their Perloffian bluster politically thick? That’s a charge I wouldn’t make, though others might at their risk. Dubbing an academic politically inastute might jeopardize his career with genuine financial damages he would want to recoup.
Even within the domain of Appropriation Lit, D&G aren’t as literate as they should be, failing to include or even acknowledge Frederic Tuten’s masterful The Adventures of Mao on the Long March (1971), which I praised at some length in my The End of Intelligent Writing (1974). Tuten’s text incorporates unattributed passages from Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean and The Renaissance, Frederich Engels’ Origin of the Family, and much else disparate. Nothing here as half as funny, perhaps accounting for its neglect.
D&G acknowledge the originality of Kenneth Gangemi’s alphabetical list of our national parks in his Lydia (1969), but don’t reprint it, perhaps because their book already has too much from four decades ago. They don’t know Jean-Jacques Cory whose first book was titled, simply, Lists (1974). John Robert Colombo’s hypothesis of Found Poetry, more visible four decades ago, has likewise escaped their research. One way an anthology discredits, if not diminishes, itself results from the exclusion of too many people whose works, given the book’s premises, obviously belong. Once that credibility is lost, it can’t be gotten back.
My friend Eric Doeringer, himself a courageous appropriator in Book Art, reminds me of Fiona Banner’s The Nam (1997), which reprints in 1,000 pages fulsome descriptions of Vietnam movies, and The Catcher in the Rye by Richard Prince, recently honored with a NYC Guggenheim Museum retrospective. Long available underground, reportedly once sold by the artist himself with a blanket on the street near the Metropolitan Museum (NYC), Prince’s Catcher reproduces with affection word for word the J. D. Salinger’s classic hardbound, duplicating as well the original dustjacket with only the author’s name changed to his own! Needless to say perhaps, appropriating Salinger realizes more risk and thus more resonance than Levine’s appropriating Flaubert. One theme implicit in Against Expression is that certain humorless editors can wake up in the morning thinking they’ve invented the lightbulb.
I should have liked Against Expression because I too have been fulminating against expressionist art and writing for a few decades now, and I also value path-breaking anthologies over those sweeping up behind established tastes. This new book also resembles (without acknowledging) two path-breaking literary anthologies of mine, Breakthrough Fictioneers (1973) and Essaying Essays (1975), both in its heft and in the abundance of contributors, here well over one hundred. The point of the latter move for both D&G and myself was, I know, establishing presence through an unexpectedly large number, even though the cost in contributors’ free copies must have been enormous.
Oddly, Kenneth Goldsmith’s literary project was interesting as his alone, and so I wrote an appreciation some years back for the last edition of the encyclopedia Contemporary Poets (2001). However, once he tried turn his original departure into a movement, perhaps to justify his professing “uncreative writing” that any student can do, Goldsmith diminished not only his unique audacity but those writers he wanted to carry with him. Long ago, I suggested this rule: that whenever an independent writer becomes a professor after the age of forty, as did Goldsmith, the quality and often the quantity of his work declines. In succumbing to a common syndrome, the shape of Kenny’s career is, alas, less unique than his work. (When will he blame Marjorie?)
An anthology of conceptual writing in America was and still is a good idea, though, given how book publishing honors precedents, it probably won’t happen between covers after this disaster, much to the disappointment of those waiving the “conceptual” banner in his wake. Otherwise, the implicit theme of Against Expression is the classic Brion Gysin aphorism quoted approvingly on page 295: “Writing is [and remains] fifty years behind painting.”
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