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Andrew Peart Interview

 

Andrew Peart is a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago. He is non-fiction editor of Chicago Review

 

 

 

Q: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a conceptual art group called Art & Language specialised in producing art works utilising texts and lexical elements, whilst endorsing the theories of Marcel Duchamp, and holding the view that the practice of art should be methodically theoretical and separated from matters related to craft or aesthetics. These beliefs and procedures are echoed by practitioners of conceptual poetry, the most celebrated being Kenneth Goldsmith, who has spoken of Duchamp’s influence on his practice and that of other conceptual poets. Given these theoretical and procedural similarities between the Art & Language group and conceptual poets, in what sense is the work produced by conceptual poets significantly different from that produced by the Art & Language group, and, indeed, other conceptual artists working in the same area?

 

A: I’ve noticed that conceptual writers like Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin tend to embrace American conceptual artists who worked on texts and information, like Dennis Huebler (for Goldsmith) and Robert Smithson (for Dworkin), though the heavy circulation of purely theoretical or polemical writings among today’s conceptual writiers does seem more directly related to the strong emphasis on theory over craft among the Art & Language group. I would point, though, to the greater heterogeneity of media and art techniques deployed by members of Art & Language, including forays into music, in contrast to Goldsmith and Dworkin’s increasingly singular focus on appropriation as the defining practice of conceptual writing. Also, Art & Language has historically operated through its own independent publishing organs and self-founded “societies,” which links it more closely with earlier iterations of the postwar poetic avant-garde than it does with contemporary conceptual writing, whose operatives have been quite pleased to set up camp within established academic institutions and platforms.

 

Q: In ‘Kenneth Goldsmith, or The Art of Being Talked About’ Robert Archambeau says that he thinks that Kenneth Goldsmith ‘often seems to believe in a linear, progressive version of artistic and literary history, a view that many people in the art world feel has been discredited’. Would you agree with this view?

 

A: Yes, I agree with Robert’s assessment. What’s remarkable about Goldsmith’s naïve view of literary and art history as teleological is the extent to which it serves him as the justification for his own aesthetic practice, particularly for his restaging of decades-old innovations in visual art within the world of literature. The innovative or “radical” edge of taking up wholesale appropriation as a literary practice seems blunted and belated when one thinks about it in the context of what visual art has been doing for the past half century. But calling attention to his work’s belatedness is exactly the point for Goldsmith, who thinks that poetry has never gone through postmodernism and must pass through that bottleneck before it can move forward on a trajectory of aesthetic innovation already charted by the visual arts. Someone ought to ask what Goldsmith must understand by the term “postmodernism” to think it possible that literature in general, or poetry in particular, did not “go through it.” But on a more basic level, two faulty premises are at play here: not simply that literary and art history advance on progressive gradients, but also that poetry lacks a history of its own that practitioners might be working out toward ends not anticipated by visual artists. You don’t have to be Clement Greenberg to acknowledge that a particular medium has some unique formal properties and a unique historical background. But you do have to second-guess the presumption of some self-styled emissary from the visual arts who comes to bring the gospel of aesthetic innovation to the unenlightened denizens of the poetry world.

 

Q: Given conceptualism’s radical self-positioning of itself, do you think it is ironic that conceptualism has been championed and embraced by the academy?

 

A: No. The academy’s embrace of conceptualism is simply the fulfillment of its origin and purpose. As I’ve written elsewhere, conceptual writing is a rigged insider’s game, a revolving door of writers serving up poetry to satisfy scholarly interests and of academic patronage redeemable upon delivery. Goldsmith and Dworkin should always be given credit as excellent archivists, and conceptual writing first emerged as a rubric for their curation of archived works from two different disciplines that they wanted practitioners, as much as literary and art historians, to see as fundamentally convergent: experimental poetry and language art. Though they initially left it unacknowledged, there was available to Goldsmith and Dworkin a long history of scholarship on what might be called the language-centered dimensions of conceptual art, from Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object (1973) to Liz Kotz’s Words To Be Looked At (2007), which puts into proper context their attempt to reconfigure the history of postwar poetry. This attempt, no doubt, had its impetus in Dworkin’s editing of Vito Acconci’s collected writings and his facsimile edition of the journal 0 to 9, which Acconci edited with Bernadette Mayer in the late 1960s. This is all to say that the idea of conceptual writing, first and foremost a literary- and art-historical rubric, emerged through years of published scholarship as an explanatory apparatus for current literary work readymade for academic reception. (In Dworkin’s case, of course, the scholarship had been overseen from early on by the most important figure in conceptualism’s academic promotion, Marjorie Perloff, so that the circle had almost always been complete.)  I think scholars in general should take conceptualism seriously for its contribution to our knowledge about the imbricated histories of language-centered poetry and language-centered art in the postwar period. The dust has settled a bit with the publication of the anthology Against Expression, and we are better equipped now to see the strengths and weaknesses of conceptualism as a theoretical rubric and historiographical construct. As for the actual poetry produced under the conceptualist banner, its favorable academic reception has been swift but not widespread, despite all the buzz: in English departments outside the University of Pennsylvania and in university press offices outside Northwestern, it’s discussed with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Unfortunately, the best work associated with conceptual writing gets little of the buzz: I think Goldsmith’s early work, especially No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1997) and Soliloquy (1997) are important capstones to the older corpus of language-based conceptual art.

 

Q: Is conceptualism’s claim that it rejects what it sees as the “narcissistic selfhood” of much lyric poetry incompatible with its practices, given that so many of these practices revolve around the personality and showmanship of the poets involved, Kenneth Goldsmith being perhaps the most prominent example?

 

A: This irony is certainly present in Goldsmith’s work, which I think is better understood in terms of performance and documentation than as procedural composition. The kernel of any work by Goldsmith is just as much the stunt as the concept, and, like any good language-based performance art, the writing that he produces exists as a record of the realization of the stunt. The concepts driving his works are never as interesting as the exhaustiveness of their execution as embodied acts, even if the execution is simply the labor of a typist. And I don’t think Goldsmith would command an audience if it were not for his skill and gravitas as a performer, both in the execution of the acts making up the work and in his recitals of the textual record. But there are quite a few serious proceduralists who identify as conceptual writers, whose work is rigorously ego-effacing, non-lyric, and anti-expressive. I think especially of Christian Bok as well as those poets who come to conceptualism via digital poetics, like Darren Wershler-Henry and Bill Kennedy. Moving away from the inconsistency between Goldsmith’s impressario-status and his claim to Cagean egolessness, we should evaluate conceptualism’s critique of the lyric on its merits. In attacking the “narcissistic selfhood” of the lyric, conceptual poets are reviving the bete-noir of the Language poets and echoing their rhetoric of antipathy toward the idea of poetry as expression. An important question to ask is why conceptualists think that the critique of lyric selfhood or the “unified lyric subject” is still an urgent poetic intervention in the second decade of the twenty-first century, especially if, as Goldsmith has repeatedly claimed, the work of Language poetry in disrupting the poetic “mainstream” has been completed? In its time, Language poetry’s pummeling of the “unified lyric subject” as a rhetorical straw man enabled a critique of what many considered the backwash of the greater Romantic lyric, the short lyric poems of epiphany churned out by the hundreds in American MFA workshops throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Now that our current legions of MFA writers have dutifully absorbed the Language school’s ideological suspicions of the quaint lyric, producing a period style that looks much more like Lyn Heijinian than Sharon Olds, the conceptualists seem out of touch in caricaturing the lyric and the idea of expression as a way of defining themselves through negation, like a club re-enacting a poetry war that no one else much thinks about anymore.

 

Q: Conceptual poets tend to be reluctant to engage directly with their critics, preferring instead to rehearse the theories regarding their practice in self-penned essays in various sympathetic publications etc. Why do you think this is? 

 

A: When conceptual poets position themselves in their own polemical writing as “radical,” though few academics or critics still consider their central technique of appropriation “radical,” they anticipate any possible objections to their project and dismiss them out of hand as staid, reactionary, unenlightened about the unassailable mission of the avant-garde. It’s difficult for conceptualists to take outside criticism seriously when they have framed all outside, “unfriendly” criticism as the heresy of nonbelievers. This is certainly true of the conceptualists who are not career academics, like Goldsmith and Vanessa Place; they don’t really “do” dialogue at all, and their usual method of discourse is to continually recycle their own polemical statements in a kind of self-appropriative mode that I suppose is meant to be an object lesson in “uncreative writing.” (If you want an especially egregious example of this practice, follow Goldsmith on Twitter.) I know Dworkin personally, and I respect him tremendously as a scholar; his criticism is more scholarly than polemical, unlike the most talked-about conceptualist tracts, and I find that in person he is more than willing to engage in genuine dialogue with a general audience about the history and nature of conceptualism and, more importantly, about poetry and poetic theory writ large. Dworkin is not so much a defender of the faith as he is an investigator in the field with a definite viewpoint and the kinds of biases we all bring with us. However, his close relationship to some of the most prominent voices in the academic field has shielded him significantly from much outspoken criticism.

 

Q: To what extent do you think conceptualism sees itself as a serious poetic art form?

 

A: Since the publication of Against Expression in 2010, which cast a very wide net to say the least, it has been increasingly difficult to identify a core group of conceptual writers, let alone to say anything about what their shared view of poetic art might be. I think that conceptualism as defined in this anthology, in the 2008 conference at Tuscon, and in the original UbuWeb anthology—conceptualism as a project in which various poets make occasional contributions—tends to endorse a of view writing as a set of “information management” strategies adapted from the increasingly vernacular world of data processing, as opposed to a view of writing as literary art. I also think that the writing itself has a primarily instrumental value for conceptualism: it’s a prop in the intended intervention into the theory of the avant-garde, into the official history of modernism, and into caricatured discourses about poetry, and it’s ultimately disposable, lacking any inherent or lasting value apart from these extra-literary aims. This is not Ezra Pound delineating and perfecting the techniques of a “permanent art.”

 

Q: How do you explain conceptualism’s rapid ascendancy within the academy?

 

A: The production and reception of conceptual writing is a feedback loop that exists entirely within the U.S. academy and has, since its inception circa 2008, drawn on all of its available resources: academic conferences, special isues of journals, university press book series, and (gasp) academic job offers. Why would established scholars want to become partisan advocates of a certain type of contemporary poetry and a certain cohort of emerging poet-scholars? Because this kind of advocacy serves a larger purpose: to endorse a view of literary history as a series of aesthetic movements advancing through rupture and ending up at the one you are currently engineering and micro-managing. Marjorie Perloff’s seminal monographs of the 1980s and 1990s—The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981), The Futurist Moment (1986), and The Dance of the Intellect (1996), among others—deigned the Language poets and their immediate precursors, as well as American Conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s, as the true inheritors of an avant-garde modernist tradition newly recentered on futurism, dada, surrealism, and Ezra Pound. What all these ‘movements’ share is the production of literature or language art that contains its own criticism. By the mid-1990s, the Language poets had enough of a hearing within the academy to consolidate their own position as the late-modernist movement of the century’s end. The success of Language poetry in this regard convinced key scholars, Perloff not least among them, that the best way to ‘remap’ modernism or to track its afterlife was to adduce a new movement as exemplar of the present and portent of the future and to work back from there. Something like conceptualism became necessary to the perpetual motion of this academic machinery because the logic of rupture stipulated that Language poetry could not remain the ‘new poetry’ into the twenty-first century. So Perloff, Craig Dworkin, and Goldsmith collaborated on a multi-front project-launch in 2008, assembling an online anthology of “theoretically based art” that they called conceptual writing (UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing) and convening a conference of candidates for the critical-poetic ‘movement’ in Tuscon (“Conceptual Poetry and Its Others”). Dworkin had the key insight that defined the new landscape: early Language poetry in New York had close ties with the language art of Lawrence Weiner, Carl Andre, Robert Smithson and other Conceptual artists, and because the Language poets had not triangulated their modernist roots with this postmodernist affiliation when they were self-canonizing in the 1990s, ‘conceptualism’ could serve as the rubric for linking an occluded modernist heritage with the new movement that existed to highlight that heritage and advance its achievements.

 

Q: What are the possible ramifications for the reception of lyrical and other sorts of non-conceptual poetry within the academy, now that conceptualism has been accepted as poetry by the academy?

 

A: The intervention that conceptualism proposes to make within the history and theory of lyric poetry is, frankly, not smart or sophisticated enough on the history and theory of lyric poetry to have much of a hold on academics who work in this subfield. That probably sounds like more of a dig at the conceptualists than I intend. What I mean is that the two communities don’t really speak the same language. The real frontal assault on the study of lyric poetry as such, at least within the American academy, is coming from Virginia Jackson’s theoretical critique of what she calls the “lyricization of poetry” beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. Jackson regards the idea of a transhistorical poetic genre called the lyric as precisely that—an idea produced by tendentious hermeneutical discourses and reading practices, with little grounding in the multiplicity of genres that once populated the poetic field. But the lyric has its defenders, like Oren Izenberg, who make convincing arguments for lyric poetry as a unique way of knowing, from Aristotle on down. This is an ongoing debate that many readers here will surely be familiar with; I mention it because the opposing sides continue to argue their cases, for or against the lyric, with little if any attention to what conceptualists might be saying about non-lyric possibilities for poetry. Jackson talks from time to time about a “postlyric” future for poetry following the waning dominance of lyric reading, and she seems to be nodding to language-centered poetry and the Steinian tradition. Conceptualism might fit into this “postlyric” horizon, but not in a way that would add much more than what Language poetry and its predecessors contribute. From my perspective, lyric poetry has a demonstrable cross-cultural history as the vocal utterance of patterned language, and this makes it fairly impervious to suspicious critical theory and capable of absorbing avant-garde provocations; still, we ought to put our weight behind the anthropology of performance if we want to solidify the ground that the lyric stands on.

 

Q: US conceptual poets, particularly Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, have expressed a disinterest in poetry as having any sort of political dimension. This is in marked contrast to some other historical and contemporary conceptual art practices internationally, such as Berlin Dada, the Situationists, The Colectivo de Acciones de Arte (CADA) etc. Does this disinterest by US conceptual poets in exploring conceptualism as poetic-political praxis weaken claims to such conceptualism’s “radicalism”?

 

A: Not long after Kenneth Goldsmith had spent a day with Barack and Michelle Obama at a poetry event held at the White House in 2011, and had been criticized by Linh Dinh for agreeing to do so despite what he called the administration’s foreign policy of “endless war,” I heard Goldsmith respond to this criticism (by then echoed by many others) at a talk in Chicago. He showed us a photo of himself approaching the president for a handshake, facing off with a head of state who obviously regarded him as his court jester. Face lit with a smile, eyes fixed on the scraggly-bearded poet’s signature paisley suit, and arms thrown up in the air as if to say, “What an amusing figure this man cuts!,” the president was a good sport in playing up a reaction to Goldsmith’s dandyish self-presentation. Of course, Goldsmith had quite a different interpretation of the encounter. The photographic evidence of the president’s reaction was the perfect riposte to Linh Dinh and all those who had joined in the criticism of what seemed like Goldsmith’s refusal to bring politics into his accepting the honor of the president’s invitation. Little did we know that Goldsmith had covertly infiltrated the West Wing and had tacitly spoken truth to power from within its center of gravity with a weapon more powerful than any political rebuke: a $2000 Thom Browne for Brooks Brothers® suit. “The president was clearly befuddled,” Goldsmith said. “I threw him off his center. His expectations for a poet addressing a head of state were thwarted.” Goldsmith’s lame attempt to smuggle political weight into an attention-getting sartorial decision reflects a need he feels, despite claims to the contrary, to color the “radicalism” of his work as somehow political or at least more than merely formal. Other conceptualists, too, make this category mistake in their rhetoric: they understand the act of appropriation, plagiarism, or “uncreative writing” as politically subversive because it is, like Goldsmith’s suit, somewhat indecorous or transgresive, a flouting of propriety, within a specific context. The work of Vanessa Place is actually deeply troubling because she would prefer us to bracket the ugly politics of her practice (appropriating from legal records) so that she can introduce a frisson of transgressive possibility to a middle-class, liberal academic audience—at the expense of less fortunate subjects of the legal system and their rights to privacy.

 

   

 

copyright © Andrew Peart