The Argotist Online
Freind is the author of two collections of poetry: American Field Couches
(BlazeVox, 2008) and An Anthology (housepress, 2000), as well as the
editor of Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums: Essays on the Poetry of Araki
Yasusada (Shearsman, 2012). He
teaches at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.
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: Here’s a more direct way of asking that question: “Is there any aspect of conceptual writing that’s truly new?” My answer is “Not really.” I think poetry has entered the stage in which the (perceived) novelty of conceptual writing has worn off, and conceptual techniques are simply part of the landscape. That’s not necessarily a problem, and it can be a very welcome development.
To explain that, I need to
make a distinction between what Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman call pure
conceptualism, i.e., work that follows Sol LeWitt’s claim that in conceptual
art, “all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution
is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” If,
as LeWitt (and Goldsmith, who appropriated LeWitt’s essay in “Paragraphs on
Conceptual Writing”) suggest, “[c]onceptual art is good only when the idea
is good,” we’re now at a stage where pure appropriation seems to suffer from
a lack of good ideas.
On the other hand, what
Fitterman call “impure” or “post-conceptual” writing, which invites
manipulation and intervention on the part of writer, seems much more productive
to me. For instance, I find a lot of the “impure” work in I’ll
Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women to be very compelling.
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
Yes, to a certain extent, but I’m more interested when Archambeau says
“Sometimes I find a bit of an Oedipal urge in him, a desire to dismiss the old
kings so that the new, young king (let's call him Goldsmith) can ascend the
think the apposite comparison is to Marinetti. In the first years of Futurism,
Marinetti presented an explicitly Oedipal version in which the younger
generation of Futurists would overthrow the older generation of Symbolist
masters. He even says that Futurism would only last for about a decade, until a
new generation of artists metaphorically killed them:
oldest among us are thirty; so we have at least ten years in which to complete
our task. When we reach forty, other, younger and more courageous men will very
likely toss us into the trash can, like useless manuscripts. And that’s what
that’s what Marinetti wanted, he obviously changed his mind: the man who
“wish[ed] to destroy museums, libraries, academies of any sort” later joined
the Italian Academy and urged Mussolini to declare that Futurism would be the
official State art.
Marinetti, Goldsmith has switched sides in the Oedipal struggle. He’s now the
Kenny-Daddy, and he’s looking to preserve his position by, for instance,
appearing on the Colbert Report and at the White House.
Given conceptualism’s radical self-positioning of itself, do you think it is
ironic that conceptualism has been championed and embraced by the academy?
It hasn’t been championed or embraced by “the academy.” I would guarantee
that a substantial majority of poetics professors in North America and the UK
are indifferent or hostile to conceptual writing. Conceptualism has been
embraced by what I would call the Penn-Buffalo-Perloff axis. I mean that with no
disrespect: those groups have been extraordinarily helpful in promoting
innovative poetry. However, they don’t constitute a representative slice of
the academy. In fact, as I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s really no such thing
called “the academy.” It’s a vague, catch-all term that obscures enormous
differences in institutions and the individuals within them.
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?
Goldsmith was trained as a visual artist, and I’ve always thought he
recognized that few North American poets had successfully employed the
self-promotion of, for example, the European avant-gardes, Andy Warhol, Chris
Burden, or the Young British Artists (many of whom, appropriately, graduated
from Goldsmiths College in London). In fact, with the possible exception of
Allen Ginsberg, I can’t think on an American poet as dedicated to
self-promotion as Kenny Goldsmith. He makes Warhol look like Joseph Cornell.
has never really acknowledged that the centrality of Kenny GoldsmithTM to
his uncreative work is both ironic and essentially conservative: his critique of
“creative” art is predicated on making the uncreative artist a celebrity.
The sacred status of the work is replaced with the minor deity of the Artist.
best critique of Goldsmith’s Cult of the Author is Kent Johnson’s Day,
which is a copy of Goldsmith’s Day
with the name “Kent Johnson” glued over Goldsmith’s name on the cover.
Goldsmith, of course, performed a similar operation with his “Paragraphs on
Conceptual Writing,” which is largely a transcription of Sol LeWitt’s
“Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” However, I would argue that Johnson’s
gesture is much more provocative.
video on the website of BlazeVox suggests that Kent Johnson was completely
uninvolved in the production of the book: it shows publisher Geoffrey Gatza
assembling the books with glue and an X-acto knife (after he fires up a bowl and
puts on Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring). Johnson appears to have done no writing, typing,
scanning, cutting, or pasting. His “work” was only an idea, which would seem
to completely endorse LeWitt and Goldsmith’s claim that “in conceptual
art/writing the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.” Far
from being merely a smart-ass response, Johnson’s Day
highlights a point that Goldsmith apparently rejects: the anti-subjective,
machine-like aspects of pure conceptualism should efface the Artist.
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
I really don’t know.
To what extent do you think conceptualism sees itself as a serious poetic art
What’s “a serious poetic art form?” That seems like a phrase that should
have gone out the window in 1909.
How do you explain conceptualism’s rapid ascendancy within the academy?
As I’ve said previously, I don’t think there’s any one thing called “the
academy.” However, conceptual writing has certainly enjoyed a resurgence in
popularity, and I would argue that that’s due to its essential belatedness. A
good slice of contemporary otherstream poetry can be called “post-avant,” a
term that suggests we’ve moved beyond the avant-garde, and that has created a
kind of nostalgia for those heady days of early to mid-20th Century
innovation. So Goldsmith, and other pure conceptualists, came along at exactly
the right time. Their work claims the mantle of the avant-garde, but it’s
comfortably familiar: some Dada, a little Oulipo, a handful of Cage and MacLow,
a bunch of Warhol.
think Flarf is the perfect example of that nostalgia. Its wholesale recycling of
avant-garde techniques is roughly equivalent to playing Dixieland jazz in 2014,
complete with handlebar moustaches, arm garters and straw hats.
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?
I’m not trying to be difficult, but I don’t really see what’s at stake in
that question. Do I think poets will write less “lyrical and other sorts of
non-conceptual poetry?” Probably, but since approximately 99.9982% of poetry
is non-conceptual, why would that matter? It’s not as if The Best American Poetry will suddenly stop publishing first person
free verse about death or putatively transcendent experiences involving birds.
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”?
I think the premise of that question is mistaken. Fitterman’s Holocaust
Museum is obviously political. Likewise, the political components of
Place’s work are self-evident and overwhelming: it’s hard to say that
transcripts from sexual assault trials and attempts to organize a performance of
“coon songs” are apolitical, no matter how provocative and/or ill-advised
they may be. Her attempts to downplay those screamingly obvious aspects of her
work seem like a species of the disingenuous provocations that are standard in
avant-garde manifestoes. They’re no different Marinetti’s claims that sex
should be only for procreation, or that pasta should be abolished.
I do think that since Soliloquy (which
I think is brilliant), much of Goldsmith’s work has been both aesthetically
safe, and even complicit with state and economic power. Place and Fitterman
claim that “[c]onceptual writing is allegorical writing”
because “the allegory is dependent on its reader for completion.” I
think Goldsmith’s appropriations have lost that allegorical distance. They are
reproductions drifting in a global of economy of reproductions. They disappear
like water within water. They challenge nothing.
was particularly evident in Goldsmith’s appearance at the White House, which
drew some criticism from other writers. Linh Dinh wrote “[t]o
be a minstrel for a mass murderer is nothing to be proud of… This just
heightens my contempt for the state of American poetry. Did Bertolt Brecht dance
for Hitler?” Yeah, the invocation of Brecht and Hitler is overstated, to put
it very mildly, but I want to focus on the word “minstrel,” a word that
I’m assuming Dinh uses to refer to a court entertainer, not to racist minstrel
the introductory remarks at the White House, Goldsmith called the readings
“three short excerpts from poems about the Brooklyn Bridge.” “Short
excepts” are of course what that crowd would expect – when speaking to (and
for) state power, art can’t be challenging in any way, so while Goldsmith read
from Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn
Bridge,” those excerpts are, predictably, safe: he includes none of the
homoeroticsm in either poet’s work, none of Whitman’s non-Christian
spirituality, none of the modernist techniques that characterize other sections
of The Bridge. The video shows
Goldsmith reading and discussing the work with all the earnestness and nuance of
a second grade teacher.
of that changes when he reads from Traffic, his transcriptions of traffic reports: his cadence and
volume pick up, and his manner switches to something closer to that of a
Goldsmith describing his reading:
crowd, comprised of arts administrators, Democratic party donors, and various
Senators and mayors, respectfully sat through the "real" poetry—the
Whitman and Crane—but when the uncreative texts appeared, the audience was
noticeably more attentive, seemingly stunned that the quotidian language and
familiar metaphors from their world—congestion, infrastructure,
gridlock—could be framed somehow as poetry. It was a strange meeting of the
avant-garde with the everyday, resulting in a realist poetry—or should I say
hyperrealist poetry—that was instantly understood by all in the room; let's
call it radical populism. It was really fucking bizarre, to say the least.
it’s not fucking bizarre at all: the crowd responded to the section from Traffic
because it was absolutely familiar and mildly entertaining, like a slightly
eccentric cousin with a knack for family impersonations.
was brought to the White House to read poetry. He entertained them, and demanded
nothing of them. Is it really unfair to call him a minstrel?
think Fidget and Soliloquy
are wonderful books, and UbuWeb is an extraordinary resource. But my major
complaint is that Goldsmith has moved from conceptualism to the Art of Hype. The
ideas behind his work are largely irrelevant now. What matters is how he can
copyright © Bill Freind