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Joseph Hutchison

 

Joseph Hutchison is the author of 15 collections of poems, including Marked Men, Thread of the Real, The Earth-Boat and Bed of Coals (winner of the 1994 Colorado Poetry Award). He has published poems, essays, creative nonfiction and short stories in over 130 journals and holds forth regularly on his literary blog, The Perpetual Bird, which he launched in 2006. He makes his living as a commercial writer and as an adjunct professor of graduate level writing and literature at the University of Denver’s University College.

 

 

 

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: What current ConPo shares with Art & Language is the devotion to theory over craft. To the extent that either movement produced anything of substance, those products have been distinctly rootless, gutless, and pointless. Both movements, if one can grant these coteries the status of a movement, are nihilistic at the heart. Goldsmith in particular has declared his desire to produce “uncreative writing,” which he has. The mystery is that he has found publishers for his dreck and institutional support for his creative and intellectual vacancy.

 

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: Goldsmith clearly doesn’t believe in anything but self-promotion. H. L. Mencken, in a Chicago Tribune column, remarked: “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” Goldsmith has extended this principle to academia and as a direct result landed himself an appearance at the White House and a spot on in the Columbia University Press catalog. In short, his career has progressed but the institutions that are supposed to know shit from Shinola have gone in the opposite direction.

 

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: See my previous answer. But let me add that I’m not surprised. The academy is following the way of most American institutions. In his song “Can’t Run, But,” Paul Simon puts it this way: “The music suffers, baby, but the music business thrives.”

 

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: An interesting question that falls in the Clintonian category of “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” I doubt that Goldsmith or his female avatar Vanessa Place are narcissists. They are showpeople. They give the public what it wants. They happen to have chosen a small, credulous, but lucrative audience consisting mainly of miseducated, easily propagandized saps who are addicted, above all, to novelty. The trick has been to convince this audience that what they are doing is, in fact, novel. It is not. It has been done before, by Duchamp and others, and will be done again under a different name at a different time, when yet again a small but well-off audience comes along that is full of people who desperately wish to be followers. Goldsmith and Place are canny con artists, maybe mildly sociopathic but certainly not narcissistic.

 

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: It would be like a comedian being forced to explain why a joke that was meant to be funny never produced a laugh. Nobody likes to be humiliated.

 

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

 

A: Conceptualism produces a measure of fame and, thanks to theory-soaked academic and artistic institutions like The Poetry Foundation, a tidy income. Of course they take it seriously, because the art is the con.

 

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

 

A: I attribute it to the fact that the academy is a self-perpetuating, self-validating bell-jar-like structure increasingly inhabited by people like those described in these lines by Margaret Atwood, from her aptly titled collection Power Politics:

 

… we have been

improved, our heads float

several inches above our necks

moored to us by

rubber tubes and filled with

clever bubbles

 

Conceptualism is just one symptom of this distinctly modern condition.

 

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: As much as I rail against the academy, I have to say that I doubt whether conceptual poetry has been accepted by the academy at large. Conceptualist theory has been accepted, but almost no one in the academy reads conceptual writing—hell, Goldsmith admits that he can’t muster the strength to read himself. But then the influence of the academy on public life is vanishingly and maybe deservedly small. Certainly the public image of conceptualism is no worse for poetry than the public image of action painting was for visual art or the vapidities of John Cage were for music.

 

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: All con jobs are inherently conservative because they are audience-driven. Once con-people chose the audience they aim to fleece, they are very conservative in handling the relationship. That means they will not risk political content. They will be radically apolitical. For example, Goldsmith’s recent call for people to “print out the Internet” resulted in protests from environmentally conscious people everywhere. Goldsmith could only respond that all the printed paper generated by his “conceptual art” project would be recycled. Thus he was able to enact his empty, idiotic, wasteful theory of art while taking a mild and beside-the-point political stance. I happen to think his effort soured many people on the whole idea of conceptualism, but I have no proof.

Let me add, though, that in fact conceptualism aligns with a fascist mentality that we saw take over the U.S. government during the reign of Baby Bush. New York Times journalist Ron Suskind, in an October 17, 2004 article called “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” reported as follows:

 

had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend—but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

 

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality— judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

 

Similarly, conceptualists view anyone who finds them wanting as benighted members of “the reality-based community.” There is an arrogance and a vast stupidity and a not inconsiderable danger in the conceptualist view crossing over into politics. Let them stay out of it, is my feeling.

 

 

 

 

 copyright © Joseph Hutchison