Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Aira and Abish - literary conceptual art

The fiction of César Aira is conceptual.  It is created under a restriction that is not part of the text itself.  Aira talks about his method of composition openly in interviews, so it is no secret, but there is no way to derive the method from the text.  The narrator of Varamo says that is exactly what he is doing (“all the critic has to do is translate each verse, each word, backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang,” 45) but he is fictional, and that line is a joke.  You have to read the little tag beside the painting to know about the concept.

This kind of explicitly conceptual fiction is rare and has always been rare.  No need to pester me with your favorite exceptions.  Conceptual theater and poetry are much more common, which is why Varamo is about the composition of a poem.  The novel is set during 1923 (p. 3), so the great poetic masterpiece that is supposedly at the center of Varamo, which itself is composed in a conceptual manner (it is a found object collage), is written in the same year as The Wasteland, another collage-like masterpiece.  This is not a coincidence.

Within his constraints, Aira does not break so many rules.  He has characters, plots, jokes, transitions, all of the usual stuff of fiction.  Heck, Walter Abish has all of that stuff.  See the amazing post Rise put together.  Abish’s Alphabetical Africa (1974) employs an arbitrary constraint based on the alphabet.  The first chapter only uses words that begin with the letter A, the second chapter expands to words that begin with A and B, and so on for 26 chapters, after which each chapter removes a letter until we shrink back down to A words at the end.  As soon as you leaf through the pages you get the concept.  And yet the novel still has characters (not particularly good characters, I admit), a plot, etc.

I have argued that Madame Bovary belongs in this company.  I am not sure many people believe me.

If conceptual fiction is rare, purely conceptual fiction, or for that matter poetry or plays, barely exists.  I mean novels consisting of a single word repeated ten million times, or poems without words.  That kind of thing.  It has never been an important part of literary history.

Twentieth century fine art and music are of course full of – from the point of view of many people, plagued with – this stuff. John Cage’s 4’33”, just four minutes and thirty-three seconds of a pianist not playing the piano, or Marcel Duchamp’s signed urinal, or Yves Klein’s monochromatic blue paintings, or Yoko Ono’s string quartets, where the complete score is something like “The musicians and audience leave the concert  hall and look at the stars.”  I made that specific one up, but that’s what they are like.

Many music lovers and art enthusiasts hate this stuff, just loathe it.  They think it has ruined modern art, and that the artists are con men and the audience a pack of fools.  Let’s not go into the reasons for this.  Skeptical readers can comfort themselves that despite the best efforts of various Dadaists and Surrealists and Vorticists, conceptual literature has remained more of a concept than it has in music or fine art.  In literature, it is fairly easy to pretend that conceptual art does not exist.

This is all a preface to a kind of book review, if you can believe it.


  1. I have never read Aira or Abish but your post interested me and I have been poking around online. These authors are at the very least interesting and I may give one a try.

    4’33” aside, John Cage really did some fascinating things with music. Most of it was audible :)

  2. The world of Borges' Bustos Domecq is full of just this kind of conceptual literature. I guess it's more sufferable to write a story about people writing conceptual literature, than writing conceptual literature itself.

    Actually, I was staring at Perec's A Void on my shelf last night and thinking, if it does succeed as a novel, that's because the conceptual part of it is irrelevant - that the reader enjoys it equally whether they are aware it has no e's or not.

    1. Yes, I think it is irrelevant. I've written modest conceptual fiction, mostly short-stories, and the concepts are for my pleasure and challenge, but I don't see them standing in the way of character, plot, psychology, setting, etc., which I see no need to get rid of.

  3. I'm actually working on something similar myself at present.

    OK, I'm telling fibs. I'm just trying to make comprehensible notes on my Kindle, something that's tricky to do when the 's' button doesn't work. can I join Oulipo now?

  4. In experimental music and art, versions of that story, "my S key was stuck so I had to... resulting in...," is fairly common.

    Brian, I will warn you that conceptualists are typically more interested in their forms inherent properties and history. Minimal philosophy, minimal Big Ideas. Conceptual painters have ideas about painting - canvas, paint, two-dimensional surfaces.

    Perhaps a turn to conceptual art is a symptom of the decadence of an art form.

    Borges wrote somewhere that he did not see the point of actually writing books when you could just assume they had already been written and proceed accordingly. This allowed him to do just what obooki says. Roberto Bolaño borrowed the idea, resolving his long struggle - rather than be a conceptual poet he would write fiction about conceptual poets.

    Very few novels of any reputation really require an understanding of their conceptual apparatus. With the Perec, it is more like a separate joke. In music, in fine art, this is not true.

  5. Here's a related manifesto (in case you haven't seen it yet):


  6. I had not seen that. Geez, that woulda been handy.

    To warn people - that piece has Aira saying everything I said above, and then going into detail about John Cage - "nowadays, art that does not use a procedure is not truly art."

  7. Hmm, I'm going to be persnickety and say I don't understand what you mean by "conceptual," particularly when you call formal restraints conceptual. Every text ever written uses restrictions: just writing in English means that you reject other languages, or that you reject writing gibberish.

    All fiction is filled with restraints; genre fiction in particular is ruthlessly formulaic. Most people seem to prefer well-worn formal restraints to new ones; I don't quite know why...

    (By the way, credit where credit is due: Alphonse Allais wrote a silent piece of music and exhibited monochromatic paintings back in 1884, long before these other johnny-come-latelys!)

  8. That is not at all persnickety. I am using the term in the contemporary sense. The formal restraints need to be self-conscious and concerned with the artistic form itself. They are almost always some sort of challenge to form. Often there is some messing around with the production of the work of art.

    The concept has some artistic or intellectual use beyond the work itself. I guess the extreme statement of the idea is that it id only the concept that matters, with the work itself being incidental, a mere demonstration of the concept.

    So Scott and Wells and Doyle made conceptual innovations in genre. Open air painting was a big conceptual innovation. Lots of ways to move to a conceptual innovation.

    As for Allais - really, no kidding? So why does he not get any credit in art history? I have a guess at the answer - art historians are interested in / artists are influenced by Cage's and Klein's concept, the way they describe what they do, and not by Allais's concept, whatever it was. The creation of the object itself does not matter that much.

    1. Allais's pieces were done for the Incoherent Arts Show, which was held annually for a while in the 1880s. Montmartre bohos contributed joke pieces: Venus de Milo with a beard, portraits of stomachs, sculptures made of bread and cheese, all sorts of things. They were often imaginative and fun to look at, but they weren't serious, in the way art historians respect. As if Klein and Cage were humorless!

      Allais's pieces had a wider circulation, since he collected them into a book in 1897.

    2. It is really a question of intellectual history at this point, why this work is the important one but not that one.

      Conceptual art, the way I think of it, lends itself not just to humor but to pranksters. Duchamp led the way to Banksy.

    3. Speaking of pranksters, don't forget the Situationists, with their cartoons and detournements and graffiti-covered clothes and the book with the cover made of sandpaper, designed to deface whatever books it was shelved with. Good times.

  9. On Aira's Collected Fictions, recently published by Mondadori, there is a very interesting story about conceptual art.

    A genie appears to a visitor to the Picasso Museum. The genie offers this choice of wishes: Do you want to become Picasso or do you want a Picasso original painting? The protagonist thinks for a while and smells a rat. Genies are famously devious; so, if he wishes to become Picasso, Picasso being dead, he'd end up dead. He wishes for a Picasso painting instead. Immediately he finds himself holding this extraordinary Picasso masterpiece on his two hands. He looks at it for a long while, captivated by its beauty, before he realizes one thing: how is he going to get out of the Picasso museum while carrying a Picasso painting?

  10. That story is so beautiful it makes me cry, silently.

    Please, New Directions, anyone, translate that book next.