Friday, August 2, 2013

Why conceptual art? - against "a kind of inhuman hyperprofessionalism"

How did we get here?  Meaning, in this week’s context, how did we get to a point where Alvin Lucier’s recording of a mechanically distorted bit of speech can be credibly placed among the most important pieces of music of the 20th century.  Why does anyone worry about, while writing a novel, the alphabeticization of the words, like Walter Abish did?   How on earth did we get to – to – to – this:

If that image does not immediately appear at the website of Jeff Koons, click on “Inflatables” – or better yet, do not.  That place is a chamber of horrors.

More to the point, why are these works so prestigious and important.  No, that is easy.  They are pres. & imp. because certain other people believe they are p. & i., but I have just moved the target of the Why? and added a Who?

I don’t know the answers.  I am always looking for evidence.  Part of my pursuit of Austrian literature was a search for clues.  I found plenty.  A lot changed around 1900 – or 1910, Virginia Woolf says everything changed in 1910.  Maybe so.

I am so glad Rise pointed me to César Aira’s essay on conceptual art.  It is worth revisiting.  Aira has a good one-word explanation: professionalization.  This is what he means:

Once a professional novelist is established, he has two equally melancholy alternatives: to keep writing the ‘old’ novels in updated settings; or to heroically attempt to take one or two more steps forward.  This last possibility turned out to be a dead end within a few years: while Balzac wrote fifty novels, and still had time to live, Flaubert wrote five, shedding blood in the process.  Joyce wrote two, and Proust a single novel, and it was a work that took over his life, absorbing it, a kind of inhuman hyperprofessionalism. The fact is that being able to make a living from literature was a momentary and precarious state which could only happen at a determined moment in history.

The avant garde, a focus on concept and process rather than content, is Aira’s way to break the impasse, “an attempt to recuperate the amateur gesture” rather than trying to outdo Proust.  Note Aira’s strong sense of progress in the arts.  One could quibble with some of Aira’s evidence.

Now, lots of people write and far more read lightly updated versions of the old novels, Flaubert and Proust for our time (or Austen and Dickens), and they can find readers, and receive awards and critical praise.  This is the big difference between literature and classical music or fine art.  The audience for new work in fiction is much larger, and the avant gardists have not captured whatever mechanism is it that distributes prestige.  Sometimes I think they have captured poetry, other times I am not so sure.  But fiction is too big. Too – no, I don’t know what.

I thought about writing this post as a series of questions.  What is innovation in fiction?  How does originality differ from innovation?  Is there a taste for innovation?  And once I answer these questions, if I can, I have to historicize them – would the answers be the same in Shakespeare’s time, or Johnson’s, or even Dickens’s?  No – so what changed, and why?  I don’t know, I don’t know.

To return to my first paragraph, since I feel bad about lumping them together for illustrative purposes – Lucier is narrow and brilliant, Abish is narrow and interesting, Koons is a con man.


  1. I don't get a lot of the 'innovations.' Have you heard about the Dutch Tinkebell who killed her cat and skinned it to make a purse? While I understand what she was saying, I can't agree with her provocative method of saying it. Then there's Damien Hirst--another one I don't understand.

    As for novels, some innovations come across as gimmicky. I really don't understand why writers drop punctuation, for example.

  2. Or you do get them, as with the "artwork" you mention, and then conclude that they were not worth getting. That is often where I end up.

    The dropped punctuation is a good example. Molly Bloom ends Ulysses without punctuation as a way to depict the headlong rush of her thoughts. Nabokov had his undergraduates put the punctuation back in - actually, to mark off the sentences with slashes. The actual effect of erasing the punctuation is trivial.

  3. No. Poetry remains uncaptured.

  4. The New Formalists have driven the Language poets and other postmodernists from the field?

    As if I know what is going on in poetry now. Things certainly are not as unbalanced as they are in the art world. For one thing, there is no money in poetry.

  5. The main difference between plastic art and literature, it seems to me, is that we experience plastic art in a moment (obviously, you can linger if you wish), whereas it takes a fairly long time to read a book. This strikes me as the fundamental reason why conceptual literature doesn't work: no one could bear to read it (not unless it had other more usual characteristics of literature which made it bearable.

    Also, plastic arts can be - indeed, are - much vaguer in their meaning than literature is able to be. Words and sentences require clear meaning, again otherwise nobody's going to read them.

    1. Well, some people might read them. There's a nice little book entitled Reading the Illegible by Craig Dworkin, which provides some good lessons on how to approach conceptual literature - poetry especially - such as trying to make sense of smudged or elided words, big blank spaces, etc. A lot of conceptual literature just expends all its energy on the concept; once you're got it, why bother reading on? The challenge for the writer is to find a way to generate enough power to keep the lights on for longer than a moment.

  6. It is a huge difference, isn't it? Here is a sonnet created by some mechanical principle - that I can at least glance at. But a novel? Even a short story?

    The Abish novel is a good example because you can see what he is doing just by leafing through the pages. Then his challenge - and I think a lot of the Oulipo writers, and for that matter Flaubert, work this way - is to create something like a good novel within the constraint or process. So a reader with some patience, but not endless patience, can actually read and enjoy the result.

    Very true about meaning, too. Thus the attraction of composers to tone rows and oscillators and so on.

  7. With the creative process - sometimes constraint that fires inspiration. Poetry has operated within strict constraints of rhythm, metrical form and rhyme for millennia.
    I think some of the modernist (and other) challenges writers set themselves are attempts to wrestle with and also highlight the essential triviality of art. Such a wrestling match holds the danger that you just become trivial, or seen as thus. But art without risk is also trivial.

  8. Well stated.

    A good part of what alienates many readers, listeners and viewers from Modernist art is that much of it is art about art. Few care, which is reasonable. But the confusion leads to trouble, as when a Roberto Bolaño novel about conceptual poets is accidentally pushed onto a mass audience.

  9. And then Bolano will get blamed for being incomprehensible when all he did was write the novel he wanted to write, not make the marketing decisions or claims about what the novel is.

    Much of literature has always been about literature. See Mr Sterne, for example. See Aristophanes, too, if memory serves.

  10. Via Pykk's invaluable sidebar, a recent article in Poetry about the Why Conceptual Poetry? question. A good place to get a look at what is going on in American poetry now.

  11. Euripides was the conceptualist, telling old stories all screwy just to get the audience riled up, inventing the protest play, attacking Homer. Really wild. I love Euripides.

    Euripides fits the Aira thesis - rather than try to improve on the perfection of Sophocles, take another path, no matter how bumpy.

    The Frogs is certainly about literature, but it is an attack on Euripides and his more conceptual art. Aristophanes was a different kind of innovator.

    Boy, he was good, too. That bird chorus, what an imagination.

  12. I was just thinking of posting that link here. Koons might be a con man, but his giant tulips at the Wynn are a good illustration of obooki's point about vagueness and instant gratification in the plastic arts. On one hand these flowers have puffy gentle cartoon edges like balloons; on the other hand they're bigger than tigers and the colour on them is as ruthlessly even and perfect as the paint job on a new truck. The shape says "soft" but the finish says "hard" and the longer you look at these lollypop sweetiepie things the more uncanny they become because you realise that they're made of metal. "You" here is really "I." So there's an instant visual payoff, and then there's this vagueness or indwelling ambiguity, which is, in this case, actually horrible.

  13. The tulips have a lot of charm. It is funny, that article on conceptual poetry argues that it has no charm. The works of the conceptual Koons often have lots of charm. Those giant puppies!

    A mismatch of subject and material is probably Jeff Koons signature concept #2. Concept #1 is that he does not actually make anything, but merely hires skilled people to make things.

    The price paid for those tulips is - well, Koons and Wynn are well matched.

    1. Koons may be a con artist, but with as much stress on the artist part as on the con part (architects don't make their own stuff either). A few of his works can stop me in my tracks, inducing a kind of brain frisson probably caused by normally parallel synapses suddenly turning and firing at each other. I have to space out visits to San Francisco's MOMA because Koons' giant white porcelain Michael Jackson with Bubbles the Chimp is capable of rooting me in place like some sort of freeze-ray. And his "Popples" produces a sustained combination of laughter and horror that - well, maybe German has some word for it.

    2. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago has of those Michael Jackson pieces, too. Oh how I loathe it. I had the same experience, of being rooted in place, but with hatred and disgust.

  14. I for one am glad that within the art form of literature we have both the traditional writers and the avant gardists. The reason for such my rapture is what I think is something that you are getting above, the avoidance of boredom. Of course the professionalism that you refer to will over time lead to tedium. We humans are always looking for something new. On the other hand constant innovation can become tiresome itself. Thus, my rejoicing at the continued success and proliferation of the traditionalists.

  15. I often kind of move from book to book following that pattern - normal, weird, normal, weird. Not exactly the same as traditional / avant garde, but that's the idea.

    Although we, humans, are always restless for something - I think that is right - the cultural value attached to novelty and innovation has changed enormously over time. We are living in a period where innovation is prestigious, but in other times highly skilled imitations were valued at least as much.

    The conceptual artists really depend on provenance. Balloons on mirrors arranged by Jeff Koons are worth a fortune; identical balloons on identical mirrors with my name on them are worthless. Yet it was not so long ago that artists did not even sign their paintings.

  16. Picasso once said that truly original artists produce ugly art due to the stress of creation. Popularizers later make pretty variations of these innovative works for the masses. Then the masses come to appreciate the original artists works.

    Much of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven's pretty and (to our modern ears) soothing music seemed difficult and revolutionary to the audiences at the time they were first produced.

    Even as tame a writer as Chekhov, in a short story as meek as Gusev manages to perform many difficult and innovative tricks. Chekhov:
    depicts convincingly surreal dreams;
    switches effortlessly between dreams and reality;
    repeatedly changes point of view from Gusev's mind and fantastic imaginations to an all-knowing, detached observer;
    transitions, without solution of continuity, from Gusev's consciousness to Gusev's death and disposal by sharks;
    hints at hidden meanings by referencing some of Gogol's characters;
    finishes what is basically a horror story with an ironic, cruel set of beautiful images (a trick later borrowed by Babel).

  17. Do you know when and where Picasso said that? It sounds odd coming from him; then again I do not think of Picasso as a critic. Who knows. He is one of the greatest conceptual artists of all time, so I do not doubt that he understands his own creativity well, at least.

    Actually, I wonder what he means by "the stress of creation"?

    Strangeness is an important part of lasting art. Chekhov is plenty strange.

  18. I'll have to get back to you on the exact source of the Picasso quote: I read it many years ago. A quick Google search revealed this site quoting part of it, though:

    'Picasso felt that all true creation in painting revealed a degree of ugliness, because the strain of creation could not be deleted. In this sense works of imitators would be more finished .'

    'Picasso consideraba que toda verdadera creación en pintura revelaba cierto grado de fealdad, porque el esfuerzo de la creación no podía ser borrado. . En este sentido serían más acabadas las obras de los imitadores.' This article was published on 27/10/2000

  19. I frequently gain a lot of insights and new ways to look at things by reading your blog. Chekhov had always troubled me because I didn't 'get' his work, but I could see his genius at work. And now I know why, he's 'plenty strange'. Strangeness might be the key to Chekhov I was looking for and I thank you for pointing it out.
    About the meaning of strain of creation, Apollinaire and Herbert Read have written some illuminating comments.

  20. Hmm, so that "strain of creation" business is from the author of the article, not Picasso. Paraphrase. At the beginning of his career, at least, Picasso downplays the strain - "I do not seek, I find." Hey, now there's one for me to source!

    Maybe it is other artists who strain. Put that way, that does sound like Picasso.

  21. That book you link to, with Apollinaire, does the trick - very interesting.

  22. Uh oh, I'm digging up this thread. A couple of thoughts, though:

    Lucier's piece doesn't strike me as conceptual, but as an invitation to "deep listening" (Pauline Oliveros's term) to a musical structure based on acoustics rather than the linguistic model of common practice music. It's also deeply personal, rooted in Lucier's attempt to contend with his stutter (which he also did, movingly and hilariously, by appearing as Dr. Chicago in George Manupelli's films).

    4'33" is also experiential. If Cage had simply written "Listen to the sounds of nature" or "Sit zazen," would people like the piece more? Maybe not; people are funny.

    As for formal constraints in literature: Language is an important part of human experience. Why shouldn't fiction take that as a subject, as well as courtship, conflict, growing up and the other cherished themes?

  23. I hope it does not sound like I am arguing against formal constraints or conceptual art. Language is an essential subject of fiction, as is the form of fiction. Paint is an essential subject of painting.

    I do not want to legislate the meaning of "conceptual," but will just say that the meaning of Lucier's piece also has the characteristics you mention, as well as the process that generates the sounds. In both cases (acoustic principles, stuttering), though, you have to go outside of the piece to understand the idea. The process is so important to understanding the work that Lucier puts the description in the work, first thing.

    Perhaps a difficulty is that I am using some examples that are unusually rich - not merely conceptual.

  24. What would be a piece that is merely conceptual?

  25. Duchamp's urinal must be pretty close. Those Yoko Ono "string quartets." Lots of political art. The photos of Ai Weiwei smashing a Ming vase. Jasper Johns painting numbers or flags, that's pretty close. Sol Lewitt used the term "conceptual art" to describe his wall drawings, where he just created a set of instructions and other people created them - or didn't. Some of the Warhol films. Cage's 0'00".

    How about Pierre Menard's Don Quixote? The purest pieces of conceptual art would not exist - all that is needed is the idea of them.

  26. Rauschenberg's Erased De Kooning Drawing - that's pretty pure.

    1. Hmm, I don't know the Ono quartets, but a lot of the Fluxus pieces were either poems in the form of instructions, gags (explicitly modeled on vaudeville blackouts), or a springboard for social interaction (like Alison Knowles making a salad for the audience). All, in fact, traditional forms, though often reframed.

      0'0" -- despite the playful title -- directs the performer to amplify pedestrian sounds, like typing or playing chess. It's sitting zazen again, essentially a religious idea. (Cornelius Cardew eventually repudiated Cage's aesthetic when he realized he wasn't saintly enough to find all sounds interesting). Johns seems to me quite retinal, whatever he's painting. But maybe I missed something...

      You'd define political art as conceptual? That's interesting. A poster, a slogan?

      The Rauschenberg is a good example; that's pretty cerebral. Within the context of the art world, though, it could also be defined as provocation -- that is, a publicity stunt, a social statement.

      The conceptual is always part of the material, after all. I've never met a discarnate mind.

    2. Do I define political art as conceptual - no! Nevertheless, lots of political art is conceptual.

      But I fear, if Fluxus and Rauschenberg are not conceptual enough, that I will be able to get us to a satisfactory definition.

      A good critic ought to be adept at breaking the conceptual aspect of a work of art free from the object itself. With some works, this side is conventional, with others it is an innovation. With some, the object itself is essential, and with others you barely need the object at all. Sometimes the concept is trivial, sometimes it is rich in meaning.

      Tom Friedman has a piece which is a blank piece of paper that he has stared at for 1,000 hours. The little card on the wall says, in the space that describes the piece's materials, that is what he has done. He has another piece that is an empty pedestal. The little card says that a sphere of air above the pedestal has been cursed by a witch. They presumably have the witch undo the curse when the show is over. I hope so.

    3. Good examples! Those Friedman pieces are pretty cerebral.

      I cavil more at the term when applied to temporal arts, where the experience is different from the simple statement of the idea. Hearing about 4'33", for example, is nothing like actually listening to the sounds around you.

      But, onward!

  27. As Marguerite Yourcenar once wrote, time is a great artist, too, specially when it comes to erasure and oblivion as art. How about Shakespeare's Cardenio? The roughly half of Bach's Cantatas which are lost? (because unheard melodies are sweeter). All those towering masterpieces Mozart wrote during his old age? The real ending to the Dream of Red Mansions? The Satyricon? Etruscan poetry? Mayan Codices? It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

  28. That's a good, tragic category, art that has become purely conceptual by vanishing, now only existing as an idea.