Wednesday, June 5, 2024

The Making of Americans as conceptual art - I have already made several diagrams

Sometime I will be able to make a diagram.  I have already made several diagrams.  I will sometime make a complete diagram and that will be a very long book...  (580)

I am going to write about The Making of Americans as conceptual art, art where how it is made is a central part of what the work is.  Art that, strangely, does not necessarily have to be experienced like less conceptual art (I do not think there can be such a thing as non-conceptual art, but there is a moreness and a lessness).  Books that do not need to be read to be understood, films that do not need to be seen.

A couple of works I had in mind while reading The Making of Americans, and while wondering why I kept reading it, were George Seurat’s monumental painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886) and Andy Warhol’s eight hour single-shot film Empire (1965).

Seurat’s painting can be experienced instantly by entering its gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, and is full of delightful details worthy of more attention, but for the viewer interested in technique it is also a demonstration of what was once an innovation, pointillism.  After a year of preparation, much of Seurat’s time was spent mechanically filling in the grid.  I had the sense that Stein was doing something similar.  Not that the artist, or the viewer, cannot take pleasure in the work of the moment, the brushstrokes and sentences.  "There are some pretty wonderful sentences in it and we know how fond we both are of sentences" (letter to Sherwood Anderson, p. xiii of the Dalkey Archive edition).

I was also wondering why Stein’s book was so long, and why Seurat’s paintings were so large.  What would the difference be if  La Grande Jatte were 10% smaller?  What if Stein’s book were 725 pages rather than 925 pages?  Of course the case of Seurat is more poignant because he died at 31, meaning he spent four years of a short career producing two paintings.  If only there were a third. Heaven knows we have plenty of Gertrude Stein’s work.

Warhol’s Empire, by contrast, a single shot of the Empire State Building filmed for eight hours and five minutes, does not need to be seen at all for the concept to be clear.  A description and a still pretty does the job.  Like so many museum films, even those much shorter than Empire, there is no expectation that anyone watches the whole thing.

Not to deny anyone’s experience of these pieces.  I am just saying that the conceptual aspect, pointillism or repetition or stasis, is easily detachable from the work itself which becomes in that sense arbitrary.

The Making of Americans feels somewhere in between to me.  Anyone interested in how far the novel can be pushed should read some of it.  Ten pages somewhere in the middle?  Finnegans Wake is similar.  Reading a few pages, maybe the first few pages and the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section, quickly shows a lot of what Joyce is doing.  Not everything, but a lot, while Ulysses does not reveal itself in the same way.  Most readers of either book will quickly know if they want more or have had enough, thanks.

I guess The Making of Americans had just enough variation of style for me to keep going, or to feed my neurosis.  James Elkins has written a related piece about not finishing Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling (1965), a genuine descendant of Stein’s book, although longer and a full half-pound heavier.  I have seen a number of people on Twitter enjoying Miss Macintosh.  They will be ready for the Dalkey Archive reissue of The Making of Americans currently scheduled for September 2025.  Plenty of time to finish.  The William Gass and Steven Meyer introductions to the Dalkey edition are excellent, with Gass interested in style and Meyer in the process of creation.

I likely spent thirty hours reading The Making of Americans.  I could have watched Empire three times!  Or made it halfway through Fallout 4.  The recent marathon reading of the novel at Paula Cooper Gallery took 52 hours.

I will note that soon after Stein finished The Making of Americans she wrote Tender Buttons (1913), a radical move in the opposite direction, 78 little pages, compressed, filled with plain, material words.  “Cocoa and clear soup and oranges and oat-meal” (58), the words recontextualized, perhaps pushed towards nonsense and abstraction, but also inescapably things, or names of things.  Miss Macintosh appears to blend the concepts of the two books.  Maybe I will read it, or look at it more, someday.



  1. I found this post interesting, some ideas I had not thought of, but I think I'll pass on reading the book, 30 hours would be 60 for me and I've got to many other things to do with 60 hours.

  2. You get at why I had to deliberately commit to reading some long books this year. In a sense, what difference does it make if I read one long book or five shorter ones. I don't know, but I feel a difference, a little, or sometimes big, resistance to the long book.

  3. You might like to know about the Topiary Park in Columbus, Ohio, where Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte has been recreated in topiary form. There are photos on the website in Google.