Kenneth Goldsmith: Not one concept in his head.
If you are really curious about beer, the expert will tell you there are only two kinds: ale and lager.
Likewise, there’s only two kinds of wine: red and white.
I can glance out my window right now and see the sunlight increasing as the clouds disperse, and then notice the artificial light over my desk steadily burning.
Neither the outside light nor the inside light are considered “art,” but what visual art does not take account of it?
We understand terms like the “art of beer” or the “art of wine,” even as we might say to ourselves, “Well, that’s not really art—maybe science…”
But the moment we tackle the “art of art,” we come up against that sort of learned confusion which may befuddle in a pleasant manner those seasoned and learned enough to enjoy such a thing, but which ultimately derails all true understanding.
The confusion is due largely to the great blurring between art and reality mentioned above: if the artificial light above my desk behaved more like the sun on a partly cloudy day, we might even call the constantly changing light emitted by the light bulb above my desk, “art,” just because of the way the man-fashioned bulb above my desk cunningly copies nature’s changeable light.
This year’s Conceptualism hullabaloo, which happens to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show which brought modern art to America, is a debate forcing us to acknowledge what is nothing less than art’s most important idea since art began: imitation.
Both John Keats and Kenneth Goldsmith must confront this reality: Art is a pale representation of nature.
Goldsmith’s avant-garde solution is to focus entirely on “representation.”
Conceptualism, in Goldsmith’s case, or in the case of Warhol/Duchamp’s found objects, is a terrible misnomer.
Goldsmith and his Found Poetry takes Nature, or Reality and “finds” it as Poetry, and “find,” here, means purely represent.
We are free to ignore the actual work of Goldsmith’s, as many have pointed out, but this is not due to Conceptualism; it is because of its opposite: Representation.
Reality is art’s flesh, and until art lives, it is not art, but reality. (How art lives is something we’ll get to in a moment.)
We err whenever we do not understand art as reality first, and art, second.
Plato offended (certain easily offended) artists with this practice: he saw art as reality first—what does art do within reality? was the most important question for Plato.
Found Poetry is an ineffective challenge to Plato, seeking to reverse Plato’s ‘look-at-art-as-reality’ admonition; superficially, Found Poetry is looking at reality as art, but the moment we look at reality as art, we look at art as reality—-Plato’s strategy!
To look, as Plato does, at “art as reality,” is to see reality “showing through the art,” as it were; this “look” is the “harsh look of the cynical Critic,” who refuses to see the art on the artist’s terms.
This “look” is, in artistic terms, the methodical “look” which offends aesthetic passivity with its real-life action.
The “raw fact” of art, no matter how intricate, is not allowed to lie there passively; the active Platonist Critic places art in a context of reality—and does not allow it to remove itself into a pure, amoral, state where reality is walled off from the representation (the art). Once “this wall” is allowed to go up, art is free to make rules for itself that have no connection to reality and to proclaim itself purely valid apart from reality, which, on a grand scale is similar to a person withdrawing from reality into a dream, or a wealthy person cutting themselves off from the everyday needs of others.
Art has moved in this direction, away from Plato, away from art as reality, and towards art as pure art, for over a hundred years, now. This very movement is defined as Modernism by John Crowe Ransom, in his brilliant essay, “Poets Without Laurels.” Impressionism in painting, Imagism in poetry, Abstract Painting, a poem like “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” by Wallace Stevens, these are all attempts, along with Found Poetry, to escape Plato and his Conceptualism and to enter into a world of attenuated representation, the sensuality of partial imitation, that is sensual imitation without mind, reason, or morals. Modernism, for Ransom, not only moves in the direction of “pure art,” or “art for art’s sake,” but it is also a movement of science dividing itself into finer and finer partitions.
The beginner learns about the science of beer or wine, starting with ‘ale or lager,’ ‘white or red,’ but this beginner’s lesson contains all that the expert knows—when it comes to science. As science gets down to the details of its field, the broader truths must be constantly kept in view, and this should be true of art, as well.
Visual art is concerned with these two: Color or line.
Writing? Prose or poetry.
These divisions involve the science of art, which is much easier to understand than the art of art.
Plato can be scientific about art, even while morally condemning it, and one could argue it is the scientist in him that morally condemns it, while at the same time, examining it on a purely material level—which Plato did, even though Aristotle took it a little further; Aristotle broke most famously with Plato with his “catharsis” theory, telling the lie that we can “purge” our emotions by bathing in what triggers them.
Even Tom Wolfe got it wrong, then, with his withering critique of Modern Art when he called avant-garde painting the “painted word.” This, again, errs, in the way we have just illustrated: Modern art is not conceptualist; it is merely crudely (purely) representational. Like Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” it is so obvious, everyone has missed it. What we call “Conceptualist” is just crudely imitative.
How could so many have been so wrong regarding Conceptualism?
We can easily blame it on two things:
First, Modernism, a movement which is all about “moving ahead, about being self-consciously “modern” while forgetting the past.
And secondly, confusing art and science.
Science tells us there are but two kinds of beer: lager and ale.
Science, too, could also sound wiser by saying: beer as beer is more essential than the distinction between larger and ale.
Science, like criticism, can say anything, can be everywhere at once.
The poor artist, however, needs to imitate and make a certain kind of imitative sense to be effective, even if it is laying on pure color as an abstract artist.
Critics are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, not poets. Unless we call Plato a poet (which he was, according to Shelley).
One of the results of the movement known as Modernism has been the elevation of prose poetry over its cousin, verse.
Verse, in Modernism’s eyes, is crudely denotative, rather than suggestive—the key to poetic prose.
Just as every discriminating artist is concerned with both line and color, every writer should create art that both denotes and suggests.
If we look at the matter scientifically, we will find that metrics can aid both denotation and suggestion, and the same goes with prose meaning.
Modernism, with its crippling -isms, needs to be done away with at last.
Drink all kinds of beer.
Don’t call Kenneth Goldsmith a “Conceptualist” ever again.