ART AND DEMOCRACY

Art may be defined in the following way: an excellent example of excellence in the particular mode of that excellence.

Art is the example, the thing represented is the excellence.

Art is the borrower of excellence, but once that excellence is borrowed, the borrower becomes excellent, since excellence is purely excellent whether excellent in itself, or borrowed.

Because the thing is excellent, excellence exists, and therefore an excellent example must exist, whether an example par excellence is necessary, or not. Hierarchy exists, whether we want it to, or not.

The excellent example may be actual, or simply inferred as such.

For instance: The real and excellent example of a woman is excellent without any qualifications. A beautiful woman is not like a beautiful work of art; she is a beautiful work of art, given our incontrovertible definition above, and this is true without irony, and understood immediately, despite the fact that a woman par excellence shares countless physical attributes with other women.

Duchamp’s readymade art—the famous toilet, for instance, is art, also, because we infer that here is the best example of its kind—we do not know that it is the best factory-made toilet there is—but when it stands alone by itself, presented as an example, and we note a certain utilitarian beauty in its form, we give in to the general idea that here is an example par excellence—just as when we gaze, in reality, upon example la femme par excellence. Had we a real familiarity with the types of factory-made toilets, we might look at Duchamp’s piece and laugh: “That’s a poor example of a toilet! That’s not art!”

Warhol was actually spoofing Duchamp, not society, or the marketplace, or anything more profound, with his Brillo boxes and soup cans—no one could ever confuse Warhol’s ‘plain store item’ exhibit with an example par excellence—the only possible excellence is the beauty of the satire on Duchamp’s artificial trick, which featured a more mysterious, stand-alone object.

This is why Duchamp’s piece belongs to Modernism—art mocking the real—and Warhol’s to post-Modernsim: art mocking art, or more specifically, art mocking modern art that mocks.

In a democracy, we are all supposed to vote for the best people running for office. But the whole point of a democracy is that there are no “best” people; so we see the great dilemma. This is why a democracy is a necessary evil, thwarting excellence at every turn and creating art which looks like trash. In democracies, the artist makes art for the janitor—art that should be thrown out.

Duchamp (Modernist) made art of a factory piece, in which the example was inferred to be an excellent example of its (low) type. Warhol (Post-modernist) satirized this by presenting replicated examples (boxes, cans)—obviously not excellent. Post-post modernism seeks an even more iconic, primitive statement to escape this modernist chain of mockery—and so it arrives at what is essentially trash—but trash which cannot be thrown away by workers (janitors) who perform this important function within the institution. A hierarchy is established by the presentation of the lowest imaginable low (trash) which nonetheless is untouchable (janitors cannot touch it) because it “belongs” to the artist and curator, who are higher on the professional chain than the janitor. If this comes across as pathetic, it is; but let the reader attend any contemporary exhibition these days at a college or a museum, and see what is now passing as “art.” The janitors’ hands itch.

Preventing the janitor from doing his job, the “art” (trash) is displayed in a gallery and receives accolades, and no one is allowed to toss it. The Post-post artist re-positions himself outside democracy by frustrating the worker (janitor) and (symbolically) makes himself an “elite,” a person who is—excellent.

Capitalism and democracy are excellent examples of the ready-made and the throw-away, and it is easy to see this “excellence” in the culture, the politics, and art.

 

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FAME: IS IT REALLY HOLLOW?

Fame is not anything like we expect.  Fame is an ‘outside’ experience which has no correlation with our ‘inside’ experience—with ourselves, with who we are.  This is why fame so often leads to madness.  It splits the person.  But what if the ‘inner self’ wishes for fame and does not get it, that could ‘split us’ and lead to madness, as well.  “Sweet fame” is how the Romantic poets referred to it—it was considered a worthy ambition for the poet. Perhaps fame is a comfort to some, a vindication, a desire to spread goodness and beauty.  We are not here to simply disparage it.

But we suspect fame is often misunderstood.

How is it…hollow?

Let’s see…the first myth of fame which needs destroying: fame is not adoration; it is, in fact, its opposite.

To be “talked about” is the last thing a good moral reputation needs.

And, as the famous Poe once quoted, “No Indian prince to his palace has more followers than a thief to the gallows.”

A hanging draws great crowds, and disgusting curiosity is enough, in itself, to crown fame upon almost anyone.

We hear that some writer is famous, and we often don’t know how they came by that fame.  We often have no idea.

We assume their fame is because they write well.

This is mostly naive.

There are millions of beautiful women.  Why do only some—for their “beauty”—become famous?

Think about it.

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, James Joyce and his Ulysses, Charles Baudelaire and his Fleur du Mal, Allen Ginsberg, and his Howl, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, just to name six famous modern examples, all owe their fame to law courts and cases of public morality. (one might note: the authors here are all men)

These are not just six ‘juicy’ works—these are icons in the top ten of Modern Literature, period.

Fame by cheating?

Poe—mentioned above—was chaste in manner, but his fame exists for another dubious reason: parody.

The Raven, Poe’s famous poem, was immediately parodied when it was first published.  Poe was reviled, as a harsh critic, in certain circles: parody and dislike often leads to fame, as well.

Another example which quickly springs to mind is the ridicule which greeted works of modern art—Marcel Duchamp and his museum-placed urinal—or the indignation elicited by new works of music.

The Beatles, in a sense, were parodied by The Monkees, a “manufactured” Beatles-type band for TV, and this leads to the question: is fame always a formula?

Those who worship the Beatles as sophisticated musicians often forget that children made up most of their audience when they first attained fame, and later, too, with their film and album, Yellow Submarine.

But is this such a bad thing?

We can almost say that fame is produced in two ways:

1. Sexually, offending child-like innocence—Flaubert, Joyce, Baudelaire, Ginsberg, Nabokov, and Lawrence.

2. Naively, offering up child-like innocence for sophisticated adult disapproval—Poe (“Once upon a midnight dreary”) The Beatles (“Yea, yea, yea”).

We could simplify the two types above by calling them the 1. Tragic and 2. Comic routes to fame.

The really famous will often feature a hybrid of the two:

For instance, when people found drug references (not innocent) in Beatle John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” song, inspired by a drawing done by his kid (innocent).

Poe was ridiculed for a “childish” poem, “The Raven,” but was attacked for depraved habits, as well.

This interpretation of fame which we are now outlining is more accurate than the commonly used: Offends bourgeois taste.

Flaubert and Baudelaire date from 1857, and “Howl” went to trial in 1957, so we are looking at a 100 year window of sex, fame, and modernity, the so-called Tragic path.

T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Edna Millay, W.C. Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath have had some success, but since Plath’s “Daddy” was published in the wake of her suicide in 1962, not one poem has become famous, not like “The Raven,” anyway, or one of Frost’s little gems; that’s a drought of 50 years, and we now live in a ‘social media’ age where things “go viral” all the time.

Recently, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, a poem by Patricia Lockwood called “Rape Joke” made a stir.  The numbers were not phenomenal, but they were pretty good for the ‘poetry world.’

The raw content of “Rape Joke” could easily be filed under Tragic, and yet in a gesture to the “hybrid” characterization mentioned above, Lockwood’s poem “jokes,” also—if grimly.

We published a response to “Rape Joke” on Scarriet.  One reader reacted to it angrily, which we—writing about our experience as an innocent child—never saw coming.

Perhaps we have entered a Post-Famous-Poem Age.

Maya Angelou asks in her 1978 poem, “Still I Rise:” “Does my sexiness upset you?”

Patricia Lockwood makes this rueful comment in her poem, “Rape Joke:”

“The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.”

CONCEPT OR THING?

Jim Behrle: He’s no Duchamp

The Kill List poetry phenomenon consists of a book (of conceptualist poetry) and the various responses to it by poets on, or not on, the list.

The Kill List is an actual list (four per page) of living poets with either “rich” or “comfortable” after their names.

The fake outrage by Jim Behrle—one of the poets (“comfortable”) on the list and obviously thrilled at the publicity for himself, and the chance to exploit it for more (ads for T-shirts, “comfortable” or “rich”)—is currently at the center of the hyper-self-conscious, intra-reactive, analytical, blog-storm.

Conceptualism’s first rule is: In the presentation of the work, thing comes first, whether it is Duchamp’s urinal or Josef Kaplan’s The Kill List.  The presentation of the object must be pure; there can be no visible authorial intent in the presentation of the object qua object.

Since pure objectivity can never be presented as such, however, the thing presented, the instant it is presented, moves in the public perception from thing to concept.

The moment the public shifts its view from thing to concept, a second round of narrowed public consciousness finds it once again to be a thing; this movement between thing and concept is the very engine of the known and knowing universe.

The Kill List itself will always be safe in its thing-ness.  Its validation as a thing grows more secure with each new round of conceptualist speculation.

If it were only a conceptualist work, in fact: a comment on drone killing, a Marxist commentary on middle-class po-biz, an examination of the nature of personal threat, an analysis of social awareness and identity based on simple inclusion and exclusion, it would merely fizzle out, intellectually and ineffectually, and quickly become yesterday’s news.

But because the book, The Kill List, exists as itself, as a “real list,” and was presented merely as that, it survives, forever swinging back and forth, in the public mind, between concept and thing.  Long after Obama’s drone “kill list” or Frederick Forsyth’s espionage novel, Kill List (the google champ) is forgotten, the poetry “joke” will be remembered.

Because this phenomenon exists only among poets, the Kill List, as a public event, is small.  Duchamp’s conceptualist joke rippled the pond of the general press.

Behrle’s “Penis List,” a short poem which jokes about po-biz penis sizes (Billy Collins, 4 inches) and calls poetry itself a large vagina, recently published on the website HTML Giant as a joking response to The Kill List, is hopelessly banal, because it is conceptualist (abstract) only and forgets the rule: life and art require first a thing, and then, only then, will the proper conceptual transmorgrification occur in the public consciousness.

In a bygone era, it was the technical, metrical wizardry of a work by Alexander Pope that was its immediately presented thing-ness—no idea was present except as it was launched in the minds of readers by physical arrangements of sound-harmonics, and these exist as solidly as the porcelain shape of Duchamp’s toilet.

We say Pope’s rhymes and Duchamp’s toilet, but in presentation, no owner (authorial intent) is visible—the public gets wind of a toilet in a museum, just as it gets wind of a specific set of verses which offend the public taste.

Offense is key here. The offending words either melt into air, or the villain who uttered the offending words is made to feel the cudgel of punishment upon frail flesh and blood.

But if the offense is an everlasting object, real fame is possible.

UGLY BIRDS: THE FAILURE OF MODERN POETRY AND THE SUCCESS OF THE NOVEL

Modernism is no longer “modern.”  Duchamp was born in the 19th century and the Mona Lisa moustache artist is several generations closer in time to Byron than he is to us.

But the legacy of modernism, with its self-conscious -isms, grows apace: ungainly poetry the public ignores continues to flourish, aided by institutional subsidy.

The New English Review published an article last year, “The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism,” by Mark Signorelli and Nikos Salingaros, and was rebuked in First Things by Maureen Mullarkey: “Beckmann’s Deposition, A Modernist Offering.”

It is nice to know these sorts of discussions are going on, for Modernism’s profound influence is taken too much for granted.  Here is Signorelli’s reply to Mullarkey.

Compare the two paintings in Mullarkey’s article:  the one by Max Beckmann (1917) and the one by Geerhaert David (1500).

The models speak for themselves.

Rhetoric of a certain religious or political bent need not distract us.   Artistic Modernism is too important an issue to be sidetracked by religious or political wrangling, and it is precisely this wrangling, which, by its very nature, is nearly always beside the point, that helps to keep the legacy of Modernism afloat.

The cry against Modernism could be any of the following:  “God has gone out of art!” or “It is as if God, if there were a God, had gone out of art!”  Or,  “Beauty has gone out of art!”   Or, “Art now sucks!”   The rhetoric may be different, but the truth is the same.

Now, we will not deny that Modernism has a certain powerful secular, scientific, open-minded, progressive perception among many intellectuals, and that complaints against Modernism tend to be construed as nothing more than a sort of superstitious “yahoo” reaction.

But Modernism lacks genuine scientific credentials: Cubism is not a “fourth dimension” or a “new reality.”  Poems cannot be measured by “breaths” or “fields of energy” or “things.”  Also, many of Modernism’s founders were fascists.  Modernism’s heady, positive, scientific “perception” is largely a p.r. gimmick.

Modernism’s p.r. perception, however, is fading, as minds secular and religious are getting fed up with what has been to a large extent, a narrow, anti-human, anti-art, con.

Why a “con?”   Real simple:  Because 20th century art was a profitable style based on cheap materials (Bauhaus cement) and hyped painting (buy Cezanne/Matisse/Picasso low, sell high) with an accompanying apparatus of critics, lawyers, speculators, art leagues, schools, and galleries, each part validating the other.

Poetry was the intellectual con that abutted the profit con (architecture, painting).  The arts tend to pull along together: think Keats and Mozart; then Pound and Picasso.  There’s an intellectual/artistic sea that catches up all swimmers.

On a more practical level, however: the modern art collector and lawyer, John Quinn, changed import law (in US Congress!) to make the modern art Armory Show (1913) happen—Quinn also negotiated Eliot and Pound’s “Waste Land” deal.  The wildly influential modern art critic John Dewey allowed wealthy modern art collector A.C. Barnes to co-write his famous Art and Experience. The poetry clique of Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, WC Williams, and Louis Ginsberg (Allen Ginsberg’s father) was headed up by another wealthy modern art collector, Walter Arensberg, who hosted Duchamp’s first visit to America.  Duchamp advised Peggy Guggenheim, who hung out with Ashbery and O’Hara.  William James, the nitrous oxide professor, taught Gertrude Stein at Harvard; Stein’s poetry was less important than the modern art collecting she and her brother Leo did.

Knowing the history and persons does open up our eyes, but we don’t have to waste time with shallow, abstract, ideology, or do a lot of historical second-guessing.  To repeat: the art, the models, speak for themselves.

The public is no longer interested in poetry, at least since the death of Frost 50 years ago.  Today, free verse poets like Billy Collins and Mary Oliver sell a little bit, but they are not critically esteemed.  Poetry is a fractured, mostly ignored enterprise.

Novels still sell, but poems do not.

In our previous post, we pointed out the crucial difference between fiction and poetry:  the public has a certain amount of patience for novels—readers will “stick with” a novel for a “pay-off;” poems are not given the same chance—and this is due to an old (and correct) expectation that poems should please us immediately.

A novel may be hard to “get into,” and even appear to be an ugly mess, at first, but readers will stay with it because they assume that the total effect will eventually please them.

Modern poets stubbornly believe readers will “give poems the same chance” they do novels.

They won’t.  Public perception of modern poems as compared to modern novels will always operate in the following way:

The consumer’s choice is simple:

Poems are no longer beautiful things which please immediately, but instead imitate the prosy nature of novels,

So what does that mean?  It means the buyer has two choices: the novel—an ugly bird who can fly a long way or, the poem—an ugly bird who can only fly a short distance.  In terms of bang for their buck, the consumer is always going to choose the bird that can fly a greater distance.

No wonder the novel out-sells the poem.

We’ve all seen the poets who try some new trick, who try to make the poem into something it isn’t: an offensive joke, a dense nugget packed with topical information, a pictogram, a revolutionary tract, a diary, but this just makes the poet look desperate: it never works.  The clever poet thinks, Look, I am not only giving them a poem, I am giving them a joke, too!  The public is not interested.  The public just thinks: if you don’t like poetry, why are you pretending to write it?  Write a novel or a joke, instead.

Poetry may be dead, but the idea of it still lives.

Modernism couldn’t kill that.

KENNETH GOLDSMITH IS NOT A CONCEPTUALIST!

Kenneth-Goldsmith

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.

SILLIMAN’S LINKS

File:Ruins of an Ancient City by John Martin, 1810s.JPG

We thought it might be amusing for Scarriet to take a full tour of Ron Silliman’s Poetry Links.

Ron provides this service every couple weeks, an internet feast of what’s happening in the poetry/art world.

So without further ado, let’s get started!  There’s 134 links!

Scarriet looks at August 12, 2013:

1. Rae Armantrout interviewed by Poetryeater blog—Worshipful, boring.   Long question re: “Section breaks.” zzzzzzz  Interviewer: “current fetish for metrics.” ???  “I wish I could write like E. Dickinson” —Rae A.  Uh…quit being so damn clever in the modernist mode and write poetry. 

2. USA Today story: Jane Austen replaces Charles Darwin on 10 Pound Note, as English women pushed for more representation after Winston Churchill replaced Elizabeth Fry on another piece of money.  Bad for Darwin, good for Darwinism?

3-6. BBC stories on twitter abuse against women campaigning for Austen; Tony Wang, Twitter UK boss, apologizes; male is arrested for the twitter crime.

7. Book Riot reports singer Kelly Clarkson cannot have the Jane Austen ring which she purchased; it belongs to England!

8. Jacket Book promotion: Boston scenester poet William Corbett (recently moved to NYC) remembers good times with his friend, the late Michael Gizzi.

9. Fanny Howe wins $100,000 Ruth Lilly prize, the Vineyard Gazette reports.  Shit, there is money in poetry.

10. Locus Solus: The New York School of Poets Blog features Kenneth Koch’s daughter Katherine. She has written an essay on growing up among the New York School scene, which basically highlights the fact that few New York School poets had kids, and they didn’t pay much attention to kids when they were around.

11. “33 Reasons Not To Date A Small Publisher” from Five Leaves Publications Blog’s Ross Bradshaw.  Now this link is really worthwhile!  Hilarious!  “He will be broke.”  “He might be a poet.” “He will talk non-stop about how terrible Waterstones is.”  “His office will be very untidy, spilling over with unsaleable books.”

12-13. Guardian on the 500 fairy tales recently discovered in 19th century archives of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth and one copied out: “The Turnip Princess,” which is not very impressive: cluttered, contrived, confusing.  Perhaps we have enough old fairy tales?

14. Kenneth Goldsmith in the Globe & Mail says he likes “smart dumb” and lists The Fugs, punk rock, art schools, Gertrude Stein, Vito Acconci, Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Seth Price, Tao Lin, Martin Margiela, Mike Kelley, and Sofia Coppola.  But couldn’t this list go on forever?  How about Victorian poetry?  American sitcoms?  Yoko Ono.  Yoko Ono, by the way, seems conspicuously absent in all these Conceptualist discussions.  Everyone remembers her “Yes” at the top of the ladder John Lennon climbed.  Duchamp already told the joke that’s being told over and over again, but even Ono makes Goldsmith seem old hat.   Isn’t all comedy “smart dumb?” Aren’t Shakespeare’s clowns “smart dumb?”  Isn’t everything “smart dumb?”  Goldsmith is spreading himself too thin, like the Risk player taking too many countries at once.  This can’t end well.

15. And Kenneth Goldsmith, according to the News & Record of Greensboro, NC, does “Printing Out the Internet,” where about 600 people send tons and tons of printed out internet pages to a gallery in Mexico.  It’s a memorial for Aaron Swartz, somehow, the JSTOR downloading suicide, which, we suppose, makes it criticism-proof, since it’s a memorial.  But really, who has time for this?  Well, we suppose if one does have time for this, that does make one superior, somehow, in an elitist sort of way…  Just having time for something is a statement of sorts…Look, we might as well admit it…Kenneth Goldsmith is on a roll…

16. Over at Rumpus, Marjorie Perloff tries to shout down Amy King in the Comments section to Amy King’s “Beauty & the Beastly Po-Biz” piece, pointing out “Conceptualism is the only game in town” is not really what she said, but it is what she said, because her only stated alternative is “the return of the lyric” as “found poetry,” which is Conceptualism, anyway.   Perloff’s objections are hollow.   More interesting was David Need’s comment, who questioned “fighting capitalism” as the “standard  that MUST BE MET, for art to be credible.”  How about this standard, instead, he asked: “Successfully bringing up a child.”  We like that.

17. On Blog Harriet, Robert Archambeau defends Conceptualism (while pretending not to) with his piece, “Charmless & Interesting.”  Again, the ghost of Duchamp is raised, as Archambeau says Conceptualists are not charming, but they are interesting.   Really, Bob?  We thought it was the other way around.  But more importantly, the Conceptualist joke is charming once, but not over and over again.

18.  More Conceptualist ado, this time from the ever long-winded but keen Seth Abramson on the Volta Blog: Conceptualism doesn’t exist, according to Abramson, because the concept self-negates the work and Goldsmith is wrong that anyone will be interested in discussing the concept, so that leaves nothing.  Like an enraged New Critic, Abramson points out Conceptualism makes us look at the poet rather than the poem.  Abramson defends the avant-garde, though, which makes his attack all the more interesting.  Or problematic?

19. Jeffrey Side, in his blog, also raises the ghost of Duchamp as Conceptualism’s modern founder.   A popular guy, this Duchamp, all of a sudden.  Side quotes Archambeau: “In what sense is pure conceptualism poetry?”  Side says it is not poetry.

20. Tony Lopez on his blog, discussing something called the Dublin Pound Conference, says it’s great to “go out in Dublin for drinks and dinner.”  Good thing he didn’t talk about Pound.  Thanks, Tony!

TO BE CONTINUED…

HERE WE GO AGAIN: SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

Dark Messy Tower

1. Mark Edmundson Current Lightning Rod of Outrage

2. David Lehman BAP Editor now TV star: PBS’ Jewish Broadway

3. Rita Dove She knows Dunbar is better than Oppen

4. Matthew Hollis Profoundly researched Edward Thomas bio

5. Paul Hoover Status quo post-modern anthologist, at Norton

6. Don Share Wins coveted Poetry magazine Editorship

7. Sharon Olds Gets her Pulitzer

8. Michael Robbins The smartest guy writing on contemporary poetry now–see Hoover review

9. Marjorie Perloff Still everyone’s favorite Take-No-Prisoners Dame Avant-Garde

10. Natasha Trethewey Another Round as Laureate

11. Ron Silliman The Avant-garde King

12. Tony Hoagland The Billy Collins of Controversy

13. Billy Collins The real Billy Collins

14. Kenneth Goldsmith Court Jester of Talked-About

15. Terrance Hayes The black man’s Black Man’s Poet?

16. William Logan Favorite Bitch Critic

17. Avis Shivani Second Favorite Bitch Critic

18. John Ashbery Distinguished and Sorrowful Loon

19. Stephen Burt P.C. Throne at Harvard

20. Robert Hass  West Coast Establishment Poet

21. Harold Bloom Reminds us ours is an Age of Criticism, not Poetry

22. Helen Vendler She, in the same stultifying manner, reminds us of this, too.

23. Dana Gioia  Sane and Optimistic Beacon?

24. Bill Knott An On-line Bulldog of Poignant Common Sense

25. Franz Wright Honest Common Sense with darker tones

26. Henry Gould Another Reasonable Poet’s Voice on the blogosphere

27. Anne Carson The female academic poet we are supposed to take seriously

28. Seth Abramson Will give you a thousand reasons why MFA Poetry is great

29. Ben Mazer Poet of the Poetry! poetry! More Poetry! School who is actually good

30. Larry Witham Author, Picasso and the Chess Player (2013), exposes Modern Art/Poetry cliques

31. Mary Oliver Sells, but under Critical assault

32. Annie Finch The new, smarter Mary Oliver?

33. Robert Pinsky Consensus seems to be he had the best run as Poet Laureate

34. Mark McGurl His book, The Program Era, has quietly had an impact

35. Seamus Heaney Yeats in a minor key

36. W.S. Merwin Against Oil Spills but Ink Spill his writing method

37. George Bilgere Do we need another Billy Collins?

38. Cate Marvin VIDA will change nothing

39. Philip Nikolayev Best living translator?

40. Garrison Keillor As mainstream poetry lover, he deserves credit

41. Frank Bidart Poetry as LIFE RUBBED RAW

42. Jorie Graham The more striving to be relevant, the more she seems to fade

43. Alan Cordle Strange, how this librarian changed poetry with Foetry.com

44. Janet Holmes Ahsahta editor and MFA prof works the po-biz system like no one else

45. Paul Muldoon How easy it is to become a parody of oneself!

46. Cole Swensen Some theories always seem to be missing something

47. Matthew Dickman Was reviewed by William Logan. And lived

48. James Tate For some reason it depressed us to learn he was not a laugh riot in person.

49. Geoffrey Hill His poetry is more important than you are

50. Derek Walcott A great poet, but great poets don’t exist anymore

51. Charles Bernstein A bad poet, but bad poets don’t exist anymore, either

52. Kay Ryan Emily Dickinson she’s not. Maybe Marianne Moore when she’s slightly boring?

53. Laura Kasischke She’s published 8 novels. One became a movie starring Uma Thurman. Who the hell does she think she is?

54. Louise Gluck X-Acto!

55. Rae Armantrout “Quick, before you die, describe the exact shade of this hotel carpet.”

56. Heather McHugh “A coward and a coda share a word.”

57. D.A. Powell “Of course a child. What else might you have lost.”

58. Peter Gizzi Take your lyric and heave

59. Marilyn Chin Shy Iowa student went on to write an iconic 20th century poem: How I Got That Name

60. Eileen Myles Interprets Perloff’s avant-gardism as mourning

61. Lyn Hejinian As I sd to my friend, because I am always blah blah blah

62. Nikki Finney Civil Rights is always hot

63. K. Silem Mohammad This Flarfist Poet composes purely Anagram versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Fie on it.

64. Meg Kearney Lectured in public by Franz Wright. Still standing.

65. Noah Eli Gordon Teaches at Boulder, published by Ahsahta

66. Peter Campion A poet, a critic and a scholar!

67. Simon Ortiz Second wave of the Native American Renaissance

68. Maya Angelou She continues to travel the world

69. Lyn Lifshin “Barbie watches TV alone, naked” For real?

70. Ange Mlinko Born in ’69 in Philly, writes for The Nation

71. Jim Behrle They also serve who only write bad poetry

72. Elizabeth Alexander She read in front of all those people

73. Dorothea Lasky The Witchy Romantic School

74. Virgina Bell The poet. Do not confuse with burlesque dancer

75. Fanny Howe Wreaks havoc out of Boston

76. Erin Belieu Available for VIDA interviews

77. Ariana Reines Another member of the witchy romantic school

78. Jed Rasula Old Left poetry critic

79. John Hennessy “Too bad I felt confined by public space/despite her kinky talk, black net and lace”

80. Timothy Donnelly “Driver, please. Let’s slow things down. I can’t endure/the speed you favor, here where the air’s electric”

81. Clive James His translation, in quatrains, of Dante’s Divine Comedy, published this year

82. Danielle Pafunda “We didn’t go anywhere, we went wrong/in our own backyard. We didn’t have a yard,/but we went wrong in the bedroom”

83. Michael Dickman Matthew is better, right?

84. Kit Robinson “Get it first/but first get it right/in the same way it was”

85. Dan Beachy Quick “My wife found the key I hid beneath the fern./My pens she did not touch. She did not touch/The hundred pages I left blank to fill other days”

86. Ilya Kaminsky Teaches at San Diego State, won Yinchuan International Poetry Prize

87. Robert Archambeau Son of a potter, this blog-present poet and critic protested Billy Collins’ appointment to the Poet Laureateship

88. Kent Johnson Best known as a translator

89. Frederick Seidel An extroverted Philip Larkin?

90. David Orr Poetry columnist for New York Times wrote on Foetry.com

91. Richard Wilbur Oldest Rhymer and Moliere translator

92. Kevin Young Finalist in Criticism for National Book Critics Circle

93. Carolyn Forche Human rights activist born in 1950

94. Carol Muske Dukes Former California Laureate writes about poetry for LA Times

95. William Kulik Writes paragraph poems for the masses

96. Daniel Nester The sad awakening of the MFA student to the bullshit

97. Alexandra Petri Began 2013 by calling poetry “obsolete” in Wash Post

98. John Deming Poet, told Petri, “We teach your kids.”

99. C. Dale Young “Medical students then, we had yet to learn/when we could or could not cure”

100. Clayton Eshleman Sometimes the avant-garde is just boring

IS T.S. ELIOT ROMANTIC ENOUGH TO WIN THIS TOURNAMENT?

 T.S. Eliot: Who the hell was this guy, really?  What the hell was Modernism, really?
The way in certain parts of the country summer arrives in a single moment after the vagueries of spring’s warm and chilly tease, Modernism made its entrance quite suddenly into English-speaking Letters in the person of T.S. Eliot around the year 1915.
A rumor got started when Modernism began (early 20th century) that Poe’s poetry was admired by the French more than it should have been because of what was lost/gained in translation.  Poe-hater Harold Bloom called it the “French Poe” phenomenon.  It was troubling to certain moderns that the French, those subtle, ingenious, Parisian inventors of modern poetry, were besotted with Edgar Poe.  As an English-speaker, you couldn’t admire Poe if you were truly modern; Poe was too Byronic, too classical, too fussy, too correct, too chaste. (Poe also disliked Emerson—whom Bloom champions) Poe was timeless, not modern.
If Modernism was anything, it was irreverant; it was naughty and naughty now.  Not Poe at all.
Despite all the talk, it all comes down to this.
Nice. v. Naughty.  (Even as the “naughty” might be covered up in “learned” blather to keep things “honest.”)
Poe was icy, and the French, hot and cold, found Poe’s temperature bracing, and to their liking, but their modernism could survive the addition of a stranger speaking a foreign tongue, one like Poe who made it quite known that he preferred the French to the British.
So in the beginnings of English-speaking Modernism, Poethe American, who conceived a new genre of literature whose detective was French, and who was both classically chaste and a loud critic hearkening back to the correctness of an Alexander PopePoe was all wrong.  Poe wasn’t decadently subtle and seedy enough, and for men like Pound and Eliot, Poe was a horror—Poe had to be kept hence.
Aldous Huxley, who was born 6 years after Eliot, a wealthy, connected Englishman who died in California while on LSD, burned Poe at the stake, calling him “vulgar” and stating that Poe’s French admirers had made a grave error because of the language difference.  Henry James, the teacup author, a blood-thick anglophile like Eliot, also dripped with scorn in putting Poe in his place: boyish-loser.
You can’t be a tweedy, pessimistic, world-weary, experimental British modern if you are brightly USA-ish and boyish.
Eliot supplied Modernism with its tone of mature pessimism.  Poe was a hopeful “Tom Swift” adventurist, by comparison.
But if Poe, the whiz-bang American, was distorted favorably by the sophisticated, avant-garde French, perhaps Modern Anglo-american poetry was nothing more than a favorable distortion of the French going the other wayEliot admired certain ‘bad boys’ of decadent, 19th century French poetry, and modern English poetry, reaching for that irreverence which distinguished it, found in a poet like Jules Laforgue the French lens which could justify and validate its practice in English.
The Longfellow War (street-wise journalist Poe v. Harvard academic Longfellow) continued in the 20th century in a Paris salon.
Was Jules Laforgue a great poet?  Or, more importantly, did Laforgue’s poetry hit like a bomb because of the particular way it innoculated a certain tribe of Americans as a French vaccination?  If one of Pound and Eliot’s pals had written Laforgue’s poetry, they would have probably envied it as the product of a unique, eccentric personality by a fellow-traveler; but as it came from a recently dead Frenchman, it sprang upon them as a kind of cultural-aesthetic truthLaforgue’s petty sentimentalism and vulgarity, through the distance of its translation, became towering irony and sophistication.
Innovative success in the arts invariably involves foreign influence; it provides that necessary stamp of worldliness and learning, that automatic ‘otherness’ which frightens some and encourages others in the home country—the ensuing tension, camp-arguments,and general excitement feeding the revolutionary (moral-loosening) change.
The importance of Paris to Modernism cannot be underestimated: avant-garde, after all, is a French word.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armory Modern Art Show in New York, as the American public caught wind of European modern/Cubist art; art and poetry swirled about, hand-in-hand, like two dancers, as Modernism began to become popular just prior to World War One.
Laforgue influenced both Eliot and Duchamp.  The early modern art collector who gave the opening speech at the Armory show, John Quinn, negotiated the publishing deal for T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land.”  Quinn, a secret associate of Aleister Crowley, was also Eliot and Pound’s lawyer. It was the same joke: the ugly having a laugh at the beautiful.  As the wife of a Cubist painter who befriended the young Duchamp, before his “Nude Descending A Staircase” made a big splash at the Armory Show, put it:
[Duchamp and Picabia] emulated one another in their extraordinary adherence to paradoxical, destructive principles, in their blasphemies and inhumanities which were directed not only against the old myths of art, but against all foundations of life in general.   —-from Picasso and the Chess Player
It really had nothing to do with theory or aesthetics.  Modernism sought to tear down, on a whim, the virtues of the past. (Or to put it more simply, virtue.)  Which, naturally, becomes a theoretical-aesthetic issue (of which any reasonably intelligent person can blather on about)—but Modernism was an act of irreverence first, an issue of aesthetics, later.
No art movement is going to announce to the world that it seeks to be immoral.  This is neither sensible, nor even cool.  But this is the unspoken truth of Modernism, and the unspoken truth of it is precisely why it quickly became covered in terms like “symbolism” and “cubism,” terms that were never accurate or agreed upon (even by the so-called “symbolists’ or “cubists” or “imagists” themselves) by anyone, merely betraying to the wise what was really going on: the “symbol” is merely to distract you from the fact that poet X, some years ago, completely lost his mind, and requires your pity, not your admiration.
We love the modern arts the way we pity wounded animals: it is not love or admiration, but it is a strong feeling.
But isn’t this what the artists always do?  They trick us into strong feelings.
The “science” of Modern art has always been suspect—the “fourth dimension” of Cubism, for instance, was something Picasso and others merely laughed at; Modernism has always been Romanticism by other means, the “other means” in this example the fourth-dimension of Cubism, which helps the ‘validity’ of the modern art industry if at least some rubes swallow its “learned” nonsense.
Conceptual art, which “Modernists” like Duchamp created when they were still “Modernists,” evolved out of Modernism only because Modernism’s trappings—existing to cover up the fact that it was an emotional continuation of Romanticism—naturally went in that direction; faux braininess covering up mere hysteria, passion and tears.
The Scarriet March Madness poem-entry by Eliot is miles from Pope, Byron, Shelley, Poe, Tennyson, but not from any technical innovation or revolutionary approach; it is merely a poem of feeling sans morality and beauty.  Eliot is far more emotional than Shelley, for instance; Eliot veers into hysteria, and thus more realism and less art is required to keep the hysteria in check.
Jules Laforgue, who died at 27, in 1887, a year before Eliot was born,  has long existed as a profound, partially-hidden influence to the whole modern art/poetry world.  Stephen Spender pointed out that young Eliot—from a respectable Boston American family with Emerson connections and re-settled in St. Louis—was not only profoundly influenced by Laforgue’s cynical, jokey, naughty, pessimistic poetry, but also by the way Laforgue dressed: formally, like a gentleman banker.
The Romantic trope: a Shelley with shirt open, panting beneath the full moon at midnight was cleverly reversed by the T.S. Eliot persona via the Jules Laforgue persona—for several reasons, not immediately obvious to unsuspecting readers of poetry.
Even regular readers of Scarriet may not know the answer.  Here it is:
1. With the impending rise of the Program Era (Robert Lowell teaching at Paul Engle’s Iowa after leaving Harvard to study with Alan Tate (Princeton Writing Program teacher) and John Crowe Ransom, Eliot and Pound’s American Modernist Fugitive/New Critic university foot-soldiers), poets would soon be the ‘teacher wearing suit’ model, not the Shelley model.
2. The art collector/banker/lawyer was the new persona of the elite art/poetry world in the 20th century.
3. Eliot’s buttoned-up image masked the fact that Modernism was far more emotional/hysterical than Romanticism, and, in fact, hysteria was the whole of Modernism, all its so-called “theory” a distracting ruse.
Modernism is the very opposite of what is advertised; it does not present less pure, floating emotion, but more—and this is the sole reason why formally it is what it is—and the trick is that there really is no “formal” reality whatsoever to Modernism—it is whatever bit of catchiness can be made up by word-smiths on the fly, (the Apollinaires, the Cocteaus, the Pounds) who are beholden to the art dealers and wealthy patrons who fund the parties, and buy-low-sell-high at the art auctions.
Let’s call the “ism” what it really is: Money-ism.
Duchamp journeyed to New York in 1915. He was met at the pier by the art dealer and Armory Show organizer Walter PachPach worked for John Quinn, T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s attorney.  Enter another Walter: Walter Arensberg, wealthy art patron and poet, who put up Duchamp in a Broadway apartment and hosted plenty of orgies and parties in another lavish apartment nearby.  Walter Arensberg, who translated Jules Laforgue, was the co-conspirator in Duchamp’s “Fountain by R. Mutt” (urinal) museum “ready-made” publicity stunt in 1917.
The poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams (Pound’s friend) also belonged to the modern art investor Walter Arensberg’s circle.
Below is a quote from a just-published book on Picasso and Duchamp, Picasso and the Chess Player by Larry Witham, University Press of New England, 2013.  We see in it the familar rhetoric of modernism/post-modernism history: we always get some “theory” by way of a catchy phrase which the author dutifully quotes from one of the (con) artists—in this case, Ezra Pound.  Rhetoric is all it is, since, in this particular instance, “objects” have always been, and always will be, a part of art and poetry: the theory is of no importance; it is only a smokescreen to cover the ‘buy low/sell high’ enterprise—and the elite, hysterical, socially-connected parties.  Modernism wasn’t about “word-objects;” it was about “sentiments:” celebrities and their hedonism.  Modernism was “Realism,” because it was Romanticsm outside of the art—at the parties.  The “theory” was mere bait for the newspapers—and “scholars,” whose talk puffed up the cash value of the “art.”
All around [Duchamp] the new aesthetic was about photographs of objects and the new poetry, which a’ la Gertrude Stein and others, was about word-objects. A mere object—and any would do—could be photographed and called fine art, as Stieglitz had shown. [by photographing Duchamp’s urinal.] A poem, by the same token, could be simply a string of words about objects. This was the modernist poetry advanced by Stein in Paris, Ezra Pound in London, and William Carlos Williams in the Arensberg circle: the focus was on objects, particulars, not the big ideas, symbols, sentiments, or themes of past verse. As Pound said, “Direct treatment of the ‘thing.'” Besides chess, the modernist view of language was the intellectual content of the otherwise hedonist Arsenberg salon: the group was interested in linguistic games, puns, and little magazines.   —Larry Witham
After all that introduction, here is Eliot’s poem in the 2013 Scarriet March Madness Romanticism Tourney:
HYSTERIA—T.S. Eliot
 
As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved
in her laughter and being part of it, until her
teeth were only accidental stars with a talent
for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps,
inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally
in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by
the ripple of unseen muscles.   An elderly waiter
with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading
a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty
green iron table, saying: “If the lady and
gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden,
if the lady and gentleman wish to take their
tea in the garden …”   I decided that if the
shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of
the fragments of the afternoon might be collected,
and I concentrated my attention with careful
subtlety to this end.
Eliot’s opponent is the French Romantic poet, Gerard de Nerval.

GOLDEN SAYINGS (trans Richard Sieburth)
Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855)

So you alone are blessed with thought, free-thinking man,
In a world where life bursts forth from everything?
You are free to dispose of forces at your command
But the universe is absent from your well-laid plans.

Honor each creature for the mind in which it takes part:
Each flower is a soul turned towards Nature’s face;
Each metal hides some ancient mystery of the heart;
“All things feel!” And all you are is within their art.

Beware, even blind walls may spy on you:
Even dumb matter is imbued with voice…
Put not its precious stuff to impious use.

The most obscure of beings may house a hidden god;
And like the new-born eye pouched within its lids,
Pure mind drives its bud through the husk of stones.

Nerval’s poem warns, “honor each creature” and of objects (“dumb matter”) “put not its precious stuff to impious use.”  He’s seems to be talking to the reckless, hysterical “impious” moderns.

Of course, Nerval’s poem, as wise as it is, does suffer from didactisim; Eliot’s poem is realism, squeezed out of actual social horror.

Guiltily, we prefer Eliot’s car-wreck.

The crowd pushes forward, rooting for Eliot; it is impossible for Nerval to concentrate.

Madness in the arena!

The referees are making strange calls!

Eliot wins, 99-77!

THE RIGHT-WING AVANT-GARDE

Next year is the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show: Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” was a big hit.

The avant-garde is generally thought to be radical, not conservative, especially when we think of the explosion of avant-garde culture in the early 20th century, that “revolution” which rebelled against the Victorian, the traditional, the stodgy, and introduced new ways of seeing and thinking, and broke with a narrower and more middle class manner of experiencing the world.

Everyone accepts this definition of the avant-garde without blinking an eye.  The ruling belief is that the avant-garde, and especially the avant-garde of 20th century modernism, which still reverberates through intellectual consciousness today, belonged to the people; it was open, so goes the story, renewing, new, working class, and left-wing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The 20th century avant-garde did not break out from a narrow mold—the 20th century avant-garde was narrow and its influence narrowing.

The 20th century avant-garde was not a left-wing people’s movement; it was a right-wing movement of business elites.

The 19th century (Goya, Beethoven, Poe) was a vast bounty of magnificent art.  The early 20th century avant-garde “revolution” in art was, in reality, a great shrinking.

A great, flowering forest was razed by a small band of Modernists, and yet almost every artist and intellectual today actually celebrates this destruction.

As much as we are convinced of the truth of what we say, we also understand the startling success of the modernist fascist con has become, in a way, reality itself.

All that is left to do is chuckle at the pretentiousness of it all (as the public did at the start, and continues to do—you know, the public, those bourgeois folks who don’t “get it”—) and point out a few amusing examples of how close-knit and narrow-minded and righ-wing the modernist avant-garde clique really was.  One observation is especially telling: the modern art players and the modern poetry players were one and the same to an extent no one seems to realize.  For instance, who talks about John Quinn, these days, the lawyer and art collector?  Yet Quinn successfully lobbied in Washington to change the tax laws to allow European art collections to come to America, gave the opening address at the landmark Armory show in 1913, and put together the publishing deal for “The Wasteland” as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot’s attorney. Small world, huh?

Who did the Chicago Tribune send to review the 1913 Armory art show?   Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry.

Who did A.C. Barnes, pharma millionaire, and one of the first great modern art collectors, force his factory workers to read on the job?  William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, who invented stream of consciousness and taught art collector and poet, Gertrude Stein at Harvard.

We always hear about the Black Mountain poets.  The Black Mountain School was most importantly, a school of Abstract Art (Josef Albers taught Rauschenberg there) and John Cage experimentation.  Black Mountain’s two founders were John Andrew Rice, a Rhodes Scholar and”open classroom” educator, and Theodor Dreier, the father of modern art patron Katherine Dreier, who, along with Man Ray and Duchamp, formed the modern art Societe’ Anonyme.

O’Hara and Ashbery were fortunate to know Auden (though Auden had his doubts about them) but their real ticket to notoriety was their art connection; knowing Peggy Guggenheim, for instance, the rich girl who was advised by Duchamp on her modern art collecting.

Duchamp is the most important figure, a Frenchman born in the 19th century, a part of the most important avant-garde generation, which includes T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.  There is nothing new after Duchamp: every Modernist, avant-garde, 20th century -ism comes directly out of Duchamp: his infamous urinal, “Fountain,”  his “found object” Mona Lisa with Moustache, and his cubist, abstract painting “Nude Descending Staircase” (the hit of the Armory Show, which made Duchamp an American celebrity) all done before 1920, contains everything, everything that came afterwards: Abstract, Cubism, Futurism, Fluxus, Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Collage, Minimalism, Surrealism, Pop art, everything, Duchamp contains it all—the entire joke—is contained in this one man, born in 1887.

All that is “new” and avant-garde, decades after Duchamp, is old and one-note.

The story of the avant-garde is how one joke told so many times eventually made what was materially authentic about different genres of art irrelevant: the narrow, wealthy social agenda mattered, not the art, and this is why the clique’s members had a tacit understanding and were able to move in lock-step.

The 20th century avant-garde had its roots in the 19th century, mostly notably in France; modern art officially began in the Salon des Refuses—sponsored by the globally ambitious Napolean III and the French state.  The imperialist despot, Napolean III, who joined the British Empire in the mid-19th century to trample the world, gave official life to French avant-garde painting.

The poet Baudelaire was also an art critic, and he pushed hard for the new and disparaged the old, art.  Baudelaire also set the standard for Modernism’s view of Poe as an outsider freak; the limited and narrow avant-garde had to bring Poe down to their level by turning him into a disheveled victim, playing down the towering, multi-faceted artist Poe really was.  Poe showed the world how to be innovative and still aesthetically pleasing, and without being trendy and clique-y and sophistical and narrow.   Thus, Poe, even today, is the number one target of the Modernist avant-garde, either damned with faint praise or condemned and mocked outright.

Two things, then, drove the 20th century avant-garde: 1) 19th century colonialist era imperialism (and its 20th century twin, fascism)  and 2) insanity.

Most, even those who celebrate it, can accept that a certain amount of insanity defines the 20th century avant-garde.  It was pretty crazy, and that was part of the point. Insanity helps serendipitously: barriers to be removed are knocked down as artists become audacious and thrill certain elements of the idle rich while simultaneously offending the working class. If the avant-garde has a working class element, the avant-garde itself is not ever a working class movement; the avant-garde art appeals to the idle rich precisely because it offends the working class and the working class is only a tool in the avant-garde’s actions.  It obviously didn’t hurt the modern artists that the world itself was partly insane when Modern art burst onto the American consciousness.  The Armory Show was the Fort Sumter of Modernism, the first large modern art show that hit America’s shores in 1913.  One year later, the insanity of the first world war began, eventually dragging the U.S. into its trench-grinding maw, allied as America was to Britain and France—two nations who refused to side with America during the Civil War, intentionally turning that war into the bloodbath by holding out promise of recognition to the Confederacy if it could win enough meat-grinder battles. The Salon des Refuses happened to occur in middle of America’s Civil War.  The avant-garde was a crazy party thrown by the rich and it was crazy in exactly that sense; the avant-garde rules were set by the rich and for the rich.

One casualty of the Modern art movement, with its seeds in mid-19th century France?  History Painting.  Why look at history when it was becoming so ugly under Napolean III?  History painting thrived when France and the American Colonies heroically took on the British Empire.   Modern art nixed all that.  The blurred vision of pure insanity was more Modernism’s elitist style, the style of the jaded rich, eschewing grace and beauty.

The insanity reflected in modern art was real and this surely gave it legitimacy, as much as reflecting insanity is legitimate; to be sure, who reflects insanity better than artists who are insane themselves?  The “derangement of the senses” was a prophecy coming true, springing as it did from modern art’s roots: mid-19th century France.

The story that is told is that this aesthetic insanity was really a sane response to an insane world.  But should the response to insanity be more insanity?  Modernism thought so.

There is a distinction that needs to be made here: when the public views a Shakespeare play, filled in with insane characters, the audience has no doubt that Shakespeare, the playwright is sane. Insanity, such as we get in Shakespeare or Goya or Beethoven or Poe, can be expressed by a genius who has not been crippled by insanity himself—even if we allow that some insanity itself might reign in the genius.  Modern art, however, made the very medium itself insanity.

Insanity was a great medium for another reason, already mentioned:  Since the avant-garde sprung from colonialist and fascist impulses, what better art for those impulses than art which disintegrates and distorts and howls with derisive laughter?

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