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.

THE GRANDE SCHOOL OF POETRY

Ben Mazer—the new Byronism of the Grande school?

The disgrace of seeming pre-Modern is a stigma created by the Modernists themselves, the small clique which dominated poetry for most of the 20th century.

That was done then, therefore we can’t do that now is the formula, and, despite the allure of originality, it’s a dangerous formula—for the self-evident reason that society should never stigmatize so generally.

If we can reject something as immense as the past, then anything or anyone can, and will, be rejected, for just about any reason at all.

We cannot assume that a fanatical formula (yes, “Make it new,” I’m talking to you) will be tempered by caveats: ‘we really mean a blend of the old and the new!’  As human history has witnessed, human loss of reason on a mass scale can occur quickly and dangerously.

Obviously, we cannot dispense with the new in the name of the old, either.  The evils of political fundamentalism crushing the new is a danger, as well; but the point is that we are intolerant if we don’t realize intolerance uses any excuse—the new kills as easily as the old kills.  The old and new are both useful.

In poetry and art, however, the normal process has become: We don’t need this.  Let’s jettison that.  It might be rhyme, narrative, the painterly, the accessible, the moral, whatever it is; what the bourgeois want, the radical theorist inevitably decides we don’t need.  For 200 years we have witnessed the radical impulse march forward through time in an orgy of self-justification, as one limited style continually replaces another.  Re-reading The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe reminds one how silly this art-march can be.

Since poetry and art are so important in shaping the sensibilities of people in all walks of life: school teachers, professors, higher ed administrators, journalists, etc, this impulse does have universal importance.

It is refreshing then, to witness recently in poetry a new grande style emerging, one that wisely embraces rather than superficially jettisons.

The grande school kicks up dirt here at Scarriet.  The literary ambition embodied here is not merely lusty and wide, mocking the twaddle of pin-headed theorists who inhabit self-serving cliques of  fussy and narrow tracks of inquiry, but also holds forth in rigorous terms of good, basic common sense that rejects snap political judgments, pretense, and superfluity.

No school can escape a drawback or two; it could be said the grande school perhaps suffers from egomania.  Say what you will about Jorie Graham or Ron Silliman, they are not egomaniacs.  Graham no doubt had real affection for the poets she cheated for when she was a poetry contest judge; Silliman no doubt has real affection for his woolly avant ideals and what he feels are their political virtues.

The grande school celebrates Byronic individualism. The grande school is not afraid of the word, genius.  The grande school is not afraid of embracing other arts, interests and views which may be innocently anti-poetry.  The grande school is not afraid of rebuking poetry in its own name. The grande school knows there can be a sweet Socratic method in a madness.  The grande school is not afraid of genius when it takes the form of madness.  The grande school is not afraid of Jorie Graham or Ron Silliman, nor do they fear Ron Silliman or Jorie Graham’s several hundred admirers.

Perhaps the most successful poet writing today in the manner of the grande school is Ben Mazer, recent winner of Scarriet’s March Madness contest.  The following is from part 32 of his long poem, “The King.”  The yearning, self-conscious wish for poetry to be more like the pictorial arts is a mad wish, perhaps, but it is a sign of genius to wish to escape a genre within that genre itself in a wholly child-like and uncomplicated way.  The failure is a rousing success; only melancholy genius dares embrace failure so vehemently and earnestly; this melancholy desperation shines a helpful light.

Words! How can I deploy a dozen at once
on top of each other, the way I might read a page
backwards and forewards, in one photographic instant,
stretching the tongue in all directions at once,
to say the unsayable, cumulative and percussive
explosions signifying an enduring silence,
one fusion of confluence and inclusion,
packed with the weight, the indivisible density,
of all remembered experience and emotion,
and fraught with primordial defiance of the linear,
stabilizing possibility in one vocable,
one sound of thesis and antithesis,
one word for everything, all words in one,
a form large enough into which to put anything!

In this passage by Mazer we find the sensibility, the attitude and the mind of the grande school wonderfully documented.  It is wishful and hopeful and expansive, and appears to transcend the old Modern order, so often doomed by its own intricacy. Mazer questions his own art—runs (and this part is part of a longer poem) towards the limits of his craft—while aspiring to the infinite.  The poem manages to achieve a “photographic instant” as it dispenses with discursiveness and makes manifest one idea, reinforced by the fact that Mazer’s poem is nothing like a painting. A painting is not limited by a poem’s unwinding, but can flash upon us in an instant.  There is a secret knowing humor, then, in Mazer’s plea to “words”; a Byronic, satiric jollity inevitably combines with a Byronic melancholy in Mazer’s work.

Is this the new poetry?  Is Mazer the first real poet of the 21st century?

In Mazer’s poetry we see the fissure of modernism/post-modernism’s facade—the self-conscious glibness finally about to burst before a force of uncanny weight of sublime and timeless aspiration. Mazer is not a poet who longs; Mazer is a poet who makes poetry long.

The question must always be: what material thing can we do?

Two implicit questions emerge after reading the poetry of Mazer quoted above:

1. Is poetry the explaining of a painting that doesn’t exist?

2. Is painting the picture of a poem that hasn’t been written?

Poetry and painting no longer love each other.  In the 19th century, they were in love with each other.

‘The medium is the message’ signals a philosophy which signals the present gulf between them.  Is the imagination really confined to its ‘medium?’

Abstract painting, with its indulgence of flatness and color, turns its back on poetry—since no poem is depicted by colored abstraction.

Missing her illustrative twin, poetry desperately assumes various roles to make up for the loss, going abstract herself with surface linguistic effects that depict nothing a painter would be inspired by; or, going in the opposite direction, poetry attempts imagery, story and jokes in such a manner that she over-reaches, forgets who she is, slides into inferior prose, into bad taste, into over-description, into obscurity.

The painter, in turn, flounders in the machinery and mechanics of the overtly conceptual.

Poets and painters, knowing they are different types of artists, are hardly aware of the timeless importance each share with each; poetry and painting do not even understand that they are out of balance with each other, while sensual film and moral novels breed, producing all the children—the great majority brats without beauty or taste.

Mazer’s poem confronts the gulf between poetry and painting, confronts the pre-Modern stigma found in the modern formula: ‘the medium is the message,’ a formula which traps us inside of itself today.  If  ‘the truth’ of this formula traps us, this is still no reason why we shouldn’t attempt to escape from it, and Mazer seems to understand this, as only a genius can.

Nietzsche, just before he went mad, wrote that he found in Horace—an author neglected by the Moderns—what Mazer ponders in his passage from “The King”:

To this day, no other poet has given me the same artistic delight that a Horatian ode gave me from the first. In certain languages that which Horace has achieved could not even be attempted. This mosaic of words, in which every word — as sound, as place, as concept — pours out its strength right and left and over the whole, this minimum in the extent and number of the signs, and the maximum thereby attained in the energy of the signs — all that is Roman and, if you will believe me, noble par excellence. All the rest of poetry becomes, in contrast, something too popular — mere sentimental blather.

We will be the first to admit that these are unsettled questions—Whither poetry? Whither painting? Whither Horace? Whither Modernism? Whither Mazer? Will poetry and painting inspire each other again?

But we like what’s shaking with the grande school.

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