on conceptual writing
24 December 2016

October 2016

What is conceptual writing? Isn’t all writing a form of abstraction and at least somewhat conceptual? Doesn’t the act of writing contradict the very notion of conceptuality, that the work itself need not be executed at all? Conceptual writing’s decade of fame is best described by its comparison with conceptual art; emerging artistic tendencies after abstract expressionism in the 1960s began to blur the distinctions between disciplinary divides. A fundamental form of avant-gardism, conceptual writing embodies the paradigmatic shift to how we approach literary material since the inception of language. In an attempt to argue for the return of affect in conceptual writing practices, I will compare the histories and aesthetic frameworks of visual and written work that claim to have a “conceptual approach.”

Parallel Practices

Uncreativity is the new creative practice, finally writing has caught up with painting[1] The onslaught of unprocessed digital language has ushered in a new urgency to rethink writing practices. To borrow conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s analogy, “writing has met its photography.” [2] The enormity of the Internet and the textual abundance it offer have paralyzed language. [3] In order to survive, to stay relevant, there is much that writing can learn from painting. Let’s take a moment to look fifty years backwards and consider Sol LeWitt’s manifesto on Conceptual Art: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” [4] LeWitt represents a generation of artists interested in ideas over objects; the crux of the art piece always lies in the idea, execution is only a matter of perfunctory action[5] The primacy of the idea trumps the physical work, prompting artists such as Lawrence Weiner to even go so far as to claim that the execution need not be realized at all[6] To travel even further back in time one can look at Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, a series of daily objects inscribed with cryptic titles and then displayed on pedestals. This tactic of reframing became hugely popular in conceptual art, most notably in Joseph Kosuth’s seminal work, Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) (1966-68), a series of projections of dictionary definition of words mounted on gallery walls. The work can be treated as a mental process that challenges and pokes fun of the definitive nature of language devoid of meaning when taken out of a local context. The privileging of the intellectual over the visual became ever more apparent in the self-referential works of Dan Graham. In his Poem-Schema, Graham itemized the linguistic and grammatical properties of selected poems from publications to explore the materiality of language. Words are concretized as objects; the focus becomes the reframing of the artwork as the often overlooked material details of language. Conceptual art’s dematerialization of the art object is brought about by the rematerialization of language. [7]

So what does that mean for conceptual writing in the digital age? Is conceptual writing also “good only when the idea is good?” [8] Conceptual art has brought the question of originality and ownership to light by virtue of distancing the artist from the manufacturing process of the artwork. Reproduction and appropriation were the widespread tendencies of pop art in the 1960s. One cannot fail to mention the influence of Andy Warhol in exploiting the power of mechanical reproduction in the Benjaminian sense of the word in contemporary popular media. While the content may not be original, creativity lies in the reframing and curation of the material itself. It is perhaps time for the literary world to give up its obsession with originality and embrace the unprecedented influx of language in the advent of the virtual space. This is where conceptual writing came to be, surfing on the remix of textual transformations that browse, copy, paste, and cut the digital words to destabilize and undermine authorial claims by either author or reader. [9]

While the Internet gave modern practitioners what the language poets of the 1970s could only dream of – a revolutionary opening up of accessibility to the choice of material and pace of production, it also fundamentally changed the ways we read and perceive information. Goldsmith, for example, proposed that conceptual writing requires a “thinkership” rather than a “readership” while Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman proclaimed that “pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense.” [10] The reading/thinking or reading/not reading dichotomy can be found in Gertrude Stein’s ambitious and hefty volume The Making of Americans, a linear expansion of writing from a single family anecdote to the history of almost everyone, perhaps reminiscent of the thoughtless Wikipedia excursions that always lead you somewhere far from your initial search. The intention here lies not in the literal act of reading, but the idea of conceiving the act of reading and the materiality of the scope of the reading.

In Defense of Aestheticism

In contemporary art practices, conceptualism is often thought of in opposition to aesthetics. Conceptual practice, as narrowly defined by LeWitt, focuses on ideas and procedures over and above the question of aesthetics, which evokes emotion and sensual beauty. Treating the two in a both/and sensibility, the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant formulates an alternative definition of “aesthetics” as the affect of the mind when it encounters the incomprehensible. For him, aesthetics is aroused by natural phenomena; works of art are not considered aesthesis because they are conceived by man and thereby comprehensible. [11] While this belief of the mental faculty preceding the world of experience and emotion is not entirely applicable in our case, it is productive to think about conceptual art in relation to the aesthetics of the sublime.

Consider the disconnect between the apathetic rhetoric of LeWitt’s art recipes and his sensual murals that have become landmarks of the modern art galleries in major museums around the globe. Why do conceptual works often evoke an ineffable sense of affect? Perhaps inspired by the fact that the architect designs the plan for a building and hires the contractor to build it, LeWitt was adamant to separate the process of conceptualization and production in his works to bereave a conceptual work of any preconceived formal tendencies: Art should exist exclusively in the mind, the product is a mere representation of the process. [12] This definitive methodology can only go so far within the realm of conceptualization; once the Idea (as Art) materializes in a tangible form, it takes on a different set of contextual and technical considerations. Take his Wall Drawing #46 as an example, the myriad of vertical lines that are not straight and not touching, spaced out across the wall somewhat equally produces an ineffable sense of fuzziness and spontaneity. The aesthetic experience lies within the failure of coherence between the material and the idea.

It is also important, though, to note that LeWitt’s works convey aesthetic functions through its inherent performativity. In an oddly forward-looking attitude towards artistic ownership he was keen on renouncing creative control in allowing anyone to freely execute his works as long as they adhere strictly to his recipes. [13] The production of the work is therefore highly dependent on the performance and execution of his draftsmen. Not all conceptual works exist within this spectrum of machanic production, but the ones that do need to acknowledge the fundamental presence of its affect. [14]

A similar critique of aestheticism can also be applied to conceptual writing. The Internet can replicate infinitely without quality loss, generating numerous works invested in exploring the monumentality of material available for repurposing. [15] Kenneth Goldsmith operates in this way, exploring the materiality of found text in his compilation of a year’s worth of daily retyping of the New York Times as it is without considering its inherent aesthetic qualities. [16] To assess his work from the position of the post-conceptual poets, the idea exists within the act of ritualistic transcription while the product conveys an affect of surplus and excess. [17] The Kantian model shows that one needs only to contemplate the gap between the simple concept and the immense physicality of its outcome to understand the aesthetic nature of the project. It is therefore important to consider the materiality of the words and their conceptual meaning on equal standing.

Developing further on the aesthetics of a conceptual piece, we return to Goldsmith, who decidedly rejects any contextual meaning of the working material and reconfigure them as autonomous textual taxonomies. His method drew widespread public ridicule after the reading of “The Body of Michael Brown” (2015) at Brown University in which he appropriated the autopsy report of Michael Brown. It did not help when he ended the piece with the doctor’s observation that Brown’s genitals were “unremarkable” for dramatic effect. A piece intended to illuminate racism ended up performing it, and all that the public could see was a flamboyant privileged white man callously brushing off delicate political and social issues as a “conceptual exercise.” The political insensitivity of the work ultimately overrides any productive critique of the intended affect of the work.

While one may argue that the aesthetic value of the Michael Brown piece exists in its inflammation, the sublime of trauma, it fails to convey any meaningful depth due to its denial of the inherent ethical responsibility when dealing with politically contentious material. As argued by Robert Fitterman, the affect of a conceptual work is the product of the politics of its borrowed texts and the position of the writer who is conceiving it. It is important as writers to be cognisant of the “dialogical consciousness” of appropriated sources when addressing contemporary culture. [18] The material itself is contextual, embodying meaning from either inheritance or its newfound surroundings therefore the product of conceptual art and conceptual writing cannot be entirely devoid of affect.

[1] In 1959, Brion Gysin said writing is fifty years behind painting.

[2] Goldsmith referring to a situation similar to that of painting upon the invention of the photography – a technology that is so much better at doing what the art form had been achieving that in order for painting to survive, it needs a radical rethinking.

[3] Kenneth Goldsmith, “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, edited by Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2011; p. xviii.

[4] Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” in Artforum, V/10, Summer, 1967; p. 1.

[5] Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, New York,  Columbia University Press, 2011; p. 128.

[6] See Weiner’s “Declaration of Intent” (1968).

[7] Craig Dworkin, “The Fate of Echo,” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, edited by Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2011; p. xxxvi.

[8] See Kenneth Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” in Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory, Twentieth Series, No. 7: Fall 2005. A transcription of LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) by Goldsmith.

[9] Referring to the deconstruction of the sign and the signifier proposed by the French theorist Jacques Derrida.

[10] See “Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith,” in The Believer, October 2011, and Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms, Brooklyn, New York, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009; p. 27.

[11] Hence man-u-factured.

[12] Goldsmith Uncreative Writing: 132.

[13] Although it eventually proved to be problematic to him and decided to reneged on his stance due to his dissatisfaction with the amount of poor quality reproductions.

[14] Thinking of LeWitt’s quote again: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

[15] Goldsmith Uncreative Writing: 137.

[16] Dworkin 2011: xxxviii.

[17] Post conceptual poets are essentially born out of the postmodern and post-structuralist lineage of their conceptual precedents. They differ from their predecessors in their focus on queering the often dry and monotonous conceptualist works with affect, lyric, and self-referential narcissism. See Felix Berstein, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, Los Angeles, Insert Blanc Press, 2015.

[18] Robert Fitterman, “When Subjectivity Finds Another Subject: Subjectivity in Quotational Writing Practice,” Collection of Robert Fitterman; 13.