Notes on Conceptualisms
Notes on Conceptualisms is a very likeable and shrewd collaboration by Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009). I haven't finished the book yet, but the first half is already packed with my handwritten notes. Its chief theme so far is the allegorical nature of conceptual art:
Allegorical writing is necessarily inconsistent, containing elaborations, recursions, sub-metaphors, fictive conceits, projections, and guisings that combine and recombine both to create the allegorical whole, and to discursively threaten this wholeness. In this sense, allegory implicates Godel's First Incompleteness Theorem: if it is consistent, it is incomplete; if complete, inconsistent.
All conceptual writing is allegorical writing. (p. 15)
And here's an interesting excerpt from pp. 24-25:
One might argue that devaluation is now a traditional / canonical aim of contemporary art. Thus there is now great value in devaluation.
Adorno and Horkheimer: "Culture is a paradoxical commodity. So completely is it subject to the law of exchange that is is no longer exchanged; it is so blindly consumed in use that it can no longer be used" (The Culture Industry: Enlightenment in Mass Deception).
Conceptual writing proposes two end-point responses to this paradox by way of radical mimesis: pure conceptualism and the baroque. Pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense--one does not need to "read" the work as much as think about the idea of the work. In this sense, pure conceptualism's readymade properties capitulate to and mirror the easy consumption / generation of text and the devaluation of reading in the larger culture. Impure conceptualism, manifest in the extreme by the baroque, exaggerates reading in the traditional textual sense. In this sense, its excessive textual properties refuse, and are defeated by, the easy consumption / generation of text and the rejection of reading in the larger culture.
Note: these are strategies of failure.
Note: failure in this sense acts as an assassination of mastery.
Note: failure in this sense serves to irrupt the work, violating it from within.
Note: this invites the reader to redress failure, hallucinate repair.
Success in any event, from the work of Yeats to the Poetry Slams to Kenny Goldsmith, comes with the proper framing and volatility of the SIGN. In conceptual poetry, the entire work is a sign requiring one instantaneous reading (and perhaps later study, such as "Hmm, what was that?"). Goldsmith's The Weather consists entirely of transcribed weather reports from the Northeast U.S. Nothing is written, as such; it is copied from life and transported to the printed page (the art frame). Simplicity is a virtue in such works. On closer look, the editing in The Weather allows for the elegiac in following the fullness and exhaustion of the seasons.
Baroque writing offers a simple sign also, that it intends to be complex, or at least very busy. The first reading warns to be alert and roll with the artifice.
The nice thing about conceptual art is not having to elaborate on it. A one-sentence description will suffice and on to the next conversation piece on your literary mantel. To legitimize the work, you have to actually DO the work of transcription. The power of its simplicity depends on the exhaustiveness of the found details: the literal weight of the book in your hands. Goldsmith's Soliloquy, consisting of every word he spoke during a week of 1996, is 500 pages in length and weighs 1.73 pounds. Like performance poetry, the conceptual work must be understood on the first reading or hearing. In that sense, it is "easy." Difficulty comes at the level of theory, when the art audience begins to question why John Cage simply sat at the piano, rather than played it, in his composition, 4'33". In this respect, conceptual art is always philosophical. The distinction between pure and baroque conceptualism is that between Marcel Duchamp and Wallace Stevens. Both are tongue-in-cheek and pose riddles, but Stevens, who recognizes the power of death, allows for lyricism.