Between Gut and Intellect: Conceptual Writing and the Postmodern Sublime

Visual artists, or anyone with a sense of recent art history, will find something ridiculous about the release of an anthology of conceptual writing as a kind of event marking a new movement. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Northwestern University Press) is just that, a 600-page collection of work under the newly defined, newly theorized field that straddles visual arts and writing.

For an anthology that presents a wide-ranging genealogy–artists of the conceptual era including Gerald Ferguson and Vito Acconci, literary predecessors in Beckett, in Mallarmé and Raymond Roussel, language poets Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman–there is much mythologizing of origins in the present editors. Craig Dworkin (one of the editors and self-anthologized) claims, “I coined the phrase ‘conceptual writing’ as a way both to signal literary writing that could function comfortably as conceptual art and to indicate the use of text in conceptual art practices.” Perhaps this doesn’t quite contradict the story that previously escaped through typical routes–phrased like a joke, but seemingly a serious joke for its effectiveness, that three guys (Kenneth Goldsmith, the other editor and self-anthologizer, Darren Wershler and Christian Bök) invented conceptual writing in a bar in Buffalo in 2001. But we look beyond this dual wish of it has a long, diverse history, but we invented it.

The weight of the Against Expression anthology rests in the last 10 years or so, in, as Dworkin describes it, “the explosion of publications since the turn of the millennium under the sign of the conceptual.” Recent conceptual writing tends to appropriate texts, often accumulated statements, often with underlying political content–lines from George W Bush, film tag lines, personal inbox transcripts, weather reports from the radio, measurable data–and re-present it, altering it through some procedure or simply presenting it in a new context. Perhaps the most discussed, or heaviest, is Goldsmith’s Day, 2003, in which Goldsmith transcribes the whole New York Times of Friday, September 1, 2000, from “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” through ads, section numbers and articles, and publishes it in book form under his name. Such strategies will be familiar for those involved in visual arts over the past 50 years, who, for instance, know work by Hans Haacke, Garry Neill Kennedy, etc. Why should this not be old news?

In the context of visual art this is old news, yet we should care about conceptual writing because when placed alongside contemporary fiction and lyric poetry–the context a number of its practitioners intend it for–it has incontrovertible implications. In short, the argument against this unlovable industry called creative writing, which Dworkin’s introduction slices right into, finds an avatar in conceptual writing.

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Volume 30, Number 2: Brian Jungen

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #118, published May 2011.

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