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Burt Kimmelman


Burt Kimmelman’s eighth collection of poetry, Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 1983–2013 (BlazeVOX), appeared in 2013. A new collection, Abandoned Angel (Marsh Hawk Press), is due out in the fall of 2016. His poems have been featured on National Public Radio and are often anthologized. A number of published interviews of him are available in print and online. He teaches literary and cultural studies at New Jersey Institute of Technology, and has published sixteen books of poetry and criticism, as well as more than a hundred articles on literature and other matters. More information about him and samples of his work can be found at his website here.




Q: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a conceptual art group called Art & Language specialised in producing art works utilising texts and lexical elements, whilst endorsing the theories of Marcel Duchamp, and holding the view that the practice of art should be methodically theoretical and separated from matters related to craft or aesthetics. These beliefs and procedures are echoed by practitioners of conceptual poetry, the most celebrated being Kenneth Goldsmith, who has spoken of Duchamp’s influence on his practice and that of other conceptual poets. Given these theoretical and procedural similarities between the Art & Language group and conceptual poets, in what sense is the work produced by conceptual poets significantly different from that produced by the Art & Language group, and, indeed, other conceptual artists working in the same area?


A: There may be some differences in practice between the UK Art & Language people and the US Conceptual Poets of today (I confine myself to addressing only “poets” rather than “artists” in the US, UK and elsewhere for now, yet am quick to observe that there are conceptual artists who don’t really associate with, or associate themselves with, practitioners of conceptual poetry). Once conceptualism as an artistic practice emerged in the last century (some people trace it back further in time, such as John Keene in a blog post not long ago [18 May 2015]), the art world could never have been the same. It’s a stretch to think that today, with the rise into prominence of conceptual poetry, the poetry world is no longer the same. Conceptual poetry is conceptual art.


The question being asked here is a bit too narrow, on the other hand. This narrowness may have to do with the ways in which Duchamp’s readymades have been read. For example Kenneth Goldsmith or Marjorie Perloff, not least of all in her book Unoriginal Genius featuring him, emphasizes appropriation, borrowing, etc. (For the record, I am not someone who bemoans the existence of Duchamp’s Fountain and all that has ensued from it.)


Thinking about the Art & Language group, I recognize that a theory of conceptualism might eschew the possibility of the ego’s involvement in conceptual practice. I also cannot help but understand that an individual artist, unless that artist were slavishly to obey an aleatory finding, ends up making choices—in fact, even exercising the option to indulge in aleatory practice is not totally free of the ego. (I mention this here as a prelude to some of my responses to subsequent questions in this “Interview.”)


Q: In ‘Kenneth Goldsmith, or The Art of Being Talked About’ Robert Archambeau says that he thinks that Kenneth Goldsmith ‘often seems to believe in a linear, progressive version of artistic and literary history, a view that many people in the art world feel has been discredited’. Would you agree with this view?


A: I accept Goldsmith’s placing of himself within a narrowed continuum. Let’s say it’s Duchamp-Warhol-Goldsmith, as Archambeau mentions though not exactly as I put it. When critics or historians set to work, a continuum like this becomes useful and unavoidable. I might lean toward thinking that even an artist/poet who has been presented with the opportunity to consider her or his accomplishments starts to think more linearly than might otherwise be valuable. I would agree with Archambeau that our collective artistic history, including the evolutionary arc of conceptualism, is not as linear as some people might like to believe. And it’s fruitless to find fault with Goldsmith’s striving for fame, popularity, “success,” which has been linear pretty much.


Anyone reading The Argotist Online is probably aware of recent vituperation aimed at Goldsmith (particularly because of his “Michael Brown” “reading” at the avant-garde poetics conference, “Interrupt 3,” held last year in Providence, Rhode Island). This event was a low point in Goldsmith’s career. And it knocked him off his self-professed, artistic, self-evolutionizing arc. I would say that his derailment has come about due to an apparent lack of empathy (as Tom Fink recently phrased it to me in discussing the event’s subsequent controversy and Goldsmith generally, a lack of “emotional intelligence”). What is significant here, rather, in contrast to many comments, is the betrayal of his own praxis, as evinced in his tweaking of the Michael Brown autopsy report, an act I contend arose from his own ego-drive.


To put this more plainly, and to give him the benefit of the doubt (in light of his many prior accomplishments), Goldsmith, who was not fully conscious during the modern American Civil Rights struggle, was being far too cute for his own good. I’ll accept his excuse that he meant well. Yet he has revealed a remarkable shallowness of character. Now, the question that might arise from this could be whether or not the shallowness is inherent in all his work as a “poet,” and perhaps in all conceptual poetry or more largely in all conceptual art. Let me just claim that this, maybe calling it an inherent weakness in conceptual practice, is not the case, although more often it is.


Goldsmith comes into his own with the age of digital communication. It might be worth thinking of him within the context set out in Paul Stephens’ recent book The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing, a context wherein we could place Warhol (as well as Ron Silliman, whom Archambeau mentions) in discussing Goldsmith’s careerism that can legitimately be seen in ways other than how mid twentieth-century Hollywood loved to depict film industry types who claw their way to the top, contemporary with Warhol. Warhol (along with someone like Silliman) was prescient, to a degree unconsciously so—I’d argue to a strikingly limited degree—as regards the then coming age of information and now the disequilibrium of the present information age, social media’s and big data’s slippery slope to be reckoned with in telling the story of Goldsmith’s career trajectory. This context is missing in the recent, nevertheless admirable, article in the New Yorker by Alex Wilkinson (in the wake of the “Interrupt 3” conference debacle).


Q: Given conceptualism’s radical self-positioning of itself, do you think it is ironic that conceptualism has been championed and embraced by the academy?


A: Oh, I didn’t realize that conceptualism’s self-positioning was radical. (I guess I didn’t read the organization’s Constitution, Mission Statement, and Five-Year Plan.) I do fondly recall, though, Vanessa Place’s pronouncement—on an AWP panel set up to be a battle royal between Flarfists and Conceptualists (in Denver in 2010)—that conceptual poetry “wants to put poetry out of its misery” (which was met by a roar of laughter from a very large audience). Well, Duchamp again, whose readymades came to public attention before Marianne Moore’s first line in her poem “Poetry”: “I too dislike it”? What’s interesting to me is the shared context, a profound shift in the technological milieu shared by Duchamp and Moore.


Q: Is conceptualism’s claim that it rejects what it sees as the “narcissistic selfhood” of much lyric poetry incompatible with its practices, given that so many of these practices revolve around the personality and showmanship of the poets involved, Kenneth Goldsmith being perhaps the most prominent example?


A: If we talk about conceptualism more broadly—I prefer to do so now, especially since, as I said, there’s no such thing as conceptual poetry, rather only conceptual art (and then there’s poetry including lyric poetry)—then we can understand a striving to avoid narcissistic selfhood on the part of a conceptual practitioner. When we talk about Goldsmith, we have to acknowledge that he’s created (for himself?) a version of “conceptualism” in which the artist must be prominent, perceptually central. Is this a solipsism? Not quite. I wonder if the work of the late artist On Karawa (most of his work self-involving obviously while uncannily selfless in its effect) is not more akin to, not more in harmony with Goldsmith's than that of a close collaborator like Craig Dworkin, a poet.


It may be useful to place Goldsmith within a differently inflected theoretical framework. I say this in contemplating the “Michael Brown” recitation and taking it as principally a work of political art. In reviewing the Laura Poitras exhibition at the Whitney Museum (“Laura Poitras: Astro Noise”) Holland Cotter discusses “current political work” that he describes as “[seemingly] tailored to an altered terrain. On the one hand, it is flourishing under global capitalism and its new collecting culture. At the same time, its character is shaped by distinctly 21st-century doubts about the moral efficacy of art in a market-intensive, ideal-averse world.” Poitras’ “images,” Cotter adds, “are not always easy to interpret” (New York Times 5 February 2016).


I’ve often thought that Place is more of a performance artist than a conceptual poet or conceptual artist—that is, she herself seems to embody what her “art” seems to be about. Perhaps we’d be better off thinking of Goldsmith in this way too. On the other hand, from what I know of someone like Rob Fitterman, for example, the person and the work, the situation is starkly otherwise. Or take Geoffrey Gatza who is completely self-effacing—some of his work (like Apollo) explicitly establishing a direct connection back to Duchamp.


I do think there’s something self-effacing about Duchamp’s Fountain, and it needs nothing of Duchamp in any case. But if Goldsmith is writing down the weather reports for a given year in his life then, well, it’s the weather where he is. Might we consider a work like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life in comparison? Might we consider Reznikoff’s Testimony or Holocaust in comparison with Place’s Statement of Facts, and if we did would we be eventually drifting into the realm of “political” poetry/art?


I’d like to compare conceptual artists like Glenn Ligon or Mona Hatoum—both great artists—whose work is at times autobiographical or at least contingent to/upon or tangential to their personal lives. Yet their art is universal, and anyway it’s witty, nuanced, layered. The art’s impact, what makes it compelling, includes the fact of their personal lives, finally, only incidentally. It’s fair to say, too, that a lot of their art is thought of as political.


The fact that at times their work is political in its “message” is beside the point I’m making here. Goldsmith’s “Michael Brown” performance does not avoid falling victim to—as various works by Ligon and Hatoum do—recent attacks, some of them not unlike David Beard’s dismissal of Ai Weiwei recently in Hyperallergic. Beard criticizes a photo of the artist posing as a dead child refugee lying face down on a European beach (“Ai Weiwei’s Photo Reenacting a Child Refugee’s Death Should Not Exist” 2 February 2016). He indicts Ai Weiwei for his “failure of imagination,” which amounts to “an attempt to use one’s privilege strategically.” Beard continues by pointing out that “[a]rt does not dissolve into so-called real life. It revitalizes real life by making it surreal.”


Are weather reports “real”?


Q: Conceptual poets tend to be reluctant to engage directly with their critics, preferring instead to rehearse the theories regarding their practice in self-penned essays in various sympathetic publications etc. Why do you think this is?


A: I think groups of poets do this especially if what they are wanting to do is not within the mainstream. Take the Language people’s need to muscularly organize themselves into a critical mass when they were young. (Do conceptual poets and Flarf poets both make more than they ought to of their supposed roots in Language writing, by the way?) This is an old story, which includes the Objectivists and the principals of older art movements. Yes it’s true that both Language and Conceptual poets have done a lot of self-theorizing, but they didn’t invent this behavior.


Q: To what extent do you think conceptualism sees itself as a serious poetic art form?


A: I think conceptual practitioners take themselves and should be taking themselves very seriously. I don’t think overall they’re being overly serious. Back to Duchamp: he opened a Pandora’s box, and—while a lot of conceptual practice is not as edgy and witty as it should be, is often boring when it doesn’t mean to be and is (also) the product of a small mind, is often utterly banal (the allure of conceptualist practice seduces the mediocre artist/poet, conceptualism’s allure having to do in part with how seemingly easy or doable it is)—there have been works of conceptual art that probably wouldn’t have been possible if the readymade had not given the artist a certain kind of permission.


Here, we go from “mere” art in the world, because of the privileging of the idea (I suppose Sol Lewitt is the extreme of this), to entering into the realm of speech within a society. Not just anyone can avoid the banality of political diatribe. Is narcissism a distraction from that paucity of thought? In any case, conceptual art does not have to avoid aesthetics (a claim I believe is borne out in the work of Ligon or Hatoum—both of these artists, and I might be able to say something like this for one or another conceptual poet, often create work that is equally aesthetical and ideational, sometimes aesthetical first).


Q: How do you explain conceptualism’s rapid ascendancy within the academy?


A: I don’t think it’s all that rapid, and anyway the academy concerns itself with a great deal more.


Q: What are the possible ramifications for the reception of lyrical and other sorts of non-conceptual poetry within the academy, now that conceptualism has been accepted as poetry by the academy?


A: “The life of the mind!”—to quote a line from the film Barton Fink. “The dance of the intellect”—to quote Ezra Pound and then Perloff who used the phrase for the title of one her books. Let’s face it: conceptualism in its various manifestations is interesting. When I learned of what happened at the “Interrupt  3” conference I felt ashamed, and to think of it was painful—but I could not avoid starting to analyse what seemed to have happened.


When I learned of Place’s removal from this year’s AWP selection committee I became even more interested in her and her work. I think the fact that she’s an indirect casualty of the “Michael Brown” event, because of her tweeting of portions of Gone with the Wind whether altered or not—for more than three years before the vilification of Goldsmith (maybe for other work of hers but I’m not familiar enough with it to comment on it here, and her tweeting is what’s usually cited)—is worth thinking more about. It’s too bad, vis-à-vis our trying to comprehend conceptual practice, that her tweeting’s being widely deplored within our present climate of opinion, since it’s far more complex and nuanced (particularly if considered against a background of digital communication and how it changes our ways of thinking and maybe our ontological grounding) than what Goldsmith did with that autopsy report (Larry Rivers read Frank O’Hara’s autopsy report at his funeral, not altering the text in any way—a fact Goldsmith, a RISD grad, might very well have known).


While we’re at it, I think it’s worth comparing what happened last spring when AAUP member delegates voted, almost to a person, to censure the University of Illinois for rescinding a contract made with Steven Salaita; many of the members passionately rising to defend his right to teach and write were not only scholars of Judaism but also Jews. To make this comparison with the AWP is to invite thinking more about what constitutes art, aesthetics, and so on, maybe specifically within the picture of present-day political art Cotter sketches.


Q: US conceptual poets, particularly Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, have expressed a disinterest in poetry as having any sort of political dimension. This is in marked contrast to some other historical and contemporary conceptual art practices internationally, such as Berlin Dada, the Situationists, The Colectivo de Acciones de Arte (CADA) etc. Does this disinterest by US conceptual poets in exploring conceptualism as poetic-political praxis weaken claims to such conceptualism’s “radicalism”?


A: As I’ve indicated above, while some of their work can be understood as apolitical, it’s not easy to avoid the political dimensions of at least some of it. Anyway, where is the line between art and journalism, art and philosophy, art and historiography? What is an idea?


Does conceptual practice interrogate the very concept of ideation, in the end, perhaps ironically? The best of it does? As for Duchamp’s readymades—when a urinal becomes a fountain its aesthetic dimension as an object comes into our awareness, comes forth, into the foreground, so to speak (cf. Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art”). It may be that not enough has been said about the aesthetics of a mass-produced object.



copyright © Burt Kimmelman