You're probably feeling something like despair if you know you can't make it to the University of Louisville for the 1:00 pm session of the The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (Humanities room 111). You'll miss Andrew Epstein talking about Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and their relationship to the New York poetry scene of their day, and you'll miss John Gallaher talking about Michael Benedikt as a nexus figure of the New York School. You'll also miss me giving a paper called "John Ashbery and the Poetics of the Art World," but don't fret about that. The text—minus any tweaking it may receive as I sit among the nervous grad students in the lobby of the Brown Hotel or among the Gnostic poets at the Mayan Cafe, where they hang out and summon mystic wisdom over bourbon and tamales—is here:
John Ashbery and the Poetics of the Art World
…I had to find a way out of the woods.
Now, in some cases, this is easy—you just walk straight along a road and pretty soon
you're out of the woods and there are suburban backlots. In my case,
though, it wasn't that simple, though it wasn't extraordinarily demanding either—I
just lay down in a boat and slept, Lady-of-Shalott style. Soon I was gliding among you
taking notes on your conversations and otherwise making a pest of myself.
I pretended to be angry when onlookers jeered and cows mooed and even the heralds told me to shut up,
yet at bottom I was indifferent. I knew my oracles
for what they were—right about 50% of the time—and I also knew their accuracy wasn't
In these lines, from John Ashbery's Flow Chart, the poet presents himself as Tennyson's Lady of Shalott—and the comparison is apt. Consider the plot of Tennyson's poem. The lady is confined to her tower, isolated from the thriving world of business and love beyond the walls. She weaves a tapestry of what she sees, and in so doing becomes a symbol for many things. Firstly, she is a woman in a world profoundly masculine in its institutions and structures of power. Moreover, she is a laborer in a time when labor conditions—particularly in textiles—are becoming more and more rationalized and alienating. Finally, as a tapestry weaver she is a figure for the artist. All of these things, Tennyson implies, are alienated, confined, set off from the world where barges ply their trade on the river and young lovers meet to wed. We can think of Tennyson’s poem almost as an allegory of John Ashbery's situation, in that three kinds of alienation—having to do with his sexuality, his relation to conventionally productive labor, and his status as a certain kind of poet in midcentury America—led him to a peripatetic life and what me might call a poetics of wandering or drift.
If you want to think about Ashbery and queerness, John Shoptaw, in On the Outside Looking Out has done a better job of it than I could ever do. If you want to think about Ashbery and alienation from labor, read his poem “The Instruction Manual” and write the article about that poem that still needs to be written. If you want to hear about Ashbery and the importance of the art world he entered as a young man in New York at the end of the 1940s, I hope I can help.
Drawn into the orbit of precocious literary friends at Harvard, John Ashbery joined an artistic milieu in New York City that was intensely aestheticist and that emphasized the autonomy of the art object and the primacy of the medium itself. Ashbery's poetry, too, has been, non-dogmatic and intensely concerned with the medium of language. His particular form of aesthetic expression involves aleatory techniques and linguistic disruptions, and, especially, a kind of narrative drift. Characteristically, his form of narrative, or pseudo-narrative, drifts and observes, and Ashbery does not expect his oracles to change the world: the poetry that comes from them will exist for itself, not—as in the hopes of modernist greats like Yeats, Pound, or Eliot—for the renovation of the culture. Unlike those poets, Ashbery is as pure an aesthete as any poet of the 1890s. This is not to say that he cannot be read politically—he has been, and has welcomed it—but the characteristic qualities of his work stem from early formative experiences in a very particular moment of the New York art world of the late 40s and early 50s, a moment perhaps more extreme in its commitment to aesthetic autonomy than any other in the American 20th century.
The New York to which Ashbery moved in 1949, when he began his graduate studies at Columbia, was the epicenter of America's visual art scene, but it is easy, given the later lionization of the abstract expressionists, to misremember the situation of American art in 1949. The art world then was small and isolated. When John Bernard Myers, a founder of the Tibor de Nagy gallery, was putting together artists for his early shows, he found the art world tiny indeed: "it should be stressed that… almost everyone knew everyone else" and "all of them lived in Manhattan." The possibility of connecting with the world beyond the art scene, let alone influencing it, seemed extremely remote: during her 1947 visit to New York Simone de Beauvoir came to the conclusion that "there is no informed public" for the arts—hyperbole, to be sure, but a good indicator of how America in the late 40s appeared from a European intellectual's position. And native intellectuals tended to concur, even in the use of hyperbole.
The alienation that permeated the art world did not manifest in political radicalism, but rather in an emphasis on the isolated artist's authenticity, and on the autonomy of the work of art. This was, after all, the era of The God That Failed, with its documentation of the left's painful disillusionment with Communism, as well as the time of the blacklist and the general suppression of the American left. Even the once-radical Partisan Review crowd had largely retreated from politics by 1947, and, having abandoned first Stalin, then Trotsky, they now bent their knees to art. The depoliticization left many artists adrift, a condition Robert Motherwell expressed in in 1944 when he said "The artist's problem is with what to identify himself…. Hence the tendency of modern painters to paint for each other."
The preservation of individual authenticity and autonomy, rather than any movement on behalf of class or faction, was the artist's mode of opposition—and the means of opposition was the autonomy of the work of art. As Thomas B. Hess put it in ARTnews, “There was nothing to do but paint. The self-directed community became self-oriented. Art replaced revolution in its eschatology…. Never before in painting had art itself so preoccupied the artist.” Ad Reinhardt was more extreme in his formulations than most, but he was not out of step with the general temper of the art world when he declared that art "should have no connection with anything, not God, Morals, Politics, Movements, Aesthetics, Philosophy, Science." Even that soberest of academic art critics, Meyer Shapiro, declared that the artist must now "cultivate his own garden."
But poets came to the garden of the postwar art world, too: a phenomenon, we may be surprised to note, unprecedented in American history. John Ashbery offers two statements about what that felt like in 1949:
I hadn't realized it, but my arrival in New York coincided with the cresting of the 'heroic' period of Abstract Expressionism, as it was later to be known, and somehow we all seemed to benefit from this strong moment… We were in awe of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell and not too sure of exactly what they were doing. But there were other things to attend to: concerts of John Cage's music, Merce Cunningham's dances, the Living Theatre, but also talking and going to the movies and getting ripped and hanging out and then discussing it all over the phone.And
This is not the place to wonder why the poets Koch, O'Hara, Schuyler, Guest and myself gravitated toward painters, probably it was merely because the particular painters we knew happened to be more fun than the poets…If we look beyond the flippant assertion that the poets entered the world of the painters because the painters had more fun, we will not only find a more substantial explanation for the melding of the poetic and artistic scenes—we will also understand more about how the poets "seemed to benefit" from the fervent experimentalism of the art world.
The first thing to acknowledge is that in the years after the war it was by no means an obvious thing that poets should become involved in the world of art. Although there had been exceptions, like Wallace Stevens, who frequented artist's studios and studded his prose with references to painting, the French-style alliance of poets and painters was rare in early 20th century America. As Dore Ashton puts it in her seminal study of the New York School painters, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, "One of the peculiar aspects of traditional American culture had been the total isolation of the different arts. American artists noted early in the century that, unlike artists on the Continent, they had no literary companions." This only began to change after the war, when "well-developed suspicion on both sides" faded, and there were "attempts to bring about a rapprochement."
These attempts were certainly successful, if we are to judge by the reception Ashbery and his peers received among the artists and, even more importantly, the gallerists. Indeed, it is in part through the schemes of gallerists operating in difficult commercial circumstances that the rapprochement of different creative worlds in postwar New York came about.
New American art, in the postwar years, did not generally find patrons among the upper class, but among a small part of the professional middle class, and among other artists. Sensing an opportunity to expand the market beyond visual artists, Myers intuited that "more interaction among all the arts might speed us on our way." At a time when there was no off-Broadway theater as we know it in New York, Myers learned from a friend of Parisian theater in which plays by poets were given sets by contemporary artists and featured music by avant-garde composers. So Myers worked with Frank O'Hara, James Merrill, and others to found the Artists' Theater in 1953. Soon, poets, composers, and visual artists were working together on a variety of productions—including John Ashbery's play The Heroes, with sets by the artist Nellie Blaine. The Artists' Theater, and projects like it, became the crucible in which was forged a multi-arts creative scene, an audience composed of people concerned with, or practicing, different arts, and a culture of collaboration. Born of a desire to survive the indifference of the general public, such a scene, centered on aesthetics and artistic production for artistic producers, was a far cry from the political movements in which artists of the 1930s tended to come together and collaborate. It was a scene in which Theseus, in Ashbery's play, could deliver the line "I now possessed the only weapon with which the Minotaur might be vanquished—the indifference of the true aesthete" and have it received by an audience with approving laughter.
One way to think about the presence of the poets in the postwar art world is to see it as the natural path for experimentally-minded poets, given the aesthetic ferment of American painting and the relative conservatism of American poetry under the rising sign of the New Criticism. But to see the experiment-oriented art world as a draw for experiment-oriented young poets is to see only one part of a dialectical process: it is just as true to say that the art world encouraged and emboldened the poets who entered it to become more experimental. The poems Ashbery wrote at Harvard are not terribly outré by the literary standards of the time. But much of the work he wrote in postwar New York went much further afield.
The sociologist Howard S. Becker notes that "art works always bear the marks of the system which distributes them," and that and poets depend on the audiences reached by their publishers for "shared traditions" and "background against which their work makes sense." When we consider where much of Ashbery's early writing was being published, and to whom it was being distributed, we see that it was going to a sharply defined audience, one rooted in the art world and accustomed to a degree of abstraction and experiment alien to the literary establishment of the times—to sensibilites more attuned to Willem de Kooning than to de Kooning's literary contemporary Cleanth Brooks. Much of Ashbery’s early writing appeared in Semicolon, a journal published by art curators and distributed at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, the Artists' Club, and the Cedar Bar—all art world institutions. Moreover, the small collections of poems that precede and follow Yale's publication of Some Trees are both art world productions: 1953's Turandot, with four drawings by Jane Freilicher, was published by Tibor de Nagy gallery in 1953; and The Poems, with silk screen work by Joan Mitchell, published in 1960 by Tiber Press (a publisher of the visual arts). It should come as no surprise that Ashbery came to see the poetry of the literary establishment as too conservative: he and his early audience were immersed in a milieu that accepted and encouraged experimentalism far more than did the established literary institutions of the time.
Within this restricted sphere of reception, there was an even smaller sphere: the little coterie of the poets themselves, a hyper-aesthetic demimonde within the New York aesthetic demimonde. As James Schuyler put it, "John and Frank and I were almost like a mutual admiration society," affirming and enabling one another. Glossing Schuyler's comment, David Lehman underlines the sense of a small world removed from both the literary establishment and the general reading public: "since acceptance or rejection of [their] works was an indication of neither success nor failure, the poets looked to themselves as ultimate arbiters." Tennyson's friends rejected poems like “The Lady of Shalott” and urged him to be a moralist for the broad reading public—the poet of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the laureate; Ashbery's were satisfied if he delighted them and them alone.
The situation reminds one of a remark made by Pierre Bourdieu in his examination of the rise of autonomous art. In the absence of pressures to conform to religious, political, or market forces, or to otherwise conform to the norms of a public, artists find themselves "in a position to rebuff every external constraint or demand, are able to affirm their mastery over that which defines them and which properly belongs to them, that is, the form." If we understand this, we understand Ashbery.