Friday, January 30, 2009

25 Things

So there's this thing going down on Facebook where people ask their friends to post 25 random things about themselves. When I saw this, I thought it was exactly the sort of thing I wouldn't want to take part in. I mean, for a guy who talks too much, writes a lot of essays and a not-discreditable amount of poetry, and blogs, I think I actually don't put much about myself out there (except in the company of my friends, where my favorite topic is my evolving relationship to my own narcissism). Maybe this is laughably wrong, but I think of myself as having pretty firm boundaries about my private experience, even if I ham it up in front of people all the time. Anyway, I took the plunge and found it weirdly satisfying. Here 'tis:

25 Things

1. I grew up in western Canada, but spent part of each year in the Midwestern U.S., and part on the American east coast, too.

2. I remember my dad telling me to look at how the shaft of sunlight coming through a drop of water caught in a spider web was making a tiny, tight, perfect little star of light dance on his notepad. Just as I saw this, the drop dropped.

3. I also remember my dad sketching me (he’s an artist). I was in the second grade and wouldn’t shut up while he tried to concentrate. I think the moving face-muscles were a problem. He said “If you can’t stop talking, I’ll have to draw you with your mouth open.” It’s a cool portrait, though. And it sort of catches my then-incipient blowhardish word-love.

4. If everybody tells me it’s wrong, a big part of me always figures it must be at least half-right.

5. When I was in junior high, my degenerate friends wanted me to join the percussion section with them, but I decided to play flute so I could meet girls. The guys were kind enough not to mock my failure.

6. I had to move to Sweden to learn how to listen to funk.

7. I am terrible at recognizing faces. More than once this has embarrassed me. Like the time when I was in college and I’d met this girl and her friend in the student union bar. The girl seemed kind of shy; her friend was more outgoing. Anyway, later that night I was studying at a big empty table in the library and she came up and sat across from me, folding her hands on the table and smiling. I glanced up from my book (Paradise Lost, I think) and, not recognizing her, gave her a quick blank stare before looking back down. She ran away, and I later saw her with her friend. She turned her head; her friend shot me a dirty look.

8. I swear to whatever gods there may or may not be, meeting Valerie saved my soul.

9. Coffee, always. Always. I love the fresh-ground good stuff, but if there’s nothing else I’ll drink it day old, stone cold, and looking like it’d grow mold.

10. Countries I’ve been to: the U.S., Canada, Mexico (to the north, and the Yucatan, which seemed like a whole other country), Italy, France, Belgium (everyone should go to Belgium), Germany, Denmark, Sweden, England, Ireland, Iceland. I think that’s it. Oh, wait: the Netherlands.

11. I love blogging because I love to write but I hate waiting for whatever I wrote to get published. But when people ask me to write something for a book or journal I almost always say yes.

12. I’m pretty solid in the kitchen. When in doubt, braise that mother.

13. I can’t remember all of the different houses, apartments, guest-houses-for-visiting-academics, etc. I’ve lived in. But it was easier to move when I was in my twenties and could fit all my gear into a borrowed pickup. I think I’m staying put for a while.

14. One Christmas, a couple of years before I’d clutched my first ergonomic wooden toy in the hippyish preschool my parents sent me to, I remember opening a present very carefully. Inside was a cardboard box. I didn’t know there was a gift in the box. I thought my parents had given me a box. It seemed like a lame gift, but I didn’t want to make them feel bad, so I started talking about what a great box it was. When I was thirty and visiting my parents I heard my dad tell my mom how much he liked that moment, and how he found my unmitigated pleasure in receiving a box beautifully innocent. I never told him I was faking it. I have no memory of what the actual present was.

15. I think I’m mostly getting better at stuff.

16. Remember that water drop I was talking about in #2? I wrote a poem about it for a creative writing class I took in college. “What does the drop stand for?” asked a fellow student. “Life,” said my professor. He sounded confident.

17. If you’re over 60 years old, I’ll instinctively treat you with respect.

18. If you’re a student and you cry in my office, I’ll have no idea where to look.

19. My mom makes the best apple pie. Seriously. Try it, and you’ll think your mom’s apple pie is a cruel joke.

20. Once I saw lightning hit the ground about a foot outside my bedroom window. But that scared me less than the bird that flew down my bedroom chimney later that night. It was a hell of a storm.

21. I think I would have died one night in a Canadian winter when the lads and I decided we were too messed up to drive, and should walk home instead. We were in a part of town we never went to, far from our neighborhood. There was a blizzard, a real, Canadian one, and we were walking down an utterly abandoned stretch of highway. We probably had ten miles to go and weren’t quite sure where we were. We heard the tiny buzzing of a car engine in the distance. It seemed to take forever to arrive, and when it did, it was a car driven by a Vietnamese immigrant kid from high school. We didn’t know him very well. Anyway, he pulled up, opened the passenger door, and drove us home. He hardly said a word.

22. When I moved to the U.S. for grad school, I was surprised at how cheap the cheapest beer was. Until I drank the stuff. Bilge water. The guy I shared a house with and I would drink one can of it each per chess game, and play chess all through the night. Man, that stuff sucked.

23. Once when I was a kid I lay on the ground and stared into a perfectly empty, perfectly blue sky until I wasn’t there any more, or there wasn’t any I left to be anywhere. I wasn’t asleep or anything. It was weird. Then my mom called me and I was back.

24. I’m always making up these weird-ass songs and singing them around the house. The latest is called “Monkey Privateer.” I bet when my daughter is old enough she’ll make fun of me for this. We’ll see. She’ll be born next week.

25. Remember that professor I wrote about in #16? I’m starting to think he was right.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Christian Bök and the Fifth Annual Lake Forest Literary Festival

Come one, come all! (Except maybe you, Ben). Click for a larger view of the festival poster showing dates and times for our small army of fab poets:Christian Bök, Stephanie Strickland, Jessica Savitz, Eric Elshtain and the Gnoetry group, and many more! Yeah. We're getting good at this.

We're 30 miles north of Chicago near the lake shore. You want travel directions? Got ya covered.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Introducing Jessica Savitz

Just introduced the new writer in residence here at Lake Forest to the swanky suite of rooms in which she'll be writing and residing. It looks like the sort of place where you're likely to encounter Mr. Rochester on his way to meet the crazy wife he keeps locked in the attic. Or maybe Mr. Darcy as he furrows his brow at the perplexing Miss Bennet who danced such a charming quadrille.

And just who will be writing and residing in such surrounds, you ask? Jessica Savitz. She'll be buffing up the manuscript of Hunting is Painiting, and Lake Forest College Press/&NOW Books will publish it later this year. Here's the press release:

Jessica Savitz Named Plonsker Emerging Writer in Residence

Lake Forest College is pleased to recognize Jessica Savitz as the inaugural winner of the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency, given to an author under forty years old with no major book publication. Savitz, who lives in Chicago, is currently working on a manuscript of poetry titled Hunting is Painting, and she will begin her residency in early February.

“It is a surreal and magical gift to be awarded this prize,” says Savitz, who has received several other honors for her work and has spent time as a creative-writing teacher. “The prize has been so validating; it has changed the way I approach my creative work.”

She earned an M.F.A. in poetry writing from the University of Iowa and a B.A. in English from Kenyon College. Following her studies, she worked at three Montessori schools, including a year as the co-directress of the Deerfield Montessori Children’s House and a year as a creative-expression teacher at Riverwoods Montessori School. She has been a Maytag Poetry Fellow and Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, and she was a finalist for the Fence Modern Poets Series and the Beatrice Hawley Award.

“I hope that I will become better at making art on a daily basis [during the residency],” Savitz adds, “that it will be a natural part of my life-rhythm, and that I will be more and more connected to inner-peace and to the beautiful imagery surrounding us every day.”

Each spring, in conjunction with the &NOW Festival, residents will spend two months on the College’s campus completing a manuscript, participating in the annual Lake Forest Literary Festival, offering a series of public presentations, and they receive a $10,000 stipend. Their completed manuscript will be published (upon approval) by &NOW Books imprint, with distribution by Northwestern University Press.

The residency is made possible by a donation from a local philanthropist who was impressed by the College’s recently established publishing enterprise, Lake Forest College Press.

“This is the continuation of great things for Lake Forest's creative writing program, and we are thrilled about the possibilities presented by the Plonsker Residency,” Associate Professor of English Davis Schneiderman said.

Emerging prose writers under forty years old, with no major book publication, interested in applying for the 2010 residency should send: Curriculum vita; no more than 30 pages of manuscript in progress; and a one-page statement of plans for completion to: Plonsker Residency, Department of English, Lake Forest College, Box A16, 555 N. Sheridan Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045. Submissions must be postmarked by April 1, 2009 for consideration by judges Robert Archambeau, Davis Schneiderman, and Joshua Corey. Direct inquiries to with the subject line: Plonsker Prize.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Forget the Art World: Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and the Future of the Avant-Garde

So there I was, lounging around on the couch, swilling coffee, munching a scone and beginning to suspect that this Sunday's New York Times was one of the dullest in recent memory, when the lovely and talented Valerie Archambeau drew my attention to a piece by Randy Kennedy on street art, the occasion of which was the installation of Shepherd Fairey's famous Obama portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. The article began with an anecdote about the artist Banksy, which woke me up more than the three cups of Intelligentsia Finca Santuario had been able to:

In 2005, the British artist Banksy — then on the verge of becoming probably the world’s most famous street artist — walked into the Museum of Modern Art and three other New York museums done up in a beige raincoat and fake beard, looking more like a subway flasher than a “quality vandal,” as he called himself. Once inside he furtively mounted his own work among the masterpieces, relying on speed and two-sided tape rather than curatorial consent as his way into the collections, at least until guards noticed. “These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires,” he wrote later in an e-mail message to a reporter, explaining his dim view of museums and his desire to see his work inside one purely to poke fun at the whole idea. “The public never has any real say in what art they see.”

This is great stuff! For one thing, it offers a fantastic example of an actual avant-garde action, something much rarer than you'd think, given how often the term 'avant-garde' gets thrown around. Often, it seems to be some sort of synonym for formal oddness, but in its more restricted sense the term refers to art that takes the institutions of art (museums, galleries, art history, the high-gloss prestige factory that goes by the name "the art world," etc.) as its medium, and takes a critical stance toward the norms of those institutions. As Jochen Schulte-Sasse put it, "the historical avant-garde of the twenties was the first movement in art history that turned against the institution 'art,'" and in 2005 Banksy was clearly working in this mode. I mean, his real medium wasn't the visual art he was posting on the wall — it was the act of posting something in that particular space. Compare Banksy to someone like, say, Damien Hirst, and you can really sense the difference: Hirst is sometimes called avant-garde, but he's entirely a creature of the "art world," making stuff that is discussed and sold in terms dictated by that world — but the Bansky of 2005 was standing outside that scene, and meddling with it.

I've met plenty of people (they shall remain namless) who like the kind of thing Bansky did in '05 so much that they've talked of it in heroic terms, as if taking, say, art history as one's medium made one's work superior to work in other media like, say, paint or clay or stone. I've always thought there was an irony to this: the guys I'm thinking of are way too postmodern to dream of forming a hierarchy of art based on genre (you know: tragedy is better than comedy, or classical music is better than rock music, or whatever). But they seemed to set up an even more restrictive hierarchy by claiming that the medium of an artwork made it inferior or superior to other works. In a way, their position is just a twist on Kant's idea of barbaric taste in which a work is valued not for its form, but for the kind of stuff it's made of. If you call a piece of jewelry beautful because it is made of diamonds and platinum, or you admire a car interior because it is done up in leather, you're engaging in the kind of taste Kant called barbaric. I don't see how this is much different if the medium in question is conceptual. But I digress: Banksy's artwork (or art action) is good stuff, I think, regardless of the medium.

Anyway. Randy Kennedy's article got me thinking about two historical developments pertaining to the avant-garde, the first of which I suppose is an irony, and the second of which is best described as an incipient historical tipping point.

Here's the irony: while the avant-garde set out to attack the institutions of art, it has in large measure been absorbed by those institutions. Although Banksy has been pretty successful at keeping his work from being turned into museum and gallery fodder, such has not been the case for many avant-garde types. I don't think I've got much more to say about this than what I said in an article in Action Yes last year:

It is certainly true that institutions such as museums, galleries, literary anthologies, academic departments of art and literature, and the like are still with us, having withstood the assaults of the avant-garde. And it is equally true that these institutions have absorbed the very avant-gardes that challenged them, to the point where Peter Bürger can complain that “the demand that art be reintegrated in the praxis of life within the existing society can no longer be seriously made” (35).

There is a great irony in reading a statement like this, from the National Gallery of Art’s archive commemorating their 2006 Dada exhibition: "448 works in a wide range of media, including collages, assemblages, photographs, prints, drawings, paintings, posters, films, and audio recordings were presented in this multimedia installation that traced the history of the Dada movement.... Audio recordings of sound poems by Hugo Ball, Kurt Schwitters, and Raoul Hausmann were played in listening chambers, and selected short Dadaist films were shown in a continuous loop in a special viewing area within the installation. An audio tour was narrated by National Gallery of Art director Earl A. Powell III and others." The idea of a special viewing area is anathema to the movement that despised the institutional separation of art from the bustle of life, and unless Earl A. Powell III was present during his narration, and visitors were equipped with wet sponges to hurl at him, the spirit of the movement that invited viewers to take axes to artworks was deeply violated. Even such resolutely anti-institutional neo-avant-garde practices as Allan Kaprow’s Happenings (and his later Activities) have fallen prey to the institutions of art they were designed to challenge and circumvent. These participatory and deliberately spontaneous and ephemeral entities have been filmed, documented, and embalmed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, whose Kaprow exhibit is called (apparently without irony) “Art as Life.”

I'm actually ambivalent about this institutionalizing of the anti-institutional. In a way, it's a neutering of the work. But it's also how I find out about it. I suppose it's like pinning a butterfly to a mounting-board and putting it under glass: you kill the thing in order to show it to people. (I'm not totally against this: I've got a bad-ass Malaysian Cicada mounted in a frame on the mantlepiece, and love looking at the thing. It must weigh a half pound).

So much for the irony, and my, or our, complicity in it all. What about the thing I'm somewhat clumsily calling an 'incipient historical tipping point'? Let me back into the point I want to make by taking a look at Bansky's comment about galleries. “These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires,” said Bansky, “the public never has any real say in what art they see.” I want to say he's right in that first bit, in that galleries and museums are trophy cases for millionaires. Trust me on this: I'm an art-school brat, and I've been around this stuff long enough to know that the kind of cultural-capital accumulation games, the exclusions and class-establishing ploys Pierre Bourdieu described in Distinction are very real. But I've got a couple of reservations that keep me from flat-out endorsing Banksy's statement. Firstly, while galleries and museums are trophy cases for millionaires, they aren't only that. They have a host of functions: like libraries, they sometimes serve as impromptu daytime homeless shelters; they also serve as safe upper-middle-class date venues; they also provide what they claim to provide — access to many wonderful works of art that can mean a lot to a viewer. These aren't mutually exclusive functions.

As for the second bit of what Banksy says, I actually disagree: the public has a great deal of choice about what it sees. In fact, it usually chooses not to see what's in a museum. Many people rightly catch on to the millionaire trophy case function of galleries, and feel unwelcome there. So they choose not to go. Bourdieu has some good stuff about this in Distinction, in the sections on the "entitlement effect." But I'm already digressing and meandering, so I'll leave off with it and not quote Bourdieu right now. Anyway, the popular rejection of galleries connects up to a statement by another artist discussed in Kennedy's article, Shepard Fairey, and this brings me at last to the idea of an incipient historical tipping point for the avant-garde.

But the Shepard Fairey moment [the installation of his portrait of Obama in the National Portrait Gallery] may be less significant for what it says about how museums view street artists than for how those artists have come to view museums — how for many younger artists, street and otherwise, museum enshrinement no longer represents the kind of end zone it did for many who came before, even those like Keith Haring who began with street art and deep misgivings about the establishment. In interviews, Mr. Fairey, 38, has stressed how honored he is to be in the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution and about as American as a museum can be. He has also stressed that he doesn’t see it as a place in a hierarchy but instead on a kind of continuum, right alongside the work he creates with the police on his trail or album covers for bands or work commissioned by huge companies like Dewar’s or Saks Fifth Avenue...

What's interesting about this passage is the way it shows us that the de-hierarchizing tendencies of our time are really starting to amount to something. I mean, it has always been the case that the official art-world was only one of many fields for aesthetic activity. But the art-world hasn't always seen itself that way, and it has often been able to project the illusion that it was the scene that mattered. But centralization and hierarchization continue to wane (probably for technological and socio-economic reasons too big for us to fully grasp, let alone change, even if we wanted to, which I don't). And this has implications for the avant-garde. I mean, as late as 2005 Banksy could still talk about galleries and museums as if they were the dominant force that we needed to rebel against, and he could work against them using the fine old tactics of the avant-garde. But (to lapse into unforgivable academese) avant-gardism of this kind is intended as the negation of a dominant set of institutions. And we're reaching a point where this kind of action makes less sense than it once did. What do you do when those institutions have been swamped amid all the other venues for aesthetic production and display? Attacking a giant Godzilla is one thing, but what to do when the miraculous shrink-ray of postmodernity reduces that Godzilla to just one more regulation-sized iguana among many others? You've got to change your game. The way Shepard Fairey has done.

All of this resonates with a conversation I had with my colleague Dave Park the other day. He'd stopped by to pick me up on the way to a brunch party and we sat around getting tanked up on coffee and talking Foucault and Bourdieu (Dave's a social scientist, and knows his way around this stuff by different paths than I do). We got on to the notion of utopias and their negation in anti-utopias, and Dave proposed the idea of heterotopia: that is, of the rejection of the notion of an ideal-world, and of the negation of that ideal-world by its critics (who hold up implicit or explicit counter-utopias). The true happy state is a plural one, a heterotopia of many possibilities. The best case for art now seems to be heterotopic, rather than the false utopia of the official art world, or the negation of that utopia by the old-school avant-garde.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vive La Belgique Sauvage: The Superiority of the Minor Avant-Garde

Alrighty then. So I've got about a half-dozen writing committments simmering in the critical kitchen, and several bits of administative trivia waiting to be swept under the rug. And a guest-room only half converted into a nursery. So the only rational thing to do is to continue writing about Belgian surrealism, even though I've wrapped up my official commitment in that area and sent the little essay off to the editors of the relevant journal. Anyway, it's all I've thought about this morning, as I cleaned up my notes and files from the writing of the essay.

So here's what I'm thinking: Belgian surrealism was the real deal, and those Belgians who stayed at home in Belgium were in a crucial sense better positioned to carry out one of the central projects of the avant-garde than were their Parisian and New York-based colleagues. That is: their eccentricity vis-a-vis the centers of artistic and literary reputation-making actually helped them to develop a critical attitude toward the institutions of culture. And wasn't the development of such an attitude one of the main goals of the avant-garde from Dada on?

Just about anything one reads about the Belgian surrealist scene (which started up in the 20s and continued to thrive well into the 60s) mentions the unpretentiousness and affability of it all. In contradistinction to the status-monkeys vying for Breton's blessing in Paris, or trying to pick up some of Dali's commercial luster in New York, we always hear of a Belgian scene dominated by people who actually liked one another, and pursued their work as a form of pleasure and intellectual engagement free from reputation-grubbing and political maneuvering. An example ready to hand from my files is Klaus Herding's 1982 review of a Magritte exhibition that placed M.'s work in the context of the Belgian scene from which the famous artist emerged. "Belgian surrealism," writes Herding, has up to now

...been overshadowed by the French artistic canon, yet here it reveals itself as highly distinctive and at the same time more firmly rooted in the native soil than its Parisian counterpart. In the André Breton circle, for example, there was a clash between exclusivity (for which a conventional term was le château) and a revolutionary demand for validity for all (the expression for this was l'océan)... the Belgian branch purported to be more 'reasonable,' jollier and more relaxed: good food and drink rather than male sado-masochistic fantasies were the rule when its practitioners met, and from 1949 until 1951 Magritte, Mariën, Louis Scutenaire, Paul Nougé, Paul Colinet and Robert Willems contributed as cartoonists to the weekly magazine Vendredi.

It sounds like a good-natured, congenial scene, which didn't take itself too seriously (a particular crime for surrealists, I should think). Of course there's a price one pays for shunning ambition (I mean ambition in the very bourgoise sense of material self-advancement, and the artsy variant where we simply substitute a lust for personal fame and the piling up of cultural capital around one's name for the regulation bourgeois' accumulation of economic capital), and Michel Delville, the guy who hipped me to Belgian surrealism in Liège a decade ago, understands this well. Here's a bit from his essay "The Secret History of Belgian Surrealism," which we ran in Samizdat back in 2001:

Correspondance, the first Belgian Surrealist magazine, was founded by Paul Nougé, Camille Goemans and Marcel Lecomte in 1924, the same year as Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto. Since that time, Belgian poetry has remained one the European avant-garde’s best-kept secrets. The names of Nougé, Chavée and Dumont are conspicuously absent from most anthologies and literary histories, and Belgian surrealism is generally considered as a non-literary phenomenon and almost systematically confined to the paintings of René Magritte and Paul Delvaux. Unlike many other Belgian writers who moved to Paris to make a career (the examples of Georges Simenon, Henri Michaux, Pierre Alechinsky and many others come to mind) most Belgian surrealists published their work in their home country, and this may explain their lack of recognition outside a small circle of connoisseurs and specialists. Perhaps it is the sense of being relegated to the margins of francophone culture that accounts, at least in part, for the radical, convulsive spirit that runs through the history of the Belgian counterculture, from proto-Dada poet Clément Pansaers to Noël Godin, the now world-famous entarteur who recently hit Bill Gates with a cream pie...

The interesting bit here, for me, is the way the deliberate self-marginalization of the group actually allows them to develop a special perspective, a more subversive "radical, convulsive spirit" than is found elsewhere in surrealism. One way to think about this special perspecitve is with the concept of "minor literature" articulated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. For them, minor literature is not (or not necessarily) a literature written by an ethnic or cultural minority — though it can happen that way, and may even help. I mean, Kafka — whose relationship to language and ethnicity was all kinds of crazy — offers Deleuze and Guattari their test case for minor literature in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. But it's important to note that D. and G. aren't talking about a literature written, identity-politics style, to represent a particular identity group and its interests (though they weren't against that sort of thing). A minor literature represents, rather, something more like a deep, even intuitive, critical attitude toward the dominant ways of representing the world. Both the values of the dominant culture and the language expressing those values (that is, the dominant culture's major literature) are held up to question by the writer of a minor literature, who therefore becomes “a sort of stranger within his own language.”

Reidar Due, in his book Deleuze, gets the gist of this down rather economically, saying: “To be a classical writer one has to have access to a central viewpoint from which to represent the moral, cultural, and political structure of a society. Minor literature, by contrast, views society from an oblique, marginal angle.” He then goes on to contrast Goethe, as a classic or major author, with Joseph Conrad, whom Due sees as a writer of minor literature in the Deleuzian sense:

With his drama Faust Goethe created a representation of middle-class values and dilemmas (morality and sex, thought and action) in which subsequent generations of middle-class citizens could recognize themselves. That made Goethe a classical author. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, by contrast, depicts English colonialism as a hell of barbarism and cruelty — and he can do so [sic] because he produces specific intensive states within the English language, liberating it from its conventional rhetorical virtues of wit, elegance, and satire.

Minority, then, is stylistic and moral dissent, and it's important too: as Deleuze and Guattari oxymoronically put it, “there is nothing that is major or revolutionary except the minor.”

I think the deliberately self-marginalizing Belgian surrealists, off doing their own thing in the provinces, are well positioned to take an eccentric and critical stance toward the institutions of the dominant literature and culture in Paris. I suppose Breton and co. could be said to represent a minor-lit stance toward the big culture of, say, La Nouvelle Revue Française, but the Belgians hold minor status even with relation to the Paris-New York avant-garde scene. Their refusal to beat feet over to the city of lights to make it on the scene there is already a kind of statement to this effect.

Anyway. The Belgians' position outside the main institutions of Francophone culture (even avant-garde Francophone culture) is, ironically, a great strength for them in pursuing one of the main projects of the avant-garde: the undermining of cultural institutions. My great touchstone for the hows and whys of the avant-garde questioning of the institutions of art is Jochen Schulte-Sasse's introduction to Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-Garde, where he tells us about how the avant-garde evolved out of a sense of the limits of late-nineteenth-century aestheticism (you know: Oscar Wilde and company). It's probably not necessary to quote from it here, but in the great scheme of things this whole post is unnecessary, so in the spirit of general egregiousness I'll quote my favorite chunk of Schulte-Sasse's intro to Bürger:

Aestheticism’s intensification of artistic autonomy and its effect on the foundation of a special realm of aesthetic experience permitted the avant-garde to clearly recognize the social inconsequentiality of autonomous art and, as the logical consequence of this recognition, to attempt to lead art back into social praxis....the turning point from Aestheticism to the avant-garde is determined by the extent to which art comprehended the mode in which it functioned in bourgeois society, its comprehension of its own social status. The historical avant-garde of the twenties was the first movement in art history that turned against the institution “art” and the mode in which autonomy functions.

So that's a general avant-garde project — and I think we can see how in a sense it's also a particular kind of minor literature project: in questioning the institution of art it also questions the forms and values of classical art. But the Belgian surrealist move — coming from a group on the fringes of the avant-garde, which is to say from the fringes of the fringe — involves questioning both the classic literature and the central core of the avant-garde itself.

The work of Marcel Broodthaers offers a good case in point (but he's just one among many — he comes to mind largely, I think, because there was an exhibit of his down at the Arts Club in Chicago last time I had lunch there with my appropriately avant colleague Davis Schneiderman). Some of Broodthaers' thumbings-of-the-nose at the institutions of art were done with a light touch. I particularly like how he simply declared the existence of the "Musée d'Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles" one day. It was located in his apartment (and, later, became a kind of umbrella organization, or faux-organization, for many of his activities, and for the writings and performances of his friends. Eventually he expanded it to include a "Section Littéraire" and a "Section Cinéma." It was a great way of poking fun at the pretentions of Official Culture.

Official culture, though, is a pretty easy target. Broodthaers went further, often questioning or undermining the conventions of the avant-garde itself. I keep coming back in my thinking to his "Pense-Bête," a piece where he took some of the unsold copies of a book of poems he wrote and clumsily cast them (along with a child's ball) into a hunk of plaster. It's important to the piece that the books sit loosely in the plaster, and could be pulled loose and read. Think about it: when the only people likely to view the piece (afficionados of the avant-garde) come to see it, they are faced with the contradictions of the avant-garde art lover. On the one hand, they're all committed to the idea that art isn't sacred and shouldn't be cut off from us by any sacred aura. On the other hand, to actually pick up one of the books and read it would be to violate the decorum of the gallery: they'd be damaging an exhibit. Of course they shouldn't be bothered about damaging an exhibit: hadn't the great Dada heroes placed small axes next to their work, along with invitations for spectators to destroy anything they disliked (hence ceasing to be mere spectators)? But the contradiction of being avant-garde and being an art-lover was too much. As Broodthaers observed in "Ten Thousand Francs Reward," no one actually ever violated the sacred aura of the exhibit to read a book: they all looked at them politely, like the most bourgeois of exhibition-consumers:

Here you cannot read the book without destroying its sculptural aspect. It is a concrete gesture that passes the prohibition on to the viewer — at least that's what I thought would happen. But I was surprised to find out that viewers reacted quite differently from what I had imagined. Everyone so far, no matter who, has perceived the object as an artistic expression or a curiosity. "Look! Books in plaster!" No one had any curiosity about the text; nobody had any idea whether this was the final burial of prose or poetry, of sadness or pleasure"

I'm not sure whether he showed them, or they showed him, but I am sure about what's on display: the contradictions of avant-garde art itself.

Another way Broodthaers' "Pense-Bête" challenges the norms of the avant-garde is by causing us to question the nature of one of the major avant-garde forms: the readymade. Dieter Schwarz (to whose thinking I'm indebted in everything I say about Broodthaers) has a lot to say about this in an old issue of October. "In contradistinction to the readymade, which is selected by its 'author, being thereby instated as an aesthetic object'" says Schwarz, "the poems of Pense-Bête [the book, not the sculpture of the same name] remain part of a literary discourse, for the author's statement is obviously .... inscribed within a cultural tradition." That is: the readymade is usually a testament to the aesthetic gaze and aesthetic intention of the artist: he sees something and, by selecting it, declares that it has aesthetic value. Here, though, the found object has already been designated as an aesthetic object (in a literary sense, not a sculptural one), and has been so designated by the same guy who is now presenting it as a found object. And can an object really be called a readymade when it is the artist in question who actually made the object (albiet for a different purpose)? If the readymade asks "what makes art art?", then "Pense-Bête" asks "what makes a readymade a readymade?" So the avant-garde questioner of art finds himself interrogated. The minor avant-garde takes a good, hard, critical look at the classic avant-garde. And does it while having a good time, too.

Michel Delville got it right, I think, when he said (in "A Secret History of Belgian Surrealism") that many works of Belgian surrealism were enabled by the distance from the fame-hunting, revolution-dreaming world of Parisian surrealism. The Belgians, says Delville, "were inspired by the chink of beer bottles, the smell of fried sausages and the sight of people pissing in the streets on their way back from the local café. As Louis Scutenaire once put it, in Belgium 'on boit de la bière et on mange de la viande / Et tout le monde est une bande d’abrutis' ('we drink beer and we eat meat / And we’re all just a bunch of morons')." Now that's what I call a liberating vision of art!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dreamsongs: Mine and Berryman's

The latest Cultural Society is up online, thanks to the efforts of the indefatigable Zach Barocas, who deserves some kind of medal for getting his editing done while relocating from Minneapolis to New York. Marring the very fine list of contributions is my own effort, "Nawlins Dreamsong Late ’08." The poem makes a big deal about insisting it is based on real events, and it is based on real events. But I can do nothing without a text, and the poem is also based on John Berryman's "Dream Song 15," which sprang into my mind while the events recounted in the poem were going on. I'm not entirely sure why, though I suppose it had to do with the sudden manifestation of the weirdness of the bits of speech encountered in each poem.

Anyway, in recognition of the debt to Berryman and his persona-driven dream-theater, here's his poem, which is truly fabulous, if pretty dark. The Chicago woman's words — "kiss my ass, that's what you are" — are the kind of poetry of everyday life that doesn't get preserved often enough:

Let us suppose, valleys & such ago,
one pal unwinding from his labours in
one bar of Chicago
and this did actually happen. This was so.
And many graces are slipped, & many a sin
even that laid man low

but this will be remembered & told over,
that she was heard at last, haughtful & greasy,
to brawl in that low bar:
'You can biff me, you can bang me, get it you'll never.
I may be only a Polack broad but I don't lay easy.
Kiss my ass, that's what you are.'

Women is better, braver. In a foehn of loss
entire, which too they hotter understand,
having had it,
we struggle. Some hang heavy on the sauce,
some invest in the past, one hides in the land.
Henry was not his favourite.

That sense of a lost innocence in the third stanza is as strong here as it is anywhere in The Dreamsongs. And this poem's got the added emotional oomph of that sad, scrappy underdog thing. I like to think the whack-job language in my poem is some kind of cousin to what Berryman had going on, but my "Nawlins Dreamsong" has none of the emotional depth on display in Berryman's poem. Maybe I make up for some of the lost ground with a few allusions, but this is clearly Berryman's game being played here, not mine. I just wanted to pay my hommage.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Exhibit A: Marcel Broodthaers

I've been tapping out a short essay about Belgian Surrealist poetry of the mid-twentieth century today (what, like you did something more important?), and this got me thinking about the whole Surrealist scene in Belgium from the 40s through the 60s. One of my favorite guys from the scene was Marcel Broodthaers, and his sensibility really takes you to the kind of half-wry, half-punk ethos they had going back then. Broodthaers started out as a poet. When (oh great inevitability) copies of his book Pense-Bête didn't sell, he cast a bunch of them in plaster and declared himself a visual artist. It worked out. So, you know, there's hope.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Roberto Bolaño and the Limits of the Aesthetic

Just coming back to my senses after three days zonked out on the couch with the flu. It's always strange, coming back to health: I feel like I could lift a Dodge pickup over my head Superman-style and hurl it at Dr. Octopus, saving the citizery from certain doom, if I had to (yeah, I'm mixing my D.C. and my Marvel — what of it?). Not that any such emergency is likely: Chicago's so arctic today Doc Oc would probably be found shivering in a snowbank, wrapped in all eight of his arms and checking on his Blackberry to see if he had enough frequent flier miles to visit his pal Mark Scroggins in Florida. For the past three days I've been deeply sub-superhero in my general functionality, and done little more than eat pretzel rods and watch movies on cable — indeed, one could say I've been reduced to my grad school level of existence. But I'm back, people, and lacking any heroic pickup truck hurling opportunities (curse you, Gods of Midwestern Winter!) I want to tap out a few thoughts about Roberto Bolano before getting back to working on my part of The Salt Companion to John Matthias.

So here's what I've been thinking, as I work my way toward the end of The Savage Detectives. One of the things that critics of Latin American literature say about Bolano (forgive me for leaving out the diacritical mark over the "n" throughout — I'm blogging in a hurry today) is that he represents a break with prior generations of writers who were committed to very different agendas: Magical Realism, say, or politically committed writing. And as far as I can tell, they've got a point. What I haven't seen discussed in any detail, though, is the way aesthetic autonomy plays into all this. Long story short, what I think The Savage Detectives gives us is a portrait of an imagined-but-sort-of-real generation of (mostly) Mexican poets whose lives and works are devoted to poetry, not to something beyond it. Bolano's characters, like Bolano himself, aren't just poets, they're poetry geeks, poetry nerds, poetry obsessives. They don't write to liberate the people or to forge the uncreated conscience of their race — they're into poetry as poetry. And, for Bolano, this is ultimately their doom. So The Savage Detectives is a kind of elegy for the doomed poetry nerd, and a confession by an aesthete of the dead-end nature of aestheticism.

If I weren't in a hurry to down some coffee, I'd probably go up to the study, pick up my copy of the novel, and type in a few of the passages I marked by way of evidence. But since that's not going to happen, I'll just offer evidence in summary form. Firstly, consider the novel's long opening section, "Mexicans Lost in Mexico," presented in the form of the diary of a young poet. I wasn't optimistic about the novel when I was reading this section — it just seemed like a salsa-and-guacamole version of The Dharma Bums. But it actually works quite well to establish Bolano's notion of a generation drawn to poetry as a way of disengaging with the world. Here we see young poets dropping out of the world of the professions, turning away from politics or a sense of folkloric connection to The People, and trying to form their own little island, their world-within-a-world, where all that matters is poetry. It's particularly important that their main concerns are with blasting away at the aesthetic conventions of prior generations. As Pierre Bourdieu points out in The Field of Cultural Production, the Oedipal imperative to overthrow older generations' aesthetics becomes most powerful when there's nothing at stake in art except style, when art becomes something pursued for art's sake alone. I mean, if you're an artmaker trying to score big with a market (think Hollywood movies), you actually cleave to established formulae. Same thing if you're all about putting your art at the service of power (think socialist realism, or, closer to home, of the portraits of institutional presidents hanging in the big neo-gothic hall of your local high-gloss university). But if the idea is to make a mark not in the broader world, but in an aesthetic scene cut loose from broader engagement and turned in upon itself (or, to put it in positive terms, set free from extra-artistic imperatives), you become kind of agitated about making new forms. Again, I'm in no way motivated to actually go up to the study and get the book, but I bet if I google a few remembered phrases I can pull a reasonably good passage of Bourdieu off the web. Hang on.... Yup. Here:

The literary or artistic field is at all times the site of a struggle between the two principles of hierarchization: the heteronomous principle, favourable to those who dominate the field economically and politically (e.g. ‘bourgeois art’) and the autnomous principle (e.g. ‘art for art’s sake’), which those of its advocates who are least endowed with specific capital tend to identify with a degree of independence from the economy, seeing temporal failure as a sign of election and success as a sign of compromise. (40)

Thus we find three competing principles of legitimacy. First, there is the specific principle of legitimacy, i.e., the recognition granted by the set of producers who produce for other producers, their competitors, i.e. by the autonomous self-sufficient world of ‘art for art’s sake’, meaning art for artists. Secondly, there is the principle of legitimacy corresponding to ‘bourgeois’ taste and to the consecration bestowed by the dominant fractions of the dominant class and by private tribunals, such as salons, or public, state-guaranteed ones, such as academies, which sanction the inseperably ethical and aesthetic (and therefore political) taste of the dominant. Finally, there is the principle of legitimacy which its advocates call ‘popular’, i.e. the consecration bestowed by the choice of ordinary consumers, the ‘mass audience’. (51)

I pulled these from this guy's site, which seems to have an interesting critique of Bourdieu. Anyway — you get the idea, right? Art for art's sake turns away from any form of consecration based on popularity, political efficacy, etc. And for believers in this sort of thing, a real event in art isn't the classically correct text, the big popular hit, the top moneymaking movie, the book that spoke to the soul of the nation, or the poem that inspired the revolutionary leader in his early days: it's the work of art that made an impact on the medium of art itself. It's the stylistically innovative piece of work.

This is what Bolano's characters value. Their little movement, Visceral Realism, is all about overturning the old poets. And Bolano shows us his characters trying to cut themselves off from anything heterogenous to art and literature. They want to live for the aesthetic alone (well, that and sex and marijuana). The pathos of the first part of The Savage Detectives comes from how doomed this seems. The characters are surrounded by thugs and pimps and corrupt police, and we can feel the world of power and corruption closing in on the naive poets, bit by bit.

The later sections of Bolano's novel, told in many voices, offer two versions of one of Bolano's great themes: the quest for the missing poet. We hear from a lot of narrators about two poets who are constantly in the background of the first part of the novel, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (really based on Bolano and a friend and fellow poet). Belano and Lima are, in part, aimless waifs,but when they are motivated about something it's all about tracking down lost poetry from forgotten avant-gardes. So we as readers, catching glimpses of Belano and Lima, quest after them, our missing poets, never quite catching them satisfactorily, even as they themselves are on a similar quest for missing poets. The sad thing is this: when we hear of Belano and Lima finding the writers they quest for, the meetings are never satisfactory or transformational. This pursuit of poetry for its own sake seems more and more like an empty or desperate enterprise, like something conducted by people who never really learned to live in the world. Bolano really strips the glamor from the idea of the life lived only for poetry, giving us characters who seem vulnerable, lost, a little desperate. It kind of hurts to see it.

So there's a sadness to the book, in that it takes the position that the aesthetic autonomy that has been the informing principle of its characters is a dead-end. And Bolano's got ethos on this one, people: he lived the life of the poet maudit in a way we bourgeois-bohemians, perched behind our Apple laptops in our offices or studies, simply haven't. But what's more interesting to me is the cultural context of all this. I mean, when people think of Bolano's generation as offering a break with the big currents of Latin American writing, they're on to something — because much of that writing operated on principles other than aesthetic autonomy. This is actually quite common in non-first-world places. In places where people tend to feel semi-colonized, or dominated by an undemocratic oligarchy, they often don't feel that the national institutions represent their values, and they call upon literature to fill the void. Literature becomes a thing of national importance, a political and social thing more than an aesthetic thing (and does so for great numbers of people, not just for the eleven poets in the room, who want to think their work is somehow of vast social importance). (I'd quote my favorite guy on this, Declan Kiberd, but I already did so here and here, so I feel like I should lay off) (by the way: in the second link you'll find a howling screw-up, in which I and my editor both let a slip-up stand, with "Richard Hugo" written when I meant "Victor Hugo" — oh, the shame!). Anyway. In the Latin American context prior to Bolano there are many versions of this heteronomous aesthetic, this placing of the value of art in social rather than aesthetic criteria. There's Neruda's Marxism, for example. Or there's Magical Realism, which for all of its extravagence is a kind of identity politics, right? I mean, much of its goal is to show that there's a special, non-European-Enlightenment logic to Latin America. This makes Magical Realism a cousin to other identity-based reactions to colonialism, like, say, Negritude. But Bolano rejects all of this by following the path of aesthetic autonomy. Then he goes one better, and shows us the limits of his own path. He negates what came before, and negates his own negation (sorry for that sentence — one never really recovers from one's reading of Hegel).

I've got a strong sense this entry is a bit of a stylistic train wreck and in need of a serious proof-read, but I see Doctor Octopus has put on a warm scarf and is menacing the citizens of Chicago. They need me! And there's a very hurlable looking Dodge pickup parked conveniently nearby. It's not yours, is it? No? Alrighty, then!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

10K, Publication, and a Place to Write

The official ads will be going out soon, but I thought I'd give a sneak preview of the second annual Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize, a publication and residency award we give out at Lake Forest. It's sort of a Virginia Woolf "room of one's own" concept. This year it's for prose, next year it'll be for poetry.

Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer's Residency Prize (Prose)

Lake Forest College, in conjunction with the &NOW organization, invites applications for an emerging prose writer under forty years old, with no major book publication, to spend two months (February-March or March-April 2010) in residence at our campus in Chicago’s northern suburbs on the shore of Lake Michigan.

There are no formal teaching duties attached to the residency. Time is to be spent completing a manuscript, participating in the Lake Forest Literary Festival, and offering two public presentations.

The completed manuscript will be published (upon approval) by the Lake Forest College Press &NOW Books imprint.

The stipend is $10,000, with a housing suite and campus meals.

Send curriculum vita, no more than 30 pages of manuscript in progress, and a one-page statement of plans for completion to:

Plonsker Residency
Department of English
Lake Forest College
Box A16
555 N. Sheridan Road
Lake Forest, IL 60045.

Submissions must be postmarked by April 1, 2009 for consideration by judges Robert Archambeau, Davis Schneiderman, and Joshua Corey.

Please don't email me about this, though. We've got to take care of this via the address above.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Archive as Adventure: Jerome Rothenberg Revisited

Mere moments ago I braved the Chicago cold to retrieve a copy of Jerome Rothenberg's latest book, Poetics & Polemics: 1980-2005 from my mailbox, where it landed with a thud almost as satisfying, if somewhat less in the basso profundo range, as that made when the third volume of the Rothenberg & Joris-edited anthology Poems for the Millennium arrived a few days ago [*update/correction: the new volume in the series is edited by Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson, as Jerry has just reminded me]. Jerry was kind enough to send a copy of Poetics and Polemics my way, probably because it includes an interview with him I ran in the old Samizdat magazine in 2001. That issue was dedicated to celebrating the second volume of the Rothenberg/Joris anthology, and to their years-long creative collaboration (most, but not all, of the content is up online). Anyway, it seems like a good time to revisit the Rothenberg/Joris project, so here's the introduction I wrote to the special issue some eight years ago:

Editorial: Archive as Adventure

A year or two before the first volume of Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’ seminal anthology Poems for the Millennium appeared in 1995, I was sitting in a seminar room at the University of Notre Dame, wondering what John Matthias was going to say about the three books he’d arrayed on the table in front of him. “What does one do with something like this?” he said, hefting an enormous reference book that listed the names and addresses of thousands of American poets. “I suppose you could drop it on something that needed flattening.”

Here was poetry unsorted and unmapped, explained Matthias, here was a gathering of poets about whom no editorial choices had been made. “This isn’t much better,” he said, picking up the second book, nearly as large. It was the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. An anthology that tried to be all things to all people all the time, he explained, ended up being nothing much at all. One could root around in it for individual poems, but the book itself made no statement. As bland as a committee-authored document from the federal budget department, and about as informative when it came to the state of poetry.

The third book still lay on the table, rather old and conspicuously thinner. Squinting a little from where I sat, I could just make out the title: Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English, edited by Yvor Winters and Ken Fields. “Then there’s the opposite extreme,” Matthias said, brandishing the book, which was slimmer than the novels I’d been reading on the train ride out from Chicago to South Bend. “Here’s what Winters thought of as the real tradition, pared down to this little gathering.” Matthias, I knew, was no Wintersian–he was one of Winters’ renegade students–and his own taste in poetry was among the most catholic of anyone I’d met. But he’d used Winters’ narrow little book effectively to make his point: anthologists need to make principled choices if their books are going to have anything to say about poetry, its past or its future.

At first glance, you might think the two volumes of Poems for the Millennium fall into the same formless category as the Norton Anthology. Together they add up to a similar page count, and their presence on a bookshelf is far more imposing. But after you steel yourself for a long swim, dive into the anthology, and surface at the far shore, you emerge with a clear sense of the organizing principle–one could even say the mission–of Rothenberg and Joris’ great editorial project. The principle, in a word, is awakening: awakening to the possibilities of language, of experiment, of what Mallarmé called the “freed word.” Awakening, above all, to the usable pasts of modernist and postmodernist innovation.

In their introduction to the second volume, Rothenberg and Joris lament the dark days following the second world war. It was as a time in which the poetic energy of the prewar years had been drained away by the institutionalization of a tamed and truncated version of modernism. These years witnessed “an ascendant literary ‘modernism’–hostile to experiment and reduced in consequence to a vapid, often stuffy middle-ground approximation.” There was a willful forgetting of the openness of modernism, and a turn to “a fixed notion of poetry and poem, which might be improved upon but was never questioned at the root.” The task of poets coming of age in the fifties and sixties, argue Rothenberg and Joris, was to find what had been lost, to revive the electrical energy of the force that had crackled through poetry at the beginning of the century. They call the fulfillment of this task “the second great awakening of poetry,” and the second volume of their anthology is an archive of that awakening.

In our own time the discourse about poetry, if not poetry itself, seems to have suffered through a taming and truncation of possibilities similar to the one Rothenberg and Joris saw in the years after World War II. I don’t think we’re about to see anyone offering as narrow a version of poetry as Winters offered in his little anthology. But the easy division of poetry into mainstream and otherstream, into Iowa school and Buffalo school, into confession and langpo, has become stifling. The two party version of poetry is about as satisfying and representative as the two party version of politics. In this context, Rothenberg and Joris’ archive of poetry’s two great awakenings in the last century has a special importance. In its pages lie the usable pasts of a third great awakening of poetry.

The current issue seeks to celebrate the Rothenberg/Joris collaboration. No one else could have assembled the work they have assembled, and no one else could have performed so well the alchemy that converts archive to adventure.

I think I can stand by most of what I said back then, except for the penultimate paragraph. For one thing, the notion of an Iowa/Buffalo dichotomy seems dated. And the discourse about poetry has really changed in the past eight years, too, a development that has everything to do with the blogosphere and the migration of critical discussion online. Where we once had a culture of quarterly journal review pages consisting of nine parts logrolling and one part snark, and an incipient email list culture made up of nine parts snark and one part logrolling, we're now seeing more discussion, conducted more variously, than ever before. The blogospheric ambience may not be a match for that of the Parisian cafés of the '20s, but the talk about poetry has never been better.


In other news, I think I'm officially the last person in the world to join Facebook. I'm hoping it doesn't take up all my time: I've got a big anthology to get through.