by Ron Silliman
Monday, February 27, 2006
What does it mean for a work of art to be eminently likeable and almost completely unreadable? That, I think, is the ultimate trick at the heart of the project of Kenny Goldsmith's self-announced uncreative writing. Perhaps it's his background as a visual artist, a degree in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design, or his work as a radio DJ (he is, after all, a man who wears many hats), but Goldsmith has found the perfect mix between complete mischief--a little deadpan, with a big wink--and serious investigation into the meaning of art and writing in the 21st century. And found more than a few folks who are willing to take his projects with rapt attention & perfect seriousness. Even as he seeks to arrive at a mode of writing that he himself characterizes as "nutritionless," ever striving to get closer to something that would really really be boring. Typing the whole of one edition of The New York Times, a year's worth of weather reports, documenting every move his body made for a day or every word he spoke in a week, Goldsmith has emerged as the most critically well-inspected writer now under the age of 50 in the United States. I knew people were taking him seriously when, over five years ago, the MacArthur Foundation called to ask me if I thought he was a genius.
The latest verification of Goldsmith's anti-poetic strategy is the newest issue of Open Letter, Twelfth Series, Number 7, which is devoted to "Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics," and jointly guest edited by Lori Emerson and Barbara Cole, 18 mostly thoughtful pieces about Goldsmith's work. Joshua Schuster quotes Goldsmith directly:
I am the most boring writer that has ever lived. If there were an Olympic sport for extreme boredom, I would get a gold medal. My books are impossible to read straight through. In fact, every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly. You really don't need to read my books to get the idea of what they're like; you just need to know the general concept.Schuster, like Marjorie Perloff, Johanna Drucker, Caroline Bergvall, Christian Bok, Geoffrey Young, Robert Fitterman, Craig Dworkin, Bruce Andrews, Darren Wershler-Henry & others, seems completely fascinated--I want to use the word enchanted, in all its connotations--by this.
One of the major social functions of art is to reveal the world to us, its inhabitants. At this, Goldsmith is certainly an unqualified success. That's the part I think everyone gets--the language of The New York Times, including the tidal information and classified advertising, is indeed what we confront, as citizens & readers alike. When Goldsmith invokes, as he almost invariably does when interviewed, John Cage, Andy Warhol & Jeff Koons as predecessors, this is exactly what he's getting at. Goldsmith is not only revealing to us the world as it is, but by doing so in the most extreme ways possible, reveals the presumptions that lie behind our art categories as well.
Yet what he is not saying is, I think, more intriguing and problematic. First, there is the cult of the artist as his own work of art. Open Letter is remarkably silent on the relationship of Goldsmith's work to that of other simultaneous authors of appropriated materials, especially Mark Peters & Peter Balistrieri, both of whom are pointedly absent in this first festschrift of Goldsmith's career. From Duchamp's urinal to Kathy Acker's version of Harold Robbins (or Bernadette Mayer's inclusion of the entire text of a Jerry Rothenberg poem into one of her works), appropriation of the social world, whether aesthetic (Acker, Mayers) or anti-aesthetic (Duchamp), is as old as the hills. It's not that Goldsmith, the archivist of Ubuweb, doesn't know this. It's because his projects, by design, never stand on their own, that his commentators invariably turn back to the cult of Kenny. It is, after all, his body, his words. Then, by repeatedly reciting the same few names over & over, the presence of a much broader landscape seems to fade from critical consciousness.
Another part of what makes Goldsmith's project work is that he always holds back from the truly nutrition-free text. The full text of The New York Times is not the same thing as the full text of one day of the Kansas City Star-Tribune. Choosing to record your movements for one full day and then picking June 16th, Bloomsday, is to position yourself up against Joyce. This may not be the same mawkishly sentimental usage that Cage makes when he reads through Finnegans Wake, but in its own way it's every bit as precious.
To the degree that his commentators seem conscious of these two issues in Goldsmith's work, their pieces have value, tho nobody addresses these adequately. In fact, the very best piece in the new Open Letter comes last--Darren Werschler-Henry's consideration of the implications of Goldsmith's work is a perfect foundation for thinking through its resonances for future practice. It's guaranteed to make you think about what you do as an artist.
The other piece that I recommend here is Caroline Bergvall's interactive interview with Goldsmith, done while traversing the streets of New York (a trope that Robert Fitterman also employs for his homage). Bergvall does get one almost obscenely naked comment out of Goldsmith, who otherwise seems thoroughly barricaded by the Cult of Kenny figurine throughout:
Q. Your favourite historical figure.That's really worth thinking about. History is of course impossible if not written from a point-of-view and much, tho not all, of Goldsmith's work tries very hard to erase that. It's also diachronic where Goldsmith is, if not strictly synchronic--the paper comes all at once, it's how you read it that adds temporal progression, which the paper can only partly dictate through design. History also requires a critical dimension--again something Goldsmith systematically seems to erase. It's not that Goldsmith is writing in opposition to history & its inevitable "this is how it felt to us winners" narratives, but rather that he tries to envision how things might look absent that dimension altogether. Imagine, for example, someone documenting every move a homeless person made during the course of one day. That would be an utterly dissimilar project than any of Goldsmith's, calling up all kinds of social issues around poverty, but also around surveillance and real "appropriation." All these choices would set up a network of connotations, including contradictory political dimensions, that the reader/viewer would have to confront. But since Kenny Goldsmith's actual art project is the projection of Kenny Goldsmith, these are the kinds of questions his work passes over in silence.