Academic journal article Style

Kathy Acker as Conceptual Artist: In Memoriam to Identity and "Working Past Failure"

Academic journal article Style

Kathy Acker as Conceptual Artist: In Memoriam to Identity and "Working Past Failure"

Article excerpt

1. Plagiarism: "Task Work" and Conceptual Art

I grew up basically in the conceptual part of the art world, and 1 was trained to think about writing in a certain way. You have an intention, then you set up the experiment, you go ahead and do the experiment as you set it up, and anything that's outside that experiment detracts from what you're doing. The experiment was never about, say, good writing.

--Kathy Acker, "Body Bildung"

One of Kathy Acker's narrative methodologies was borrowing and rewriting lines from other authors' texts. Her "plagiarisms" are announced in the titles of some of her novels, namely Great Expectations and Don Quixote, or else made obvious in book blurbs, textual notes, or citations of authors' names. Acker acknowledged that Sherrie Levine's photographs of illustrations in art books inspired her appropriation fiction ("Conversation" 13; "Path" 29). (1) Yet her conversations with artists and scholars such as Sylvere Lotringer, Larry McCaffrey, and Lawrence A. Rickels suggest that her interest in conceptual art extends beyond Levine. She mentioned by name Dan Graham, Joseph Kosuth, and Sol LeWitt and revealed that the latter was an early patron ("Devoured" 9). (2) In the epigraph quoted above, Acker explained how writing novels as she did can be a type of conceptual art. LeWitt's austere, mathematical gallery artworks hardly resemble Acker's sexually explicit punk narratives, but the two shared a common approach to creation. "[A]ll of the planning and decisions are made beforehand" so that "the execution is a perfunctory affair" (LeWitt 12).

Acker and LeWitt privilege the idea and activity that generates the work over the resulting art object (or text, in Acker's case). Lucy Lippard and John Chandler called this the "dematerialization of art" in a famous essay of the same name published in 1968. Terry Atkinson, an English conceptual artist, claimed in response to Lippard and Chandler that the art object was but a "necessary by-product," borne of "the need to record the idea" (54). Scholars today continue to call attention to this basic attribute of conceptual art. Art historian Johanna Drucker writes that for conceptual artists the form makes the idea into something specific, a work, an image, and a material locus that sustains a contradiction: the work is and is not the idea" (256). This article examines a similar paradox inherent in Acker's plagiarisms. She makes it obvious that she draws from certain sources so that readers regard the intention to copy as an artistic decision. The actual experience of reading her novels, though, does not line up with the concept behind her work, because she disregarded the expectation that literary borrowing ought to be purposeful and transformative, as it is in allusion, parody, or satire.

This article explores conceptual art theories as a means of understanding Kathy Acker's narrative aesthetic. (LeWitt and Lippard are important touchstones, since they are major figures invested in the philosophies behind conceptual art from its very beginning in the 1960s. The article does not give particular attention to individual artists or works, or the many varieties of this kind of art. (3)) Recently Acker has found a place among postmodern authors known for formal experiments (i.e., Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith's Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing and Le Figues Press's collection I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women). This essay also aims to add to the small but growing body of scholarship on conceptual writing, which thus far has emphasized poetry and poetics, by exploring the intersections of conceptual art and narrative. Although plagiarism and especially her rewriting of Arthur Rimbaud and William Faulkner in In Memoriam to Identity (1990) are the focus of this study, over her career Acker adopted several creative techniques and implemented more than one at the same time. Conceptual art is not a more primary influence for Acker than, say, the Black Mountain Poets' ideas about poetic language or the cut-ups and fold-ins of William Burroughs. …

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