The Art of Literary Art: Mark Prince on Clash of Cultures

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Since the 1950s, 'literary' has usually been a pejorative term when applied to art, meaning illustrative, derivative or pretentious. The assumption is that art and literature do not mix well. Art featured in literary magazines is usually a conservative version from one or two generations back, while literature quoted or composed within an artwork tends to assume a gratuitous air, as though it were a distraction from the matter at hand. A standard sample of literary text is a neutral medium for content; the visual qualities of the words on the page are beside the point. What, then, is the incentive to practise literary activity in a context in which an emphasis on the visual can only detract from linguistic complexity; and why is contemporary art, despite all these caveats, becoming increasingly literary? This is more than another symptom of the breakdown of medium-specificity, because these are not different visual media but different cultures. As the writer Douglas Coupland has said, 'The literary world has the aura of a vast museum filled with floral watercolours and alpine landscapes, a space where pickled sharks will never be contemplated or allowed.'

Conceptual Art and Minimalism of the 1960s discovered in language a means of diverting focus away from the formal art object. If art were made of words it could double as a set of instructions for an experience beyond its verbal form. This led to a recognition that language itself had become the true locus of the work. For artists it constituted an unspoiled medium, free of the aesthetic distinctions that had become moribund in purely visual work. Words could be functional purveyors of ideas, or generic objects, rather than signifiers inflected by a traditional literary culture. Transplanted into an art context, they seemed detachable from their historical baggage. At a time when artists were seeking to escape the rarefied aesthetics of 1960s formalism and go for greater objectivity, the medium of language made the fine distinctions of abstract art look hopelessly subjective.

If Conceptual Art tended to favour philosophical, scientific, technical or legal vocabularies for its purposes, Minimalism was more congruent with contemporary literature--particularly poetry--drawing it into an unfamiliar gravitational field where none of the usual rules applied. With his famous imagist encapsulation from 1944, 'No Ideas but in Things', William Carlos Williams meant 'things' as verbal images of irreducible particularity, but the phrase happens to serve just as well as an all-purpose definition of Minimalism. In a serendipitous meeting of cultures, Robert Smithson was a child patient when Williams worked as a doctor in the small town of Rutherford, New Jersey.

Poets, meanwhile, found the use of language in 1960s Conceptual Art and Minimalism liberating. Entrenched in the endless implications and imperatives of their literary traditions, the promise of a tabula rasa, a clearing in which language could be made innocent again, seemed seductive, at least in theory. In practice, aside from the relatively marginal US language school of poetry, experiments with isolating words from their literary culture were brief and mostly led to a quick return to the richer possibilities of being assimilated by it. The poet John Ashbery's work, for example, has always involved disorientations of sense and subjectivity, but his second collection, The Tennis Court Oath, 1962, took fragmentation and cut-up techniques to an experimental extreme that he never returned to, and later partly disowned. It was his one retreat from a poetry that accepts its place within the literary tradition. Similarly, for visual artists, the limits of a page soon came to feel constricting. In the 1960s and 70s, where art and literature cross into each other's territory, they are like words from different languages that sound alike but have different meanings.


Lawrence Weiner's book Statements, 1968, is a series of performative actions, each described in a short paragraph that floats on an otherwise empty page, for example, 'A field cratered by structured simultaneous TNT explosions'. …