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Amodern 6: Reading the Illegible


On (Post-)Conceptual Writing

Luke Skrebowski

It is this capacity of the contemporary artist to recognize his contemporaries that is the essential feature of his contemporaneity.

–David Antin

If literature, via its privileged relation to the Ancient Greek notion of poiesis, long stood as the master category of art, philosophically understood, it has for some time now lost its dominance. Indeed, it seems ontologically threatened because of both the longstanding formal crises of its principal forms (poetry and prose fiction) and its ever-more thorough assimilation by the culture industry. Can we, then, speak of a “contemporary literature” in a strong and emphatic sense of both terms? Is “contemporary literature” legible as a critical category?

In order to frame this issue I will begin, perhaps counter-intuitively, by considering developments in recent art practice and theory since it is here that the issue of “the contemporary” has been staged most insistently and most insightfully. Art’s opening of an expanded field of practice in the later twentieth century destabilised the traditional system of the arts, with significant consequences for literature.


The Problem of the Contemporary

“Ohh ohhh, This is so contemporary, so contemporary. Ohh ohhh, This is so contemporary, so contemporary…” So sing the museum guards in Tino Sehgal’s This is So Contemporary (2005), an arch piece of delegated performance art.1 The guards of the museum in which This is So Contemporary is on show become the work by unexpectedly bursting into song, breaking the bounds of their institutionally-assigned duties as well as the conventional proprieties of the gallery space and thus surprising the museum’s visitors. Sehgal’s work insistently indeed annoyingly demands that its audience evaluate what is “so contemporary” about it as a work. This is So Contemporary dramatises the fact that contemporary art has become increasingly self-reflexive about its own periodisation as well as its relation to its institutional conditions of possibility – its “context,” expansively conceived. Sehgal’s work, notwithstanding its manifest self-ironisation, is in dialogue with the art theoretical project to concretise a sense of “contemporary art”: it goes beyond the (now) traditional use of the term “contemporary” as a designator of the artistically coeval and instead seeks to constitute it as a stronger critical category, one that places demands on works to be adequate to the present (thus discriminating works that are merely coeval from those that are truly contemporary).

“Contemporary” has come to name the present artistic conjuncture in ways that earlier theoretical attempts to do so, such as Nicholas Bourriaud’s “Altermodernism” and Hal Foster’s “Reflexive Modernity” (borrowed from Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash’s collaborative work) failed to.2 The recent theoretical work on the category of “the contemporary” by Johanna Drucker, Boris Groys, Peter Osborne and Terry Smith has been most influential in shaping this still-consolidating sense of the term.3 Contemporary art confronts a neoliberalised world and is no longer elaborated out of particular national or international contexts but is rather de- and re-territorialized in complex modes of relation to transnational capital flows. Contemporary art emerges here as an art “after” postmodernism, and after globalisation, but still, perhaps, internal to the dialectical development of modernism. This sense of “contemporary art” denotes an art after ’68 or after ’89 (start date dependent upon your particular political and historical investments) but aspires to do more than function as a simple, periodising category and instead reflects a particular experience of time-consciousness (the protension of the present) that has become newly culturally dominant.

Just as modernism stood as the cultural affirmation of modernity, so the contemporary stands as the cultural affirmation of contemporaneity. And contemporaneity is thought here in terms of the experiential character of the modern (the negation of the past by the present in the name of the future) partially or completely divested of its horizon of futurity. The contemporary thus names a deferral or, in its more dystopian casts, a dissolution of the appearance of the new.4 Furthermore, this sense of contemporary art as the art of a transnational perpetual present has already stretched out long enough to have its own past. Thus we have museums of contemporary art and historians of contemporary art, historical works of contemporary art as well as contemporary works of contemporary art.

Peter Osborne’s recent work has offered the most theoretically substantive attempt to produce an account of the contemporary, one that claims contemporary art has to be understood as a constitutively “post-conceptual” art, inaugurated by the successes and failures of conceptual art’s ontological reorientation of the artistic field:

By “post-conceptual” art … I understand an art premised on the complex historical experience and critical legacy of conceptual art, broadly construed, which registers its fundamental mutation of the ontology of the artwork. Postconceptual art is a critical category that is constituted at the level of the historical ontology of the artwork; it is not a traditional art-historical or art-critical concept at the level of medium, form or style. Rather, as the critical register of the historical destruction of the ontological significance of such categories, it provides new interpretative conditions for analyses of individual works.5

Yet while Osborne gives a compelling account of developments marking (no-longer-visual) art he has, up to this point, had little to say about other contemporary cultural practices, such as architecture or literature.6 Indeed, none of the leading theorists of the contemporary have yet made any sustained attempt to specify a set of practices across all of the various arts that might register as “contemporary” in this strong ontological sense. This can be contrasted with the powerful, if no longer compelling, way in which Fredric Jameson was able to nominate the “postmodernism” of John Portman’s Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes, and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime; as well as Frank Gehry’s own self-designed house in Santa Monica, Hans Haacke’s Institutional Critique and Bob Perelman’s Language poetry.7 In order to ground the contemporary as a strong critical category, it would seem imperative to construct an account of the character of contemporaneity that goes beyond (no-longer-visual) art alone, demonstrating that the contemporary has become a new cultural dominant across the arts.

However, such a project faces substantive challenges, ones that go beyond the familiar and inevitable ones involved in attempting to construct synthetic accounts of ongoing cultural developments. This is because it is no longer clear that the traditional system of the arts is a meaningful category. As Jameson has himself recently insisted, “the system of fine arts… has… imploded, the arts folding back on each other in new symbioses, a whole new de-differentiation of culture which renders the very concept of art as a universal activity problematic.”8 This “de-differentiation” was historically confirmed by Conceptual art. By negating the traditional artistic media of painting and sculpture (completing the process begun by the Duchampian Readymade, and the Minimalist specific object that was, in Donald Judd’s infamous words, “neither painting, nor sculpture”), Conceptual art internally destabilised the modern system of the arts, that is to say their canonical division, originating in the 18th century, into painting, sculpture, poetry, music and architecture (and sometimes also admitting prose literature, theatre, opera, dance and the decorative arts).9

Conceptual art opens up the category of a generic art in the expanded field, a new version of art with a capital A, one that potentially subsumes all of the other arts as no-longer specific but now general instances of this generic category. Jeff Wall has reflected in a sophisticated manner on the implications of Conceptual art for the other arts, in light of a longer avant-garde history of negation. Wall schematises the arts into two categories: (i) the “visual” or “depictive arts” or “canonical forms” (drawing, painting, sculpture, the graphic arts, photography) and (ii) the “movement arts” (theatre, dance, music and cinema).10 Wall’s insightful considerations require quotation at some length to draw out their core argument:

The conceptual reduction is the most rigorously-argued version of the long critique of the canonical forms. All the radical proposals of the avant-gardes since 1913 are summed up in it. All those proposals demanded that artists leap out of what has always been called “art” into new, more open, more effectively creative relationships with the “lifeworld,” to use Jürgen Habermas’ term for it. …
And yet, despite the rigour of the conceptual reduction and the futuristic glamour of the challenge it posed, few artists crossed
 that line it drew in the sand, few left the field of art to innovate in the new way in other domains. From the early 70s on, it 
seems that most artists either ignored the reduction altogether,
 or acquiesced to it intellectually, but put it aside and continued
 making works. But the works they made are not the same works as before.
By the middle of the 1970s the new forms and the notion of the expanded field had become almost as canonical as the older forms had been. Video, performance, site-specific interventions, sound works, music pieces, and variants of all of these evolved with increasing rapidity and were rightly enough considered to be serious innovations. The innovations appeared not as music or theatre properly speaking but as “an instance of a specificity within the context of art.” They were “not music,” “not cinema,” “not dance.”
The other arts make what I will call a “second appearance” then, not as what they have been previously, but as “instances 
of (contemporary) art.” It appears that in making this second appearance they lose their previous identity and assume or gain
 a second, more complex, or more universal identity. They gain
 this more universal identity by becoming “instances,” that is, exemplars of the consequences of the conceptual reduction. For, if any object (or, by obvious extension, any process or situation)
 can be defined, named, considered, judged, and valued as art by 
means of being able to designate itself as a sheer instance of 
art, then any other art form can also be so defined. In making
 its “second appearance,” or gaining a second identity, the art
form in question transcends itself and becomes more significant than it would be if it remained theatre or cinema or dance.
The visual arts were the place where the historical process and dialectic of reduction and negation were taken the furthest, where the development was most drastic and decisive. The avant-gardes of the movement arts were more subdued. There are many reasons for this; suffice for the moment to say that none of them had any internal need to reach the same point of self-negation as did the depictive arts. The negation process of the depictive arts established a theoretical plateau that could not be part of the landscape of the other arts. Each of the performing arts was closed off by its own structure from the extension, radicalization, or aggravation, of self-critique. They can be said to remain inherently at the pre-conceptual-art level. This is no criticism of them, simply a description of their own characteristics.11

Wall’s argument about the implications of conceptual art is less radical than Osborne’s: for Wall, the conceptual turn does not represent the “historical destruction” of the traditional medium-based ontological categories (painting, sculpture, drawing etc.) but rather opens the post-medium, expanded field of art (Performance, Video, Installation, etc.) without invalidating the traditional media whose legitimacy Wall holds to be assured by their ongoing practicability: “The canonical forms of the depictive arts are too strong for the critiques that have been brought to bear on them.”12 For Osborne, in contrast, painting and sculpture qua medium-specific categories are no longer available to art in the strong historical and ontological sense.

Wall’s argument, however, productively draws attention to the way in which there remains a subtle hierachization internal to the expanded field of art. In making their “second appearance” as instances of the generic category of art, the movement arts “lose their previous identity” and gain a more “universal identity” as art with a capital A, but from inside a field that emerges from its traditional, although now overturned, connection with the visual arts. Cinema becomes “not cinema,” music “not music” etc. within the expanded field of art that was formerly visual/“depictive” art. Visual art remains the dominant category for Wall because of its historical priority: it was in and through visual or “depictive” art and its autocritique that the expanded field was opened. All of the other arts were not required to undertake such a radical self-negation and thus remain, according to Wall, at the “pre-conceptual art level.”

What then is the relation between art in the expanded field and the traditional system of the arts? What implications does the post-conceptual expanded field hold for the identity of the “canonical” arts that remain outside it? What, in other words, is the relation between Wall’s “not music” and music, “not cinema” and cinema, “not dance” and dance?

Wall acknowledges that the movement art’s second appearance in and as (no-longer -visual/depictive) art involves the suspension of their traditional aesthetic criteria of appreciation:

In this recontextualisation, the aesthetic criteria of all the métiers and forms could be suspended – those of both the movement arts and the depictive arts. The criteria of the movement arts are suspended because those arts are present as second appearance; those of the depictive arts, because they could never be applied to the movement arts in any case. So “performance art” did not have to be “good theatre;” video or film projections did not have to be “good filmmaking,” and could even be better if they were not… There was, and is, something exhilarating about that. The proliferation of new forms is limitless since it is stimulated by the neutralization of criteria.13

Wall, however, does not have anything to say in his essay about the implications for the judgment, aesthetic or otherwise, of the movement arts outside the expanded field. So while we know that performance art does not have to be “good theatre” we are left in the dark about what implications performance art holds for theatre (despite the fact that theatrical practice has manifestly responded to performance art as a category). We might assume that for Wall the movement arts remain subject to the traditional criteria of judgment, as he claims is the case for the depictive arts:

Burdened by their own notions of quality, the depictive arts have been able to question their validity only in order to affirm it. To practice these arts is to affirm them or fail at them, even though that affirmation may be more dialectical than most negations. The emergence in the past 30 or 50 years, of a contemporary art that is not depictive art has revealed the depictive arts as restricted to this negative dialectic of affirmation. This is the price paid for autonomy.14

But can this historical process really leave the traditional arts unaltered, as Wall claims, both having and not having his negation or, rather, having his negation as an affirmation? Wall claims that “Contemporary art… has bifurcated into two distinct versions. One is based in principle on the suspension of aesthetic criteria, the other is absolutely subject to them.”15 Is Wall’s bifurcation of contemporary cultural production along Neo-Friedian lines of aesthetic quality convincing? We might wonder how Wall’s schema looks in relation to, say, Sigmar Polke’s and Martin Kippenberger’s practice of “bad” painting, or the emergence of “conceptual painting” as a primary means of pursuing the practice after the historical critique of medium-specificity.16 Both of these tendencies pressure Wall’s insistence that the canonical “depictive” arts continue to be subject to traditional aesthetic criteria.


“Updating” Literature

Here, however, I want to engage Wall’ s argument by considering a pair of categories that he does not discuss at any length in his reschematisation of the arts, namely literature and “not literature” (understanding literature to bound both poetry and prose fiction).17 I will do so by means of a consideration of “conceptual writing” a practice that has claimed to update literature (principally, but not exclusively, poetry) by integrating a series of conceptualist and post-conceptualist artistic strategies into it. As such conceptual writing stands as a particularly appropriate site for the consideration of the contemporary, post-conceptual challenge of relating “not literature” (as art) to literature (as not art) and of thinking through the implications of so doing.

“Conceptual writing” emerged over the last decade as one of the most vital and most contentious areas of 21st century literary practice, both theoretically informed and theoretically opportunistic, politically progressive and politically regressive, deeply grounded in both art and literary history as well as cavalier in its appropriations of models from multiple traditions that it has not apprenticed itself in. Conceptual writing has been defined by its proponents as a deskilled, anti-expressive, “uncreative,” and anti-aesthetic form, inaugurated by writers transposing strategies from Conceptual art into their literary work. Such a possibility is understood to have been “opened” ontologically by Conceptual art’s negation of the binding character of the canonical artistic media, such that other genres of work – including written texts – could appear as art. Conceptual writing thus seeks to dial up literature’s self-critique in order to overcome its remaining, in Wall’s terms, at the “pre-conceptual art level.”18

Conceptual writing thus raises a question as to whether it can and should be grounded, understood, and evaluated as literary, artistic, both, or neither (that is, some still to be defined post-genre-specific or post-discipline-specific category). Evaluating conceptual writing involves an attempt at reading (what appears to be) the (generically) illegible. As such, the developing debates around Conceptual writing are material to any aesthetics or cultural theory that aspire to account for the historical unfolding of contemporary cultural practice.19 In what follows I will disentangle some of the claims surrounding “conceptual writing” in an attempt to assess the character, possibilities and contemporaneity of this still-amorphous but critically and historically suggestive category. In so doing, I also aim to contribute to the wider and urgent project to theorise the condition of contemporaneity across the arts.

Kenneth Goldsmith, one of conceptual writing’s most well-known and controversial practitioners, theorists and publicists, has situated the emergence of conceptual writing in response to a longer history of literature lagging behind art: “In 1959 the poet and artist Brion Gysin claimed that writing was fifty years behind painting. And he might still be right…”20 Here Goldsmith argues speculatively, by way of Gysin, that there is an ongoing temporal lag internal to the system of the arts and that conceptual writing might rectify it. For Goldsmith, some arts are still more contemporary than others.

Yet much has changed in relation to the system of the arts since 1959 and these changes have to be accounted for. Gysin originally made his claims about writing lagging behind painting in explaining his development of the “cut-up” literary technique, a device that, for Gysin, brought the innovations of “collage” and “montage” into the realm of literature. Gysin claimed:

Writing is fifty years behind painting. I propose to apply the painters’ techniques to writing; things as simple and immediate as collage or montage. Cut right through the pages of any book or newsprint… lengthwise, for example, and shuffle the columns of text. Put them together at hazard and read the newly constituted message. Do it for yourself. Use any system which suggests itself to you.21

A painter as well as a writer, Gysin applied a developmentalist solution to what he took to be the problem of the disjunct internal temporal relations between art and literature within the system of the arts: literature was “underdeveloped” and might be properly modernised by means of transposing vanguard artistic innovations into it from painting.

Such a move directly contradicted Clement Greenberg’s coeval, Neo-Lessingian insistence that the arts could only secure their legitimacy by entrenching themselves in their own areas of competence. Gysin instead advocated for precisely the miscegenation of art forms that Greenberg was so set against (for Greenberg the confusion of the arts meant their death and it was precisely in order to argue that painting be purged of anything literary that Greenberg had initiated his project for medium-specificity in the arts). The likely referent of Gysin’s “painting” was not then the intense, purified colour fields of Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still – as then being championed by Greenberg – but rather the mixed media canvases of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns’ Neo-Dada, proto-Pop – what Leo Steinberg aptly described as a “receptor surface” for the postwar consumer society.22

With his proposal to “update” literature by means of the cut-up what Gysin envisaged was a Neo-Avant-Garde repetition of techniques that had been developed by the Historical Avant-Garde: Braque and Picasso inaugurated collage in their cubist work of the 1910s and collage was then taken up and radicalised in Dada poetry and photomontage before crossing over to cinema in Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov’s filmmaking and editing theory of the 1920s-40s.23

There was, however, something structurally rétardataire about Gysin’s approach. William Burroughs, Gysin’s collaborator and ultimately the more renowned exponent of the cut-up technique, set his friend’s invention in historical context:

At a surrealist rally in the 1920s Tristan Tzara the man from nowhere proposed to create a poem on the spot by pulling words out of a hat. … In the summer of 1959 Brion Gysin painter and writer cut newspaper articles into sections and rearranged the sections at random. … The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and still camera. … The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut-up method was made explicit… had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You cannot will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.24

Burroughs thus acknowledges Tzara’s priority but also offers an apologia for Gysin by insisting that the cut-up produced something meaningfully different from its Dada precursors. Indeed, Gysin’s and Burrough’s cut-ups arguably did produce new effects in the field of prose literature that went beyond their Dadaist precedents, both in terms of extent and quality. What was rétardataire in Gysin was not the rediscovery and rearticulation of aleatory literary collage, if indeed it had ever really gone away (which one might doubt considering its use by Ezra Pound in the Cantos, T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and John Dos Passos in his USA Trilogy, to cite just three well-known examples). Rather, it was Gysin’s conception of advanced painting that was rétardataire. Gysin’s take on painting was not quite up to the minute because painting itself was on the cusp of becoming a sublated category in 1959.

1959 was also the year in which a 23 year old Frank Stella first showed his signature “Black Paintings” in the “16 Americans” show at MoMA curated by Dorothy Miller. Stella’s earliest work had consisted of gestural abstraction in the manner of the New York School but a 1958 encounter with Jasper Johns’ work (seen by Stella at Johns’ first one-man show) – specifically his flag and target paintings in encaustic with newspaper collage – inspired a radical shift in direction. Stella was influenced by the deliberately literal quality of Johns’ work but dropped the collage elements and heavily worked surfaces in favour of an even more literal focus on the overall surface of the painting and the quality of paint used straight from the can. Stella’s newly deskilled brushwork was consciously voided of anything expressive: his “Black Paintings” (1959-60) comprised simple, concentric black bands whose width was determined by the depth of the stretcher of the canvases on which they were painted.

Stella’s artistic example would prove integral to Donald Judd’s argument about the end of painting as announced by the “new three dimensional work” that was “neither painting nor sculpture.”25 For Judd, Stella was able to produce a “nearly unspatial” painting that lay the ground for the rejection of all spatial illusionism.26 Stella thus initiated the negation of painting that would shortly be completed by Minimalism and Conceptual art. Consequently, for Gysin and Burroughs to take “collage” from painting in 1959 was to miss advanced painting’s actual direction of travel towards its own self-overcoming. This led them to attempt to “update” literature’s belatedness by pursuing a belated conception of advanced painting.

Given that painting’s own self-overcoming was only just emerging in 1959 Gysin’s oversight might be looked upon with some understanding: arguably there was still some running room in transposing collage from painting to literature (mirroring, but also extending, its original movement from Cubist painting to Dadaist poetry).27

Can the same be said, however, for Conceptual writing’s borrowings from Conceptual art? In order to address this issue it is necessary to try and bring some conceptual precision to bear on the sense of the term “conceptual” that is operative in Conceptual writing. This is no small challenge, as Craig Dworkin, another of conceptual writing’s leading practitioners and theorists, notes: “One of the most interesting aspects of the current discourse in poetics is the discrepancy between how many writers and critics are invested in the term conceptual and how few share even the same basic definition.”28 Dworkin goes on to observe, however, that “The rubric itself is of little import, but the variety of activities it attracts are worth noting.”29 This caveat is an odd one since it would seem peculiarly counterintuitive to attempt to gain purchase on a conceptual writing by reference to its empirical multiplicity and variation. Just as was the case for Conceptual art, Conceptual writing demands a rigorous theoretical accounting, as John Millar and Keston Sutherland have also insisted.30 To this end I will engage Dworkin’s claims in detail in what follows since his writing represents the most theoretically and historically thorough defense of Conceptual writing and opens up the major issues at stake in the practice.

In his “Introduction to The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing” (2003), an online essay accompanying a selection of online texts and one of the earliest critical accounts of the practice, Dworkin announces the need for a “non-expressive poetry” of “intellect rather than emotion” one that would set itself against the socially and culturally-dominant conception of poetry, held to have been inherited from Romanticism (with Romanticism understood to have sought to express “the emotional truth of the self”).31 Dworkin thus announces Conceptual writing as a contemporary poetic project to oppose the expressive lyric tradition (a project that he is committed to in his own poetry, although this is not explicitly stated in the introduction).

The ongoing vitality of this project is attested to by the inclusion of four issues of Crux Desperationis “The Journal of Conceptual Writing” on the Ubuweb site.32 These issues of Crux Desperationis, published between 2011 and 2013, include works from Dworkin himself as well as from the writers Vittore Baroni, derek beaulieu, Riccardo Boglione, Claude Closky, Robert Fitterman, Helen Frank, Kenneth Goldsmith, Bélen Gache, Inge Grao, Marco Antonio Huerta, Sharon Kivland, Richard Kostelantz, Román Luján, Simon Morris, Massimo Pastorelli, Vanessa Place, Nick Thurston and Madeleine Walton, amongst others.

Dworkin’s online anthology also seeks to construct a genealogy for Conceptual writing as a practice, collecting a number of historical texts. As Dworkin explains in his introductory essay, his selections for the anthology construct a history of Conceptual writing as a practice that runs “from the modernist experiments of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett to the neodadaism of Fluxus” and on to contemporary poetic practice. Here then Conceptual writing is set up as a broad historical category, one that begins during high literary Modernism but which continues through to the present.

Nonetheless, Dworkin’s online anthology is historically weighted towards the later 60s, as he himself notes in acknowledging that “the majority of the writers” that he anthologizes on Ubuweb were “participants in the set of contemporaneous practices that came to be known as ‘Conceptual Art’.” Dworkin’s featured artists include John Baldessari, Victor Burgin, Hanne Darboven, Dan Graham, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner and Adrian Piper (but also a number of figures who are not normally considered to be conceptual artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Vito Acconci, John Cage and Robert Smithson). In the Ubuweb anthology then Conceptual writing shape-shifts between a broader historical category and something more narrowly period-derived, linked to the emergence of historical Conceptual art.

Dworkin also offers the further qualification that his “anthology is not meant to be a collection of writings by conceptual artists but a collection of distinctly conceptual writing.” This is a contentious move since it seeks to shift historical works of Conceptual art out of their original context and into Dworkin’s newly-constituted category, one that was not present in Conceptual art’s original, highly-developed discourse. Indeed, such a concept would have been quite alien to it since the “linguistification” that Conceptual art (in its most rigorous, “analytic” form) enacted was of a very particular sort, as Jeff Wall cogently points out:

The substitution of the work by a written text stakes its claim, however, under very specific conditions. The text in question can concern itself with only a single subject: the argument it makes for its own validity. The text can tell us only why and under what conditions it must be accepted as the final, definitive version of the “generic instance of art” and why all other kinds of art are historically redundant. But it cannot say anything else. If it does, it becomes “literature”; it becomes “post-conceptual.”33

In Dworkin’s essay Conceptual writing vacillates between a broad historical category and a narrower period-indexed one; it morphs between a contemporary and a legacy project; and it slips between being conceived as art and being conceived as literature.

These problems are, however, symptomatic; they are generated by the opening of the expanded field of art in the 1960s which involved the collapse of medium-specific modernism and caused the resulting tensions between the parallel and unstable categories of “not literature” as art and “literature” as not art. Dworkin almost acknowledges as much in admitting the “tension” in his anthology between “the modernist emphasis on the material of art… and a post-modernist understanding of a theoretically-based art that is independent of genre, so that a particular poem might have more in common with a particular musical score, or film, or sculpture than with another lyric.”34 However, Dworkin ultimately elides this “tension.” In holding on to the conventional division of the system of the arts while also hypothesising the emergence of a “theoretically-based” art “independent of genre” Dworkin recognises but ultimately glosses over the full implications of the opening of the expanded field and the pressure this placed on the system of the arts.

Dworkin has addressed some of the shortcomings in his earlier theoretical work in his much longer and more substantive essay “The Fate of Echo” which introduces the larger, printed selection of Conceptual writing, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011), already quasi-canonical, which he co-edited with Kenneth Goldsmith.35 Dworkin had stated in the “Introduction to The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing” that his online selection was only “a small preview gallery or first sampler of conceptual writing” and that consequently the larger, conventionally-published anthology was conceived as a significant expansion of the online original.36 Indeed, Dworkin modulates his earlier claims for Conceptual writing in “The Fate of Echo” explaining that in his first anthology he “wanted to show… that when put next to texts from a soi-disant poetic tradition, a work of conceptual art might look indistinguishable from a poem” and claiming that he coined the phrase conceptual writing “as a way both to signal literary writing that could function comfortably as conceptual art and to indicate the use of text in conceptual art practices.”37 There is however a risk of pseudomorphism here; namely, a drawing of connections between works based on superficial visual similarities that do not correspond to the historical context, intent, or meaning of the discrete works in question (looking “indistinguishable” from poetic work not being the point). Dworkin risks making a category error since, as we have seen, following Wall, “literary writing” cannot function as “conceptual art” only as post-conceptual art. The use of text in conceptual art did not involve the constitution of a new category of “conceptual writing” but was rather one of the features that was employed to distinguish conceptual art from “retinal” art.

Dworkin compounds these problems by reframing his new anthology and its principle of anthologisation on the basis of the very distinction between art and literature that the category of “Conceptual writing” seems interesting for having troubled: “all of the texts included are presented here,” Dworkin claims, “in the context of this anthology, as literary.”38 Earlier in “The Fate of Echo” Dworkin defines the literary as “works published or received in a literary context” thereby only begging the question of their ontology and turning the conceptual and historical problem of the relation between the system of the arts after the opening of the expanded field into a local, more narrowly sociological, and ultimately circular one about the auto-legitimating structure of existing literary and artistic institutions (what the literary institution presents is “literature,” what the art institution shows is “art”). It is consequently to the problem of the institution that I will now turn.


The Institution of Art, the Institution of Literature

Historical Conceptual art was founded on a negation of art as aesthetic art.39 This is the sense in which it was both historically successful (breaking the notion that art was necessarily aesthetic) and also a failure (in being unable to produce a completely anti-aesthetic art). Conceptual art undertook this negation of aesthetic art by means of a series of gestures that moved from the nomination of less and less materially substantive “objects” as art (from Robert Barry’s use of various inert gases to Art & Language’s “column” of air) to an art of ideas (as announced in Sol Le Witt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”) and then on to an art that interrogated the idea of the idea of art by means of a turn to (written) critical discourse about the ontology of art, as art (a moment exemplified in Kosuth’s Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) series, inaugurated in 1966, and Art & Language’s 1972 Documenta installation of their theoretical work, Index 01).

Conceptual writing understands itself to stand in relation to (mainstream) “Literary writing” as “Conceptual Art” stood to (mainstream) “Aesthetic Art.” Conceptual writing seeks to negate mainstream “literary” poetry and fiction which it claims is derived from a loosely Romantic inheritance that relies on the demonstration of expressive subjectivity by means of writerly skill:

Poetry expresses the emotional truth of the self. A craft honed by especially sensitive individuals, it puts metaphor and image in the service of song. Or at least that’s the story we’ve inherited from Romanticism, handed down for over 200 years in a caricatured and mummified ethos – and as if it still made sense after two centuries of radical social change.40

Romanticism is “caricatured” by such a reception – as Dworkin himself acknowledges here – its philosophical roots in Early German Romanticism kicked over. Romanticism proper of course has had a much more nuanced and profound influence on literature more broadly conceived. What is actually at stake here, I suggest, is an argument against the character of the literary mainstream as an institution, as Kenneth Goldsmith reveals in the Introduction to his book Uncreative Writing:

In the art world, since impressionism, the avant-garde has been the mainstream. Innovation and risk taking have been consistently rewarded. But, in spite of the successes of modernism, literature has remained on two parallel tracks, the mainstream and the avant-garde, with the two rarely intersecting.41

It is this distinction between the literary mainstream (implicitly distinguished from the mainstream mainstream of genre-based writing) and the literary avant-garde that Conceptual writing addresses. In art, for Goldsmith, the avant-garde is inside the mainstream, in literature it is outside the mainstream.

What Goldsmith seems to hope for, however, is paradoxical: the mainstreaming of the literary avant-garde in a way that he takes the “avant-garde” to have been “the mainstream” in art “since impressionism.” Goldsmith’s claim about avant-garde art is however questionable: Duchamp’s invention of the Readymade depended precisely on the fact that he was able to have Fountain rejected by the Society of Independent Artists in the name of its artistic impropriety and Dada more widely produced numerous artistic “scandals.” Where there is more to Goldsmith’s claim is in the fact that the “mainstream” institutions of the art world – principally galleries, museums and biennials – have structurally privileged vanguard over “mainstream” artistic work since the museological incorporation of the historical avant-gardes (symbolically, once the Readymade appeared in the museum).

There is thus an art institutional “mainstream” that does not correspond to “mainstream” public taste in art (however far the public reception of vanguard art may have developed over the twentieth and into the twenty-first century). A highly specialised caste of curators select and display work fairly freely in art-institutionally “mainstream” contexts (subject, of course, to various institutional pressures and influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the forces of the market, prominent collectors and gallerists, art critics and art theorists).

Indeed, with museums such as MoMA and Tate Modern increasingly buying contemporary artists at an early stage in their career (so as to be able to afford their work, which quickly becomes too expensive once an artist begins to get commercial notice) there is a plausible argument to be made that “mainstream” museums are now contributing speculatively to the formation of “vanguard” artistic canons rather than retrospectively incorporating historically-settled ones. A similar market-making logic of selection is also enacted in the “museums” of wealthy mega-collectors and corporations (the Rubell’s Family Collection, The Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, the Fondation Cartier, and their ilk) dedicated to the display of wealthy individuals’ artistic taste (as supplemented by a legion of behind-the-scenes art advisors).

In contrast, the literary mainstream, a more diffuse institution, sociologically-considered, remains more aligned with “mainstream” public taste – or the marketing department’s focus-grouped construction of this taste at least – and operates at some distance from the literary vanguard. This is due, in an important sense, to the significant structural differences between the types of commodification that obtain in the artistic and literary fields and the way in which artistic and literary commodities circulate. Art markets and literary markets operate very differently. An artist needs only a single collector or museum to buy his or her work as a one-off commodity in order for that work to be economically viable. In this sense art does not need mass appeal to prosper. Frequently, the buyer of an artwork also buys as an act of economic investment, if not outright speculation, with an expectation, or at least the prospect, that the purchased artwork will be worth significantly more than was paid for it at a later date. In contrast, a modern writer (after the collapse of feudal relations of literary production, i.e. patronage) requires a much wider public to buy his or her work in the form of a mass-produced commodity (the book) in order for that work to be economically viable.42 Furthermore, there is almost no speculative value in buying books, barring first editions from renowned writers that can go on to accrue greater value than their purchase price, but of multiple orders of magnitude lower than artworks by successful artists.

A broad public must be assumed to be “reachable” if a writer is to be published by a mainstream publishing house.43 And the barriers to mainstream publishing for challenging writing have only grown steeper with the consolidation of publishing into a few, risk-averse global conglomerates (which have retained the imprints of previously independent houses as sub-brands, largely for show).44 Consequently, mainstream marketability becomes of signal importance and agents and publishers often dictate aspects of the form of literary works to “their” authors in anticipation of this, making aesthetic recommendations according to rigid “realist” (fiction) or “lyrical” (poetry) formulae. Frequently, however, such heavy-handed interventions are not even necessary since the aspiring writer has already introjected a sense of the market’s needs via their socialisation in Creative Writing programs and in response to mainstream literary consensus.45

Goldsmith’s apparent hope for a mainstreaming of the literary avant-garde is thus structurally precluded by the logic and structure of the publishing industry and the inability of vanguard works to “do” sufficient numbers (with the occasional, almost always retrospective, exception). Here Conceptual writing has an urgent point to make about the deadening effect of the mainstream literary institution: literature collapses ever more completely into the culture industry. Yet one should not be too nostalgic since the production of avant-garde literature has long involved coterie, small press and self-publishing of texts that are only later accepted as “literature” and republished by mainstream houses, from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759), through James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1929) and on to Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005), to name just a few prominent examples.46 Indeed one might claim that the temporality of the avant-garde itself militates against contemporaneous mainstream acceptance (the avant-garde enters the mainstream only historically, as the canonical).

How, then, might Conceptual writing respond to the institutional situation that it confronts? One approach is to attend to a fuller history of Conceptual art that includes its transition into the genre of Institutional Critique, that is Conceptual art’s turning back on its own institutional apparatus of capture. This moment is famously summarised in Benjamin Buchloh’s description of Conceptual art’s shift from “an aesthetic of administration” (borrowing the logic and look of administrative and legal organisation) wherein artists “mimed the operating logic of late capitalism and its positivist instrumentality in an effort to place its auto-critical investigations at the service of liquidating even the last remnants of traditional aesthetic experience” to a “critique of institutions” which “turned the violence of that mimetic relationship back onto the ideological apparatus itself, using it to analyze and expose the social institutions from which the laws of positivist instrumentality and the logic of administration emanate in the first place.”47

Yet Place and Fitterman do consider in some detail the possibility of an analogue to Institutional Critique in Conceptual writing in their short theoretical tract Notes on Conceptualisms. While noting that the poetry community has a very different set of historical and economical relationships with its mediating institutions to those of the art world, Place and Fitterman claim that “there are poetry works that radically de-articulate our institutions of small press publishing, reading series, conferences, etc.,” citing examples from Gary Sullivan, Charles Bernstein and Dirk Rowntree.48 They also propose a useful typology of areas for possible critical intervention that covers: “the reading; the reading series; the course materials; the blurb; the introduction/afterword; the gilt [sic.] by association; the transparency of the language; the Conference; the Project; the Manifesto; the School; the Scene; the Situation; the ‘short lyric of self definition’; the Now.”49

Nick Thurston’s Of The Subcontract, Or Principles of Poetic Right (2013) can be read as broaching a moment of Institutional Critique along the lines suggested by Place and Fitterman. Of The Subcontract is a delegated work wherein Thurston had an entire collection of lyric poetry ghostwritten by unnamed and low-paid service workers contracted through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online outsourcing marketplace. With this collection, Thurston produced a deliberately ambiguous work, one that self-consciously vacillates between critiquing and exemplifying the capitalist exploitation of labour in a self-consciously “implicated” manner. Of the Subcontract is thus structurally similar to, though less sensationalist than, art world gestures from the 2000s such as Santiago Sierra’s 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People (2000) and Renzo Maartens’ Episode 1 (2003), works that announce their politics by deliberately travestying humanist ethical pieties. Sierra’s 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People (2000) involved Sierra employing four heroin-addicted prostitutes to be tattooed in unison with a single line across all of their backs for the price of a shot of heroin. In Episode 1 (2003) Maartens illegally entered a Chechen refugee camp and filmed himself asking the inmates personal questions such as “What do you think of me?” thereby inverting the mainstream news media’s default style of reportage that involves spectacularising the “other” (but while also continuing to rely on deeply asymmetrical power relations).

Of central importance for my reading here is the fact that Thurston also included the authorship of the foreword to Of The Subcontract in his outsourcing. Although the foreword, entitled “Earn Money Just by Writing Your Mind,” is attributed to the renowned Australian theorist McKenzie Wark, it was ghostwritten in Lahore by a writer contracted through for $75. The fact that the foreword is not by Wark can be determined – by any artworld or theory “insider” at least – from the fact that its style, tone and theoretical concerns are clearly not Wark’s. Significantly, however, the foreword’s unknown ghostwriter uses the occasion of his commission to reflect critically on the exploitation that is structurally at work within Of The Subcontract. “At times,” the foreword states, “we as humans want to run from this world of cruelties, and take refuge in solitude. This idea is presented in this book by the poem Solitude… The poet was given $0.26 for his endeavour.” A certain pathos is generated here by the unknown author’s investment in the rhetoric of popular humanism that is refused by the form and conception of the work that it introduces.

By outsourcing his foreword in this way, Thurston produces an eruption of cognitive dissonance between the formal expectations that the reader brings to the genre – i.e. that the well-known author of the foreword will legitimate the work that follows (while also participating in a mutually profitable exchange of cultural capital) – and its reality – a lament about pay on the part of an exploited, but politically vocal, worker who is not even aware of (and structurally excluded from) the economy of cultural, as opposed to economic, capital in which the form in which he is being poorly paid to participate deals. Here, then, the institutional apparatus of the vanguard publication is turned back on itself, revealing and critiquing its own mechanisms.50

Despite the skillful provocation of Thurston’s gesture, it inevitably raises a question about the critical effect of its intervention. Thurston’s text is published by Information as Material, a small press that the author is closely associated with, and thus the Institutional Critique that it stages might ultimately seem to be directed against the institution of the small press.51 As Place and Fitterman point out, however, the institutions of poetry and progressive writing “wield… little cultural and economic capital.”52 Such a gesture could amount to an autocritique of the economically and culturally marginal by the economically and culturally marginal, as if, in the historical art world context, Hans Haacke and Daniel Buren had turned their critical energies on small artist-run spaces rather than MoMA and the Guggenheim. How differently would Of the Subcontract function as a work were it to have appeared with Faber & Faber or Bloodaxe, home to some of the most well-known exponents of the type of lyric poetry that it challenges?

Such a reading of Of the Subcontract, if left here, would, however, be too narrow, missing the equal significance of its afterword, written in propria persona by the experimental poet Darren Wershler. Of the Subcontract’s afterword seems to return to a more familiar exchange of mutually legitimating cultural capital. And yet Thurston has Wershler produce an uncommonly astringent reading of his own work (for a commissioned afterword at least). Wershler observes, “This book is not a solution but a symptom… Data is the great leveller, reconfiguring both the most privileged and the least privileged kinds of writing as Human Intelligence Tasks. Poets and professors can point to this change, but so far, have not been able to move beyond it. As we are beginning to realise, our tasks, too, can be outsourced.”53 Wershler thus situates Thurston’s work (and his own afterword) on the same continuum of practice as the ghostwritten foreword: as “Human Intelligence Tasks” (Amazon’s term for the labour performed by those who contract through the Mechanical Turk marketplace).

Here then the contemporary author, of whatever stripe, is imagined as analogous to the Uber cab driver – a placeholder for structurally-anticipated automation, the meatspace brake on more friction-free processes of capital accumulation, soon to be released. Amazon Mechanical Turk’s strapline is “Artificial Artificial Intelligence” and this is not merely a nerdy joke but rather straightforwardly reveals the corporation’s wider culture and strategic direction of travel wherein humans are to be engineered out of as many business processes as possible.54 Thurston’s text speculatively summons a future where all forms of writing – not just those currently being devalued by race-to-the-bottom outsourcing marketplaces – are first imagined as obsolete and then actually rendered so, as “Human Intelligence Tasks” are substituted by Artificial Intelligence Tasks, coincident with a second (post-) industrial revolution where mental tasks are automated as well as manual ones. In this dystopian scenario, The Mechanical Turk no longer even requires its stunted human operative, a fact that Thurston illustrates by reversing the order of Karl Gottlieb von Windisch’s 1783 illustrations of Wolfgang von Kempelen’s famous chess-playing hoax automata – Windisch’s “reveal” plate is used by Thurston as a frontispiece for Of the Subcontract and the “illusion” plate as an end piece.

Ultimately, it is Nick Thurston – or, more precisely, the author-function “Nick Thurston” – who/that is thrown into starkest contrast in Of the Subcontract: the author is dissolved, but not in the old, Barthesian manner through the “birth of the reader” but instead by means of the (projected) birth of the bot (for which the anonymous Mechanical Turker currently deputises as a “wetware” placeholder, awaiting sufficient technological progress to force their obsolescence). In this way, Of the Subcontract stages an immanent critique of the author-as-institution, fully cognisant of the lessons of third wave Institutional Critique. As in third wave Institutional Critique, Thurston recognises that the artist is structurally internal to that which is subjected to critique: in Andrea Fraser’s now-infamous words “It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution.”55

Pulling back a little from the troubling implications of Thurston’s dystopian futurology, there remains, nonetheless, a sense in which Conceptual writing has not yet found a way to inhabit and immanently critique the literary mainstream in the way that Conceptual artists were able to in the art world.56 Conceptual writing, with its often ambiguous politics, has not developed a true analogue of artistic Institutional Critique.57 Place and Fitterman’s proposal to “radically de-articulate our institutions of small press publishing, reading series, conferences, etc.” risks a kind of formalism of Institutional Critique, one that mistakes a gestural challenge to the legitimating apparatuses of publishing for a critique of the logic of the mainstream literary institution. Often Conceptual writing critiques the “operating logic” not of mainstream publishing but rather its precarious cottage-industry variant, leaving the power relations of the mainstream literary institution untroubled.

One might take this situation to be a result of precisely the structural differences between the institutions of art and the institutions of literature, particularly the different character of commodification of literary and artistic works, that I have discussed above. I don’t think, however, that this is necessarily the case. The poet and, more recently, novelist Ben Lerner has made the interesting suggestion that: “One strategy to make a book overcome being merely a commodity – and a book is definitely a commodity – is to try to bring the material conditions of its own production into the domain of the fiction.”58

Lerner’s most recent autofictional novel 10:04 exemplifies exactly this strategy. An expository flashback within the novel’s opening scene glosses that scene – the narrator’s walk along the High Line in Manhattan following a post-deal celebratory lunch with his agent – in terms of the material conditions of possibility of the writing of the opening scene and thus the existence of the scene itself:

A few months before, the agent had e-mailed me that she believed I could get a “strong six-figure” advance based on a story of mine that had appeared in The New Yorker; all I had to do was promise to turn it into a novel. I managed to draft an earnest if indefinite proposal and soon there was a competitive auction among the major New York houses and we were eating cephalopods in what would become the opening scene.

Although Lerner has not used the term “Institutional Critique” (as far as I am aware) to describe this strategy, what he is explicitly proposing here is an Institutional Critique of the literary institution by way of the novel form at both an intra- and extra-diegetic level, one that includes and reflects on not only the novel’s conditions of production but also on the production of his own subjectivity as author of the book as well as the general conditions of literary production, alternating between “facts” and “fiction.” This then is a form of new wave meta-fiction that operates at the level of the material/economic, rather than merely the textual, conditions of its own production.

Lerner elaborates on this moment much later in the book, in one of the slightly altered alternate versions of the same scene that are a structural feature of the novel. Here he breaks down in masterful comic detail the backstory of his novel’s opening backstory, explaining both the logic and the implications of the auction that generated the advance that allowed the book we are reading to be written. In this telling, Lerner’s narrator professes surprise at the amount of the advance he has received, given the fact of his first novel’s appearance with a small press and its relatively low sales. The narrator’s agent is made to lay out the reasons for this to him in terms explicitly indebted to Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology:

Since my first book was published by a small press, my agent said, the larger houses were optimistic that their superior distribution and promotion could help a second book do much better than the first, Moreover, she explained, publishers pay for prestige. Even if I wrote a book that didn’t sell, these presses wanted a potential darling of the critics or someone who might win prizes; it was symbolic capital that helped maintain the reputation of the house even if most of their money was being made by teen vampire sagas or one of the handful of “literary novelists” who actually sold a ton of books.59

Lerner’s autofictional narrator is still confused by this, however, because such a strategy on the part of the publishers seems to him more suited to “the eighties or nineties, when the novel was more or less still a viable commodity form” but not, he opines, to a world where even large, corporate publishers are downsizing.60 The crux of the issue, the narrator’s agent informs him, is that the proposal that has been accepted is not necessarily what the publishers intend to publish:

Well, your first book was unconventional but really well received. What they’re buying when they buy the proposal is in part the idea that your next book is going to be a little more… mainstream. I’m not saying they’ll reject what you submit, although that’s always possible; I’m saying it may have been easier to auction the idea of your next book than whatever you actually draft.61

Perversely delighted to learn that his proposed novel is almost certainly worth more than the one he plans to deliver will be, Lerner’s narrator determines out loud to spend his advance in advance. His agent brings him back to earth in short order, informing him that the risk of a big advance is that “if the book doesn’t sell at all, nobody’s going to want to work with you again” and then proceeds to offer advice on how to produce a more mainstream product that will sell: “Develop a clear, geometric plot; describe faces… make sure the protagonist undergoes a dramatic transformation.”62

Lerner lays out the various economies (financial, cultural and symbolic) that his book is obliged to negotiate and operate within, demonstrating the pressures that bear on his narrative in progress as it progresses. 10:04 makes a point of refusing the agent’s (fictional?) advice by means of a foregrounding of its material conditions of production and a constellatory re-telling of the same narrative events in subtly differing ways. In acknowledging, but crucially also refusing, the structural pressures bearing on a novel published in a (relatively) mainstream literary context, Lerner is able to enact something like an Institutional Critique of the literary mainstream and its logic, in and as the work.63 In Lerner’s 10:04 we see “literature” beginning a radical self-critique, suggesting that it is beginning to move beyond the “pre-conceptual-art level,” to return to Wall’s terminology.

10:04 also incorporates photos, film stills and reproductions of art works as well as Lerner’s own poetry and short fiction in ways that not only deliberately disrupt immersive, “realist” diegesis but that also begin to render the book something more like an instance of a work in the expanded field and less like a novel in the conventional sense (and this notwithstanding the novel form’s historical capaciousness and status as the antigeneric genre). Here the novel starts to take on some of the characteristics of post-conceptual installation art, featuring a distributed ontology bounding formerly autonomous art forms (without attempting to synthesise them in the manner of a Gesamtkunstwerk).64 In so doing, Lerner’s novel addresses its own status as a commodity, the current status of the system of the arts, and the dialectic between literature as not art and not literature as art.

While Lerner’s 10:04 still has enough of “the novel” in it to continue to ground it as literature (recognisable characters who undergo changes of circumstance, a plot of sorts, detailed descriptions, albeit often ironised) it also suggests that developments in contemporary literature are likely to involve (attempts at) a challenging of the category itself, both ontologically (at the level of its form and content) and institutionally (in terms of the relationship with its mediating institutions, whether mainstream or more marginal).


Post-Conceptual Writing

Dworkin and Goldsmith’s accounts of Conceptual writing risk reproducing a similar form of belatedness to Gysin’s in their attempt to use Conceptual art to update literature by means of a borrowing from a more temporally “advanced” branch of the system of the arts. The difference here is that while Gysin was mere months away from the vanguard painting of the time Conceptual writing is separated from Conceptual art by decades. Place and Fitterman recognise this issue in their jointly-authored Notes on Conceptualisms:

We are painfully aware that Conceptual Art was termed nearly half a century ago, and much of what we address might equally be called post-conceptual or neo-conceptual (to borrow terms from the visual arts). We use the term Conceptual Writing in the broadest sense, so that it intersects other terms such as: allegory, appropriation, piracy, flarf, identity theft, sampling, constraint and others.65

The “painful” awareness of the temporal lag that Place and Fitterman identify is, however, suppressed and the designation “Conceptual writing” held on to even as the very strategies that they advocate here for Conceptual writing “in the broadest sense” are not related (with the possible exception of “constraint”) to historical Conceptual art. These strategies do have artistic referents but they are to be found in those tendencies historicised under the “movement” terms of Pop, (Post)minimalism, and Appropriation Art, to which Conceptual art was notably antagonistic.

The term post-conceptual writing – ventured but rejected by Place and Fitterman – more adequately captures the nature of writing after the opening of the expanded field. It was as a consequence of this opening, and the concomitant buckling of the traditional system of the arts, historically completed by Conceptual art (with Collage, the Readymade and the Specific Object acting as essential precursors), that these diverse artistic strategies became historically available in and as writing. In this sense Conceptual art was the precondition for the historical achievement of what has come to be known as “Conceptual writing” but which is more appositely termed “Post-conceptual writing” because the latter term produces a more precise periodisation and offers greater critical purchase since it avoids the problematic tautology at the heart of the term “conceptual writing.” This tautology has been appositely described by Peter Osborne:

In the art world, “conceptual art” was a polemical phrase designed to address a context in the ‘60s, a critical context, in which art was taken to be the opposite of “conceptual.” The polemical point of the phrase “conceptual” – of the construction of the phrase and the idea of conceptual art – was that art was understood in dominant critical discourse to be precisely that which was not conceptual. “Conceptual art” was the polemical construction of this contradiction. Conceptual writing on the other hand, of course, inhabits no such context and partakes in no such contradiction. Rather there is a sense in which there is a redundancy in the term “conceptual writing,” in so far as one might have expected writing to be always already conceptual.66

Language is different to other materials employed by post-conceptual artists in that it carries an inherent conceptuality within it. While this conceptuality does not transcend language’s givenness as material – a point long made by both Robert Smithson’s Heap of Language (1966) and Mel Bochner’s Language is Not Transparent (1970) – it cannot be excised either: words cannot but signify conceptually (even as “nonsense”).

Yet Osborne’s claim that conceptual writing inhabits no polemical or oppositional context is too hasty: what the term “conceptual” in Conceptual writing signifies is its opposition to mainstream literary writing (outside the expanded field) and its established aesthetic norms. This opposition is technically, however, post-conceptual, since it could only came into being after the integration of writing into art as “not literature” (i.e. as something that could no longer categorically be excluded from art, yet which had to distinguish itself from “literature” as an autonomous field), a development that was consequent upon (the failure of) the conceptual reduction of art to written statements about its own validity as art.

The question of the location of (Post-)Conceptual writing – both ontologically and institutionally – is thus of crucial significance. John Millar, one of Conceptual writing’s most perceptive critics, has argued that it works “on the inside of art and from the outside of literature” and insisted that, as such, “it requires a criticism that straddles both to fully unravel its political and aesthetic potential…”67 Millar’s point about the multi- and trans-disciplinary critical apparatus required to approach Conceptual writing in a meaningful way is well-made (certainly this piece is weighted towards the art historical in ways that I intend to balance in future work). However I would argue that while taking up Millar’s argument about the relevance of the inside–outside dialectic its emphasis needs to be inverted: conceptual writing operates on the inside of literature and from the outside of art and this is the case both institutionally and ontologically.

Institutionally, Conceptual writing emerges from within the vanguard poetry scene, after Language Poetry, and later crosses over into artistic spaces (Dworkin and Goldsmith, we recall, insist that Against Expression is a “literary” anthology). Goldsmith has also stated that “My own theorizing of conceptual poetics… have forced the art world to take notice of what’s going on in poetry instead of the typically inverse situation” and Claire Bishop has reflected on Goldsmith’s work’s significance for contemporary art.68

Ontologically, Conceptual writing presents a version of not art as literature outside the expanded field of (formerly visual) art, one that mirrors the artistic strategy of producing a not literature as art within the expanded field (the preserve of many a recent Artist’s Novel).69 The shock that Conceptual writing was able to produce within the literary field – with notable poets insisting that the work was “not poetry” in a way that claiming something was “not art” would appear either very gauche or reactionary, or both, in the art world – was generated precisely because critical reflexiveness about the implications of the expanded field remain underdeveloped in literary practice and literary theory. To reiterate though, (Post-) Conceptual writing is not “not literature” in Wall’s sense: (Post-)Conceptual writing reverses the strategy of producing a not literature as art within the expanded field, instead producing a form of art-inspired writing within the field of literature (outside the expanded field). Mainstream literature has predictably rejected it, thereby legitimating (Post-)Conceptual writing’s “vanguardism” which is actually more a function of the literary field’s overweening conservatism than (Post-)Conceptual writing’s own absolute novelty.70 Conceptual writing gains a reception and recognition in the art world but nonetheless continues to function as literature, not art – indeed as the form of not art as literature (exemplified by Goldsmith becoming MoMA’s first Poet Laureate).71

The play of negation and analogisation at work here – the proliferation of “not’s” and “as’s ” – is complex, but working it’s logic through is necessary in order to get at what is really at stake, critically, in (Post-)Conceptual writing, beyond the pragmatic, promotional, function of the term.

This challenge is all the more pertinent as a new generation of soi-disant post-conceptual poets has begun to emerge, along with the beginnings of a critical literature on their work. In his recent Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry (2015), Felix Bernstein has sought to explicate the character of post-conceptual poetry. The provisionality of Bernstein’s title (“Notes”) is deliberate and revealing: his writing – characterised by brio, breadth of focus and an admirable attempt to avoid pre-emptive canon-formation – nonetheless struggles to endow the term post-conceptual poetry with critical specificity, indeed he ironises his own problems in so doing. Bernstein’s initial gambit is to define post-conceptual poetry generationally: “Post-conceptual poetry is nothing more than a term that means generationally following and reacting to conceptual poetry, often in dialogue with the earlier genre. Some even call post-conceptual poetry ‘second-generation conceptual poetry’, as Kenneth Goldsmith and Rob Fitterman taught many post-conceptual poets directly or indirectly.”72 Bernstein then immediately qualifies his own totalising claim:

Isn’t conceptual poetry post-conceptualism? Yes. Conceptual poetry, by virtue of following ’80s postmodern art (Pictures Generation…). is post-postmodern; by virtue of following ’70s poststructuralist poetry (Language poetry) is post-structuralist; by virtue of following ’60s conceptualism (Fluxus, minimalism) is post-conceptualism. Of course, as one can tell from its billing, conceptual poetry is not merely attempting to follow conceptual art (and therefore to align with all that is post-conceptualism, which can include ’80s postmodern art and ’70s post-structuralist poetry) but also to repeat it, and has successfully created some rather purely retro conceptual procedures.73

Bernstein then rhetorically stages his reader’s likely confusion: “What is post-conceptual poetry again?” before returning to a default chronological/generational definition, naming a series of post-conceptual poets on this definition including: Sophia Le Fraga, Andrew Durbin, J. Gordon Faylor, Trisha Low, Josef Kaplan, Kate Durbin, Joey Yearous-Algozin, Holly Melgard, Danny Snelson, Steve McLaughlin and Steve Zultanski.74

Bernstein is hyper self-aware and engagingly self-reflexive about the challenges, and ethics, of defining post-conceptual poetry and the critical power games at play in so-doing.75 He also reflects on the necessity for a historical perspective on the problematic of the post-conceptual without, however, really offering one.76

It is precisely by producing a more developed historical reading of the “post-conceptual,” and its ontological relation to the contemporary, that we can gain greater purchase on these live problematics. Bernstein’s non-category of the “post-postmodern” fails to do such work for him and consequently his account lacks meaningful critical specificity, as he recognises in performing a self-consciously queer art of (critical) failure. If being post-conceptual is an ontological marker of contemporaneity, then contemporary writing has to be thought in terms of its constitutively post-conceptual status, incorporating a thoroughgoing reflection on the implications of the collapse of the system of the arts with the opening of the expanded field.

Here then I am arguing, in a self-consciously “revisionist” way, for the importance of historicising “Conceptual writing” as always already Postconceptual writing. “Post-conceptual writing” has the benefit of being more critically precise as a designator but also, and more significantly, establishing contemporary post-conceptual writing on the same ontological plane as contemporary post-conceptual art.

The historically-significant move that Place, Fitterman, Goldsmith, Dworkin and other (Post-) Conceptual poets performed was to render explicit the tension between the conventional modes of literature and their own work as a form of not art as literature thus throwing into doubt Wall’s contention that the “canonical” arts can happily co-exist with the arts in the expanded field. It is precisely in this tension –  raising the possibility of a renewed avant-gardism – that the significance of artistic contemporaneity might be seen to inhere.

Exploring the character and stakes of post-conceptual writing stands as a pressing contemporary challenge and I have sought to undertake some initial work towards this end. Our task is to think through the specificity of post-conceptual writing as a category and a set of vanguard practices while paying particular attention to the relationship between generic art in the expanded field and the canonical forms. Post-conceptual writing is a signal form of the contemporary as well as a dynamic contemporary form.

  1. On the category of “delegated performance” and Sehgal as an exemplar of it, see Claire Bishop, “Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity,” October, no. 140, Spring 2012, 91–112, 96–97. 

  2. See Nicolas Bourriaud, Altermodern, London: Tate Publishing, 2009; Hal Foster, “Global Style,” The London Review of Books, vol. 29, no. 18, 20 September 2007, 10–12. 

  3. Johanna Drucker, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005; Boris Groys, “Comrades of Time,” e-flux journal, no.11, December 2009,; Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, London: Verso, 2013; Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art?, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 

  4. For the most sustained and insightful recent discussion of the concept of the new and its ultimate indispensability see Boris Groys, On the New, London: Verso, 2014. 

  5. Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All, 48. 

  6. Osborne has made some brief remarks about the literary collective Luther Blisset/Wu Ming in Anywhere or Not at All. See Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All, 35. Osborne also developed some material about literature and Conceptual writing for a panel that I convened entitled “New Contemporaneities” as part of the “Plastic Words” exhibition and events series at Raven Row Gallery, London, 21 January 2015. An edited transcript of proceedings is available, see Peter Osborne and David Cunningham, “New Contemporaneities,” in Luke Skrebowski, John Millar, David Musgrave, Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams, eds., Plastic Words, London: Publication Studio, 2015, 73–85. 

  7. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso, 1991. Jameson has recently sought to defend and extend his concept of the postmodern in light of contemporary cultural developments, see Fredric Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity,” New Left Review, no. 92, March-April 2015, 101–132. 

  8. Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity,” 107. 

  9. Kristeller still offers the canonical account of the system of the arts: “Although the terms ‘Art’, ‘Fine Arts’ or ‘Beaux Arts’ are often identified with the visual arts alone, they are also quite commonly understood in a broader sense. In this broader meaning, the term ‘Art’ comprises above all the five major arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry. These five constitute the irreducible nucleus of the modern system of the arts, on which all writers and thinkers seem to agree. On the other hand, certain additional arts are sometimes added to the scheme, but with less regularity, depending on the different views and interests of the authors concerned: gardening, engraving and the decorative arts, the dance and theatre, sometimes the opera, and finally eloquence and prose literature.” Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics Part I,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol.12, no.4, October 1951, 496–527, 497. See also Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics Part 2,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol.13, no.1, January 1952, 17–46. 

  10. Jeff Wall, “Depiction, Object, Event,” Hermes Lecture, 2006, 12–29, 12. Available online at

  11. Wall, “Depiction, Object, Event,” 18; 19; 21–2. 

  12. Wall, “Depiction, Object, Event,” 27. 

  13. Wall, “Depiction, Object, Event,” 27–28. 

  14. Wall, “Depiction, Object, Event,” 28. 

  15. Wall, “Depiction, Object, Event,” 28. 

  16. For a discussion of conceptual painting see Jan Verwoert, “Why are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because they think it’s a good idea.” Afterall, no. 12, Autumn/Winter 2005,

  17. This is because Wall reads literature, with Greenberg, as that once hegemonic art which the other arts sought to distinguish themselves from, defining their modernism by purifying themselves of anything not proper to themselves. Literature is what the other arts initially seek to purge. “He [Greenberg] argues that, in each era, there can be, and has been, a dominant art, one all the others tend to imitate to their own detriment, perversion and loss of integrity. From the early 17th century to the last third of the 19th, he says that the dominant art was literature. What he calls modernism is the effort on the part of artists to reject that mimesis and work only with the unique, inimitable characteristics of each individual, singular, art.” Wall, “Depiction, Object, Event,” 13. 

  18. Wall, “Depiction, Object, Event,” 22. 

  19. Conceptual writing’s leading theorists are also principally, but not exclusively, its practitioners. Major critical texts on Conceptual writing include: Craig Dworkin, “The Fate of Echo,” in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, eds. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2010, xxii–liv; Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011; Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012; Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms, Berkeley, CA: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009. 

  20. Goldsmith, “Introduction,” Uncreative Writing, 13. 

  21. Brion Gysin, “Cut-Ups Self-Explained,” Evergreen Review, no.32 (1964); reprinted in Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader, ed. Jason Weiss, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001, 132-135, 132. 

  22. Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1972, 84. 

  23. For a comprehensive history of collage as a technique, see Brandon Taylor, Collage: The Making of Modern Art, London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. 

  24. William Burroughs, “The Cut-up Method of Brion Gysin,” in William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, London: John Calder, 1979, 29–33, 29. 

  25. Donald Judd, “Specific Objects” in Complete Writings 1959-1975, Halifax: The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2005, 181–189, 181. 

  26. Judd, “Specific Objects,” 182. 

  27. Here literature participated in a neo-avant-garde recovery of devices from the historical avant-garde, the productivity of which has been long debated with the canonical statements offered by Peter Bürger (against the neo-avant-garde) and Hal Foster (for the neo-avant garde). See Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant Garde, trans. Michael Shaw, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984; Hal Foster, “What’s Neo about the Neo-Avant-Garde.” October, no. 20 (Fall 1994): 5–32. 

  28. Dworkin, “The Fate of Echo,” xlvii n.2. 

  29. Dworkin, “The Fate of Echo,” xlvii n.2. 

  30. “[F]or so-called ‘conceptual’ poets, the refusal to give a conceptual account of the ‘subject’ whose rejection defines the schema of their art is a manifest expression of contempt for the very work of conceptual definition itself. Conceptual poetry does no conceptual work toward defining the ‘subject’ whose rejection is its principal dogma. Poetry dismissed by conceptual poets as Romantic, subjective, expressive etc. often does a great deal more of that conceptual work than ‘conceptual poetry’ does.” Keston Sutherland, “Theses on Antisubjectivist Dogma,” (2013); John Millar, “A Shadow of a Shadow of a Shadow,” The White Review, no,14, July 2015, pp.97-107. Millar’s article derives from his extremely insightful, recently completed, Master’s thesis, John Millar, “Made in China, Assembled in California,” MA thesis, Kingston University, 2015. 

  31. Craig Dworkin, “Introduction to The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing,”

  32. Crux Desperationis is a tri-lingual (English, Spanish, Italian) online journal edited by Riccardo Boglione and Georgina Torello

  33. Wall, “Depiction, Object, Event,” 18. Oh his own logic however Wall should state that it becomes “not literature” rather than literature since it is a form in the expanded field. 

  34. Dworkin, “Introduction to The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing,”

  35. The relative omission of female voices in Against Expression prompted another anthology that sought to address this imbalance, see Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, Vanessa Place, eds. I’ll Drown my Book: Conceptual Writing by Women , Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2012. 

  36. Note again the art/literature instability that is manifest here in Dworkin’s conflation of the “gallery” and the “sampler.” 

  37. Dworkin, “The Fate of Echo,” xxii. 

  38. Dworkin, “The Fate of Echo,” xxiiv. 

  39. The actual engagement of Conceptual art with aesthetics was more complex than is normally acknowledged, see Luke Skrebowski, “Conceptual Aesthetics,” A Book about Collecting and Exhibiting Conceptual Art after Conceptual Art, Sabine Folie, Georgia Holz, Ilse Lafer, eds., Vienna: Generali Foundation, 2013, pp.107–138. 

  40. Dworkin, “Introduction to The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing,”

  41. Goldsmith, “Introduction,” Uncreative Writing, 13. 

  42. As Jeff Wall has observed, “The mechanization of literary production and the emergence of an industrial literary product is the great shock which inaugurates modernist literature. The book, as the fundamental form of the literary commodity, can therefore be experienced not as literature at all, but as the external form of its negation, an exoskeletal clamp into which machinery has driven speech.” Jeff Wall, “Into the Forest: Two Sketches for Studies of Rodney Graham’s Work” in Jeff Wall, Selected Essays and Interviews, New York: MoMA, 2007, 87–101, 91. 

  43. This is not to suggest that it is easier to make a living as an artist than a writer (most artists, like most writers, do not make a living from their work) but only that there are structurally different types of commodifcation and markets at work in the artistic and literary institutions. Most artists and writers exist outside the art and literary markets, they exist as what Gregory Sholette has termed “dark matter,” existent but unseen. See Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, London: Pluto Press, 2010. 

  44. For a detailed account of this historical process, see André Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, London: Verso, 2001. 

  45. In this sense one can say that there is much mainstream literature that longer deserves the name of art in that it proceeds according to rigid, market-led formulae, what Benjamin Kunkel has called, in relation to prose fiction, the “perennial novel.” Benjamin Kunkel, “Novel,” n+1, no. 4, 2006, It should be noted, however, that Kunkel still sees the possibility for artistry within the perennial novel, despite the structural contradiction at work in his coinage. 

  46. For a fascinating and detailed account of the historical range and depth of now-renowned authors who initially self-published see the Information as Material pamphlet Do or DIY, 2nd ed., York: Information as Material, 2015. 

  47. Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–69: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October, no.50, Winter 1990, 105–143, 143. 

  48. Place and Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms, 49. 

  49. Place and Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms, 50. 

  50. It should be noted, however, that this strategy is not quite thoroughgoing: the blurbs for the book – another of Place and Fitterman’s candidates for institutional critique – are provided by Kenneth Goldsmith and Johanna Drucker in propria persona

  51. For details on Information as Material see

  52. Place and Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms, 49. 

  53. Darren Wershler, “Afterword” in Nick Thurston, Of the Subcontract, York: Information as Material, 2013, 133-141, 139. 

  54. For an exposé of Amazon’s corporate culture see, Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” The New York Times, August 15th 2015,

  55. Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum, September 2005, 278–283, 283. 

  56. Indeed, quite to the contrary, Kent Johnson has claimed that some conceptual poetry – which he derogates as “safe conceptualism’ – “has come to an accommodation with mainstream literary and artistic institutions, exemplified by Kenneth Goldsmith’s acceptance of MoMA’s first poet laureateship in 2013. Kent Johnson, “Notes on Safe Conceptualisms,”

  57. On this issue see, Kenneth Goldsmith, “My Career in Poetry or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution,” First published in Enclave Review, Spring 2011, 7–9. 

  58. “Interview with Ben Lerner,” The White Review, No.13, March 2015, 15–25, 19. 

  59. Ben Lerner, 10:04, London: Granta, 2014, 154. My emphasis. 

  60. Lerner, 10:04, 154. 

  61. Lerner, 10:04, 155. 

  62. Lerner, 10:04, 156. 

  63. 10:04 is published by Granta Books. 

  64. I am indebted to Fredric Jameson’s analysis of the character of installation art and its differentiation from the Gesamtkunstwerk here. See, Jameson, Postmodernism, 171–172. 

  65. Fitterman and Place, Notes on Conceptualisms, 10. 

  66. Peter Osborne and David Cunningham, “New Contemporaneities” in Louis Bailey, John Douglas Miller, David Musgrave, Luke Skrebowski, Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams, eds., Plastic Words, London: Publication Studio, 2015, 73–85, 76-77. 

  67. “If Conceptual Writing works on the inside of art and from the outside of literature, then it requires a criticism that straddles both to fully unravel its political and aesthetic potential, because if it is claimed for the academy and literature studies as Perloff would seem to wish, then its ability to resonate in the productive seam between art and writing is curtailed, its open nature, its radical ambiguity and ability to set categories in a state of resonant suspension ceases. While if it is only considered within the bounds of non-literary forbears the potential for critical richness is lost and the oxymoronic clumsiness of Art Writing as a discipline emerges.” John Millar, “Conceptual Writing,” First published in Art Monthly, issue 361, November 2012, 10. 

  68. Goldsmith, “My Career in Poetry or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution,” Claire Bishop, “Digital Divide,” Artforum, September 2012, 434–441. 

  69. It is not an attempt at a not-literature within the field of literature which is a place occupied by genres such as the anti-novel and concrete poetry and by groups such as Oulipo and the Lettrists. For a taxonomy of the genre of the Artist’s Novel see, David Maroto & Joanna Zielińska, eds., Artist Novels, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015. 

  70. As Felix Bernstein has sharply observed: “Conceptual poetry may sometimes ‘transgress’ a dull hybrid poetics. Still, Conceptual poetry achieves its originality by reverting to the most banally overused tactics of the visual arts.” Felix Bernstein, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, Los Angeles, CA: Insert Blanc Press, 2015, 130. 

  71. Conceptual writing also functions within the literary academy. On this issue see, Johnson, “Notes on Safe Conceptualisms,”

  72. Bernstein, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, 21. 

  73. Bernstein, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, 21-22. 

  74. “Post-conceptual poetry, by virtue of following conceptual poetry, can be seen as inaugurating a new tide in post-postmodernisms (such as conceptual poetry) that came of age in the ’90s and early ’00s. Its practitioners, born (on average) in the mid-’80s, are part of larger trend within post-postmodernism to bridge affect, queerness, ego, lyric, and self-conscious narcissism within the inherited procedural structures of the ‘network’ and ‘concept’.” Bernstein, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, 22. 

  75. He concludes his introduction: “these notes enact a kind of push-pull between pathetic confession, ironic self-criticality, advanced complicity, enraged hostility, information surplus, gossip, and longing (for an end to work) that is characteristic of post-conceptual poetry (and youth).” Bernstein, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, 27. 

  76. “I do try here to somewhat maturely take interest in history (over and against theoretical sophistry and my own likes and dislikes), an interest that has been seriously absent in the attempts, by many critics and poets, to deal with issue similar to those discussed in these notes.” Bernstein, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, 27. 

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Image: Kristen Mueller, "II: Approaching Literature's Space." from Partially Removing the Remove of Literature, 2014.