pseudopodium
. . . Jess

. . .

Simcoe, among other eminent weblogs, has pointed to one of those attacks on the fraudulence of Modern Art that crop up about as often as my gout. This one drags out dusty whipping-boy Mapplethorpe, but distinguishes itself by spending more time on the blandly corporate-friendly Gilbert-and-George, who apparently once managed to outrage someone. Probably the same guy who wanted to ban the Pet Shop Boys.

Yeah, so the art world of teachers, curators, critics, trust funders, and investors is absurdly indiscriminate. So journalist pundits aren't? We're given a choice of blindnesses -- are you philistine or are you gullible? -- that assume homogeneity among objects made and displayed by people and homogeneity among the people who look or prod at the objects.

As a gullible philistine, I apply the same pair of criteria to all art whether Ancient or Modern: Is it pretty? And is it funny?

Caravaggio and Botticelli and Pollock and Jess are in their different ways all very pretty and very funny. Piero della Francesca isn't exactly funny but he gives me a funny feeling, which is extra points. Duchamp is King of Comedy. Mapplethorpe is always pretty but only funny once in a while; I mostly think of him as a society portraitist, like Annie Leibovitz except prettier. "Piss Christ" was astonishingly pretty, which made up for the dopiness of the joke. On the other hand, the Koonses and Kellys remind me of those "Far Side" rip-offs in the paper: slick and inept at the same time. For sheer entertainment value, you're unlikely to find anything in the local art collections that'll compare to George Herriman. But that would've been at least as true 100, 200, or 300 years ago.

Art critics should explain why they think a particular piece of art is pretty or funny. Art teachers should explain how to make particular pieces of art prettier or funnier. Otherwise they're just being blowhards and they're well on the way to a successful career. And why all this fuss about the stuffed horse? I bet there are stuffed animals in plenty of English museums. Not to mention the House of Lords.

. . .

yes - it is dark

Tricky Cad: Case V, 1958, detail
Flirty skirty Marcel Duchamp had his little fling with "4-dimensional perspective," but when you're portraying eternity nothing beats a long-term relationship. And the paste-ups of Jess show a forty year commitment to four-dimensional perspective studies, with time, no longer viewed in rigid profile, as the fourth dimension.

As we all know by now, comic strips use spatial separation to convey temporal change; Jess's early "Tricky Cad's Time Space Continuum Has Collapsed!" work exploited that convention. To rearrange the sequence of comics is to change our four-dimensional point-of-view, to focus down an oblique line that cuts across the forward-march of image....

Jess's later work layers precisely trimmed and arranged bits of advertising, art books, jigsaw puzzles, and news magazines ("the images of our times") into a very-deep-focus Universal Now! as dizzying in its novel jumping-out of dimensionality as Jane Russell in 3-D or the "floating pictures" of the Dutch, the restless lost-in-time and lost-in-space eye shifting across a single, massive, unified, static surface that seems to dis-and-re-establish a new implied viewpoint every quarter-inch or so....

Arkadia's Last Resort
Arkadia's Last Resort; Or Fête Champêtre Up Mnemosyne Creek [Autumn], 1976, detail
Jess's monumental paste-ups of the 1960s through 1980s reproduce ex-TREEM-ly badly. First, they're huge -- Arkardia's... is 47" by 71", which is, what?, a four-by-five? Second, since they're built up of printed material from very varied sources, pretty much any reduction into new print material is going to obscure differences and blur dividing lines. Probably the only decent way to preserve and distribute this stuff is in high-quality fold-out prints even larger than the original or in large high-resolution digital scans with no photographic middleman. For the curious and easily satisfied, the Club provides a just-as-inadequate full sketch of Arkadia's....

. . .

Nothing Personal, 8

"But then Michael Palmer might not be a Language Poet. We won't know until he dies and they cut his heart open and see if L=A can be found there.... And the politics of it all is fascinating, but there are people who are much better equipped to speak about it than I am. You might want to go and talk to some of them about it, if you're interested."
- David Bromige

Note: The following is based on second-hand hints and third-hand extrapolations. That is, it's gossip. And since I'm art-for-art's by nature, it's not even good gossip. But my essay's carried me out of my depth, and in this deep water I'll paddle. Feel free to administer a little paddling of your own.

I told my conversion narrative because it's not unique. (It's not interesting, either, but that wasn't why I told it.) For me it happened in 1989; for others it happened in 1982 or in 1999, or it will happen in 2007. All that changes is the number of precursors and passersby clumped into the Katamari Damacy of "Language Poetry".

No conspiracy lies behind that phenomenom, and protests were futile. It's merely a side-effect of success, enthusiasm, and inattention. I've witnessed similar confusions in punk and hip-hop, and a recent museum show dedicated to "the Beats" included work by Frank O'Hara and Jess.

What distinguishes LangPo is the stability and range of its success. The Beats weren't moving by the time of that pleasant curatorial blunder; the Language Poets continue. And the formal advances responsible for that success were political ones:

Instead the group's glue is found in the non-poetic work of "poetics": self-publication, self-promotion, self-defense.... Creative members could parlay any diction they liked so long as they cooperated with the critical members. And, David Bromige aside, those critics weren't fooling around: they've been painfully sincere, with most of the pain directed outwards.

This community, like any community, coheres by selective memory and selective attention. I share a class background with Ron Silliman, and an allergy to academic power structures. Naturally we except our friends from our prejudices. Silliman, however, sometimes deploys those prejudices even in defense of his friends and despite the disposable incomes which back their publications. Then there's the contrast between Perelman's finger-wagging and high-fiving, and in another way Susan Howe sacrificing her own layouts while insisting on the primacy of Emily Dickinson's....

I don't mean to characterize them as villains in this history. (They are, after all, three of my favorite writers.) Conservatives and the old-garde haven't been shy about marking their dry discolored turfs, would-be Young Turks tried similar tactics, and when Bromige enlivened the Buffalo Poetics list, the mob who shouted him down wasn't led by his fellows. The Language Poets didn't invent the game: they only managed it better.

I do mean to imply that the game has a human cost. If I haven't heard versions of Luther Blissett's story quite as often as versions of my own, still I've heard them. And worse, the one-time-enemy may be appropriated: I remember some poet I respect (whose name I don't remember) being asked by someone somewhere if she considered herself a Language Poet, and her answering something like she wouldn't have minded but someone I respect less (whose name I also don't remember) said she wasn't Marxist enough. (As I warned, my gossiping skills are weak.) Then there's Benjamin Friedlander, often called a Language Poet because he paid them close attention, and scarred by them for the same reason.

Given the human payback, though, was it worth it? Could any avant-garde have managed the scarcity-economy of print better?

I don't know; I just hope the post-print world does.

* * *

The web hosts an economy of attention: Who's attended to? Who should I attend to?

It's one question with two faces, self-ish and other-ish, inseparable yet rarely perceived simultanously. We become two-faced in asking it. We lament the lack of attention paid our so worthwhile work and then spend a half-hour responding to an irksome comment made by someone who doesn't particularly interest us.

In the mailing lists, there was no way around it: you had to slog through mire to reach anything at all. While the web allows for greater selectivity and wider browsing, established algorithms steer us towards continued dysfunction. Jordan Davis may have closed Equanimity to focus on other projects, but (as usual) I fear the worst. And there's Gary Sullivan's recent comment....

The next innovation in American poetry might better target LangPo's social aspects than its lyric ones.

Responses

Peli:

Mark me as a Luther Blissett story. Sure, I like\love 80% of first-gen LangPo, but would you speak as kindly of the things you rightfully mention to be the actual correlate of the LangPo appellation -- their theory, norms, critical language, self-definition of their practice, analysis of literary history? This aspect wasn't only lackluster, but managed to salt the earth rather thoroughly with unimpeachable dogmas, and as much as I love A.K.A and Sunset Debris it wasn't worth it.

It *isn't* worth it, even. Which is why I'm halfway to goodbye poetry hello video-games, and even though I probably won't, I'll always feel a little miserably about my field of interest\study in a way I never thought I would before I discovered that the guy who wrote Tjanting has essays.

Friedrich:

A God's mask have ye hung in front of you, ye "pure ones": into a God's mask hath your execrable coiling snake crawled.
shiver down the spine

I HATE BEACH

Turbulent Velvet extrapolates.

. . .

Movie Comment: The Underworld Story (1950)

A wallop's packed behind that bland title: dangerously hot scripting, fully engaged performers, and gorgeousness like unearned grace wherever it looks. This early composition reminded me of a Jess collage

Executive office at the newspaper of record

pressing history like headcheese into slices of vision; holding Infinity in a managing editor's office. Appropriate for a tribute to the sustaining intimacy (they work hard and they play hard) of wealth, racism, law, and journalism.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.