Saturday, June 28, 2008

Combinatory Poetry and Literature in the Internet , Florian Cramer

October 19, 2000

Permutations, a website

Since I have been asked to present my website Permutations at this conference,
this paper will first tell what the site is about and then address the issues
it might bring up for the discussion of a poetics of digital text.

The website ( consists of a
number of server-side computer programs written in the Perl programming
language, each of them reconstructing - and thereby re-inventing - one of a few
dozens of combinatory poems written between 330 A.D. and today by, among
others, Optatianus Porphyrius, Jean Meschinot, Julius Caesar Scaliger, Georg
Philipp Harsdörffer, Quirinus Kuhlmann and Tristan Tzara. Although it is
difficult to distinguish a combinatory literature from other forms of
literature ever since linguistics defined language as a combinatory system
itself, combinatory poetry nevertheless could be formally defined as a
literature that openly exposes and addresses its combinatorics by changing and
permuting its text according to fixed rules, like in anagrams, proteus poems
and cut-ups. Frequently, written combinatory literature does not denote the
generated text itself, but only a set of formal instructions with perhaps one
sample permutation. Since the poems of Scaliger, Harsdörffer, Kuhlmann and
Tzara fall into this category, they turn into something profoundly different as
soon as their algorithms are being transscribed from book pages into computer
software. The website therefore is an open experiment for finding out what
might be lost and gained from such a transscription. Permutations is, in my
view, not an art project, but rather pataphysics and gay philology.1

I Ardua componunt felices carmina Musae
II dissona conectunt diversis vincula metris
III scrupea pangentes torquentes pectora vatis
IV undique confusis constabunt singula verbis.

On the most simple level, the website shows that the history of algorithmic and
permutational literature is much older than avant-garde modernism, let alone
computer poetry proper. The classical rhetorical figures of chiasm and
hyperbaton, the latter also known as ``permutatio,'' are among the earliest
Western prototypes of combinatory poetry.2 The oldest permutational text
adapted in Permutations is Optatianus Porfyrius' Carmen XXV from the fourth
century A.D.. All words printed in the first and the fourth column of the poem
and all words in the second and third make up two sets of words which can be
arbitarily shuffled with each other.3 The words in the fifth column are fixed,
thereby ensuring that the poem will remain hexametric despite its words
shuffling. There are 1.62 billion possible permutations of the text. In the
computer adaption, the poem randomly permutes each time a button is pressed.

In its initial notation, or state, the poem tells of dysharmonic junctions,
uneven meters, rough tones and confused words tormenting the singer. Optatianus
Porfyrius, an important formal innovator of European pattern poetry,4, makes
his poem an aesthetic self-reflection which, jumbling its own words, performs
and confuses itself simultaneously. Optatianus' Carmen XXV became paradigmatic
for poetry when Julius Caesar Scaliger coined the term ``Proteus verse'' for
word permutation poems in his 1561 Poetices, and made them a canonical poetical
form for the century to come.5

Scaliger's example line, ``Perfide sperasti divos te fallere Proteu''
(``Wickedly you hoped to deceive the gods, Proteus''), was the prototype of
countless poems in the 17th century whose lines, written either in Latin or in
one of the new national languages, contained words to be shuffled. Not unlike
Optatianus' Carmen XXV whose permutability was restrained through the fixed
words in its fifth column, Scaliger's line can not be jumbled at will if the
hexameter is paid attention to. The poetical permutation of the six words
therefore doesn't map the mathematical permutation of six (6! = 720). The
difference between poetical and mathematical laws of permutation was abolished
in the 17th century when the perception of Scaliger coincided with a renewed
interest in the ''ars`` of Raimundus Lullus and the Christian Kabbalah. While
Lullus used combinatorics to generate ontological and theological statements,
17th century science rewrote Lullism into a generative systematics of
encyclopedic knowledge. Thomas Lansius, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, Quirinus
Kuhlmann were at once scholars, language researchers and writers of Proteus

Aside from two Proteus poems (both of which are adapted in Permutations), the
17th century poet Georg Philipp Harsdörffer wrote a morphological word
generation machine he called ``Fünffacher Denckring der teutschen Sprache''
(``Fivefold Thought Ring of the German Language'').6 Each of its five
concentric circles contained at set of morphemes which, in their combination,
were supposed to cover all existing and potential words of the German language.
Harsdörffer's ``Denckring'' not only expands on Lullus, but also on the 17th
century linguist Justus Georg Schottelius who considered the combinatorics of
one-syllable ``base words'' (``Stammwörter'') the principle of the German
language. Schottelius anti-nominalistically conceived of them as words which
``mean their thing right away'' and believed them to be derived immediately
from the Hebrew and divine language.

While the Proteus poetry of the 17th century employed combinatorics as a means
of calculation and control, the artistic avant-gardes of the 20th century
reinvented same or similar poetic forms as part of a poetics of indeterminacy
and chance. Tristan Tzara proposed to create Dada poetry by cutting out the
words of a newspaper article, shuffling them in a bag and writing them down in
the accidental order they had been pulled out.7 Despite the anti-art gesture,
Tzara's instruction to select, break up and permute a group of words exactly
conforms to Julius Caesar Scaliger's definition of the Proteus verse. Between
Scaliger and Tzara, there however is not only a shift from determination to
chance, but also from closure to openness of the system. All pre-20th century
permutation poems shuffle a fixed set of data directly inscribed - hard-coded -
into themselves, but Tzara's Dada poem merely denotes a process which can be
fed with arbitrary data. By allowing to take any Web page as the input data,
the computer adaption of the poem even radicalizes this difference; the process
now involves a bigger repository of text, happens in real time and, by
algorithmic automation, doesn't require any manual work or skills on behalf of
the reader.

Permutations finally include some self-invented automata, such as ``Here Comes
Everybody'', a processor of James Joyce's ``Finnegans Wake'' which
algorithmically mimics the portmanteau word poetics of the novel. Hyphenating
its text and recombining the syllables according to stochastic probability, the
program perpetually creates new texts with newly generated portmanteau words
from the novel. John Cage's radio play ``Roarotorio. An Irish Circus on
Finnegans Wake'' formally processes the novel in order not to expand, but to
reduce the volume of text.8

Language combinatorics and computer text

Without doubt, it is philologically incorrect or problematic at least to
rewrite pre-digital combinatory poetry into computer programs. The
transcription potentially blurs the difference between an anti-nominalist,
theologically and hermetically influenced linguistic thinking of the
Renaissance on the one hand and the concept of language as arbitrary material
in avant-garde modernism on the other. Juxtaposing both discourses, the website
however shows that any contemporary perception of the Renaissance texts is
inevitably triggered and filtered through the knowledge of avant-garde
literature, computer poetry and literary theory. If both traditions therefore
influence each other, the opposite conclusion must be drawn as well: Any
concept of digital literature which does not reflect language combinatorics and
algorithmically processed language is severely restrained.

On a purely formal level, the combinatory poetry of both the Renaissance and
the 20th century has a common set of features which as well seem to be relevant
for a poetics of literature in computer networks:

1. Densification

An compact source code (instruction set) generates an abundance of text.

2. Micro-grammar

Reproducing the linguistic mechanisms of word and sentence creation,
combinatory poetry is a generative reflection of language.

3. Filtering

Combinatory poetry uses formal methods to process language and transform
text. It thereby shows that the poetic potential of computing machines is
not limited to transmitting ready-made signs. Computers are not merely a
transport devices, but potential senders and receivers, writers and readers
of text as well.

Since a computer can act at any point of the communicative process, it is not
simply a medium - i.e. an instance between a sender and a receiver -, but a
universal semiotic machine. Misreading the computer as a mere medium,
humanities have wrongly assumed that their studies of the computer have to be
``media studies'' (instead of semiotics). Likewise, computer art was
misunderstood as so-called ``media art.'' A result of this misreading is, as it
seems, that concepts and methods developed by media studies since Kracauer and
McLuhan for analyzing film, television, radio and video were plainly reapplied
to computers and the Internet. As a consequence, notions like ``multimedia,''
``interactivity'' and ``nonlinearity'' have been mapped from TV and video onto
digital literature. While it is of course useful to distinguish a movie as
linear form (of a reel whose time and sequence of display can be exactly
determined) from a computer game as a nonlinear form, the same distinction
fails to describe a literary text whose perception might be rather linear or
rather not depending on the way an individual reads it. While ``new media''
notions derived from film, TV and video made little to no sense in literary
theory and studies of digital code, the conceptual confusion they left still
persists and continues to obstruct critical debates.

From the viewpoint of a computer programmer, the text generators that make up
Permutations may be primitive. But making their algorithms transparent, they
make readers pay attention to the fact that any digital text - and any digital
poetry - is potentially machine-executable, a sequence of signifiers which,
beyond merely relying on computer systems, actually sets them up. I thus
consider the website a modest statement against equating network computers with
simple transmission media and typographical interfaces, against mistaking the
web browser for the net and against restraining computer network literature to
so-called ``hypertext'' and so-called ``multimedia.'' While it might seem that,
in comparison to the latter, generative text has remained a marginal form of
digital literature, a more thorough consideration should take into account, for
example, machine-generated invoices, automated bank statements and official
letters, Internet search engines, ``personalized'' portals and home-order
catalogues, not to speak of fully automated control and regulation systems in
industry production, aviation and on the stock market. They all exemplify how
efficaciously algorithmically manipulated writing has intervened into everyday
language and culture; a status quo which the concepts of ``hypertext''and
``multimedia'' don't reflect at all. Instead, computer viruses like Melissa and
I LOVE YOU, small bits of text written in computer control code, strike me as
perhaps the most dense and interesting examples of contemporary literature in
the Internet. Viruses at once follow and extend the combinatory design
principle to create an abundance out of few signifiers by infection,
self-replication and mutation of code. They could make other writers in the
Internet aware that the the mere syntax of the code they use is of explosive
virulence, all the more when global technical infrastructures depend on it.

This should make it clear why ``hypertext'' is anything but an exhaustive or
general concept of digital textuality. Nevertheless, ``hypertext'' used to be
both the coded format and the aesthetic program of much if not most literature
in the Internet.9 While it would be aesthetically naive of course to expect all
digital literature to be written in program code, it seems reasonable to expect
from net literature that it conceptually and aesthetically reflects the
semiotic and technological conditions of the system in which its signifiers
flow. Until recently, this expectation was rather met by poets who didn't call
themselves poets, but ``Net.artists'', rooting themselves in conceptual art
rather than in literature.10

Recently, the ``codeworks'' poetry of mez (Mary Ann Breeze), Alan Sondheim, Ted
Warnell and others has taken up impulses from by incorporating
ready-made bits and syntax from programming languages, binary machine code,
network protocols and markup conventions of interpersonal network
communication.11 Contrary to expectations that net literature would
increasingly become multimedia, these codeworks circulate as plain E-Mail. Not
being algorithmic in a strict sense, they nevertheless play with the fact that
they might be read as (potentially harmful) machine code, and achieve
densification, micro-grammar and filtering by hybridizing human and machine
languages. If codeworks could thus be called a post-combinatory poetry, I hope
the gay philology of Permutations provides material against which the ``post''
prefix may be matched.


Jeremy Adler and Ulrich Ernst. Text als Figur. Visuelle Posie von der
Antike bis zur Moderne. VCH, Weinheim, 3 edition, 1990 (1987).

Tilman Baumgärtel. Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg, 1999.

Franz Josef Czernin. (Vortrag über das Programm POE). Unveröffentliches
Manuskript, 1997(?).

Reinhard Döhl. Von der ZUSE Z 22 zum WWW. Helmut Kreuzer zum 70sten, 1998.

Georg Philipp Harsdörffer. Mathematische und philosophische Erquickstunden.
Texte der frühen Neuzeit. Keip, Frankfurt (Nürnberg), 3 edition, 1990

Alfred Liede. Dichtung als Spiel. De Gruyter, Berlin und New York, 1992

Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius. Publilii Optatiani Porfyrii Carmina. ?,
Turin, 1973.

Julius Caesar Scaliger. Poetices libri septem. ?, Lyon, 1561.

Tristan Tzara. Pour fair une poème dadaïste. In Oeuvres complètes.
Gallimard, Paris, 1975.

Peter Weibel and Timothy Druckrey, editors. net condition. MIT Press,
Cambridge, Mass., 2000.



1In its technical implemention, the website is equally simple. Since all
programs run on a server and produce the lowest common denominator of text-only
HTML code, it can be read without plugins or additional software in any web
browser on any operating system even over slow Internet connections.

2[Lie66], vol.2, p.160-2

3[Por73], vol.1, p.99

4A comprehensive history of pattern poetry is given in [AE87]

5[Sca61], no pagination

6[Har36], vol.2, p.517


8The method to expand text through stochastic algorithms has been frequently
used since the 1950s when Theo Lutz and Max Bense produced computer-generated
variations of Kafka's prose (as described by Reinhard Döhl in [Döh98]). Markov
chains have been prominently used in poetry by the literary scholar Hugh Kenner
and the British poet Charles O. Hartman. They are also used in MS/DOS program
POE by the Austrian poet Franz Josef Czernin ([Cze97]) and in Ray Kurzweil's
Cybernetic Poet.

9The implication of ``hypertext'' as a hypertrophy of ``text'' is not only
questionable, it all the more contradicts the fact that the ``hypertextual''
World Wide Web just forms the utmost and least general code level of the

10Such as, I/O/D, Mongrel, Heath Bunting, the ASCII Art Ensemble and Comprehensive material about is available in [
Bau99] and [WD00].

11The term ``codeworks'' was coined by Alan Sondheim. The September 2001 issue
of the American Book Review will feature a number of critical essays on

above copied from:

Friday, June 27, 2008

Situational Aesthetics (1969), Victor Burgin

Some recent art, evolving through attention both to the conditions under which objects are perceived and to the processes by which aesthetic status is attributed to certain of these, has tended to take its essential form in message rather than in materials. In its logical extremity this tendency has resulted in a placing of art entirely within the linguistic infrastructure, which previously served merely to support art. In its less hermetic manifestations art as message, as “software,” consists of sets of conditions, more or less closely defined, according to which particular concepts may be demonstrated. This is to say, aesthetic systems are designed, capable of generating objects, rather than individual objects themselves. Two consequences of this work process are: the specific nature of any object formed is largely contingent upon the details of the situation for which it is designed; through attention to time, objects formed are intentionally located partly in real, exterior space and partly in psychological, interior space.

Conceptual elements in a work may to some extent be conceived of, and accounted for, through analogy with the experience of substantial elements. Consider these instructions: suppose an interior wall of a room to be concealed by a skin. The skin is parallel with and an eighth-inch above the surface it conceals. The color of the skin simulates that of the concealed surface.

The preceding paragraph is not intended as an object in its own right, although it could be considered as such,1 but “objects” may be generated through the perceptual behavior it recommends. The existing substances of the room serve to locate and particularize the object and no new materials are introduced. An immaterial object is created, which is solely a function of perceptual behavior, but which yet inducts attributes of physicality from its material setting. In “fitting” the Conceptual elements into this setting an act of attention is required that is similar to the act of handling material substances – it is styled by kinesthetic analogy.

In moving through real, “sensorial,” space we may touch immediately near objects. Distant objects in real space are “touched” in the mind (we say the mind “reaches out”). The manner, therefore, in which we make our mental approach to a distant object of attention is styled through analogy with, and expectation of, the bodily experience of near objects. This mode of appreciation, learned in exterior, sensorial space, is applied when we negotiate interior, psychological space. Kinesthetic analogy then, an understanding in terms of body, is constant to our reception of perceptual experience, which shifts freely between sensorial and psychological data in the life-world “tangled, muddy, and perplexed,” which precedes the ordering of experience.

We exercise discrimination toward perceptual fields. At the level of zero discrimination our experience is nonobjective and meaningless, “things” have not come into being. At the level of optimum discrimination for practical living, objects are identified and meaning attributed. But both primary experience and pragmatic interpretation are simply modes of consciousness, alternative states of awareness, and as such may be conceived of as points along a psycho-sensorial continuum. Between these points, to pursue the schematic analogy, lie all degrees of discrimination.

Schematically and in terms of discrimination, any path of consciousness through time might be represented as a meander. Attention to objects “out there” in the material world is constantly subverted by the demands of memory. Willful concentration is constantly dissolving into involuntary association. Even beyond familiar types of conscious association there are more subversive mechanisms at work: “. . . we now have direct evidence that signals become distributed within the input system. What we see . . . is not a pure and simple coding of the light patterns that are focused on the retina. Somewhere between the retina and the visual cortex the inflowing signals are modified to provide information that is already linked to a learned response. . . . Evidently what reaches the visual cortex is evoked by the external world but is hardly a direct or simple replica of it.”2

Accepting the shifting and ephemeral nature of perceptual experience, and if we accept that both real and conceptual objects are appreciated in an analogous manner, then it becomes reasonable to posit aesthetic objects that are located partly in real space and partly in psychological space. Such a placing of aesthetic objects however involves both a revised attitude toward materials and a reversal of function between these materials and their context.

Cage is hopeful in claiming, “We are getting rid of ownership, substituting use”;3 attitudes toward materials in art are still informed largely by the laws of conspicuous consumption, and aesthetic commodity hardware continues to pile up whereas utilitarian objects, whose beauty might once have been taken as conclusive proof of the existence of God, spill in inconceivable profusion from the cybernated cornucopias of industry. Each day we face the intractability of materials that have outstayed their welcome. Many recent attitudes to materials in art are based in an emerging awareness of the interdependence of all substances within the ecosystem of earth. The artist is apt to see himself not as a creator of new material forms but rather as a coordinator of existing forms, and may therefore choose to subtract materials from the environment. As art is being seen increasingly in terms of behavior so materials are being seen in terms simply of quantity rather than of quality.

Life exists by virtue of the one-sixth of one percent of impurities that exists in a universe composed mainly of hydrogen (about ninety percent) and helium (about ten percent). Viewed from this tangent, all artifacts may be seen as belonging to a continuum of forms of common elements. Consequently, a painting could be said to represent a point of particular cultural significance located in an elemental continuum somewhere between geological and organic forms and gases and dust. Although obviously irrelevant to some of the more sophisticated aspects of connoisseurship, such an attitude toward materials does enable us to view their use simply in terms of their suitability for a situation – in a given context, some will seem more appropriate than others.

Once materials are selected according to largely fortuitous criteria, depending on their location, their individual status is diminished. The identification of art relies upon the recognition of cues that signal that the type of behavior termed aesthetic appreciation is to be adopted.4 These cues help form a context that reveals the art-object. The object itself, in being displayed, may be termed overt and in the case of the visual arts it has been predominantly substantial. Any attempt to make an “object” of nonovert and insubstantial conceptual forms demands that substantial materials located in exterior space-time be used in a manner that subverts their “objectness” in order to identify them as “situational cues.”5

Perceptual fields are not experienced as objects in themselves. Perception is a continuum, a precipitation of event fragments decaying in time, above all a process. An object analogue may, however, be posited by locating points within the perceptual continuum. Two rope triangles placed in Greenwich Park earlier this year represent an attempt to “parenthesize” a section of perceptual experience in time. General instructions for this work are:

1) Two units coexist in time.

2) Spatial separation is such that units may not simultaneously be directly perceived.

3) Units are isomorphic to the degree that an encounter with a second unit is likely to evoke recollection of the first.

By the above definition the units may be said to bracket the perceptual data subjectively experienced between them. The “object,” therefore may be defined as consisting of three elements: First unit. Recollection of intervening space-time. Second unit.

The first triangle in Greenwich Park was constructed using about 100 feet of 1/4 inch rope held in tension between three 6 by 1/4 inch wire-strainers driven into the ground so that only the circular “eyes” projected above the surface. The rope was threaded through the eyes, pulled taut, and knotted. A second triangle was constructed in a similar manner on an opposite side of the park from the first. The two triangles were equilateral, both measuring 36 feet on each side, and sited so that neither could be seen from the other and so that neither could be seen from any great distance. This latter condition was established by the selection of gently undulating localities, the points of the triangles touching the slopes of a depression with the ropes between passing freely through space a few inches above the ground. The intention of this positioning was that the triangles should “come into being” gradually, in an additive fragmentary fashion, as they were approached. Their position within view of a footpath increased the probability of an optimum reading being effected. The triangles were serially ordered in space-time. Invariance in their reading, and therefore the apparent congruence of two actually dissimilar perceptual fields, was insured by the familiarity of the equilateral triangle as a configurational archetype. Encounter with the first triangle was not particularly notable, the materials used are commonplace and the handling of them eschewed craft considerations. It is conceivable that the first triangle might enter consciousness at a subliminal level (ropes are low in the hierarchy of sensory experiences offered by Greenwich Park). Encounter with the second triangle however emphasized recognition of the first by its involuntary recall. The intention was that the recollected image of the first configuration would be mentally brought forward and superimposed upon the configuration immediately available to the retina. Consciousness would be sent back through its memory data assembling en route an object analogue composed of recalled images, the relationships between these fragments to be governed by personal associative propensities. The life of this conceptual element might be brief though repeated path-tracing between the two cues would probably favor a particular sequence of forms and impress them on the memory.

Because of the emphasis placed upon the perceiver’s role in the formation of the “object” the specific nature of any such “object” is highly subjective. The required mode of attention would involve a mind “out of focus,” a self-induced suspension of cognition in which experience is emotive but meaningless. To focus, like this, upon preobjective experience is to be aware of movement, and attention to motion reveals the ephemeral, emphasizes the inconstant: “The invariant component in a transformation carries information about an object and the variant component carries other information, for example, about the relation of the perceiver to the object. When an observer attends to certain invariants he perceives objects; when he attends to certain variants he has sensations.”6 If we suppose a consistently noncognitive response to experience by an individual observing only the variant in his perception, then the only object of that individual’s attention would be his “life object” as he passively observes the perpetually present modulations in his visual field. Conceptually, the life object is equivalent to any individual’s total perceptual experience. However, the notion of an object assumes an exterior viewpoint. From “inside,” subjective experience is a context, within which objects are encountered rather than an object. Nevertheless, the idea of all of one’s perceptual experience as a single object does establish a high degree of latitude in the naming of objects as subdivisions within the subjectively experienced perceptual continuum. A more or less gratuitous designation of objects is possible as all perceptual data may be fitted into the common matrix of interval and duration.

Visual information concerning duration is gained, as it is gained when we observe motion, from observations of shift in perceptual field. In traveling past an object we are presented with an apparent configurational evolution from which we may abstract a number of discrete states. Comparison of expired configurations with the configuration of the moment tells us we are in motion relative to the object. An exercise of a similar nature is involved when we observe change in a place to which we have returned after an absence, we compare and contrast past and present configurations, or more accurately, we superimpose a memorized configuration upon a configuration present to the retina. Pragmatically, within this complex of shifting appearances, we have workable systems of establishing space-time coordinates for navigation and prediction, but true locations exist only in the abstract as points of zero dimensions. Locations such as those given by the National Grid are fixed by definition, but the actual spaces to which they refer are in continual flux and so impossible to separate from time.

Time, in the perception of exterior events, is the observation of succession linked with muscular-navigational memories – a visceral identification with change. Similarly kinesthetic modes of appreciation are applied to the subjective transformation of these events in interior time and in recollection. All behavior has these space-time parameters in common. To distinguish, therefore, between “arts of space” and “arts of time”7 is literally unrealistic. The misconception is based in materialism, it springs, again, from a focus upon the object rather than upon the behavior of the perceiver. Theatre and cinema are not arts of “time” but arts of theatrical and cinematic time, governed by their own conventions and the limitations of their hardware. The Parthenon is not “timeless” but, simply, set in geological time. It is a mistake to refer to “time” as if it were singular and absolute. A full definition of the term would require a plurality of times and would accommodate such contrasting scales as the times of galaxies and of viruses. The current occupation with time and ecology, the consciousness of process, is necessarily counterconservative. Permanence is revealed as being a relationship and not an attribute. Vertical structuring, based in hermetic, historically given concepts of art and its cultural role, has given way to a laterally proliferating complex of activities that are united only in their common definition as products of artistic behavior. This situation in art is the corollary of a general reduction in the credibility of institutions8 and many find much recent art implicitly political. One may disagree, however, with those who would locate motivations in as doctrinaire an attitude as “Disgust with the decadence of Western civilization.”9

Art intended as propaganda is almost invariably both aesthetically tedious and politically impotent. The process-oriented attitudes described here are not intentionally iconoclastic and one should be suspicious of easy comparisons with Dada. It does not follow that because some institutions have been ignored, that they are under attack. It seems rather less likely that the new work will result in the overthrow of the economy than that it will find a new relationship with it; one based, perhaps, in the assumption that art is justified as an activity and not merely as a means of providing supplementary evidence of pecuniary reputability. As George Brecht observed, we are used to judging a work by its suitability for the apparatus. Perhaps it is time to judge the apparatus by its suitability for the work.

The recognition of a multiplicity of times, the concentration on process and behavior, destroys the model of time as some sort of metaphysical yardstick against which the proper “length” of an activity may be measured. Works may be proposed in which materials are deployed and shifted in space in order to create compressions and rarefactions in time. Such a work would be perceived in the “extended present” within which we appreciate music. In this state of awareness the distinction between interior and exterior times, between subject and object, is eroded. There is something of Norman O. Brown’s “polymorphous perverse” in the attitudes now infiltrating the hierarchical structures that have previously determined the relevance and usage of materials and media in art. It is through an indiscriminate empiricism that the new work is currently evolving.


Reprinted from Studio International, Vol. 178, No. 915 (October, 1969).

1 See: editorial Art-Language, Vol. 1, No. 1 (May 1969).

2 Karl H. Pribram, “The Neurophysiology of Remembering,” Scientific American (January, 1969).

3 John Cage, A Year from Monday (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969).

4 It may no longer be assumed that art, in some mysterious way, resides in materials. Attempts to determine the necessary and sufficient conditions of aesthetic structure have failed from an emphasis upon the object rather than upon the perceiver. The implications of a redirection of attention, from object to perceiver, are extensive. It may now be said that an object becomes, or fails to become, a work of art in direct response to the inclination of the perceiver to assume an appreciative role. As Morse Peckham has put it, “. . . art is not a category of perceptual fields but of role-playing.”

5 Morse Peckham, Man’s Rage for Chaos. Biology, Behaviour, and the Arts (New York: Schocken, 1967)

6 James J. Gibson, “Constancy and Invariance in Perception,” The Nature and Art of Motion, ed. Gyorgy Kepes (Studio Vista, 1965).

7 This dichotomy has been most recently revived as “Modernism” v. “Literalism.” See: Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum (Summer, 1967).

8 Robert Jay Lifton has described personal connections with experience devoid of overriding value systems and has proposed that the concept of “personality” be replaced by a more appropriate concept of “self-process.” This notion of self-process is useful in understanding some recent attitudes in art: “The protean style of self-process is characterized by an interminable series of experiments and explorations – some shallow, some profound – each of which may be readily abandoned in favor of still newer psychological quests. . . . Just as protean man can readily experiment with and alter elements of his self he can also let go of, and reembrace idea systems and ideologies, all with an ease that stands in sharp contrast to the inner struggle we have in the past associated with such shifts.” Robert Jay Lifton, “Protean Man,” Partisan Review (Winter, 1968).

9 Barbara Rose, “Problems of Criticism VI: The Politics of Art, Part III,” Artforum (May, 1969).

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Text Sound Art : A Survey, Richard Kostelanetz

(1980, William Morrow)

The art is text-sound, as distinct from text-print and text-seen, which is to say that texts must be sounded and thus heard to be "read," in contrast to those that must be printed and thus be seen. The art is text-sound, rather than sound-text, to acknowledge the initial presence of a text, which is subject to aural enhancements more typical of music. To be precise, it is by non-melodic auditory structures that language or verbal sounds are poetically charged with meanings or resonances they would not otherwise have. The most appropriate generic term for the initial materials would be "vocables," which my dictionary defines as "a word regarded as a unit of sounds or letters rather than as a unit of meaning." As text-sound is an intermedium located between language arts and musical arts, its creators include artists who initially established themselves as "writers," "poets," "composers," and "painters" in their text-sound works, they are, of course, functioning as text-sound artists. Many do word-image art (or "visual poetry") as well, out of a commitment to exploring possibilities in literary intermedia.

The term "text-sound" characterizes language whose principal means of coherence is sound, rather than syntax or semantics - where the sounds made by comprehensible words create their own coherence apart from denotative meanings A simple example would be this "tongue- twister" familiar from childhood:

If a Hottentot taught a Hottentot tot to talk 'ere the tot could totter, ought the Hottentot to be taught to say ought or naught or what ought to be taught 'er?

The subject of this ditty is clearly neither Hottentots nor pedagogy but the related sounds of "or' and "ought," and what holds this series of words together is not the thought or the syntax but those two repeated sounds. It is those sounds that one primarily remembers after hearing this sentence read aloud. As in other text-sound art, this language is customarily recited in a voice that speaks, rather than sings. Thus, the vocal pitches are non-specific.

The first exclusionary distinction then is that words that have intentional pitches, or melodies, are not text-sound art but song. To put it differently, text-sound art may include recognizable words or phonetic fragments, but once musical pitches are introduced, or musical instruments are added (and once words are tailored to a pre-existing melody or rhythm), the results are music and are experienced as such. Secondly, text-sound art differs from "oral poetry," which is syntactically standard language written to be read aloud. These exclusions give the art a purist definition, I admit, but without these distinctions, there is no sure way of separating text-sound art, the true intermedium, from music on the one side and poetry on the other.

The firmest straddles I know are the records made by a changing group of New York blacks calling themselves "The Last Poets," whose lead voice chants incendiary lyrics to the accompaniment of pitched background voices and a rapid hand drum, which seems to influence verbal rhythm (rather than vice versa, to repeat a crucial distinction), and Philomel (1963), by Milton Babbitt and John Hollander, where the text is syntactically fragmented and aurally multiplied in ways typical of sound poetry, but the sounds in most of the work are specifically pitched, rather than unpitched.

"Text-sound" is preferable to "sound poetry," another term for this art, because I can think of work whose form and texture is closer to fiction or even essays, as traditionally defined, than poetry.

One issue separating work within the art would be whether the sounds are primarily recognizable words or phonetic units. Pieces with audible words usually have something to do with those words, which are meant to be perceived as certain words, rather than as other words. Poems without recognizable words are really closer to our experience of an unfamiliar (i.e., "foreign") language. An example is this passage from Armand Shwerner's The Tablets (1971):

min-na-ne-ne Dingir Eri-lil-ra mun-na-nib-gi-gi
uzu-mu-a-ki dur-an-ki-ge
Such words need not be "translated," because the acoustic experience of them is ideally as comprehensible to one culture as to another.

"Morse Code" is not text-sound art, even though it communicates comprehensible words to those who know its language; it is a code whose rhythm cannot be varied if communication is to be secure

In my opinion, the better work in text-sound art emphasizes identifiable words, rather than phonemes, but it would be foolish, at this point, to establish blanket rules about the viability of this or that material.

One could also distinguish pieces which are performed live from those which can exist only on electronic recording tape, those which are multi-voiced (and thus usually canonical in form) from those which are uni-voiced; those which are texts composed exclusively of words from those which add scoring instructions; those which involve improvisation from those which can be repeated with perceptible precision

Though superficially playful, text-sound art embodies serious thinking about the possibilities of vocal expression and communication, it represents not a substitute for language but an expansion of our verbal powers.

One major factor separating present work from past is the text-sound artist's increasing consciousness of the art's singularity and its particular traditions.


Though text-sound art is, in its consciousness of its singular self, a distinctly new phenomenon, it has roots in the various arts it encompasses. On one hand, it extends back to primitive chanting which, one suspects, was probably developed for worship ceremonies. One extension of this tradition is non-melodic religious declamation in which the same words are repeated over and over again, such as Hebrew prayers which are spoken so rapidly that an observer hears not distinct words but repeated sounds. (Harris Lenowitz calls them "speed mantras.") Modern text-sound art also reflects such folk arts as the U.S tobacco auctioneer's spiel, the evangelical practice of "speaking in tongues," and Ketjak, The Ramayana Monkey Chant, in which several score Indonesian men rapidly chant in and out of the syllable "tjak." (This last, which is available on a Nonesuch record, is a masterpiece of the art.) To Charles Morrow, a contemporary practitioner, these folk text-sound arts exemplify "special languages for special communication." However, one critical difference between these precursors and contemporary practitioners is that the former do not consider themselves "artists."

In the history of modern music, text-sound art draws upon an eccentric vocal tradition, epitomized by Arnold Schoenberg's Sprechgesang, in which the singing voice touches a note but does not sustain the pitch in the course of enunciating the word. In practice, this technique minimizes the importance of musical tone (and, thus, of melody) and, by contrast, emphasizes the word. One measure of this shift in emphasis is the sense that language in Sprechstimme is usually easier to understand than that in music. This technique also appears in Chinese and Korean opera, which may have influenced Schoenberg, and in German cabaret singing, which probably did. Survivors of the latter include Ernst Toch's Geographical Fugue (1930), which is composed of place names spoken in overlapping rhythms, and the patter-song, in which words are spoken while instruments play melody in the background (e g., in My Fair Lady, "I've grown accustomed to her face. . ")

In visual arts, text-sound work draws upon the development of abstraction, or non-representational art, and the initial figures in adapting this aesthetic idea to language were Wassily Kandinsky and Kurt Schwitters. The writer Hugo Ball, himself a prominent practitioner, said in a 1917 lecture that Kandinsky, in his book Der gelbe Klang (1912), was the first to discover and apply the most abstract expression of sound in language, consisting of harmonized vowels and consonants." Schwitters, a Dadaist like Ball, created an imaginary, nonrepresentational, aurally coherent language for his ambitious Ursonate (1922-32), which opens:

Fumms bo wo taa zaa Uu,


kwii Ee.


Dll rrrr beeeee bo

Dll rrrr beeeee bo

rrrr beeeee bo fumms bo,

rrrr beeeee bo fumms bo wo

And he was probably the first to appropriate a musical structure for a totally verbal work. Moholy-Nagy, another sometime visual artist who was also the first perceptive historian of text-sound art, describes Schwitters's masterwork, whose title Moholy translates as "primordial sonata," as "a poem of thirty-five minutes duration, containing four movements, a prelude, and a cadenza in the fourth movement. The words do not exist; rather they might exist in any language ' they have no logical only an emotional context ' they affect the ear with their phonetic vibrations like music."

Within the conscious traditions of modern poetry, text-sound art has a much richer history. Contemporary work initially reflects the neologisms that Lewis Carroll incorporated into syntactically conventional sentences, as in the Jabberwocky, the invented words implicitly minimizing meaning and emphasizing sound.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves,

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Historical precursors in continental literature include the German poet Paul Scheerbart, whose most notable (and untypical) poem opens, "Kikakoku!//E kora laps!" (1897) or the German poet Christian Morgenstern, whose "Das Grosse Lalula" (1905) opens:

Kroklokwafzi? Semememi!


Bifzi, bafzi hulalemi:

quasti bast; bo…

Lalu lalu lalu lalu la:

In "Zang-Tumb-Tu-Tumb" (1921), Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, initially a poet, invented onomatopoeia to portray the sound of weapons and soldiers. "flic flak zing zing sciaaack hilarious whinmes iiiiiii … pattering tinkling 3 Bulgarian battalions marching croooc-craaac…" Hugo

Ball's most famous poem (1915):

gadji beri birnba

glandricli, lauli lonni cadori

gadjama him beri glassala

glandridi glassala tuffm i zimbrabim

blassa galassasa tuffm i mimbrabim

meant to realize a universal language, exemplified the phonetic-unit poetry of such pioneer Dadaists as Raoul Hausmann and Richard Hulsenbeck.

In Russian literature just before the Revolution, Alexei Kruchenyk created a fictitious language, which he called zaum (a contraction of a longer phrase, zaumnyi jazyk, which can best be translated as "transrational"). Kruchenyk's most audacious manifesto declared, "The word is broader than its meaning." His colleague in Russian futurism, Velemir Klebnikov, by contrast, favored recognizable words for his nonsyntactic poems, rationalizing that "the sound of the word is deeply related to its meaning." In the 1920s, the Frenchman Pierre Albert-Birot added footnotes to specify how his neologisms should be pronounced. He is also credited with the profound adage: ''If anything can be said in prose, then poetry should be saved for saying nothing."

In American literature, the most prominent precursors are Vachel Lindsay, a troubador eccentric, whose most famous poem, "The Congo" (1914), emphasizes heavy alliteration and such refrains as "Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom", and e.e cummings, whose second poem in Viva (1931) begins:

oil tel duh woil doi sez

dooyuh unners tanmih eesez pullih nizmus tash, oi

In American prose, the preeminent precursor is, of course, Gertrude Stein, who wove prose tapestries based upon repetition, rather than syntax and semantics: "In saying what she said she said all she said and she said that she did say what she said when she was saying what she said, and she said that she said what she said in saying that she said and she was saying what she said when she said what she said." ("Two Gertrude Stein and Her Brother," written 1910-1912). One successor to Stein, in Post-WWII American literature, was Jack Kerouac, not in his most famous books, to be sure, but in short prose pieces like "Old Angel Midnight," which initially appeared in the opening issue of Big Table (1959),

Spat- he mat and tried & trickered on the step and oostepped and peppered it a bit with long mouth sizzle reaching for the thirsts of Azmec Parterial alk-lips to mox & bramajambi babac up the Moon Citlapol-settle la tettle la pottle, la lune-Some kind of-Bong!
What unifies this collection of semantically unrelated words is, of course, the repetition of sounds not only in adjacent words but over the paragraph, but one quality distinguishing Kerouac from Stein is that, at least to my ears, the former sounds more literary.

In English literature, the principal progenitor of contemporary work is, of course, James Joyce's polylingual, neologistic masterpiece, Finnegans Wake (1939), which is, incidentally, like Stein's work, closer in form and tone to "prose" than "poetry


One post-WWII development that had a radical effect on text-sound art was the common availability of both the sound amplifier and the tape recorder, and these two technologies together did more than anything else to separate "contemporary" endeavors from earlier "modern" work. That is, after 1955, a verbal artist, now equipped with sound-tuning equipment, could change the volume and texture of his microphone-assisted voice, he could eliminate his high frequencies or his lows, or accentuate them as well as adding reverberation. By varying his distance from the microphone and his angle of vocal attack, he could drastically change the timbre of his voice. With recording technology, the language artist could add present sound to past sound ("overdub"), thereby making a duet, if not a chorus, of himself. He could mix sounds, vary the speed of tape, or change the pitch of his voice. More important, he could also affix on tape a definitive audio interpretation of his own text. By expanding the range of audio experience, these new technologies also implicitly suggested ways of non-technological innovation. As Bob Cobbing judged, ''Where the tape recorder leads, the human voice can follow"

Several Europeans established themselves in the 1950s, each developing a characteristic style. Henri Chopin, a Frenchman presently living in England, records his own vocal phonetic sounds which are then subjected to several elementary tape manipulations, such as overdubbing and speed-changing, usually producing an abrasive aural experience that reminds me less of other text-sound art than John Cage's fifties music for David Tudor. Since Chopin starts not with a verbal text but with a limited range of specified vocables, and then electronically manipulates these initially vocal sounds in ways that disguise their human origins, his work is perceived as music, rather than as text-sound art- more precisely, as a "musique concrete" that uses only natural sounds if only to acknowledge its authors professional origins in poetry, perhaps this might better be classified as sound-text or, as Chopin himself calls it, "poesie sonore" (poetic sound), as distinct from sound poetry.

Francois Dufrene, also a Parisian, is best known for is '' cri- rhythms," which is his term for his art of extreme, hysterical human sounds (rhythmic cries). As Bob Cobbing describes them, these pieces ''employ the utmost variety of utterances, extended cries, shrieks, ululations, purrs, yarrs, yaups and cluckings, the apparently uncontrollable controlled into a spontaneously shaped performance." A piece like Crirhythme pour Bob Cobbing (1970) - the best of the several I have heard - sounds so extraordinary on first hearing that one can scarcely believe a single human being is producing such audio experience, even with the aid of microphones. Perhaps Dufrene's text-less art is really a species of vocal theatre, to introduce yet another categorical distinction.

Bernard Hiedsieck, also a Parisian, works, by contrast, with recognizable words, either spoken emphatically by himself, or collected on the street and off the radio. These words are edited into rapidly paced, rhythmically convulsive aural collages which not only join language with non-verbal noises but also combine linguistic materials not usually found together. His term for this work is "poesie action", and several examples strike my ears as mixing a newscaster or other loud-speaker voice with a more intimate narrator (apparently Heldsieck himself) against a background of miscellaneous noises.

Though his works appear to satirize or editorialize about current events, their syntax is essentially collage, which, though once extremely fertile and also conducive to audiotape, has by now become hackneyed. Nonetheless, Hiedsieck's pieces are more charming than Chopin's or Dufrene's, as well as considerably richer in audio- linguistic texture. Of those I have heard, my favorite is Carrefour de la Chaussee d'Antin (1973).

Another member of the Parisian scene, the Englishman, Brion Gysin, favors linguistic permutations, as with I Am That I Am. All the possible combinations of these five words are then subjected to speeding, slowing and / or superimposition. The verbal text for this work appears in Brion Gysin Let the Mice In (1973), and the audio version, made at the BBC in 1959, is reproduced on the initial Dial-A-Poem record (1972). An intimidating audiovisual rendition of both the text and tape is included in my Camera Three-CBS television program, Poetry To See & Poetry To Hear (1974). I Am That I Am is one of the indisputable classics of textsound art.

Among the other notable contemporary European text-sound artists are the Englishman Bob Cobbing; the Scotsman Edwin Morgan; the Belgian Paul de Vree; the Czech Ladislav Novak; the Frenchmen Gil J. Wolman and Jean-Louis Brau; the Austrian Ernst Jandl; several Swedes associated with Stockholm's Fylkingen group (including Bengt Emil Johnson, Sten Hanson, and Bengt af Klintberg), and the Germans Ferdinand Kriwet and Hans G. Helms. Kriwet has edited U.S. news broadcasts of both the 1969 moonshot and the 1972 American political campaigns into first-rate English- language audio collages and Helms wrote Fa:m' Aniesgwow (1958), a pioneering book-record which resembles Finnegans Wake in realizing linguistic coherence without observing consistently the vocabulary of any particular language. More specifically, through attentiveness to the sound of language, Helms creates the illusion of a modern tongue:

Mike walked in on the : attense of Chiazzus as they sittith softily sipping sweet okaykes H-flowered, purrhushing 'eir goofhearty offan-on-beats, holding moisturize'-palmy sticks clad in clamp dresses of tissue d'arab, drinks in actionem fellandi promoting protolingamations e state of nascendi, completimented go!scene of hifibrow'n…

The most interesting of the others, in my experience, is Jandl, a Viennese high school teacher of English, who works exclusively in unaided live performance (the pre-WWII way), declaiming published phonetic texts, mostly in German but sometimes in English, which are usually inventive in form and witty in language. In New York, Spring 1972, he did an exceptional performance of a long poem, "Teufelsfalle," which also appears in his book, Der Kunstliche Baum (1970). "Beastiarim," the last piece on his record, Laut und Luise (1968), is a vocal tour-de-force. However, in part because of his anti-technological bias, Jandl's work seems to terminate a style, rather than suggest future developments. IV
The key issue dividing North American text-sound practitioners from their European counterparts is the use of electronic machinery, for native text-sound art at its best is either more technological or less technological than European. In the first respect, the text-sound artist uses either multi-tracking, sound-looping and microscopic tape-editing to achieve audio tape effects that technically surpass European work. The principal figures here are Steve Reich, Charles Amirkhanian, Glenn Gould, Charles Dodge, Jerome Rothenberg-Charles Morrow, John Giorno, and myself. The other strain of American text-sound artists consists of those who have largely avoided electronic machinery, except of course to record themselves in permanent form: John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, Norman Henry Pritchard, W. Bliem Kern, Bill Bissett, Emmett Williams, Charles Stein, Michael McClure, and the Four Horsemen, a Canadian group.

Steve Reich studied music composition with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud before using language to explore the compositional idea of modular variation. Essentially, a limited phrase, or module, whether musical or verbal, is repeated in a gradually changing way; and with overdubbing, a phrase played at one speed can interact with the same phrase played at another speed, sometimes producing a pulsating sound. Reich's earliest verbal work, It's Gonna Rain, was composed in San Francisco in January 1965. As the artist remarks on the record jacket, "The voice belongs to a young black Pentecostal preacher who called himself Brother Walter. I recorded him along with the pigeons one Sunday afternoon in Union Square in downtown San Francisco. Later at home I started playing with tape loops of his voice and, by accident, discovered the process of letting two identical loops go gradually in and out of phase with each other." That is, the two loops begin in unison; but because of mechanical imprecision, they gradually move completely out of phase with each other and then progressively back into unison, the words in relation to each other creating their own serendipitous rhythms and melodies. The first part of this piece realizes an incantatory intensity without equal in audio language art, as the phrase "It's gonna rain" is repeated into a chorus of itself. At one point, for instance, while one track of the tape has the entire phrase, another has only a pulsing "rain"; at later points, "it's a" becomes a ground bass for the aural assemblage. All this repetition of a few words, needless to say, intensifies the invocatory meanings. At times, It's Gonna Rain sounds like the I ndonesian monkey chant, except that Reich has used electronics to do the aural work of a hundred men; as machine-assisted art, his work exists only on audiotape or record.

The second part of this piece is less dense than the first, and the words are less comprehensible, especially as the language disintegrates into an obscure belching sound. Reich's other recorded text-sound piece, Come Out (1966), suffers from the same hysteria as It's Gonna Rain; the language disintegrates into a puzzling, sweeping sound that goes on too long. As Reicb describes his compositional technique, "The phrase' come out to show them' was recorded on both channels, first in unison and then with channel 2 slowly beginning to move ahead. As the phrase begins to shift, a gradually increasing reverberation is heard which slowly passed into a sort of canon or round. Eventually the two voices divide into four and then into eight." It is the first work, rather than this, which is Reich's text-sound masterpiece.

The earlier works of the San Francisco text-sound artist, Charles Amirkhanian, reflect Reich's influence. A musician who took his BA in literature, Amirkhanian steeped himself in both contemporary composition and high-quality tape recording as "Sound Sensitivity Information Director" (a.k.a., "Music") at KPFA, the Pacifica foundation radio station in Berkeley. In 1971, he produced If In Is, which he characterized as "an eleven-minute tape based on strong rhythmic patterns created through the repetition of three words (inini, bullpup, banjo) arranged in phrases on separate tape loops and played simultaneously on multiple tape machines." When the same words aurally coincide, a pulsing· sound is produced, much as in Reich's modular art; and this pulse becomes a ground bass for continually varying aural-verbal relationships. A similar compositional technique informs Just (1972), which is the best individual piece on the record anthology 10 + 2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces (1975).

In 1973, Amirkhanian developed a more characteristic way of textsound working. Essentially, he takes recorded material and then cuts apart the tape in various ways, so that sentences or even words are broken in the middle, or the beginning of one sentence is spliced or overlaid in the middle of its predecessor, or key words are repeated in varying proximities to each other, or a single voice is multiplied into a duet or chorus of itself. On the 10 + 2 anthology is Heavy Aspirations (1973), which is based on the musicologist Nicholas Sionimsky's lecture on "The Revolution in Twentieth Century Music." From a tape of the whole, Amirkhanian extracted Sionimsky's characteristic phrases and speech-patterns. These are aurally repeated, as the tape moves between doctored sound material and straight transcription, abruptly shifting from one kind of material to another, and from one rhythm to another. Amirkhanian even dwells on Sionimsky's reference to Just and "textsound" art (which he defines as "words alone"). Though Heavy Aspirations is as mocking in detail as its title suggests, the whole is endearing (and appropriate as a 79th birthday present for its subject). Another tighter, better effort in this style is the autobiographical Roussier (not Rouffier) (1973), which ingeniously takes apart the simple phrase, "Charles Amirkhanian, a composer of Armenian extraction:' against a background of his earlier text-sound pieces for four full minutes. Both looping and overlaying come together in Seatbelt, Seatbelt (1973), Amirkhanian's single greatest piece, and perhaps the greatest single text-sound work ever produced in North America. It opens with a male voice regularly repeating the paired words of the title, and then varying the rhythm, as the voice is divided over two tracks and the sibilants become more emphatic. Then one voice repeats "seat" while another says "belt:' each proceeding at its own rhythm. Then two different voices say "seatbelt" at different speeds as more voices enter, saying, in normal speaking voices, either "seat:' "belt:' or "seatbelt." Perhaps all five acknowledged performers are now speaking. Suddenly, the chorus shifts to "chung chung quack quack bone" in unison, and then to" cryptic cryptic quack quack" before dividing into two groups, one pair saying the first sequence, the second pair the second sequence. Arrangements like this continue for nearly fifteen minutes. At one point, all the voices say "quack" in different tempi, their rhythms sometimes coinciding; and the piece runs out with two voices saying "quack quack" at the same pace as the initial "seatbelt seatbelt." This piece is dense and witty and ingenious; it is utterly non-representational of anything except itself and, of course, the innovative powers of human imagination.

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould created a minor masterpiece of text-sound tape editing in the course of something elsea radio documentary on people who live in Canada's northernmost territories. Entitled The Idea of North (1967) and commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, this program opens with a woman saying, "I was fascinated by the country as such. I flew north from Churchill ... " Forty-five seconds later, a male voice enters, saying something different-less appreciative and more cynical about the Canadian northwhile the first voice continues undistracted in its characteristic manner. Thirty seconds later, a second male voice enters, saying something yet different. There is perhaps a third male voice in this fugue, all of them articulating themes that are elaborated later in the documentary. The voices change in relative volume, so that one or another predominates at various times, as in a musical fugue; and then they appear to blend evenly into each other, so that one hears not individual expository lines but repetition of the key word "north." And then all four voices slowly fade out, ending this tour-de-force. Gould produced a se<.undtext-sound fugue for a later radio documentary, The Latecomers (1969), which deals with Newfoundland; but perhaps becausE'the voices enter too quickly on each other, and there is no key word to connect their talking together, this later example of" contrapuntal radio," as Gould calls it, sounds comparatively jumbled and pointless.

Charles Dodge has developed a singular text-sound art which others value highly, but I find immature. H is forte is computer-assisted speech synthesis. The most useful description of his extraordinary compositional procedure appears, curiously, not on the single record of his own text-sound works, Synthesized Speech Music (1976), but in the notes to the Amirkhanian anthology:

The computer speech analysis/synthesis technique involves recording a voice speaking the message to be synthesized, digitizing (through an analogue-to-digital converter) the speech, mathematically analyzing the speech to determine its frequency content with time, and syre thesizing the voice (speaking the same passage)from the results of the analysis. On synthesis, any of the components of the analysis (e.g., pitch, speech rate, loud~ss, formats) may be altered independently of the others. Thus, using synthetic speech (unlike manipulation of tape recording) one may change the speed of vocal articulation without changing the pitch contour of the voice (and vice versa).

This procedure requires so much awesome technical competence that it is perhaps gratuitous to note that little of value comes from it. It is true that Dodge can create various voices, both male and femalea testament to his virtuosity, but they sound more like each other than anyone (or anything) else. In the background are non-vocal (or nonpseudo-vocal) pitched sounds that have the obvious aural defect of resembling the vocal ones, and the work at times suggests that Dodge is creating an alternative universe with a single, all-pervasive Dodgian aural style. Then, the voices sing on pitch some of the time, pushing Dodge's art into song; but these singing voices lack the charm (albeit likewise synthetic) of, say, Walter Carlos's Moog-generated chorus on The Wel/Tempered Synthesizer (1970). Dodge draws his language from some trendy poems by Mark Strand, but since there is no perceptible relation between the language and the audio technique, the latter seems as arbitrary as Dodge's freely atonal pitches; and if there is a complementary system, nothing in the commentary suggests a key. Technological invention is so valuable in contemporary art that I am reluctant to dismiss Dodge's work completely, but since the technique itself is suggestive, I bope he knows how far he has to go. A far more successful electronic text-sound adaptation of a poetic text is Charles Morrow's Sound Work (1968), which is based on "The Beadle's Testimony" in Jerome Rothenberg's Poland/1931 (1974). Morrow, as "sound designer" (his own term), reorganized the one-page text so that all its words were grouped with each other-all "the's:' all "jewel's:' all "wall's," and so forth were together. He invited Rothenberg to record these separate lists. Morrow then took the isolated words and spliced them back into the proper order of the original poem, producing, in effect, a tape of Rothenberg reading "The Beadle's Testimony" in a stunning, emphatic style that would be impossible in live performance and probably inconceivable without the example of the tape. Both Rothenberg and Morrow have recently done Amerindian chanting which, to repeat my initial distinction, is not text-sound art but theatrical song.

My own work arose from an invitation to be guest-artist at WXXI-FM in Rochester, New York; and though I had not worked in a sound-studio before, I brought along some of my more experimental verbal texts. The medium, I discovered, lends itself to my truncated (or minimal) fictions, in part because radio is a much faster medium than live performances. For that reason, the same one-word paragraphs of, say, "Milestones in a Life" or "Plateaux:' which seemed terribly rushed in live performance, find a more appropriate temporal format on audiotape. For "Excelsior:' which is a dialogue between two single-word speakers, I used stereo distribution of my voice to enhance the aural experience.

With my own more elaborate experimental texts, the medium offered unforeseen possibilities. Recyclings (1974), for instance, is a non-syntactic prose piece composed from earlier essays of mine. Essentially, I took my own prose and subjected it to a reworking procedure that kept the language but destroyed the syntax. Each earlier essay of mine was reduced to a single page of new, recycled text. The first 64 pages (of 192) were published as a book which can be read vertically and diagonally just as feasibly as it can be read horizontally. To reproduce this ...isual experience aurally, I hit upon the technique of reading each page of Recyclings horizontally, then adding new voices that read the same text a few seconds behind. The result is a non-synchronous canon where words relate to each other in several directions simultaneously. (It also exists on videotape, where the imagery is visually suspended pairs of my lips.) A second non-syntactic text of mine, "The Declaration of Independence:' likewise employs an eight-track recording machine to create an amateur Presbyterian chorus of myself (amplified differently on each track), this time reading (or trying to read) the same text in ragged unison. Since the text is the historic Declaration of Independence read backwards, the ironies multiply as one hears familiar locutions reversed.

After tentative beginnings with a record on which he did not speak at all, Raspberry & Pornographic Poem (1967), John Giorno has become a consummate performer of his own texts. His technique, which has developed considerably in the past decade, consists of chopping apart a prose sentence, so that its words are repeated in different linear arrangements, with different line-breaks, and then duplicated in adjacent columns:

There is
There is
There is nothing
There is nothing there
There is nothing
There is nothing there

Giorno turned to electronic technology for a single capability-echoingso that he need not say the left-hand column (it could be electronically reproduced as a faint replica of his initial voice), thereby increasing the potential for after-sound analogous to the "after-image" of the visual arts. The principal development in his text-sound artistry has primarily been a complication in the echoing. In his sides of the two-record John Giorno / William Burroughs (1975), Giorno developed a double echo that could be varied in quality, becoming more reverberant (and re-echoed) at times and more distorted at other times. The double echo increases not only Giorno's self-replication, which appears to interest him, but also the audiographic impact of his statements. All this technique notwithstanding, Giornds work is built not upon isolated words but upon whole phrases; it depends for coherence not upon sound but syntax, semantics, and prose narrativeall the traditional baggageto evoke his macabre vision. I ndeed, his recent collaboration with Burroughs becomes an implicit acknowledgment of the literary origins of Giorno's sensibility. To be precise, this is not text-sound art at all, but inventively amplified poetry (which is thus more acceptable to "poetry" circles); and that recognition perhaps explains why genuine text-sound work is so sparsely represented in his anthologies. Other Americans making electronic text-sound art include Alvin Lucier, whose I Am Sitting in a Room (1970) begins with him reading a 100-word prose statement which is recorded on tape. The recorded version is then played in the same space in which the original statement was made and recorded on tape at one remove from the initial live statement. This procedure of broadcasting and re-recording is continued through several generations, as feedback progressively obliterates the text that paradoxically becomes less audible. It becomes, thanks to repetition, more familiar. Francis Schwartz's Score-Painting for Julio Cortazar (1974) is a bi-Iingual visualization of an allusive visual text that overdubs the author's voice, saying various things at various speeds, about his subject.


John Cage, one of the key figures in non-electronic American textsound art, has curiously also been a pioneer in electronic music, with tape compositions dating back to his Williams Mix of the early fifties. His text-sound works have consisted largely of his rather formal, unemphatic readings of his own mostly non-syntactic texts. Whereas several earlier Cage pieces incorporated spoken language, such as the funny narratives of Indeterminacy (1958), or the aleatory words that happened to be on the twelve radios in Imaginary Landscape IV (1952), Cage began in the seventies to make works composed exclusively of language; and these turned out to be as structurally non-climactic and non-hierarchic as his musical work. Mureau (1970), the first in this series, is based upon Henry David Thoreau's remarks about music, which Cage then scrambles, via I Ching processes, into a mix of syllables, words and phrases. The result is a verbal pastiche in which one can perceive references to music and nature (and thus to Thoreau's characteristic vocabulary).

Cage has since progressed, as he always does, to a yet more severe language mix that he calls Empty Words. This might best be characterized as a progressive reduction of material from Thoreau. Cage's own typically technical description is useful here: "Part II: A mix of words, syllables, and letters obtained by subjecting the Journal of Henry David Thoreau to a series of I Ching chance operations. Pt. I includes phrases. Pt. III omits words. IV omits sentences, phrases, words and syllables; includes only letters and silences."

The live performance of part IV that I heard Cage do in New York (Spring 1975), could be characterized as the most extreme presentation of its kind. Whereas most text-sound art is much faster than spoken language, this was much, much slower. Indeed, the smallest phonetic fragments, succinctly spoken by Cage, were separated by multi-second silences. Musically, the piece seems an extreme extension of Anton Webern or Morton Feldman. More precisely, it is a kind of inferential art whose impact depends upon the audience's contextual awareness of the work's origins and purposes.

Though initially known as a poet, Jackson Mac Low studied music composition with John Cage in the late fifties and even composed the accompanying music to the 1960 Living Theater production of his play, The Marrying Maiden. Much of Mac Low's live text-sound art reflects Cage's aesthetic influence, particularly in allowing his performers spontaneous choices within pre-defined constraints. Most of his live pieces are "simultaneities:' which is his term for performances that involve more than one voice. In the sub-set of pieces he calls "Matched Asymmetries" (since 1960), several performers are given a multi-part text and asked to read the verbal material at a pace and volume of their own choice, each of them reading the available parts in a preassigned order different from the others. Ideally, the performers should generate individual rhythms and articulations, as well as interacting inventively with each other. An example of this sub-set is the "Young Turtle Asymmetries," which was published as both a record and a text in the eighth issue of Aspen (1969). Here the aural experience is primarily that of five voices repeating the same words and elongated letter-sounds at different timbres and times. The verbal material is then subjected to an aleatory process that Mac Low calls "through acrostic chance generation." In another sub-set of scores that he calls "Numbered Asymmetries:' each of the performers has a completely different text, and the auditory experience is more unrelievedly chaotic.

A third kind of Mac Low score is the "Vocabulary:' which is a noncentered diffuse visual field containing words composed exclusively from the particular letters in a subject's name (e.g., "Sharon Belle Matt lin," "Peter Innisfree Moore"). To declaim these, Mac Low customarily recruits a motley chorus, whose members are instructed to say spon taneously whatever words from the score they wish, at whatever volume a.ndwhatever durations, with whatever pauses. A fourth related strain is the "Gatha:' which is a collection of related words densely written on graph paper, one letter to a square, in a single direction (i.e., vertical, horizontal, or diagonal). Performers are instructed to read the letters in a geometrical path, which may be horizontal, vertical and diagonal, thus producing letter-sounds, phonemes, syllables, words and neologisms. Again, the aural experience is that of occasional repetition and general cacaphony. A fifth kind of live piece is the "Word Event:' where the performers improvise on a single, multi-syllabic word, like "environmentally." They are instructed to take this word apart, uttering letters or phonemes and then words drawn from the letters of the initial word (e.g., ellen, ten, leer, tee, toe, nelly, etc.). From such limited material, Mac Low and his collaborators have been known to spin pieces lasting over one-half hour. He sometimes performs a simultaneity against a background tape of a previous performance (or two or three). Mac Low's best text-sound pieces, however, are not the live ones to which he devotes more of his attention, but his fewer primarily electronic works.

Most of these were realized during 1973-74, when Mac Low had access to the New York University Composers' Workshop. For Threnody for Sylvia Plath (1973), he took tapes of Paul Blackburn, Diane Wakoski, Sonia Sanchez, Gregory Corso and Tom Weatherly reading their own poems. Using a battery of tape machines, he fed selections from these tapes simultaneously into a single second-generation mono tape. Sections from this initial Mac Low tape were then fed non-synchronously into both tracks of a stereo tape (the third generation). Thus, while passagesfrom the live reading were repeated, they related to each other in continuously different ways. Here, too, the aural experience is that of repetition within chaos, and the most memorable sections mix Diane Wakoski and Sonia Sanchez in an inadvertent duet. In "Counterpoint for Candy Cohen" (1973) Mac Low explores tapetechnique possibilities even further. A single announcement of twodozen words, spoken by a concert emcee named Candy Cohen, is repeated with irregular pauses to make an initial tape which is then transferred continuously, one channel at a time, onto a four-track tape, which thus has four separate channels of non-synchronous repetition of the initial verbal material. (All the close echoing at this generation is reminiscent of Giorno.) Then, this tape is itself transferred continuously onto each track of a two-track machine, which then has eight different tracks of the same repeated announcement. Then, this tape is transfered onto each track of the initial four-track machine which thus produces a tape with 32 tracks of sound. This fourth-generation is two-tracked into 64 tracks, which is then four-tracked into 256 tracks. As the final piece incorporates all stages in the incremental process, what we hear is the progressive complication of the initial material (two-dozen words and a pause) through several distinct generations into a verbally incomprehensible, but rhythmically pulsing chorus. The experience is extraordinary, and it is perhaps the culmination of Mac Low's interest in non-synchronous repetition.

The major device of Norman Henry Pritchard's pioneering text-sound art is repetition of the same phrase, so that something other than the original phrase results. In the only conveniently available recorded example, "Gyre's Galax" (1967), the phrase "above beneath" is rapidly repeated with varying pauses between each line. (The reader repeating these words rapidly to himself will get a faint sense of the effect.) The same device informs "Visitary:' which appears in Pritchard's principal collection, The Matrix Poems: 1960-70 (1970). One part of this poem reads as follows:

Dewinged wings
Dewinged wings
wings dewinged
Dewinged wings
wings dewinged
wings dewinged
dewinged wings

Lamentably, Pritchard ceased active publishing around 1971, and his work has not been included in any of the surveys, recordings or exhibitions of language art.

Pritchard's student, W. Bliem Kern, a visual poet as well as a textsound artist, tends to do aural renditions of his visual texts. His printed text ranges from rather "straight" poetry, which is undistinguished, to visual texts of words and letters in page-space to poems that mix familiar with unfamiliar words, the former becoming semantic touchstones for the latter.

psom enu how ek anu
time was prom
enu how ek anu time was
prom enu how ek anu
time was

And yet other poems are entirely in a fictitious language that Kern calls "00100." Whereas most text-sound work is temporally static, Kern's pieces often have an underlying narrative progression. This becomes more pronounced in his long poem, "Dream to Live:' which narrates in words, phrases and phonemes the end of an affair. In the cassette tape accompanying his only book, the piece is movingly read through various kinds of material; and I would classify the piece as "fiction" more than a poem and, as text-sound fiction, an exemplification of its kind. Kern's texts are written to be performed; for whereas most text-sound artists want to create autonomous linguistic structures, Kern's avowed purpose is the communication of personal feeling. "In writing:' he declared in a 1973 manifesto not included in his book, "i am exploring the oral world of non-linear phenomena, the inner speech, the dialogues with myself as a child before i am also concerned with feelings and translating the visual into the verbal."

Bill Bissett is a Canadian poet who taped his visually idiosyncratic texts for a record that accompanies his book, Awake in th Red Desert! (1968). His principal technique is emphatically repeating a single phrase, like that of the title, which remains as it is, rather than, as in Pritchard and Kern, becoming something else. Too many pieces on this record have musical instruments that are unnecessary, if not detrimental; for the record is as widely uneven, and as critically challenging, as Bissett's motley books. One of the most suggestive texts in the book is "o a b a:' which closes:

sheisa sheisa sheayisa heisasheisa saheis sasheisaheisa sheisa
cumisa cumisa th heart isa cumisa isa cumisa cumisa heisa shes

However, in his record, Bissett imposes a rhythm on the words, rather than letting them suggest their own rhythm; and the result sounds inept and unconsidered. In another work, the phrase "supremely massage" is variously repeated as a ground bass, while a lead voice reads an erotic prose text. Perhaps the most wholly successful audio poem is the simplest, which opens:

it be it so be so
it so be so it so
be so it so be so

And this, unlike other Bissett, is as perfect on the record as it is in the book.

Emmett Williams is, like Bissett, a various and inventive experimentalist; but unlike Bissett, he works sparingly, producing only a few works in each direction he pursues. The best text-sound piece is "Duet:' which appears both in his Selected Shorter Poems (1975) and on the initial Diala-Poem record (1972). It opens with every second line in boldface type,

art of my dark
arrow of my marrow
butter of my abutter
bode of my abode
cope of my scope
cu rry of my seu rry

becoming a sequence of sweetly archaic internal rhymes that ends:

ye of my aye
y of my my
zip zap zoff of my o zip of zap of zoff
zim zam zoom of my o zim o zam o zoom

The third anthology record from Giorno Poetry Systems, Biting off the Tongue of a Corpse (1975), closes with a gem by Charles Stein, "A Seen Poem:' which opens:

rage judge raga
mad judge rage
a mad judge rages
a raga rides
a raga judges
a rug
a jug

It evokes several internal rhymes within a few words and is, needless to say, delightfully comic.

Another older poet who publishes texts that he also declaims is Michael McClure; the works collected in Ghost Tantras (1969) tend to mix syntactically conventional phrases with guttural sounds. The Four Horsemen consist of four Canadians of independent literary reputation who came together in early 1970 to jam, much as freelance jazz-men do. Bp Nichol, perhaps the most prominent, has published works in several styles, both avant-garde and "trad:' as he calls it. Steve McCaffery is a younger writer, London-born, who also collaborates with Nichol in a criticism-combine called The Toronto Research Group. Paul Dutton and Rafael Barreto-Rivera I know only from the record; the latter speaks English with an audible Spanish accent. Their initial textsound works were collected on a record called Canadada, which is undated. The best piece here is a fugue, entitled" Allegro 108:' which opens, "Ben den hen ken len men pen ken fen men yet:' with one voice chanting alone on a single note. Then a second voice enters, chanting non-synchronously at first but then in unison with the initial voice, as a third voice enters, chanting separately at first, as before, but then in unison, as the fourth voice enters. The piece develops a steady emphatic rhythm, as the voices are clearly accustomed to working with each other. I take "Allegro 108" to be the most persuasive example of the possibilities of leaderless text-sound collaboration.

Other North Americans doing interesting live text-sound work include Armand Schwerner, whose great long poem, The Tablets (1967 to the present), incorporates a multitude of techniques, both traditional and advanced, typically including both word-imagery and text-sound; Toby Lurie, whose prosey statements make sentimental appeals; Ernest Ro~ son, who has developed a sophisticated method for notating vocal techniques in his syntactically conventional texts; Geoffrey Cook, whose "Jabberwocky" is a modest gem; Beth Anderson, whose "If I Were a Poet" sensitively exploits repetition of choice phrases; Henry Rasof, who prefers a non-syllabic poetry closer to the European example; Peter Harleman, who produced the periodical record Out Loud; A.F. Caldiero, a powerful performer of vocables both pitched and unpitched; Lawrence Weiner, a well-known conceptual artist who has done records of gerunds in two languages; Dick Higgins, whose "Glasslass" exploits the sibilants that others try to avoid; and Larry Wendt, who creates long, ambitious pieces that I find less interesting than the remarkable prose notes accompanying them.

Of course, text-sound is an open art. There are many roads to be explored, many virgins to be seduced, many alternatives to be re-thought, many combinations to be discovered. I suspect as well that there are many more North Americans working independently, unaware not only of what their colleagues are doing, but also of how their own works might be "distributed." In a situation like this, a newcomer could become (and be considered) a major artist quite rapidly. Also, whereas sophisticated Europeans tend to regard text-sound as a familiar form, with an established canon of prominent practitioners, it is open terrain in America; and this perhaps accounts for why American work is already. more varied than European.


Text-sound art, it is clear, is interesting and consequential-it is a distinct artistic category, with a small army of practitioners; but the greatest threat to its survivalnot to speak of its developmentis, simply, its unavailability. If the reader of this essay wanted to hear Amirkhanian's Seatbelt, Seatbelt, for example, the only way he could satisfy his or her curiosity (or challenge my critical judgment) would be to write Amirkhanian himself, asking the artist for a copy; and if he wrote back that he was reluctant to go through the rigamarole of getting the master from a safe storing place, and then lining up two machines for a dubbing (and that he wanted fifty dollars for the tape copy), no one could blame him. Copying audiotapes is neither as easy nor as cheap as copying manuscripts. One reason why the work of Tony Gnazzo is not discussed in this essay is that Gnazzo wrote that he was, not unreasonably, tired of making copies, even for likely supporters, such as myself.

What is needed at the beginning, of course, are selective anthologies, not only to make everyone aware of what is being done, but also to prompt current practitioners to move onto something else. For another thing, it might force artists to make individual pieces more various; too much work so far is based upon a single audio idea, which is introduced at the beginning and then sustained to the piece's conclusion. Except for the ones mentioned earlier, there are no more anthologies of North American work. Some text-sound art has appeared in the periodical Black Box and on the Giorno Poetry Systems records, but no one subscribing to either of these publications can expect a steady stream of text-sound gems. (The former's publisher has announced a cassette periodical devoted exclusively to experimental work, but nothing has yet appeared.) In Europe, the government-funded radio stations take responsibility for the creation and programming of text-sound work; but here, no public radio station, aside from WXXI-FM in Rochester, has supported the art, while literature directors of National Public Radio have never been interested. I have myself written to the larger record companies proposing to edit and introduce a text-sound record; but none of them has accepted my offer. One possible route for American work would involve public funding, but here the new, intermediumistic art becomes a round peg, unable to fit the square holes of funding agencies. Since the program director of NEA's literature department cannot accept visual poetry as "literature:' there is no reason to believe he will be any more accepting of sound poetry; and music departments are often reluctant to accept text-sound art as "music composition."

Until records and various printed materials become readily available, North American text-sound will remain a private art that will have public existence only in second-hand forms, such as this essay; and that unavailability becomes, to be frank, an example of de facto censorship that is no longer tolerable.

CODE: * = text -' = record or audiotape II = videotape

Amirkhanian, Charles. Roussier (not Rouffier) (1973), Seatbelt Seatbelt (1973), If In Is (1971), Mugie (1973), Muchrooms (1974). Berkeley, Ca.: private tape, 1974.-,

Dodge, Charles. Synthesized Speech Music (1973-75). NY.: CRI, 1976 -'

Giorno, John. Raspberry & Pornographic Poem. N.Y.. Intravenus Mind, 1967. -'
____ co-author. John Giorno{William Burroughs. N.Y.: D'Arc, 1975. -'
____ , producer. The Dial-a-Poem Poets. N.Y.: Giorno Poetry Systems, 1972. -'
Disconnected. N.Y.: Giorno Poetry Systems, 1974. -'
____ . Biting off the Tongue of a Corpse. N.Y.: Giorno Poetry Systems, 1975.-,
Gould, Glenn. The Idea of North (1967). Toronto: CBC learning Systems, 1971. -' The Latecomers (1969). Toronto: CBC learning Systems, 1971. -'
_____ . "Radio as Music," The Canada Music Book (Spring-Summer, 1971). *
Kostelanetz, Richard. Experimental Prose. N.Y.: Assembling, 1976. -'
Three Prose Pieces. Syracuse, N.Y.: Synapse, 1975. II
_______ . "Audio Art," Ear, 111/2(March 1977) *
Lucier, Alvin. I Am Sitting in a Room, Source, IV/1 (Jan., 1970). -'
Morrow, Charles and Jerome Rothenberg. Sound Work (1968). N.Y.: private tape, n.d. -'
Reich, Steve. It's Gonna Rain (1965). N.Y.: Columbia Records, 1969. -'
_____ . Come Out (1966). N.Y.: CBS-Odyssey, 1967. -'
_____ . Writings about Music. Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, 1974.*
Schwartz, Francis. Score-Painting for Julio Cortazar. San Juan: privately recorded, 1974. -' V

Bissett, Bill. Awake in th Red Desert ("A Recorded Book"). Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1968.*
Cage, John. Mureau. Hattingen, Germany: S Press, 1972. -'
____ o "Mureau," on John Giorno, Biting off the Tongue of a Corpse. N.Y.: Giorno Poetry Systems, 1975. -'
____ o "Empty Words I." An Active Anthology. Fremont, Mi.: Sumac, 1974*
____ o "Empty Words 11." Interstate, 2 (1974)*
____ o "Empty Words [III)." Big Deal. 3 (1975)*
The Four Horsemen, Canadada. Toronto: Griffin House, n.d. -'
Higgins, Dick. "Glasslass," Modular Poems. W. Glover, VI.: Unpublished Editions, 1974.*
Kern, W. Bliem. Meditationsmeditationsmeditationsmeditations. N.Y.: New Rivers, 1973.* -'
______ . "Sound Poetry," Poetry Australia, 59 (June, 1976).*
Kostelanetz, Richard. Poetry to See & Poetry to Hear. Produced by Camera 3-WCBS-TV. Albany, N.Y.: State Education Dept., 1974.#
________ . "The New Poetries," The End of Intelligent Writing. N.Y.: Sheed & Ward, 1974.'
Lurie, Toby. Word Music. N.Y.: CMS, 1971 o/
_____ . Mirror Images. N.Y.: Accent, 1975. o/
_____ . New Forms New Spaces. San Francisco: Journeys into language, 1971.'
Mac low, Jackson. The Black Tarantula Crossword Cathas. DusseldorflMunchen, 1975. o/
_______ . "Thirty-Fifth light Poem: For the Central Regions of the Sun," Black Box, 2 (1972). o/
_______ . Stanzas for Iris Lezak. W. Clover, VI.: Something Else, 1974.'
McClure, Michael. Chost Tantras. San Francisco: Four Seasons, 1969.'
Nichol, Bp. bp. Toronto: Coach House, 1967 . o/
____ o Mother/ove. Toronto: Allied, n.d. o/
Pritchard, Norman Henry II. The Matrix Poems: 1960-70. Carden City: Doubleday, 1970 .
__________ . "Cyre's Calax," on Walter lowenfels, prod., New Jazz Poets. N.Y.: Broadside, 1967. o/
Robson, Ernest. Transwhichics. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour, 1970 .
______ . Poetry as Performance Art on and off the Page. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour, 1976
______ with Marion Robson. I Only Work Here. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour, 1974 .
Scobie, Stephen. "I Dreamed I Saw Hugo Ball," Boundary 2, 111/1 (Fall, 1974). Reprinted in
Richard Kostelanetz, ed., Younger Critics. Fair Water, Wi.: Margins/Tom Montag, 1976 .
Wiener, lawrence. 7. Paris: Yvon lambert, n.d. o/
_______ . Having Been Done at/Having Been Done to. Rome: Sperone-Fischer, 1973. o/
_______ . Nothing to Lose/Niets aan Ver/oren Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 1976. o/
Williams, Emmett. "Duet," Selected Shorter Poems. N.Y.: New Directions, 1974.

reproduced from:

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Art After Philosophy (1969), Joseph Kosuth

The fact that it has recently become fashionable for physicists themselves to be sympathetic toward religion . . . marks the physicists’ own lack of confidence in the validity of their hypotheses, which is a reaction on their part from the antireligious dogmatism of nineteenth-century scientists, and a natural outcome of the crisis through which physics has just passed. –A. J. Ayer.

. . . once one has understood the Tractatus there will be no temptation to concern oneself anymore with philosophy, which is neither empirical like science nor tautological like mathematics; one will, like Wittgenstein in 1918, abandon philosophy, which, as traditionally understood, is rooted in confusion. –J. O. Urmson.
Traditional philosophy, almost by definition, has concerned itself with the unsaid. The nearly exclusive focus on the said by twentieth-century analytical linguistic philosophers is the shared contention that the unsaid is unsaid because it is unsayable. Hegelian philosophy made sense in the nineteenth century and must have been soothing to a century that was barely getting over Hume, the Enlightenment, and Kant.1 Hegel’s philosophy was also capable of giving cover for a defense of religious beliefs, supplying an alternative to Newtonian mechanics, and fitting in with the growth of history as a discipline, as well as accepting Darwinian biology.2 He appeared to give an acceptable resolution to the conflict between theology and science, as well.

The result of Hegel’s influence has been that a great majority of contemporary philosophers are really little more than historians of philosophy, Librarians of the Truth, so to speak. One begins to get the impression that there “is nothing more to be said.” And certainly if one realizes the implications of Wittgenstein’s thinking, and the thinking influenced by him and after him, “Continental” philosophy need not seriously be considered here.3

Is there a reason for the “unreality” of philosophy in our time? Perhaps this can be answered by looking into the difference between our time and the centuries preceding us. In the past man’s conclusions about the world were based on the information he had about it – if not specifically like the empiricists, then generally like the rationalists. Often in fact, the closeness between science and philosophy was so great that scientists and philosophers were one and the same person. In fact, from the times of Thales, Epicurus, Heraclitus, and Aristotle to Descartes and Leibnitz, “the great names in philosophy were often great names in science as well.”4

That the world as perceived by twentieth-century science is a vastly different one than the one of its preceding century, need not be proved here. Is it possible, then, that in effect man has learned so much, and his “intelligence” is such, that he cannot believe the reasoning of traditional philosophy? That perhaps he knows too much about the world to make those kinds of conclusions? As Sir James Jeans has stated:

. . . When philosophy has availed itself of the results of science, it has not been by borrowing the abstract mathematical description of the pattern of events, but by borrowing the then current pictorial description of this pattern; thus it has not appropriated certain knowledge but conjectures. These conjectures were often good enough for the man-sized world, but not, as we now know, for those ultimate processes of nature which control the happenings of the man-sized world, and bring us nearest to the true nature of reality.5
He continues:

One consequence of this is that the standard philosophical discussions of many problems, such as those of causality and free will orof materialism or mentalism, are based on an interpretation of the pattern of events which is no longer tenable. The scientific basis of these older discussions has been washed away, and with their disappearance have gone all the arguments . . .6
The twentieth century brought in a time that could be called “the end of philosophy and the beginning of art.” I do not mean that, of course, strictly speaking, but rather as the “tendency” of the situation. Certainly linguistic philosophy can be considered the heir to empiricism, but it’s a philosophy in one gear.7 And there is certainly an “art condition” to art preceding Duchamp, but its other functions or reasons-to-be are so pronounced that its ability to function clearly as art limits its art condition so drastically that it’s only minimally art.8 In no mechanistic sense is there a connection between philosophy’s “ending” and art’s “beginning,” but I don’t find this occurrence entirely coincidental. Though the same reasons may be responsible for both occurrences, the connection is made by me. I bring this all up to analyze art’s function and subsequently its viability. And I do so to enable others to understand the reasoning of my – and, by extension, other artists’ – art, as well to provide a clearer understanding of the term “Conceptual art.”9


The main qualifications to the lesser position of painting is that advances in art are certainly not always formal ones. –Donald Judd (1963).

Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture. –Donald Judd (1965).

Everything sculpture has, my work doesn’t. –Donald Judd (1967).

The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. –Sol LeWitt (1965)

The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art as art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art. –Ad Reinhardt (1963).

The meaning is the use. –Wittgenstein.

A more functional approach to the study of concepts has tended to replace the method of introspection. Instead of attempting to grasp or describe concepts bare, so to speak, the psychologist investigates the way in which they function as ingredients in beliefs and in judgments. –Irving M. Copi.

Meaning is always a presupposition of function. –T. Segerstedt.

. . . the subject matter of conceptual investigations is the meaning of certain words and expressions – and not the things and states of affairs themselves about which we talk, when using those words and expressions. –G. H. Von Wright.

Thinking is radically metaphoric. Linkage by analogy is its constituent law or principle, its causal nexus, since meaning only arises through the causal contexts by which a sign stands for (takes the place of) an instance of a sort. To think of anything is to take it as of a sort (as a such and such) and that “as” brings in (openly or in disguise) the analogy, the parallel, the metaphoric grapple or ground or grasp or draw by which alone the mind takes hold. It takes no hold if there is nothing for it to haul from, for its thinking is the haul, the attraction of likes –I. A. Richards.

In this section I will discuss the separation between aesthetics and art; consider briefly formalist art (because it is a leading proponent of the idea of aesthetics as art), and assert that art is analogous to an analytic proposition, and that it is art’s existence as a tautology that enables art to remain “aloof” from philosophical presumptions.

It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deals with opinions on perception of the world in general. In the past one of the two prongs of art’s function was its value as decoration. So any branch of philosophy that dealt with “beauty” and thus, taste, was inevitably duty bound to discuss art as well. Out of this “habit” grew the notion that there was a conceptual connection between art and aesthetics, which is not true. This idea never drastically conflicted with artistic considerations before recent times, not only because the morphological characteristics of art perpetuated the continuity of this error, but as well, because the apparent other “functions” of art (depiction of religious themes, portraiture of aristocrats, detailing of architecture, etc.) used art to cover up art.

When objects are presented within the context of art (and until recently objects always have been used) they are as eligible for aesthetic consideration as are any objects in the world, and an aesthetic consideration of an object existing in the realm of art means that the object’s existence or functioning in an art context is irrelevant to the aesthetic judgment.

The relation of aesthetics to art is not unlike that of aesthetics to architecture, in that architecture has a very specific function and how “good” its design is is primarily related to how well it performs its function. Thus, judgments on what it looks like correspond to taste, and we can see that throughout history different examples of architecture are praised at different times depending on the aesthetics of particular epochs. Aesthetic thinking has even gone so far as to make examples of architecture not related to “art” at all, works of art in themselves (e.g., the pyramids of Egypt).

Aesthetic considerations are indeed always extraneous to an object’s function or “reason-to-be.” Unless of course, that object’s reason-to-be is strictly aesthetic. An example of a purely aesthetic object is a decorative object, for decoration’s primary function is “to add something to, so as to make more attractive; adorn; ornament,”10 and this relates directly to taste. And this leads us directly to “formalist” art and criticism.11 Formalist art (painting and sculpture) is the vanguard of decoration, and, strictly speaking, one could reasonably assert that its art condition is so minimal that for all functional purposes it is not art at all, but pure exercises in aesthetics. Above all things Clement Greenberg is the critic of taste. Behind every one of his decisions is an aesthetic judgment, with those judgments reflecting his taste.

And what does his taste reflect? The period he grew up in as a critic, the period “real” for him: the fifties.12

How else can one account for, given his theories – if they have any logic to them at all – his disinterest in Frank Stella, Ad Reinhardt, and others applicable to his historical scheme? Is it because he is “. . . basically unsympathetic on personally experiential grounds”?13 Or, in other words, “their work doesn’t suit his taste?”

But in the philosophic tabula rasa of art, “if someone calls it art,” as Don Judd has said, “it’s art.” Given this, formalist painting and sculpture can be granted an “art condition,” but only by virtue of their presentation in terms of their art idea (e.g., a rectangular-shaped canvas stretched over wooden supports and stained with such and such colors, using such and such forms, giving such and such a visual experience, etc.). If one looks at contemporary art in this light one realizes the minimal creative effort taken on the part of formalist artists specifically, and all painters and sculptors (working as such today) generally.

This brings us to the realization that formalist art and criticism accepts as a definition of art one that exists solely on morphological grounds. While a vast quantity of similar looking objects or images (or visually related objects or images) may seem to be related (or connected) because of a similarity of visual/experiential “readings,” one cannot claim from this an artistic or conceptual relationship.

It is obvious then that formalist criticism’s reliance on morphology leads necessarily with a bias toward the morphology of traditional art. And in this sense their criticism is not related to a “scientific method” or any sort of empiricism (as Michael Fried, with his detailed descriptions of paintings and other “scholarly” paraphernalia would want us to believe). Formalist criticism is no more than an analysis of the physical attributes of particular objects that happen to exist in a morphological context. But this doesn’t add any knowledge (or facts) to our understanding of the nature or function of art. And neither does it comment on whether or not the objects analyzed are even works of art, in that formalist critics always bypass the conceptual element in works of art. Exactly why they don’t comment on the conceptual element in works of art is precisely because formalist art is only art by virtue of its resemblance to earlier works of art. It’s a mindless art. Or, as Lucy Lippard so succinctly described Jules Olitski’s paintings: “they’re visual Muzak.”14

Formalist critics and artists alike do not question the nature of art, but as I have said elsewhere:

Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. If one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art. If an artist accepts painting (or sculpture) he is accepting the tradition that goes with it. That’s because the word art is general and the word painting is specific. Painting is a kind of art. If you make paintings you are already accepting (not questioning) the nature of art. One is then accepting the nature of art to be the European tradition of a painting-sculpture dichotomy.15
The strongest objection one can raise against a morphological justification for traditional art is that morphological notions of art embody an implied a priori concept of art’s possibilities. And such an a priori concept of the nature of art (as separate from analytically framed art propositions or “work,” which I will discuss later) makes it, indeed, a priori: impossible to question the nature of art. And this questioning of the nature of art is a very important concept in understanding the function of art.

The function of art, as a question, was first raised by Marcel Duchamp. In fact it is Marcel Duchamp whom we can credit with giving art its own identity. (One can certainly see a tendency toward this self-identification of art beginning with Manet and Cézanne through to Cubism,16 but their works are timid and ambiguous by comparison with Duchamp’s.)

“Modern” art and the work before seemed connected by virtue of their morphology. Another way of putting it would be that art’s “language” remained the same, but it was saying new things. The event that made conceivable the realization that it was possible to “speak another language” and still make sense in art was Marcel Duchamp’s first unassisted Ready-made. With the unassisted Ready-made, art changed its focus from the form of the language to what was being said. Which means that it changed the nature of art from a question of morphology to a question of function. This change – one from “appearance” to “conception” – was the beginning of “modern” art and the beginning of conceptual art. All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually.

The “value” of particular artists after Duchamp can be weighed according to how much they questioned the nature of art; which is another way of saying “what they added to the conception of art” or what wasn’t there before they started. Artists question the nature of art by presenting new propositions as to art’s nature. And to do this one cannot concern oneself with the handed-down “language” of traditional art, as this activity is based on the assumption that there is only one way of framing art propositions. But the very stuff of art is indeed greatly related to “creating” new propositions.

The case is often made – particularly in reference to Duchamp – that objects of art (such as the Ready-mades, of course, but all art is implied in this) are judged as objets d’art in later years and the artists’ intentions become irrelevant. Such an argument is the case of a preconceived notion ordering together not necessarily related facts. The point is this: aesthetics, as we have pointed out, are conceptually irrelevant to art. Thus, any physical thing can become objet d’art, that is to say, can be considered tasteful, aesthetically pleasing, etc. But this has no bearing on the object’s application to an art context; that is, its functioning in an art context. (E.g., if a collector takes a painting, attaches legs, and uses it as a dining table it’s an act unrelated to art or the artist because, as art, that wasn’t the artist’s intention.)

And what holds true for Duchamp’s work applies as well to most of the art after him. In other words, the value of Cubism – for instance – is its idea in the realm of art, not the physical or visual qualities seen in a specific painting, or the particularization of certain colors or shapes. For these colors and shapes are the art’s “language,” not its meaning conceptually as art. To look upon a Cubist “masterwork” now as art is nonsensical, conceptually speaking, as far as art is concerned. (That visual information that was unique in Cubism’s language has now been generally absorbed and has a lot to do with the way in which one deals with painting “linguistically.” [E.g., what a Cubist painting meant experimentally and conceptually to, say, Gertrude Stein, is beyond our speculation because the same painting then “meant” something different than it does now.]) The “value” now of an original Cubist painting is not unlike, in most respects, an original manuscript by Lord Byron, or The Spirit of St. Louis as it is seen in the Smithsonian Institution. (Indeed, museums fill the very same function as the Smithsonian Institution – why else would the Jeu de Paume wing of the Louvre exhibit Cézanne’s and Van Gogh’s palettes as proudly as they do their paintings?) Actual works of art are little more than historical curiosities. As far as art is concerned Van Gogh’s paintings aren’t worth any more than his palette is. They are both “collector's items.”17

Art “lives” through influencing other art, not by existing as the physical residue of an artist’s ideas. The reason that different artists from the past are “brought alive” again is because some aspect of their work becomes “usable” by living artists. That there is no “truth” as to what art is seems quite unrealized.

What is the function of art, or the nature of art? If we continue our analogy of the forms art takes as being art’s language one can realize then that a work of art is a kind of proposition presented within the context of art as a comment on art. We can then go further and analyze the types of “propositions.”

A. J. Ayer’s evaluation of Kant’s distinction between analytic and synthetic is useful to us here: “A proposition is analytic when its validity depends solely on the definitions of the symbols it contains, and synthetic when its validity is determined by the facts of experience.”18 The analogy I will attempt to make is one between the art condition and the condition of the analytic proposition. In that they don’t appear to be believable as anything else, or be about anything (other than art) the forms of art most clearly finally referable only to art have been forms closest to analytical propositions.

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context – as art – they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is a tautology in that it is a presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art. Thus, that it is art is true a priori (which is what Judd means when he states that “if someone calls it art, it’s art”).

Indeed, it is nearly impossible to discuss art in general terms without talking in tautologies – for to attempt to “grasp” art by any other “handle” is merely to focus on another aspect or quality of the proposition, which is usually irrelevant to the artwork’s “art condition.” One begins to realize that art’s “art condition” is a conceptual state. That the language forms that the artist frames his propositions in are often “private” codes or languages is an inevitable outcome of art’s freedom from morphological constrictions; and it follows from this that one has to be familiar with contemporary art to appreciate it and understand it. Likewise one understands why the “man in the street” is intolerant to artistic art and always demands art in a traditional “language.” (And one understands why formalist art sells “like hot cakes.”) Only in painting and sculpture did the artists all speak the same language. What is called “Novelty Art” by the formalists is often the attempt to find new languages, although a new language doesn’t necessarily mean the framing of new propositions: e.g., most kinetic and electronic art.

Another way of stating, in relation to art, what Ayer asserted about the analytic method in the context of language would be the following: The validity of artistic propositions is not dependent on any empirical, much less any aesthetic, presupposition about the nature of things. For the artist, as an analyst, is not directly concerned with the physical properties of things. He is concerned only with the way (1) in which art is capable of conceptual growth and (2) how his propositions are capable of logically following that growth.19 In other words, the propositions of art are not factual, but linguistic in character – that is, they do not describe the behavior of physical, or even mental objects; they express definitions of art, or the formal consequences of definitions of art. Accordingly, we can say that art operates on a logic. For we shall see that the characteristic mark of a purely logical inquiry is that it is concerned with the formal consequences of our definitions (of art) and not with questions of empirical fact.20

To repeat, what art has in common with logic and mathematics is that it is a tautology; i.e., the “art idea” (or “work”) and art are the same and can be appreciated as art without going outside the context of art for verification.

On the other hand, let us consider why art cannot be (or has difficulty when it attempts to be) a synthetic proposition. Or, that is to say, when the truth or falsity of its assertion is verifiable on empirical grounds. Ayer states:

. . . The criterion by which we determine the validity of an a priori or analytical proposition is not sufficient to determine the validity of an empirical or synthetic proposition. For it is characteristic of empirical propositions that their validity is not purely formal. To say that a geometrical proposition, or a system of geometrical propositions, is false, is to say that it is self-contradictory. But an empirical proposition, or a system of empirical propositions, may be free from contradiction and still be false. It is said to be false, not because it is formally defective, but because it fails to satisfy some material criterion.21
The unreality of “realistic” art is due to its framing as an art proposition in synthetic terms: one is always tempted to “verify” the proposition empirically. Realism’s synthetic state does not bring one to a circular swing back into a dialogue with the larger framework of questions about the nature of art (as does the work of Malevich, Mondrian, Pollock, Reinhardt, early Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Andre, Judd, Flavin, LeWitt, Morris, and others), but rather, one is flung out of art’s “orbit” into the “infinite space” of the human condition.

Pure Expressionism, continuing with Ayer’s terms, could be considered as such: “A sentence which consisted of demonstrative symbols would not express a genuine proposition. It would be a mere ejaculation, in no way characterizing that to which it was supposed to refer.” Expressionist works are usually such “ejaculations” presented in the morphological language of traditional art. If Pollock is important it is because he painted on loose canvas horizontally to the floor. What isn’t important is that he later put those drippings over stretchers and hung them parallel to the wall. (In other words what is important in art is what one brings to it, not one’s adoption of what was previously existing.) What is even less important to art is Pollock’s notions of “self-expression” because those kinds of subjective meanings are useless to anyone other than those involved with him personally. And their “specific” quality puts them outside of art’s context.

“I do not make art,” Richard Serra says, “I am engaged in an activity; if someone wants to call it art, that’s his business, but it’s not up to me to decide that. That’s all figured out later.” Serra, then, is very much aware of the implications of his work. If Serra is indeed just “figuring out what lead does” (gravitationally, molecularly, etc.), why should anyone think of it as art? If he doesn’t take the responsibility of it being art, who can, or should? His work certainly appears to be empirically verifiable: lead can do, and be used for, many physical activities. In itself this does anything but lead us into a dialogue about the nature of art. In a sense then he is a primitive. He has no idea about art. How is it then that we know about “his activity”? Because he has told us it is art by his actions after “his activity” has taken place. That is, by the fact that he is with several galleries, puts the physical residue of his activity in museums (and sells them to art collectors – but as we have pointed out, collectors are irrelevant to the “condition of art” of a work). That he denies his work is art but plays the artist is more than just a paradox. Serra secretly feels that “arthood” is arrived at empirically. Thus, as Ayer has stated:

There are no absolutely certain empirical propositions. It is only tautologies that are certain. Empirical questions are one and all hypotheses, which may be confirmed or discredited in actual sense experience. And the propositions in which we record the observations that verify these hypotheses are themselves hypotheses which are subject to the test of further sense experience. Thus there is no final proposition.22
What one finds all throughout the writings of Ad Reinhardt is this very similar thesis of “art-as-art,” and that “art is always dead, and a ‘living’ art is a deception.”23 Reinhardt had a very clear idea about the nature of art, and his importance is far from recognized.

Because forms of art that can be considered synthetic propositions are verifiable by the world, that is to say, to understand these propositions one must leave the tautological-like framework of art and consider “outside” information. But to consider it as art it is necessary to ignore this same outside information, because outside information (experiential qualities, to note) has its own intrinsic worth. And to comprehend this worth one does not need a state of “art condition.”

From this it is easy to realize that art’s viability is not connected to the presentation of visual (or other) kinds of experience. That that may have been one of art’s extraneous functions in the preceding centuries is not unlikely. After all, man in even the nineteenth century lived in a fairly standardized visual environment. That is, it was ordinarily predictable as to what he would be coming into contact with day after day. His visual environment in the part of the world in which he lived was fairly consistent. In our time we have an experientially drastically richer environment. One can fly all over the earth in a matter of hours and days, not months. We have the cinema, and color television, as well as the man-made spectacle of the lights of Las Vegas or the skyscrapers of New York City. The whole world is there to be seen, and the whole world can watch man walk on the moon from their living rooms. Certainly art or objects of painting and sculpture cannot be expected to compete experientially with this?

The notion of “use” is relevant to art and its “language.” Recently the box or cube form has been used a great deal within the context of art. (Take for instance its use by Judd, Morris, LeWitt, Bladen, Smith, Bell, and McCracken – not even mentioning the quantity of boxes and cubes that came after.) The difference between all the various uses of the box or cube form is directly related to the differences in the intentions of the artists. Further, as is particularly seen in Judd’s work, the use of the box or cube form illustrates very well our earlier claim that an object is only art when placed in the context of art.

A few examples will point this out. One could say that if one of Judd’s box forms was seen filled with debris, seen placed in an industrial setting, or even merely seen sitting on a street corner, it would not be identified with art. It follows then that understanding and consideration of it as an artwork is necessary a priori to viewing it in order to “see” it as a work of art. Advance information about the concept of art and about an artist’s concepts is necessary to the appreciation and understanding of contemporary art. Any and all of the physical attributes (qualities) of contemporary works, if considered separately and/or specifically, are irrelevant to the art concept. The art concept (as Judd said, though he didn’t mean it this way) must be considered in its whole. To consider a concept’s parts is invariably to consider aspects that are irrelevant to its art condition – or like reading parts of a definition.

It comes as no surprise that the art with the least fixed morphology is the example from which we decipher the nature of the general term “art.” For where there is a context existing separately of its morphology and consisting of its function one is more likely to find results less conforming and predictable. It is in modern art’s possession of a “language” with the shortest history that the plausibility of the abandonment of that “language” becomes most possible. It is understandable then that the art that came out of Western painting and sculpture is the most energetic, questioning (of its nature), and the least assuming of all the general “art” concerns. In the final analysis, however, all of the arts have but (in Wittgenstein’s terms) a “family” resemblance.

Yet the various qualities relatable to an “art condition” possessed by poetry, the novel, the cinema, the theatre, and various forms of music, etc., is that aspect of them most reliable to the function of art as asserted here.

Is not the decline of poetry relatable to the implied metaphysics from poetry’s use of “common” language as an art language?24 In New York the last decadent stages of poetry can be seen in the move by “Concrete” poets recently toward the use of actual objects and theatre.25 Can it be that they feel the unreality of their art form?

We see now that the axioms of a geometry are simply definitions, and that the theorems of a geometry are simply the logical consequences of these definitions. A geometry is not in itself about physical space; in itself it cannot be said to be “about” anything. But we can use a geometry to reason about physical space. That is to say, once we have given the axioms a physical interpretation, we can proceed to apply the theorems to the objects which satisfy the axioms. Whether a geometry can be applied to the actual physical world or not, is an empirical question which falls outside the scope of geometry itself. There is no sense, therefore, in asking which of the various geometries known to us are false and which are true. Insofar as they are all free from contradiction, they are all true. The proposition which states that a certain application of a geometry is possible is not itself a proposition of that geometry. All that the geometry itself tells us is that if anything can be brought under the definitions, it will also satisfy the theorems. It is therefore a purely logical system, and its propositions are purely analytic propositions. –A. J. Ayer26
Here then I propose rests the viability of art. In an age when traditional philosophy is unreal because of its assumptions, art’s ability to exist will depend not only on its not performing a service – as entertainment, visual (or other) experience, or decoration – which is something easily replaced by kitsch culture, and technology, but, rather, it will remain viable by not assuming a philosophical stance; for in art’s unique character is the capacity to remain aloof from philosophical judgments. It is in this context that art shares similarities with logic, mathematics, and, as well, science. But whereas the other endeavors are useful, art is not. Art indeed exists for its own sake.

In this period of man, after philosophy and religion, art may possibly be one endeavor that fulfills what another age might have called “man’s spiritual needs.” Or, another way of putting it might be that art deals analogously with the state of things “beyond physics” where philosophy had to make assertions. And art’s strength is that even the preceding sentence is an assertion, and cannot be verified by art. Art’s only claim is for art. Art is the definition of art.


* Reprinted from Studio International (October, 1969).
1 Morton White, The Age of Analysis (New York: Mentor Books), p. 14.
2 Ibid., p. 15.
3 I mean by this Existentialism and Phenomenology. Even Merleau-Ponty, with his middle-of-the-road position between empiricism and rationalism, cannot express his philosophy without the use of words (thus using concepts); and following this, how can one discuss experience without sharp distinctions between ourselves and the world?
4 Sir James Jeans, Physics and Philosophy (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press), p. 17.
5 Ibid., p. 190.
6 Ibid., p. 190.
7 The task such philosophy has taken upon itself is the only “function” it could perform without making philosophic assertions.
8 This is dealt with in the following section.
9 I would like to make it clear, however, that I intend to speak for no one else. I arrived at these conclusions alone, and indeed, it is from this thinking that my art since 1966 (if not before) evolved. Only recently did I realize after meeting Terry Atkinson that he and Michael Baldwin share similar, though certainly not identical, opinions to mine.
10 Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.
11 The conceptual level of the work of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, Ron Davis, Anthony Caro, John Hoyland, Dan Christensen, et al., is so dismally low, that any that is there is supplied by the critics promoting it. This is seen later.
12 Michael Fried’s reasons for using Greenberg’s rationale reflect his background (and most of the other formalist critics) as a “scholar,” but more of it is due to his desire, I suspect, to bring his scholarly studies into the modern world. One can easily sympathize with his desire to connect, say, Tiepolo with Jules Olitski. One should never forget, however, that a historian loves history more than anything, even art.
13 Lucy Lippard uses this quotation in a footnote to Ad Reinhardt’s retrospective catalogue, January, 1967, p. 28.
14 Lucy Lippard, “Constellation by Harsh Daylight: The Whitney Annual,” Hudson Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Spring, 1968).
15 Arthur R. Rose, “Four Interviews,” Arts Magazine (February, 1969).
16 As Terry Atkinson pointed out in his introduction to Art-Language (Vol. 1, No. 1), the Cubists never questioned if art had morphological characteristics, but which ones in painting were acceptable.
17 When someone “buys” a Flavin he isn’t buying a light show, for if he was he could just go to a hardware store and get the goods for considerably less. He isn’t “buying” anything. He is subsidizing Flavin’s activity as an artist.
18 A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (New York: Dover Publications), p. 78.
19 Ibid., p. 57.
20 Ibid., p. 57.
21 Ibid., p.90.
22 Ibid., p. 94.
23 Ad Reinhardt’s retrospective catalogue (Jewish Museum, January, 1967) written by Lucy Lippard, p. 12.
24 It is poetry’s use of common language to attempt to say the unsayable that is problematic, not any inherent problem in the use of language within the context of art.
25 Ironically, many of them call themselves “Conceptual Poets.” Much of this work is very similar to Walter de Maria’s work and this is not coincidental; de Maria’s work functions as a kind of “object” poetry, and his intentions are very poetic: he really wants his work to change men’s lives.
26 Op. cit., p. 82.

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