Artist Michael Asher, a pioneer of the Institutional Critique mode, defines art as this:
Art is work done by artists.
In contemporary time, when an art product cannot necessarily be defined by gallery space, temporality, means, or end, Asher’s definition is accommodating. I wonder whether you think the corollary is true of writing: Writing is work done by writers.
What is some writing you admire by someone not considered or self-identifying as a writer?
8 thoughts on “self-identified”
Danielle, it seems to me that comics often fall into this category. So much of what we do in comics is similar to what we do in writing, but it’s essentially different.
Do you make comics, John? If so, I’d like to see some of them. I’m going to be writing more about comics soon.
I’m actually reluctant to claim an identity, to call myself a writer. I much prefer focusing on the action and process — I write.
That said, I like the sort-of slippery openness of Asher’s definition. Would be interesting to see how he then defines artist.
I have for a while now been very interested in the question of who gets considered a writer, and who doesn’t.
To pick just one example of many: few of the conceptual artists of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (and onward) are considered actual writers (meaning, their work doesn’t get taught in writing classes, they aren’t anthologized, and few writers or readers I meet consider them part of the overall literary conversation). John Cage gets some of his due*, and so does Jackson Mac Low, but beyond that… (And note that Cage gets cited more as “an influence” on poets rather than being considered an actual poet himself.)
Why isn’t Allan Kaprow more considered a writer? Consider his piece APPLES AND ORANGES (1986):
Or how about artists (and writers) he influenced, like Yoko Ono and La Monte Young?
Or what about Robert Barry? Here’s his TELEPATHIC PIECE (1969):
“During the Exhibition I will try to communicate telepathically a work of art, the nature of which is a series of thoughts that are not applicable to language or image.”
That’s the piece. (Plus actually trying to do it.) A lot of his 60s work involves posting text like this, describing pieces he’s done or is going to do.
I could list tens if not hundreds more examples. What about the “land” or “walking” artists, like Hamish Fulton, Richard Long, Robert Smithson, others? (I plan to post a lot more about them.)
What about Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer?
I’ve rarely met fellow writers who are even aware of this kind of text-based conceptual art (well, some have heard of Holzer), let alone who consider it literature. Much credit is due to Marjorie Perloff and Richard Kostelanetz for being less myopic than this (although Kostelanetz doesn’t consider Holzer an artists, let alone a writer).
The work done by these artists, besides being pretty fascinating and important, can be read, studied, and appreciated as literature. And much of it is more innovative than a lot of what I see being done these days in fiction or poetry.
AD: I think it’s less of a question of not wanting to consider these artists a part of the literary tradition, and more a question of just not being familiar with them or their work. Which is to say: thanks for bringing these guys up.
I agree, although I think it’s also due to a failure of imagination. Too many writers, readers, and literary scholars define writing too narrowly, I think.
Circa 2010, writing feels very insular to me. I think there’s a lot to gain on both sides if the writing world knew more about the visual arts.
That said, complaining about such matters won’t move anyone. I think the better thing to do is to make a case for why these kinds of artworks (among other things, like comics) are writing, and then work to lead writers and readers and scholars to it. I resolve to try to do more of that in 2010 and beyond.
Re: the artist as writer…text as art…
John Lennon met Yoko Ono in 1966, after attending an exhibition of her art in which he came across the installation (“Ceiling Painting”) described below:
“The viewer is invited to climb a white ladder, where at the top a magnifying glass, attached by a chain, hangs from a frame on the ceiling. The viewer uses the reading glass to discover a block letter ‘instruction’ beneath the framed sheet of glass – it says “YES” (Wikipedia).
A lot of Yoko Ono’s art is text-based. Like Allan Kaprow and La Monte Young (among others), she produced a great many event scores in the early 1960s. They’re rather interesting. Most of them are collected in her book GRAPEFRUIT (1964):
Take a tape of the voices of fish
on the night of a full moon.
Take it until dawn.