In Words to Be Looked At, art historian Liz Kotz takes on the monumental task of chronicling the use of language in 1960s Conceptual art. She charts its development from John Cage’s scored representations of time and chanced sound through various incarnations, including John Ashbery’s “poetics of collage,” Vito Acconci’s action poems, Joseph Kosuth’s equivalencies of text and object, and Lawrence Weiner’s literal writings on the wall. The trail culminates in Andy Warhol’s 1968 a: a novel, a purported day-in-the-life account transcribed directly from tape to page, complete with every dumb observation, garbled bit of gossip, er, and ahem.
Kotz’s thesis is elegant: a progression of signification and sampling that, by the time of Warhol’s antinovel, becomes an aesthetics of pure indexing—the formal collection of whatever. Her argument is divided by discipline: music and music-based work, experimental poetry, and visual art. In each, language is treated as object. In 1960, George Brecht, a student of Cage’s, began scoring events, accenting their essentially impermanent and iterable nature (described in another context as the “immanent generativity” of all writing). Ashbery’s collage poem “Europe” (1958) pasted over authorial subjectivity. Kosuth’s 1965 piece One and Three Chairs indicated that representation is always a function of equivalencies, and Douglas Huebler used his Variable pieces, 1968–76, to document the arbitrariness of any such equivalency. Kotz argues that the object functions syntactically as a cultural synecdoche, a sample through which the stuff of society can be extrapolated, yet she does not dilate on the cultural implications of these works. She instead maintains a purely descriptive stance, in which words can be catalogued as the bridges between works and the world in which they were created; within each discipline, language is evacuated of any meaning beyond the sheer articulation of existence.
The problem with Kotz’s syntactic approach is that while it works for linguistic notation in music and for language in visual art, it doesn’t for poetry. When music employs lyrics, and visual art incorporates writing, language acts as an object, a notation among notations, an object among objects, no more or less meaningful than any other. Poetry, however, is the art of language: Its curse and its blessing is that it cannot escape the manufacturing of meaning in language, because language is its only medium. Kotz’s inclusion, then, of “Europe” as an example of Cagean sampling is misplaced, as is her belief that his use of the typewriter as a “notational device” was a radical rejection of the oral poetic tradition. Ashbery’s collage poem was neither a genre-jumping innovation nor a newfound rebellion. Collage and the ascent of the visual over the aural had been in evidence in the literary avant-garde at least since Eliot’s use of found language in The Waste Land (1922) and Pound’s ideograms and high-culture cut-ups in his Cantos (1924–69). And everyone from Mallarmé to Marinetti has used typography to make points about the visual properties of language. Similarly, when Kotz compares Warhol’s antinovel to what she sees as the repetitions and digressions in Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1925) and concludes that a: a novel was the literary endgame to the epic form, she mistakes a piece of art that looks like a book for a book. For Stein’s repetitions, like biblical begat’s, are chock-full of linguistic intentionality, and her bursts of lyricism, like tiny towns heaved up along the fruited plain, testify to an America made of sudden acts of can-do artifice and an Anglo-Saxon literary history. Words aren’t just something to be looked at in the art of language; by eliding poetry’s history with that of art, Kotz ultimately makes a molehill out of her mountain.