Wednesday, April 19, 2006

logically consistent poetry

“The Painted Word” is a satirical essay by Tom Wolf that considers the consequences of how, in contemporary art, artists often produce works of art in order to illustrate particular critical statements.

Tom Wolf’s notion of the painted word finds corollaries in the writings of such aestheticians as Arthur Danto and George Dickie. Arthur Danto has discussed at length how, in contemporary art, it is no longer possible to determine if a given object is art or not based solely on appeal to the formal properties of that object (a common illustration of this point is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain). In “Art, Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Art,” Danto uses Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” as a case study in the importance of theory in contemporary art (a demonstration of the total equivocality of art objects). Danto wonders:

"why were his boxes works of art while the almost indistinguishable utilitarian cartons were merely containers for soap pads? Certainly the minor observable differences could not ground as grand a distinction as that between Art and Reality!"

George Dickie, in his essay “Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis” offers as a reply that an object may qualify as art if it is recognized by intellectual art institutions as art; the way in which a given object garners the status of art object is often by appeal to critical justification.

Like many trends in contemporary art, the painted word was prefigured by various figures in the Dada movement. The justification for the aesthetic concerns of, for example, Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst, was an implicit ideology that required an explicit articulation given the art-historical context and the expectations of the art-going public of the time. Although for a lack of political convictions Kurt Schwitters was not permitted to officially join the Dada, the work of Kurt Schwitters demonstrates a virtuosic array of aesthetic and technical concerns. Schwitters indulged in the realms of surrealist and opto-phonetic poetry, expressionist painting, collage, and assemblage. Through association with such prominent artists as Theo Van Doesburg, who was connected to both De Stijl and the Bauhaus, Schwitters demonstrated a highly refined sense of geometric formalism; Schwitters also produced work bearing a strong resemblance to the neoplasticism of Piet Mondrian.


is the critical statement Schwitters printed in the periodical “G,” No. 3, 1924, Schwitters included a treatise on the subject of “Logically Consistent Poetry.” A structural linguistic analysis, Schwitters’s statement on logically consistent poetry assumes that “it is impossible to explain the meaning of art,” and in his construction of a critical reductio-ad-absurdum proceeds to postulate that “the basic material of poetry is not the word but the letter.” To quote Schwitters:

1. The sequence of letters in a word is unequivocal, the same for everyone. It is independent of the personal attitude of the beholder.

2. Sound is only unequivocal in the spoken word. In the written word, the sound depends on the capacity of the beholder to imagine it. Therefore sound can only be material of the reciting of poetry and not for the writing of poetry.

3. Meaning is only unequivocal when, for example, the object signified by the word is actually present. Otherwise it is dependant on the imaginative capacity of the beholder.

4. The association of ideas cannot be unequivocal because it is dependent solely on the associative capacity of the beholder. Everyone has different experiences and remembers and associates them differently.

Schwitters concludes that “a logically consistent poem evaluates letters and groups of letters against eachother.” To this end, he composed his “Ursonate,” which clocks in at about 45 minutes when recited, and requires an elaborate system of graphic notations to indicate what sounds correspond to which symbols on the printed page.

Although Schwitters ultimately demonstrated the compatibility of critical insight with aesthetic beauty, he also demonstrated the limitations of critical methodology by using his art to illustrate the way in which critical elucidation often leads to satirical consequences or blatant absurdity. In composing his “Ursonate,” which is linguistic gibberish, Schwitters was able to make an extremely articulate statement about art and criticism in conjunction with his writings on methodology.

While it is possible to illustrate the subtlety and complexity of Schwitters in the context of a deconstructive analysis of the dissolution of the boundaries between


while a work of art may seem meaningless or pointless, for better or for worse, it can (and often is) related to a very specific subjectmatter in a very specific way that is mediated by critical methodology.


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